November 17, 1863 (Tuesday)
It was a morning of apprehension. The day previous, Ambrose Burnside had held off James Longstreet’s Corps long enough to make his slip back into Knoxville. With the dawn, there was now only cavalry before the Confederates. “The enemy seems to have gone into Knoxville,” reported Longstreet to Braxton Bragg, who was still trying to hold on outside of Chattanooga. “We have not been able to bring him to battle yet.” He dismissed the previous day’s delaying action as a “severe skirmish and artillery duel.”
Upon Longstreet’s arrival near Knoxville, Burnside had wanted to retreat into the Cumberland Mountains. General Grant, however, urged him to stay. Reinforcements from William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee were close at hand, and Grant believed that if they were thrown between Bragg’s command and Longstreet’s they would force the latter to fall back, leaving Knoxville to Burnside. On this day, Sherman’s troops were gathered at Bridgeport, forty miles downriver from Chattanooga. They would start their march via the Lookout Valley at once.
Grant, too, was apprehensive. “I have not heard from you since the 14th,” he wrote to Burnside in the late morning, before asking how things were going with Longstreet. “Sherman’s forces commenced their movement from Bridgeport, threatening the enemy’s left flank. This alone may turn Longstreet back, and if it does not, the attack will be prosecuted until we reach the roads over which all their supplies have to pass, while you hold East Tennessee.”
Longstreet’s troops started early, facing off against cavalry under William Sanders. Throwing forward James Kershaw’s Brigade, the Rebels traded but few shot with the Yankee horsemen through the early part of the morning. It was maneuvering, and not lead that drove the Federals back. By noon, they were three miles west of Knoxville. But each time Sanders fell back to a new position, Kershaw would have to redeploy his men and send a regiment traipsing off to the left or right or both. This would take precious time. And as soon as the Union troopers were about to be assailed, they would flutter away, taking a new position slightly out of reach.
This frustrating dance lasted much of the day, until Sanders reached his final position. He could fall back no farther without being inside Knoxville itself. Lafayette McLaws then deployed his entire division, including Kershaw’s Brigade, which held the right. Sanders selected his ground well, holding a deep ravine into which the Rebels must funnel their units. In this way, a small number of cavalry could hold back an entire Rebel division for a surprising amount of time.
This entire action was to delay Longstreet enough to allow Burnside to finish the defenses of Knoxville. The town itself was largely divided in it sympathies. Many of the whites were for the South, and would do little to help the Union cause. The black population, numbering well over 700, however, were understandably enthusiastic. The Union troops complained that the whites were difficult to work with, and cared little for labor, while the black were quite the opposite.
That night, Burnside met with Sanders to discuss the following day’s prospects. He would need until noon to finish the entrenchments and escarpments – could Sanders hold back the Rebels until then? Sanders agreed that he could, and would stay even longer. The following day, Sanders would die keeping his word. But though Longstreet pressed a small advance, by the following morning, he had already realized that a full attack would be fruitless. Sanders could have retreated on the night of the 17th, and little would have been different.
General Burnside wired Grant that day, telling him about his delaying action and his new-found urgency to keep Longstreet out of Knoxville. “So far you are doing exactly what appears to me right,” replied Grant. “I think our movements here must cause Longstreet’s recall within a day or two, if he is not successful before that time.”
And that was all Burnside needed to hear. Two more days. “Shall hold this position to the last,” wired Burnside to one of his commanders. Now he was determined and steadfast. It would take more than Longstreet for Knoxville to fall. 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p268; Part 3, p174, 177, 181, 703; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. [↩]