December 3, 1863 (Thursday)
I desperately wish that I could have covered the Knoxville Campaign in a better fashion. I apologize to all of the Western enthusiasts. It must be tough that the East steals all the thunder. – Eric
Things had not gone well for James Longstreet over the past month. As Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was trying its best to besiege the Union army at Chattanooga, Longstreet was detached to make sure Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio was kept out of the fray. This resulted in the Siege of Knoxville, though it hardly lived up to its name.
In an attempt to actually besiege Burnside, on November 23, Longstreet took some heights southwest of the city. Though it was on the other side of the Tennessee River, he hoped that his artillery could soften up Fort Sanders, a key position in the Federal defenses.
Nearly a week later, Longstreet changed his mind, ordering an infantry assault rather than an artillery bombardment. But Longstreet hesitated. Day after day, he called off the attack, seemingly certain that it would fail. For a time, he considered another point of attack – Marby’s Hill, northeast of the city, and on the extreme Confederate left. After a visit to the field, however, Longstreet demurred. The ground was too open, being a plain crossed by a creek and littered here and there with ponds.
Finally, he settled upon Fort Sanders, northwest of the city. It was to happen on the 28th, but rain and rumors that Bragg had been defeated at Chattanooga made Longstreet uneasy. That evening however, Lafayette McLaws’ Division of three brigades was ordered forward.
Though it was supposed to be a surprise attack, skirmishers were deployed at 10pm, tipping the Rebel hand and buying the Federals enough time to reinforce the fort. It also gave Longstreet all the information he needed concerning the specifics of the Federal defenses. For instance, he was previously ignorant of the abatis before the fort. The existence of a fairly deep ditch had also escaped his initial assessment. Nevertheless, even with this information in hand, Longstreet allowed McLaws’ men, numbering fewer than 2,500, to step off at a gloomy and foggy dawn.
It wasn’t exactly surprising that the attack failed in horrific and terrible fashion. Not even a half hour into it, Longstreet ordered his men back, leaving 129 dead with over 400 wounded and 200 captured. The Federals suffered hardly at all with eight killed and five wounded.
Despite the losses and the bitter cold, Longstreet resolved to continue the siege. But General Grant had differing ideas. Shortly after Bragg’s Army retreated from Chattanooga, he called off the pursuit and developed plans to send troops under William Tecumseh Sherman to relieve Burnside. On the day of Longstreet’s failed attack upon Fort Sanders, Sherman left Chattanooga with five divisions. Sherman’s men were hard worn, but without tents, baggage and even more than a few days’ supply of provisions. Still, they moved north towards Knoxville.
In truth, Burnside’s men were indeed beginning to suffer. Longstreet’s siege was slow to start, but by this time, it was more or less working. But on December 2nd, Longstreet found out Grant’s plan. If he could relieve Burnside without at fight, all the better. By this date, Sherman’s men were about to cross the Tennessee River near Louden, still far downstream from Knoxville.
Even prior to learning of Sherman’s approach, Longstreet was considering pulling back. Some wanted to rejoin Bragg in Dalton, Georgia, while others wished to remain in eastern Tennessee. Instead, after he received word that Sherman was on his way, Longstreet held a council of war to figure out just what to do.
Both Bragg (now William Hardee) and Richmond wanted Longstreet to return to the Army of Tennessee. But Longstreet had no desire at all to do so, and came up with some fairly convincing reasons not to do it. The ground between Knoxville and Dalton was barren, especially in this frozen weather. True, also, that due to Federals, he would have to strike out upon long detours to avoid a battle.
Instead, he and his subordinates decided to stay in Knoxville until the very moment that Sherman arrived. At that point, they would retreat northeast toward Bristol, on the Virginia border. The next day (December 4th), Longstreet’s little army would begin their move.
Though Burnside was relieved, Longstreet’s presence in eastern Tennessee was not something that could be ignored. 1
- Sources: The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. [↩]