The Siege of Knoxville Begins

November 17, 1863 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet expected to renew the fight at Campbell’s Station, but Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federals had fallen back to Knoxville.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit:

As the day began, Longstreet realized he only faced Federal cavalry, as the rest of Burnside’s 5,000-man detachment from Loudon had withdrawn. Longstreet wrote General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga, that there had been a “severe skirmish and artillery duel” the previous day, and added, “The enemy seems to have gone into Knoxville. We have not been able to bring him to battle yet.”

The Federal cavalry, consisting of about 700 troopers under Brigadier General William P. Sanders, fought a delaying action, falling back each time the Confederates began flanking them. The Federals made their last stand just outside Knoxville, along the edge of a deep ravine that would delay the Confederate pursuit. Meanwhile, Burnside’s men inside Knoxville strengthened their defenses. Sanders agreed to try holding out against Longstreet as long as possible, or until the defenses were completed.

To the southwest, Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal reinforcements arrived at Bridgeport, poised to reinforce the Federals in Chattanooga. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, wrote Burnside:

“I have not heard from you since the 14th. 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.”

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit:

Burnside reported how he had delayed Longstreet’s advance and was now behind fortifications in Knoxville. Grant wrote, “So far you are doing exactly what appears to me right. I think our movements here must cause Longstreet’s recall within a day or two, if he is not successful before that time.” Burnside replied, “Shall hold this position to the last.”

Meanwhile, Sanders’s troopers continued holding the Confederates off about a mile from Fort Loudon, in the northwest section of forts built by Confederates to defend Knoxville before the Federals took over. Sanders held off 15,000 Confederates for several hours and was mortally wounded. His men successfully allowed Burnside to finish his defenses, and Fort Loudon was later renamed Fort Sanders in honor of the fallen cavalry commander.

As Burnside’s Federals positioned themselves behind strong fortifications, Longstreet’s Confederates began surrounding them. Grant heard nothing from Burnside for several days, and Brigadier General Orlando Willcox, commanding Federals at Cumberland Gap, could not contact him either. Grant wired Willcox and asked him to break Longstreet’s siege.

Willcox replied, “I will try it, and endeavor to subsist on the country. It would be a desperate attempt, as the roads are bad and the country pretty much fed out along the route.” Addressing rumors that Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry intended to invade Kentucky, Willcox wrote, “Cumberland River is up, and if we have more rain there is no danger of Wheeler getting into Kentucky.”

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote Grant, “The President feels very anxious that some immediate movement should be made for his (Burnside’s) relief,” especially if rumors were true that Longstreet’s force was “larger than was supposed.”

Skirmishing occurred at various points along the siege line over the next week. Longstreet began preparing to launch a general assault on Fort Sanders, but then he received a message from Bragg stating that “nearly 11,000 reinforcements are now moving to your assistance.” Bragg gave Longstreet the option to either attack now or wait for the reinforcements to arrive. Longstreet opted to wait.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 344; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 839; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 372-74; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 109, 112; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 436; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 420-21; Williams, Frederick D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 278

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