November 29, 1863 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s tentative Confederate siege of Knoxville climaxed with an assault on the nearly invulnerable Federal defenses.
While the Confederate Army of Tennessee was retreating into Georgia, Longstreet continued besieging Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, about 100 miles northeast. Longstreet had planned to capture Fort Sanders, formerly Fort Loudon, outside Knoxville. However, he had canceled two night assaults, and he postponed another until Major General Bushrod R. Johnson’s reinforcements arrived.
General Braxton Bragg’s chief engineer, Brigadier General Danville Leadbetter, arrived from Chattanooga on the 25th and urged Longstreet to attack the opposite end of Knoxville. Longstreet directed a reconnaissance that deemed the suggestion impractical. So after further delay, Longstreet again resumed his targeting of Fort Sanders.
The fort stood on high ground that made it impossible for attackers to approach without detection. The Federals strung telegraph wire among the stumps and stakes in front of the fort, marking one of the first uses of wire entanglements in warfare. The fort was also fronted by a line of entrenchments and rifle pits. Surrounding the fort was a ditch 12 feet wide and anywhere from four to 10 feet deep. The base of the fort’s parapet had been cut away, making it very difficult for an attacker to climb if he somehow overcame all the other obstacles.
After more preparation, Longstreet scheduled the attack for noon on the 28th, with an artillery barrage preceding an infantry charge. However, rain delayed the action for another day, and rumors began spreading among the Confederates that Bragg had been defeated at Chattanooga. One of Longstreet’s division commanders, Major General Lafayette McLaws, urged him to end the siege and go back to Virginia. Longstreet responded:
“It is a great mistake to suppose that there is any safety for us in going to Virginia if General Bragg has been defeated, for we leave him at the mercy of his victors, and with his army destroyed our own had better be also, for we will be not only destroyed, but disgraced. There is neither safety nor honor in any other course than the one I have chosen and ordered… The assault must be made at the time appointed, and must be made with a determination which will insure success.”
The attack would begin at dawn on the 29th, but for some reason Longstreet canceled the artillery barrage. He also ruined the element of surprise by deploying skirmishers the night before to clear the area for his sharpshooters. The Federals, sensing an attack was imminent, took positions in the trenches and waited for the Confederates to approach.
In bitter cold, three Confederate infantry brigades advanced at 6 a.m. on the 29th. Confederate sharpshooters helped neutralize the Federals in the trenches, and the wires did little to delay the approach. However, the Confederates stopped at the ditch, where they were met by terrible rifle and canister fire from the fort. Some men jumped into the ditch for cover, but since they had no ladders, they had to try hoisting each other on their shoulders to reach the parapet.
After about 20 minutes, the Confederates withdrew to regroup. Longstreet did not launch a second attack. Burnside offered Longstreet a truce to collect his dead and wounded; Longstreet quickly accepted. He sustained 813 casualties (129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 captured), while the Federals lost just 13 (eight killed and five wounded) of their 440 defenders. Since the siege’s beginning, Longstreet had lost 1,142 men while Burnside lost 693.
As his men collected the casualties, Longstreet received official confirmation of Bragg’s defeat, along with an order for Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to leave Longstreet and rejoin the Army of Tennessee. Longstreet was to withdraw either to Georgia or Virginia. Since Federal reinforcements were on their way to break his siege, he decided to stay at Knoxville long enough to draw as many Federals away from Georgia as possible before withdrawing east toward Virginia.
Meanwhile, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander in the region, had dispatched Major General Gordon Granger’s IV Corps to reinforce Burnside at Knoxville. When Grant learned that Granger had not yet left two days after being ordered, Grant directed Major General William T. Sherman to lead his own XV Corps, elements of XI Corps, and Granger’s corps to Knoxville, with Granger reporting to Sherman. As the month ended, Sherman was preparing to link with Burnside and drive Longstreet out of Tennessee.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 346-47; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 863-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 378-80; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 105-06, 112-17, 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 440-41; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 681; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 420-21; Williams, Frederick D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 278