Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s 17,000-man Confederate corps, having been detached from General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, crossed the Tennessee River west of Loudon and moved northeast toward Knoxville. In eight days, the Confederates covered just 60 miles due to the harsh terrain and supply delays. Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, fearing that his 25,000-man Federal Army of the Ohio was outnumbered, pulled his 5,000-man detachment out of Loudon and prepared to abandon Knoxville.
Burnside initially planned to fall back to Cumberland Gap, but Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, Burnside’s superior, wrote him from Chattanooga on November 14:
“(William T.) Sherman’s advance has reached Bridgeport. If you can hold Longstreet in check until he gets up, or by skirmishing and falling back can avoid serious loss to yourself, and gain time, I will be able to force the enemy back from here and place a force between Longstreet and Bragg that must inevitably make the former take to the mountain passes by every available road to get back to his supplies.
“Every arrangement is now made to throw Sherman’s force across the river, just at and below the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, as soon as it arrives. (George H.) Thomas will attack on his left at the same time, and together it is expected to carry Missionary Ridge, and from there push a force on to the railroad between Cleveland and Dalton. (Joseph) Hooker will at the same time attack, and, if he can, carry Lookout Mountain. The enemy now seems to be looking for an attack on his left flank. This favors us.”
Thus, Grant hoped for Burnside to hold Longstreet in check long enough for Grant’s Federals to break out of Chattanooga. Once that was done, Grant would send Sherman’s four divisions northeast to help Burnside defeat Longstreet. Grant told Burnside that he planned to attack on the 19th, adding, “Inform me if you think you can sustain yourself until that time. I can hardly conceive of the enemy’s breaking through at Kingston and pushing for Kentucky.”
Based on this, Burnside began reconsidering his plan to retreat to Cumberland Gap. He was further emboldened to hold his ground when one of his officers reported that “the rebel soldiers were all through the country for food. They said they must get to Kentucky or starve.” Burnside decided to fall back to his fortifications inside Knoxville and conduct a delaying action against Longstreet.
Meanwhile, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck sent a message to Grant that seemed a bit redundant since he did not yet know about Grant’s plan: “He (Burnside) ought not to retreat. Cannot Thomas move on Longstreet’s rear and force him to fall back? A mere demonstration may have a good effect. I fear further delay may result in Burnside’s abandonment of East Tennessee. This would be a terrible misfortune, and must be averted if possible.”
Grant followed up with a second message to Burnside: “Can you hold the line from Knoxville to Clinton for seven days? If so, I think the whole Tennessee Valley can be secured from all present dangers.” Burnside’s Federals began falling back to the northeast along the railroad line at 4 a.m. on the 15th. Burnside hoped to reach Campbell’s Station, a strategic crossroads just before Knoxville, ahead of Longstreet.
The Confederates advanced on the Hotchkiss Valley Road, a parallel route about a mile west of the Federals and separated by a bend in the Tennessee. Longstreet hoped to flank the enemy, but the Federals were moving too fast. Both sides spent the day racing for Campbell’s Station in heavy rain and mud. Longstreet detached Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to ride ahead and seize the heights outside Knoxville, but the troopers were blocked by Federal cavalry under Brigadier-General William P. Sanders. Wheeler finally broke through, but when he reached the Holston River south of Knoxville, he found that the Federals already had the heights heavily defended.
Burnside’s Federals rested at Lenoir’s Station and resumed their rush to Campbell’s at 2 a.m. on the 16th. Longstreet’s troops continued moving as well, using a shorter route that a Confederate sympathizer had shown them. As the troops raced through heavy rain, Burnside left much of his wagon train and some artillery behind to gain speed.
The Federals began arriving at the intersection of the Kingston and Concord roads in front of Campbell’s Station around noon, just 15 minutes before Longstreet’s vanguard. Both sides deployed in line of battle, with Longstreet sending Major-General Lafayette McLaws’s division against the Federal right-center. The Federals repelled two attacks.
Longstreet then sent Brigadier-General Evander M. Law’s brigade around the enemy flank to try to get between Burnside and Knoxville. But Burnside anticipated this maneuver and fell back a half-mile, under the cover of his artillery, to repel it. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery commander, recalled that a 20-pound shell “cut both arms and one leg off a man”:
“He was kneeling behind a limber on his right knee, facing to the right, and was putting a fuse in a shell placed on the ground, and using both hands. This shot struck one of the wheel horses in the chest, ranged through the length of his body a little downward, wrecked the splinter bar of the limber, and passed just under the axle and struck this poor fellow’s left leg above the knee, his left arm above the elbow, and his right arm at or below it leaving all three only hanging by shreds.”
By nightfall, the Federal line held and Longstreet disengaged, expecting the fight to continue the next day. The Federals sustained 318 casualties (31 killed and 211 wounded, and 76 missing), while the Confederates lost 174 (22 killed and 152 wounded). Having won the race, Burnside had no intention of fighting again the next day; he began falling back into the Knoxville fortifications.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.