The Siege of Knoxville Begins

Following the engagement at Campbell’s Station in eastern Tennessee, the Federal troops of Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio began falling back into the fortifications around Knoxville. On the morning of November 17, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederates opposing Burnside, realized that he was only facing enemy cavalry.

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. Longstreet added, “The enemy seems to have gone into Knoxville. We have not been able to bring him to battle yet.”

Gens Ambrose Burnside & James Longstreet | Image Credit: Wikipedia

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 was to hold 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 all Federals in the Western Theater, 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.”

The Federal high command worried that Burnside might abandon Knoxville, but Burnside had no intention of doing so. He reported how he had delayed Longstreet’s advance and was now behind fortifications. Grant wrote, “So far you are doing exactly what appears to me right. I want the enemy’s progress retarded at every point, all it can be, only giving up each place when it becomes evident that it cannot longer be held without endangering your force to capture.”

Grant followed up with another message: “I can hardly conceive the necessity of retreating from East Tennessee. If I did so at all, it would be after losing most of my army.” 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.

Burnside’s Federals were soon hard at work strengthening the fortifications. Burnside wrote:

“Many citizens and persons who had been driven in by the enemy volunteered to work on the trenches and did good service, while those who were not inclined from disloyalty to volunteer were pressed into service. The negroes were particularly efficient in their labors during the siege. On the 20th of November our line was in such condition as to inspire the entire command with confidence.”

According to Burnside’s chief engineer Orlando Poe, “The citizens of the town and all contrabands within reach were pressed into service and relieved the almost exhausted soldiers, who had no rest for more than a hundred hours. Many of the citizens were Confederates and worked with a very poor grace, which blistered hands did not tend to improve.”

As Burnside’s Federals worked, Longstreet’s Confederates began surrounding them. Grant heard nothing from Burnside for several days, and Brigadier-General Orlando Willcox, commanding Federals farther up the valley near Maynardsville, could not contact him either. Grant wired Willcox on the 20th:

“If you can communicate with General Burnside, say to him that our attack on Bragg will commence in the morning. If successful, such a move will be made as I think will relieve East Tennessee, if he can hold out. Longstreet passing through our lines to Kentucky need not cause alarm. He would find the country so bare that he would lose his transportation and artillery before reaching Kentucky, and would meet such a force before he got through, that he could not return.”

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.”

Willcox sent a message to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck asking should he “run the risk of sacrificing all my cavalry in a demonstration… in an attempt to aid Burnside?” Halleck forwarded this message to Grant, who doubted there was such danger in Willcox’s sector, and gave a stern response:

“If you had shown half the willingness to sacrifice yourself and command at the start (as) you do in your dispatch you might have rendered Burnside material aid. Now, I judge, you have got so far to the rear you can do nothing for him. Act upon the instructions you have and your own discretion, and if you can do anything to relieve Burnside, do it. It is not expected that you will sacrifice your command but that you will take proper risks.”

Meanwhile, Halleck continued urging Grant to do something to help Burnside at Knoxville: “The President feels very anxious that some immediate movement should be made for his 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.


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