Decisive Battle for Knoxville
— Knoxville Campaign —
On November 4, 1863, to divert Federal forces from Chattanooga, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet led two reinforced divisions from the city to attack Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's garrison in Knoxville. Burnside confronted Longstreet outside Knoxville, then withdrew to his fortification on November 17, and Longstreet besieged the city. In Chattanooga, after Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army defeated Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's forces at the end of the month, Grant ordered Gen. William T. Sherman to reinforce Burnside. As Sherman marched toward Knoxville, Longstreet withdrew on December 4. Sherman soon rejoined Grant.
In mid-November 1863, Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's army was frantically digging earthworks to defend Knoxville from the approaching Confederate army under Gen. James Longstreet. This ridge overlooked the route of the Confederate advance along Kingston Road. The Confederates had begun a fortification named Fort Loudon before evacuating the city the previous August. The Federals transformed the works into a substantial fort christened Fort Sanders in honor of Gen. William P. Sanders, mortally wounded on November18, while delaying the 17,000 Confederates with 700 cavalry and mounted infantry.
Union soldiers expanded the fort until its wall reached 18-20 feet above the bottom the surrounding ditch, which was 8-10 feet deep and 12 feet wide. Outside the ditch, they cut down trees, sharpened their ends, and placed them facing forward. They also strung telegraph wire from stump to stump to make a web to trip attackers.
After twelve days of Confederate siege, 4,000 of Longstreet's men attacked the northwest bastion at dawn on November 29, charging the fort only to be slowed by the trees, wire and ditch. They tried to scale the 20-foot-high parapet covered with ice from rain during the night, and a few reached the top only to be killed or captured. In twenty minutes it was evident that the attack had failed. Pvt. John Watkins, 19th Ohio Battery, noted, "The ditch in places was almost full of them piled one on top of the other." The fort had held.
John Watkins returned to Knoxville for a reunion in 1895 and visited the fort. "Went to Fort Sanders," he wrote his wife, "(it) will soon be of the past—boys are helping to tear down the parapets to find bullets? and a road is graded right through it.'
Photo showing bastion that Longstreet assaulted, 1864 Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. James Longstreet Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. William P. Sanders Courtesy wyomingtalesandtrails.com