What Brought the Armies of the Blue and the Gray to Knoxville?
Knoxville was a pro-Confederate town of some 3700 persons when Tennessee seceded from the Union in June of 1861. It was the commercial and light manufacturing center of East Tennessee, a region of considerable agricultural importance that provided large quantities of wheat, corn, pork and other foodstuffs to areas beyond the great valley of the Tennessee River. Lying near the head of navigation of this great stream, Knoxville also sat astride the South's most direct rail link between the Confederate capital of Richmond and the geographic region of the Confederacy that lay west of the Appalachian Mountains. To the north of the city lay vital mountain passes that controlled access to Tennessee from Kentucky, passes that would be of critical military importance during the Civil War. With the majority of the population of East Tennessee remaining loyal to the United States, Knoxville was a Confederate island in a sea of Union sympathy.
For almost two years the liberation of East Tennessee from Confederate control had been a dream of the Lincoln Administration. The American President held a great fondness for the loyal citizenry of the region, but it would require more than the President's affection and concern for East Tennesseans before the Union Army would attempt an invasion of the great valley. Late summer 1863 found both the favorable conditions and the military imperative necessary to undertake this invasion.
In Kentucky the Union's newest army, the Army of the Ohio, had been assembled under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside for the purpose of invading and occupying East Tennessee. In August of 1863 this army swpt into the valley, with one of its two corps, the XXIII, marching through the Cumberland Mountains towards Knoxville.The veteran IX Corps slowly returned to Kentucky from service at Vicksburg under General U.S. Grant and rejoined the Army of the Ohio in Tennessee after a few weeks recuperation and refitting. This federal invasion had become necessary for a number of strategic reasons: 1) to cut the railroad link running between Virginia and the western Confederacy, 2) to deny the Rebels the vital food-producing region of East Tennessee, 3) to gain control of the strategic mountain passes through the Cumberlands, 4) to liberate the largely Unionist population of the region from Confederate domination, 5) to deny the South the use of this manufacturing town's 7 mills, 2 foundries, and its arsenal and 6) to protect the vulnerable flank of William S. Rosencran's Federal Army of the Cumberland as it conducted operations against the Confederate Army of Tennessee in northern Alabama and Georgia.
To counter these Union aims the Confederacy sent an army into East Tennessee to wrest control of the region away from Burnside. Under the command of Lt. General James Longstreet, Confederate forces made a concerted effort to recover the region and destroy Burnside's army in November and December 1863. The main battles occurred in the Knoxville area, and determined the fate of the region through war's end.