After losing the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19th and 20th, 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee. General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates occupied the high ground on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge overlooking the city and began siege operations. The Army of the Cumberland wasn’t the only Federal Army operating in Tennessee. Major General Ambrose Burnsides’ Army of the Ohio, consisting of the 9th and 23rd Corps, was in east Tennessee in the Knoxville vicinity and points to the southwest of that city. On November 4th, Bragg sent General James Longstreet’s Corps to Knoxville to deal with the Army of the Ohio. Longstreet had been dispatched from the Army of Northern Virginia in September to reinforce Bragg, and his corps had played an important part in the victory at Chickamauga.
With Longstreet approaching, Burnside concentrated his forces at Knoxville on November 17th. Longstreet’s Corps was right behind, and began siege operations against the Union force. The Confederates were not equipped to undertake any type of lengthy siege, so Longstreet looked for a place to attack the Union lines.
Brigadier General Danville Leadbetter, Bragg’s Chief Engineer, arrived at Knoxville to consult with Longstreet. Leadbetter and Longstreet decided that the best place to attack was at an earthwork on the northwest part of the line called Fort Sanders. Originally, the plan called for a substantial artillery barrage fired at the fort followed by an infantry assault. “Several days had been spent in preparation for a cannonade with all our guns concentrated on the small area enclosed by the fort ” Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s Chief of Artillery wrote after the war. The attack was set for the 29th of November, but on the night of the 28th, Longstreet changed the plan. The new plan would begin with the capture and occupation of the Union picket lines by sharpshooters, followed by a surprise assault on Fort Sanders before dawn. The sharpshooters would provide cover fire, not the artillery. Alexander suspected Leadbetter had changed Longstreet’s mind, and disagreed with the change. “All preparations were thrown away and all advantages sacrificed for the illusive merits of a night attack” he wrote.
Around 10 or 11 p.m. the Union picket lines were attacked “with such spirit as to indicate an important movement…This was, in fact, the prelude to an assault upon the main work, and had for its immediate effect to put us on the alert and keep us in readiness for the serious business which we knew was close at hand” wrote Orlando Poe, the 23rd Corps’ Chief Engineer. There would be no element of surprise.
Inside Fort Sanders, the Federals were on the alert. The garrison was manned by the 79th New York, 29th Massachusetts, 2nd Michigan, and 20th Michigan infantry regiments, plus a dozen artillery pieces, for an approximate strength of 440 men.
Just before dawn on the 29th, the order was given and the advance began. Union troops had strung telegraph wire between tree stumps out in front of the fort; though the wire impeded progress a little, both Poe and Porter agreed it did not slow the attackers down much. What did slow them down was the concentrated Union fire and the high, steep sides of Fort Sanders. Longstreet had underestimated how high the sides were and what a difficult a climb it was; the attackers had not been supplied with scaling ladders. Some Confederates managed to climb up high enough to plant their flags on the parapet, only to be killed or captured. Others were trapped in the ditch in front of the parapet and had little choice but to surrender or be killed.
Sergeant W.A. Nason of the 11th New Hampshire Infantry was with his regiment on the left of Fort Sanders, and was close enough to witness the assault:
The Confederates charged bravely in column by division, filling the ditch, and a few succeeded in mounting the parapet, only to meet a sudden death, and already many of their number had been killed or wounded on the way. With undaunted courage the survivors pushed steadily on, never stopping for the murderous fire of artillery and infantry, every step in advance being marked by death until the assaulting column was well nigh annihilated…greater courage and valor have never been shown than was displayed that morning in front of that little fort. It is impossible for men to endure such an avalanche of lead and iron as was hurled upon them. Entirely and hopelessly broken up, the survivors retired in confusion leaving about two hundred of their number in and near the ditch, who were obliged to surrender.
After about 20 minutes, Longstreet called off the attack. According to most estimates, Longstreet’s command suffered a little more than 800 casualties, while the Union losses were around 20. As Longstreet contemplated renewing the attack, word was received that Bragg had been defeated at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and no other attacks were made. Longstreet withdrew from Knoxville on December 4th.
“The Defense of Knoxville” by Orlando Poe. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III.
“Longstreet at Knoxville” by E. P. Alexander. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III.
Military Memoirs of a Confederate by E.P. Alexander
“With the Ninth Army Corps in East Tennessee” by W.A. Nason. in Personal Narratives of the Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Fourth Series.