Corporal William Todd of the 79th New York Highlanders Recalls the Confederate Assault on Fort Sanders at Knoxville, Tennessee, November 1863

In the fall of 1863, U.S. forces from Major General Ambrose Burnsides’ Army of the Ohio (portions of the 9th and 23rd Corps) occupied Knoxville, Tennessee. While Burnside was occupying and fortifying that city, to the southwest, the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg was besieging Chattanooga. General James Longstreet’s command was ordered to march from Chattanooga to Knoxville to retake the city and prevent Burnside from attacking Chattanooga. Two infantry divisions and an artillery battalion from Longstreet’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia had been sent to reinforce Bragg in the late summer and had played an important role in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in September.

Map of Knoxville, Tennessee Vicinity

With Longstreet approaching, Burnside engaged Longstreet at the Battle of Campbell’s Station, approximately 16 miles west of Knoxville, on November 16th to slow the Confederate advance and allow more time for Colonel Orlando Poe, Chief Engineer of the 23rd Corps, to work on the Knoxville fortifications. After Campbell’s Station, the U.S. forces retreated to Knoxville; on the 17th, Longstreet’s Confederates arrived and the Siege of Knoxville began.

With Knoxville under siege, Longstreet and his staff looked for a place to attack the Union lines. Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery commander, wrote:

It soon appeared that there was but one point of the lines which it was possible to assault with any hope of success. That was a fort which had been started by the Confederates under the name of Fort Loudon, and had been finished by the Federals and by them called Fort Sanders. It was upon a hill that fell off to the north-west, so that a large force could be marched under cover and approach within two hundred yards of the fort without being exposed to view or to fire either from the fort or the adjacent lines on either side, which here made an obtuse angle.

Map of Knoxville Defenses

Fort Sanders, located in the northwest corner of the Knoxville fortifications, was not completely finished. Engineer Poe wrote that “under the stress of circumstances its north-western bastion became a prominent salient of the main line, and notwithstanding the measures taken to remedy this objectionable feature, its existence caused us great anxiety”. Despite Poe’s reservations, Fort Sanders would prove to be very formidable. A twelve foot wide ditch six to eight feet deep was in front of the steep sided walls of the earthwork, and telegraph wire had been strung a few inches off the ground around tree stumps farther out to trip up advancing attackers. After more of his command arrived, Longstreet was ready to begin his assault on Fort Sanders in the early morning hours of November 29th.

Fort Sanders

Defending Fort Sanders were a dozen artillery pieces and infantrymen of the 2nd and 20th Michigan regiments, the 29th Massachusetts, and the 79th New York Infantry, a total somewhere between 400 and 500 men. The largest number from one regiment was 120 men from the 79th New York.

The 79th New York Infantry, also, and perhaps better known as the 79th New York Highlanders, had its origin before the war, and was a six company regiment of New York state militia at the beginning of the Civil War. Many of the members of the regiment at that time were of Scottish descent, and wore traditional Highland kilts when on parade. The Highlanders had seen extensive action through the war, beginning with the First Bull Run Campaign.

At about 6:00 a.m., Confederate artillery opened fire with a 20 minute bombardment of Fort Sanders. At its conclusion, the Rebels attacked with three brigades of infantry from Major General Lafayette McLaws’ Division. The telegraph wire tripped up some of the Confederates briefly, but concentrated fire from the fort’s defenders took a heavier toll. The assaulting column was not issued ladders for scaling the walls, so those who made it to the ditch in front of the fort’s parapet had to climb the steep walls unaided except for standing on the shoulders of their fellow soldiers. They were also subjected to flanking fire from artillery and muskets. To make matters worse for the Rebels, artillerymen inside the fort turned artillery shells into hand grenades and rolled them into the ditch. Somehow, a few Confederates made it into the fort, only to be immediately killed or captured. Many others were essentially trapped in the ditch and surrendered; others who had not entered the ditch withdrew as best they could under heavy fire.

It was all over in a matter of minutes. Confederate casualties were 129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 captured, while Union losses totaled 20 or less. It was an enormously lopsided U.S. victory. With Federal reinforcements on the way, Longstreet began withdrawing his corps to the northeast on December 3rd, and the Campaign and Siege of Knoxville ended in a decisive Union victory.

Corporal William Todd of Company B of the 79th New York Highlanders went on to write a history of the regiment. Just before the bombardment preceding the Confederate assault, the regiment was deployed to rifle pits in front of Fort Sanders, and withdrew back to the fort across planks spanning the ditch as the infantry attack began. Here’s are excerpts from his description of the Confederate assault on Fort Sanders, and the Union defense and repulse of the attackers:

The artillery, depressed to the lowest point, was hurling double and triple charges of canister into the masses of the enemy. Some of our men were firing over the cotton bales and others through the embrasures occupied by the artillery; still others were pouring a destructive flank fire from their rifles, and enfilading the ditch on both the north and west fronts…The enemy, finding that the ditch barred their progress, seemed at fault. They crowded about the edge, and, hoping to escape the murderous fire of our artillery and rifles, many jumped into the ditch! Now was Benjamin’s opportunity, and, assisted by Captain Baird, who held a burning stick, the twenty pound shells were ignited and rolled down among the living mass below. As they burst, yells, shrieks and groans attested the bloody work! Now the enemy’s fire slackens and we can see that many of them are hurrying to the rear. A cheer goes up from our throats, but is instantly answered by a chorus of yells from a fresh column of the enemy, who, nothing daunted by the repulse of the first line, now crowd up to the assault. The wires trip many and break their lines; many fall to rise no more, but the living press forward…

79th New York Highlanders Defending Fort Sanders

But the second assaulting party was now raining bullets through the embrasures, and along the edge of the cotton bales, and the fire from within was renewed. There was no need to take careful aim; the brave rebels crowded up to the ditch, as the first line had done, and almost every bullet fired by us found a death mark. Shells were bursting in the ditch, literally tearing the poor fellows limb from limb and scattering the fragments far and near. Many tried to scramble out by making a platform of the bodies of their dead comrades, but few came out alive, and those only to be a mark for our unerring rifles. To most of those who entered, it was indeed the “Last Ditch”.

Assault on Ft. Sanders, the Fight over the Ditch

Our twelve pound howitzer had ceased firing for some time, owing to a lack of ammunition, the last charge having been left in the gun for the greatest emergency; it came when half a dozen of the bravest of our foes, thinking the gun was silenced, had managed to scale the counterscarp and present themselves at the embrasure…The lanyard was pulled, and when the smoke cleared away the bodies of the brave rebels had been scattered to the winds! The gun was now run up into the embrasure and the gunners armed themselves with rifles. No second attempt was made at this point.

Assault on Fort Sanders by Kurz and Allison

But a yell louder than usual causes us to glance in the direction of the sound. There, on the very angle of the bastion, we see a rebel flag rising above the exterior crest, and soon appears the head and shoulders of the bearer! Brave fellow! But your last moment is at hand! A dozen rifles are discharged, and with the flag staff clutched in a death grip, he rolls to the bottom of the ditch, riddled with Yankee bullets. Another tries to succeed him and shares the same fate. Still others crowd on. They have formed a temporary bridge over the ditch, and are making a desperate effort to scale the parapet!…

Now the rebel fire slackens a little, and Sergeant Judge, with two others of his company, spring to the parapet and open fire on a party of the enemy a few yards beyond the ditch; the fire was returned, and then the rebels fell back in retreat…After a few more spasmodic efforts the enemy’s fire ceases; soon we notice they are retreating, and the command is given to cease firing. Those of the enemy within reach of our voices are ordered to give themselves up as prisoners…When all the prisoners able to do so had entered and were properly disposed of, a truce, for the purpose of enabling them to care for the wounded and bury the dead, was tendered the enemy and accepted.

The 79th New York Highlanders’ casualties in repelling the assault on Fort Sanders were four killed and five wounded.

Sources:

The Defense of Knoxville by Orlando M. Poe. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

Longstreet at Knoxville by E. Porter Alexander. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders New York Volunteers in the War of Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd.

The Siege of Knoxville by Philip Grenville Woodward. In Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle, Fifth Series. Papers Read Before the Minnesota Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1897-1902.


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