Knoxville Campaign Part II

Two US Army officers pose for a photograph at Fort Sanders outside of Knoxville, TN, during the Civil War. Tree stumps and earthworks can be seen in the background.
Captain Orville E. Babcock, Chief Engineer Ninth Corps [Seated], and Captain Orlando Poe, Chief Engineer Twenty-third Corps, pose for a photograph at Fort Sanders in Knoxville, Tennessee. Poe was instrumental in the design of the Defenses of Camp Nelson prior to the East Tennessee Campaign.

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East Tennessee at War

I shall make every exertion to hold this place, and trust we shall be able to do so. The men are in good spirits and are behaving splendidly.
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, Knoxville, Tennessee, November 17, 1863

After successfully liberating East Tennessee, the US Army of the Ohio under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside was tasked with occupying the region, establishing a supply route from Camp Nelson through the Cumberland Gap, and coordinating with other Federal forces in the field, especially the Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General William S. Rosecrans, which advanced into Georgia after capturing Chattanooga on September 9, 1863.

The Federal offensive into Georgia was repulsed at the Battle of Chickamauga and resulted in the Confederate siege of Chattanooga in November. General Ambrose E. Burnside's attempt to construct a supply route from Central Kentucky to Knoxville was abandoned due to rocky, unforgiving terrain. The planned junction between Burnside and Rosecrans did not materialize, especially after the Army of the Cumberland's defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. As the Confederate army lay siege to Rosecrans's army, a detachment under Lieutenant General James Longstreet was directed north to defeat Burnside and recapture Knoxville.

The next evolution of the Knoxville Campaign had begun.

Confederate General James Longstreet in uniform during the Civil War.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding Confederate forces at the battles and siege of Knoxville.

Library of Congress

Burnside vs Longstreet

Longstreet crossed the Tennessee River on Saturday [November 12th], at Huff's Ferry, 6 miles below Loudon, with about 15,000 men. We have resisted his advance steadily, repulsing every attack, holding on till our position was turned by superior numbers, and then retiring in good order.
- General Ambrose Burnside, Knoxville, Tennessee, November 17, 1863

The new stage of the campaign commenced with marching as both Burnside’s and Longstreet’s men moved on parallel routes for Campbell’s Station, a vital crossroads leading to Knoxville. Each commander sought to reach Campbell’s Station before their opponent, with Burnside hoping to withdraw to the safety of the Federal defenses at Knoxville, and Longstreet planning to engage him in the open field.

On November 16, 1863, Burnside’s army arrived at Campbell’s Station and deployed to fight a delaying action shortly before the Confederates reached the crossroads. Longstreet launched an attack on the Burnside, but the Army of the Ohio successfully resisted the Confederate assault and executed a withdrawal in the direction of Knoxville. Burnside’s forces soon resumed their movement to Knoxville and by November 17, most of the Federal army was within the city’s defensive lines, which was protected by a system of earthen fortifications. In the Battle of Campbell’s Station, Federal casualties were approximately 400 compared to the Confederate losses of about 570.

Taking up positions around Knoxville, the Confederate army initiated a siege, even though they were poorly equipped for such an operation and could not surround the city. Burnside was able to keep his supply lines open and strengthen his position in preparations for an attack. He described the formidable position, writing, “The troops were placed in position, intrenchments thrown up where none existed, and every exertion made to render the position secure…If he should assault our position here, I think we can give a good account of ourselves.”

A large Civil War earthen fort with a soldier standing on the top parapet, to the right in front of the fort is a dry ditch and tree stumps. Hill cans been seen in the background.
Fort Sanders, part of the Defenses of Knoxville, TN. The main fort can be seen on the left, especially the scarp and cannon embrasures. A dry ditch fronts the main earthwork. Tree stumps can be seen as part of the glacis [a slope down from the fort].

Library of Congress

Battle of Fort Sanders

The skirmishing was continued all night, with a slow cannonade, from all the guns upon the enemy's right, principally directed upon Fort Sanders. It now became evident that this was the real point of attack.
- Captain Orlando M. Poe, Chief Engineer, Twenty-third Corps

General Longstreet lacked the strength to properly besiege Burnside’s forces in Knoxville, but he planned to break through the US defensive lines by assaulting Fort Sanders, a position in the northwest corner of the fortification system. After hours of skirmishing on the night of November 28-29, several Confederate brigades launched an assault on Fort Sanders on the morning of the 29th. Longstreet's attacking columns were slowed by telegraph wire entanglements placed outside of the fort's ditch. Once past the obstacle, Confederate soldiers penetrated the outerworks and advanced into the ditch that was 8-ft deep, but were unable to advance into the main fort. The attackers were stymied by the deepness of the ditch and the steepness of the fort’s walls, and lacked scaling ladders to penetrate the interior.

Fort Sanders’ defenders pummeled the Confederates with musketry and artillery fire, and few attackers managed to enter the fort. Longstreet’s troops were soon repulsed by the US soldiers and retreated in confusion to their own lines. The battle at Fort Sanders was a lopsided Federal victory. The Confederates suffered nearly 800 causalities compared to the about 100 sustained by the US forces. Burnside described his men's defense, writing, “we swept the ditch with an enfilading fire with much slaughter.” Captain Orlando M. Poe, chief engineer of the Twenty-third Corps and one of the officers who had designed and supervised the construction of Camp Nelson’s system of earthworks, asserted that “I know of no instance in history where a storming party was so nearly annihilated.” The Defenses of Knoville held. In his after-action report, Poe described the army's stubborn fight, writing, "During the assault on Fort Sanders, and for some time after that had been repulsed, sharp fighting took place on the south side of the river, but we were everywhere successful."

The US Army captured hundreds of prisoners and three enemy battle flags, but Burnside mercifully sent a flag of truce to the Confederates and allowed them to recover their wounded and dead from the field. Longstreet decided to maintain his position at Knoxville despite the bloody defeat at Fort Sanders and news of the decisive Federal victory at Chattanooga on November 25.

Knoxville was secured.

US Soldier nearing a wooden bridge that crosses a water source during the Civil War.
A US Army soldier stands near a bridge at Strawberry Plains, 20 miles northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee, November-December 1863.

Library of Congress

Battle of Bean's Station

The siege was raised yesterday morning, and our cavalry is pursuing the enemy as rapidly as possible under the circumstances.
- General Ambrose Burnside, Knoxville, Tennessee, December 6, 1863

The Knoxville Campaign entered its closing phase in December 1863, almost four months after the Army of the Ohio departed from Camp Nelson and initiated the operation. Following the Battle of Fort Sanders, Burnside was reinforced with additional US forces under Major General William T. Sherman, who was dispatched from Chattanooga to relieve Knoxville. The Confederates abandoned the siege on December 4 and retreated to the northeast.

Burnside sent elements of the Army of the Ohio in pursuit. Eventually halting their withdrawal, the Confederates attacked and attempted to destroy a segment of the pursuing US cavalry at Bean’s Station on December 14. Longstreet halted to protect his lines of retreat, and launched an attack against US cavalry at Bean’s Station. Fighting raged throughout the day and into the next, and while the Confederates achieved some success by pushing the Federals back, they could not reclaim the initiative. Longstreet's command suffered around 900 during the engagement; Burnside lost around 700 men.

View of buildings and hill in the background during the Civil War. In the foreground are tents and earthworks.
View of Knoxville and the University of Tennessee looking southeast from Fort Sanders.

Library of Congress

The Siege of Knoxville Passed Into History

There is no language sufficiently strong which I can use to express admiration for the conduct of our troops. From the beginning of the siege to the end every man did his whole duty. The cheerful looks and confident bearing which met us at every turn made it seem as though we were sure of victory from the first. It is doubtful whether any man within our lines had at any time after the first forty-eight hours any fear of the result. All privations were borne, all hardships undergone, with a spirit which indicated as plainly as if written on the walls that success would attend our efforts.
-Captain Orlando Poe, Chief Engineer, January 13, 1864

The Battle of Bean’s Station concluded the Knoxville Campaign on December 14, 1864. The Confederate forces that had invaded East Tennessee before suffering defeat at Knoxville continued their retreat through the region toward Virginia. By defeating the enemy offensive, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside's Army of the Ohio ended the enemy threat to East Tennessee and secured control of the region for the rest of the war. Although overshadowed by the battles at Chickamauga and Chattanooga occurring around the same time, the Knoxville Campaign was critical episode of the war in the Western Theater, bringing the United States one step closer to ultimate victory in the conflict. Captain Orlando M. Poe, Chief Engineer Twenty-third Corps, summed up the outcome of the army's victory, writing:

The results of the successful defense are, the defeat of Bragg's army and consequent permanent established of our forces at Chattanooga, with tolerably secure lines of communication; the confirmation of our hold upon East Tennessee; the discomfiture of and loss of prestige by the choicest troops of the enemy's service.

General Burnside was relieved of command in early December 1863. In his official report on the operations in East Tennessee, Burnside lavished praise on the men under his command, including several regiments of Tennessee Unionists organized at Camp Nelson. Burnside asserted, “I shall ever remember with gratitude and pleasure the co-operation, devotion, courage, and patient endurance of the brave officers and men of the Ninth and Twenty-third Corps, who have served me so faithfully and conspicuously in Kentucky and East Tennessee.” He went on to conclude that “each man seemed anxious to do his whole duty, and to their perseverance and courage is due the ultimate success of the defense of Knoxville.” Burnside's success redeemed his military reputation that was shattered a year earlier at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. He was ordered back East with the Ninth Corps to reinforce the Army of the Potomac in preparation for the Overland Campaign.

From the beginning of the campaign to liberate East Tennessee in August 1863 to its conclusion in December 1863, Camp Nelson had served as the supply depot and forward operating base providing the Army of the Ohio with the diverse materials of war, from provisions and animals to equipment and men. Despite difficulties in moving supplies from the military base in Central Kentucky to the army in the field in East Tennessee, Camp Nelson undoubtedly contributed to the Federal victory in the Knoxville Campaign.

Captain Poe, one of the architects of Camp Nelson, was glowing in his praise of the army during the campaign. His after-action report was written and submitted to the War Department a month after the Siege of Knoxville was lifted:

And is there any man of that part of the Army of the Ohio which was in Knoxville who would exchange his nineteen days of service there for any other of the achievements of his life? Was there a regiment there which will not put Knoxville as proudly on its banners as they now bear Roanoke or New Berne, Williamsburg or Fair Oaks, Chantilly or South Mountain, Antietam or Vicksburg? The troops of the Ninth Army Corps and of the Twenty-third were chivalric rivals where duty was to be done.

Last updated: May 24, 2023

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