Sunday, December 8, 2013


Knoxville seen from south bank of Tennessee River about 1864

The defenses at Knoxville had been prepared by Captain Orlando Poe and his engineer battalion comprised of detailed men from the infantry regiments. With orders to build works for 600 men he designed two forts to improve the incomplete Confederate works from an earlier occupation. Burnside quickly approved the designs but “the work progressed slowly on account of the difficulty of getting suitable materials.” The two Forts were therefore incomplete when occupied by the forces retreating from Campbell’s Station on the 17th. Poe was directed by Burnside “to put the troops into position as fast as they arrived.” Thoroughly familiar with the ground, Poe prepared a written order containing the position to be assumed by each regiment as it entered the city. The exhausted arrivals wasted no time in improving the line. Confederate forces occupied an opposing line after driving back the Federal cavalry acting as a rear guard. BG William P. Sanders, leading the Union troopers was killed in the final action before the standoff at Knoxville began. The improved work at the northwest corner of the Knoxville defense, formerly Fort Loudon, was named in his honor on the 18th. Each side made ready for the coming siege operations.

Longstreet understood he did not have time for a protracted siege and selected Fort Sanders as the site for his inevitable assault. He reasoned that his men could get to within 200 yards of the Unions works while still under cover and that would benefit the attacking force. To this end he placed thirty of his available artillery pieces into position to fire into the fort. The remaining four guns, howitzers, were rigged as improvised mortars by placing the axle on a skid until they reached “an elevation of about sixty degrees.” All the guns were protected by earth works. These preparations took until the 24th to complete.

Besides the usual skirmish activity the defenders also worked on improving their position, by “falling timber and spreading loose brush…along the front of the line” forming an abatis. Most troublesome were a number of buildings outside the line of works that could provide a platform for observation and shelter for Confederate sharpshooters. On the nights of the 18th and 19th details were sent out to burn the buildings to deny their use to the enemy and clear fields of fire. On the 20th MG Ferrero ordered the 17th Michigan to push the Confederates out of a building about 1000 yards from the fort “doing material damage to my line of skirmishers.” Companies A and F moved forward followed by a five man “burning party”. The troops cleared the building and succeeded in applying the torch. On their move back to the Union line they were opened on by Confederate artillery, killing two and wounding four others. Longstreet became convinced that some advantage could be gained by seizing the heights south of the river that covered Fort Sanders. On the 21st he sent two brigades (Law and Robertson) across the river in boats to attack the hills. A short but bitter struggle managed to gain control of one the hills only to discover that the range was too great for his artillery. Longstreet decided not to waste his limited supply of ammunition and the valiant efforts of Robertson’s Texans and Law’s Alabama Brigade went for naught.

Two days of relative peace, caused mostly by heavy rains, were followed by an unusual effort on the 23rd. MG Ferrero reported that during the night two miles of telegraph wire were stretched “in front of my line forming entanglements.” The next day the 2nd Michigan was detailed to drive enemy pickets from positions 200 yards from Fort Sanders. The rifle pits were cleared of Confederates but could not be held. After two hours they were forced to retreat after suffering nearly 50% casualties. The affair cost the Wolverine regiment 2 killed, 60 wounded and 24 missing or captured. Thereafter things remained quiet until the 28th when a general advance by the Confederates that drove the Union pickets “nearly to the works” foretold of coming events.

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