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The Hero of Huff's Ferry-The Daring Story of the 13th Kentucky in the Knoxville Campaign

Updated: Dec 8, 2022


Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside

The battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga vastly overshadow the Knoxville campaign. Though small, the campaign is ripe with many stories of courage, bravery, and sacrifice, just like any other event from the war. The movement began in mid-August 1863 when General Ambrose E. Burnside moved the two corps Army of the Ohio out of Kentucky and into Eastern Tennessee. For almost two years, the Lincoln administration urged its western field commanders to size the primarily Union sympathizing region. Burnside's move could not have come at a more perfect time since Union General William S. Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland was capturing large swaths of land and the vital southern City of Chattanooga. This aggressive campaign forced the Confederates in Eastern Tennessee to virtually strip most of their manpower to help combat this threat. Thus, Burnside's army marched through much of Eastern Tennessee unopposed and captured the strategic city of Knoxville by early September[I]. One of the many regiments following Gen. Burnside was the 13th Kentucky Infantry under the command of Colonel William E. Hobson, who was just 19 years old. The men of the 13th were grizzled veterans by the campaign and had previously seen action at Shiloh and the Siege of Corinth. In the fall of 1863, the 13th was in Colonel William M. Chapin's brigade of Julius Whites division in the 23rd Corps.

Gen. James Longstreet

Burnside's army stayed in the area for almost two months, unchallenged, until early November. Confederate General James Longstreet and his corps, sent from the Army of Northern Virginia to the west, was ordered to retake the vital Southern city. Longstreet's men were plagued with problems at the start of the campaign. Upon leaving Chattanooga, Longstreet was given incorrect maps and dealt with horrible logistical problems[II]. Meanwhile, Burnside, who in the weeks prior was ordered to assist the besieged Federals in Chattanooga, was now tasked with holding Knoxville. To buy his men time in erecting fortifications to defend the city, Burnside ordered two divisions from his army to guard the Holston River. One under Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, from the 9th Corps, and the other under Brigadier General Julius White, from the 23rd Cops. White's division, mainly Col. Chapin's brigade, was ordered to guard the Holston river across from the rebel-held town of Loudon, while Ferrero's division was held in reserve at Leniors Station a few miles back[III].

The area of where Huff's Ferry was is marked in white, map is from Library of Congress East Tennessee map

Throughout the night of November 13th-14th, Chapin’s picketts started to report to Gen. White that movement could be heard across the river, more importantly, a few miles below Loudon at Huff’s Ferry. After receiving more reports that Confederate engineers were now laying down a pontoon bridge at the ferry, White ordered the 23rd Michigan Infantry and a section from Henshaw’s Battery to move towards the ferry, both from Chapin's brigade. After telegraphing Burnside this new information, White received new orders to halt the 23rd Michigan and move back towards Lenior’s Station and on to Knoxville. White’s men arrived at the station around seven in the morning, on the 14th, just in time for Burnside to arrive by rail. Burnside then ordered Chapin’s brigade to countermarch back to the ferry and delay the Confederates for as long as possible. In the late afternoon, about three miles from the ferry, White, accompanying his men, met General Robert Potter, commander of the 9th corps, and his staff. The two generals exchanged information and discovered that a body of rebel pickets from Jenkin’s South Carolina Brigade, more importantly from the Palmetto Sharpshooters, were to their front. White decided to scour his front to find their exact position, and after sending a staff officer, it was quickly discovered where they were. The sharpshooters took it a step further when they pursued the staff officer and fired at the large mass of officers standing in the road, fortunately not killing any of them[IV].


Col. William M. Chapin

General White reacted quickly; he ordered Chapin’s brigade to the front and to pursue the sharpshooters. Chapin’s men were aligned on both sides of the road leading to the ferry with the 107th Illinois on the right and the 13th Kentucky on the left, with the 111th Ohio as support. The 23rd Michigan and Henshaws Battery were held in reserve. After getting into line, the brigade pushed out their skirmishers, mainly from the 13th Kentucky and 107th Illinois, and pursued the Eastern theater veterans with an electric vigor. Upon reaching a hill along the road, the 107th was ordered to maintain their front on the right, while the 111th Ohio and the 13th Kentucky swung around the left to hit the South Carolinas in the flank. The Federals quickly performed this action and succeeded in driving their foe. The fight soon developed into a running one almost two miles from this point, with the 13th Kentucky and the 107th Illinois out-pacing the rest of the brigade[V].


Col. William E. Hobson

After reaching a second hill, less than a mile from the ferry, the sharpshooters were now in a more favorable position. This time they were supported by more men from Jenkins brigade and artillery across the river. To make matters worse, the Confederates were concealed behind a wooded hill with an open field to their front and dense woods on the flanks for the Federals. The 13th Kentucky and 107th Illinois were first on the scene and waited in the tree line in front of the hill. In the last few minutes of daylight, Gen. White quickly rode up and determined that his men had to take the hill. White wasted no time in ordering Col. Chapin to finish the task. Chapin ordered the 13th Kentucky to attack through the open field while he swung the 107th Illinois to the right and hit the Confederates in the flank. Col. Hobson moved his Kentuckians to the edge of the field and yelled for the 13th to charge up the hill. The Kentuckians let loose a roar, charging up the slopes, and paid dearly under the accurate Confederate fire. In only 15 minutes, the Kentuckians lost close to 50 men, but with the help of the Illinoisans, they drove the South Carolinians back to their bridgehead below, and halted on the hill for the night. For his bravery, Col. Hobson was given the honorary title of the “Hero of Huff’s Ferry.”[VI]. The Federals suffered less than 60 casualties in the Battle of Huff's Ferry, most of which were from the 13th Kentucky, while the Confederates suffered less than 10.


Gen. Julius White

The brigade didn't stay in the area for long. More of Longstreet's men crossed during the night and were prepared to attack the following day. Chapin received word early in the morning of the 15th to fall back to Leniors station. Despite their worn-out state, Chapin's brigade was tasked with performing a rearguard action against Jenkins brigade for several miles. At one point, only two miles north of Loudon, Chapin's brigade had to ascend "Stony Hill," which was described by Col. Chapin as a "Steep Hill." After climbing the hill, Jenkins Brigade appeared and quickly tried to envelop the Federal force. Chapin halted this by throwing a few canister rounds upon the South Carolinians, stopping them, thus giving Chapin time to fall back, but at the cost of a caisson. The brigade arrived at Leniors station and fought yet another battle with Longstreet's men with the aid of Gen. Ferrero's men. The following morning, White's and Ferrero's divisions would fall back to Campbell's Station, where they would fight another delaying action again before moving into Knoxville. It should go without saying the bravery and courage of the men of Chapin's brigade, especially the 13th Kentucky, in the Battle of Huff's Ferry should be remembered as their brave fight took away one full day of marching from Gen. Longstreet's divisions.[VII].


 

[I] NPS,2022, April 19, Knoxville Campaign part I https://www.nps.gov/cane/knoxville-campaign.htm

[II] Markel, Joan L., 2013, Knoxville: A Near-Death Experience, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/knoxville-near-death-experience

[IV] Moore; War of the Rebellion XXXI, pt.1 Brig.Gen. Julius White report pg. 376-381 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077699852&view=1up&seq=397&skin=2021

War of the Rebellion XXXI, pt.1 Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins report pg. 524-525.https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077699852&view=1up&seq=544&skin=2021

[V] Moore; White-pg.377, War of the Rebellion XXXI pt.1 Col. Marchell W. Chapin report pg.382-383. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077699852&view=1up&seq=403&skin=2021

[VI] Moore-report comes from the Louisville Daily Journal on Nov. 25th, 1863, detailing Hobson as the "Hero of Huff's Ferry"; White-pg.377-378, Chapman pg. 383. Tracey, Jon, Promotion, Popularity, and Politics in the 13th Kentucky, https://civilwargovernors.org/some-of-the-officers-of-the-regt-held-a-mutiny-promotion-popularity-and-politics-in-the-13th-kentucky-infantry/

[VII] Chapman pg. 384, The Palmetto Sharpshooters 1863, http://home.freeuk.com/gazkhan/pss_1863.htm


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