When Lee’s Veterans Failed at Fort Sanders
By COL (RET) Ed Lowe
Writing after the war, James Longstreet’s competent artillery commander, E.P. Alexander, described the assault on Knoxville’s Fort Sanders: “The tactical formation was merely three brigades abreast in line of battle – just what it would have been in attacking a force in a wheatfield.” The small Federal force occupying the defenses at Fort Sanders turned away the battle-hardened veterans of Longstreet’s First Corps, prompting Lee’s Old Warhorse to withdraw from Knoxville and eventually reunite with General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in time for the Battle of the Wilderness.
The Confederate victory at Chickamauga over William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland in mid-September 1863 had driven the routed Union army into a partial siege at Chattanooga. Dispatched from Virginia, the majority of Longstreet’s First Corps arrived just in time to participate in the battle along the Chickamauga Creek. Unfortunately for the Confederate leadership, the persistent and nagging boil that was the command climate in Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee continued to fester after Chickamauga and into Chattanooga. Failure to communicate and downright hostility amongst the senior leaders towards Bragg even prompted Confederate President Jefferson Davis to visit Chattanooga in early October to assess the situation. The Confederate president kept Bragg in command after listening to Bragg’s disgruntled Confederate commanders, hopeful they could work in harmony and finish off Rosecrans’s army.
Upon President Davis’s departure, Bragg and his subordinates still had to manufacture a plan to deal with the Federal army hunkered down in Chattanooga. However, a Union commander by the name of Ulysses S. Grant appeared and he quickly opened the Federal supply line (or “cracker line”), releasing the stranglehold the Confederates had enjoyed over the Union army. The tense relationship between Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet only increased in October, with Bragg deciding to send James Longstreet’s force north towards Knoxville to deal with the Federal force under Ambrose Burnside.
A series of small engagements between Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio and Longstreet’s soldiers drove the Confederates closer to Knoxville, something both Burnside and Grant desired, drawing Longstreet further away from Chattanooga. Having been previously occupied by Confederate forces before Burnside drove them out in early September 1863, Federal engineers worked feverishly to complete the defenses around and in Knoxville before Longstreet arrived, something they came close to achieving. The key strong point was Fort Loudon (renamed Fort Sanders for a fallen Union officer), the highest point along the Federal line.
Captain Orlando Poe, one of Burnside’s engineers, described Fort Sanders as an “irregular quadrilateral of which the western side was 95 yards, the northern 125 yards, the eastern 85 yards, and the southern side 125 yards.” The Union soldiers also dug a ditch at the bastion faces, which in places was twelve feet in width, with an average depth of seven feet. To give a clear killing field, Union soldiers cut down the fort’s surrounding trees, leaving the ground littered with tree stumps. Embracing the tree stumps as part of their defenses, Union soldiers wrapped rusty telegraph wire between the stumps, hoping to trip up Confederate soldiers as they advanced. An array of artillery pieces bolstered the fort’s defenses, preparing for any Confederate advance. The Federal soldiers in the fort continued to improve its defenses, even up to Longstreet’s attack on November 29.
Key to James Longstreet was fleetness of foot, finishing off Burnside and quickly returning to Bragg before Grant made a move at Chattanooga. Even Braxton Bragg messaged Longstreet on November 22, “if practicable to end your work with Burnside promptly and effectively.” However, several days passed before Longstreet decided to launch his operation against Fort Sanders.
Given strong Unionist sentiments in that part of Tennessee, trusted confidant to James Longstreet, Moxley Sorrel, opined an immediate attack upon the Confederate arrival in Knoxville in mid-November was necessary. Sorrel wrote, “I am disposed to consider intelligent statements of Union officers and citizens of Knoxville, long after, as indicating that an energetic movement, without the slightest delay, would have carried us into the town and brought Burnside to terms.” Changes in weather and uncertainty on where to strike the growing Union defenses pushed Longstreet’s deciding order closer to the month’s end.
Finally deciding upon Fort Sanders, Longstreet and his team returned from a reconnaissance mission where Longstreet noticed a Union soldier walk across the ditch, apparently, the depth only came to the soldier’s waist. A grave miscalculation, Longstreet did not consider the soldier had walked across a plank, given the impression the ditch would not prove a difficult obstacle to overcome by his soldiers. With seemingly the last pieces of intelligence falling into place, Longstreet set the date for the attack on Fort Sanders for November 29.
One Confederate commander, Micah Jenkins, expressed some grave concerns for Longstreet’s decision, especially for the ditch’s depth and lack of ladders needed for the soldiers. However, Longstreet dismissed these concerns, expressing to Jenkins “Keep your men well at their work, and do not listen to the idea of failing and we shall we not fail.”
With the temperatures hovering around freezing, the Union artillery commander inside Fort Sanders, Lieutenant Samuel Benjamin, poured water down the front slopes of the bastion’s walls, making them almost like glass with the falling temperatures. He also manufactured cannon shells with shortened fuses to use like hand grenades as Confederate soldiers massed against the fort’s walls. The Union soldiers inside Fort Sanders were about as prepared to receive the enemy as they could be.
Longstreet would use primarily Lafayette McLaws’s division and three of his brigades, using the fourth brigade to exploit any successes from the attack. Even McLaws expressed some concern regarding the attack. However, much like his response to Jenkins, Longstreet answered that McLaws must move forward “with a determination which will ensure success.” Longstreet’s operation against Fort Sanders got underway.
Initially planned for a heavy artillery barrage preceding the infantry, E.P. Alexander expressed dismay when informed his artillery would just signal the beginning of the infantry movement. To Alexander’s thinking, this short artillery opening “were equally signals to the enemy in the trenches to be ready to repel” the Confederate attack. And repel the Confederate assault is exactly what the Federal forces inside Fort Sanders did on that cold morning, November 29, 1863.
While the wire entanglements failed to have any tangible effect, the depth of the ditch around the fort caused the Confederates to mass together, open to fire from the Union soldiers above. One soldier from the 19th Ohio stated, “The dead were lying in all imaginable shapes, the wounded on top of them and dead on top of them again.” The assault was over almost before it began, a total of just over 800 Confederate casualties, compared to less than 100 for the Union. The small Union contingent had turned back the hardened veterans from Lee’s army.
With Chattanooga now occupied by General Grant, Longstreet and his weakened and hungry First Corps withdrew deeper into East Tennessee, where they resided for a few months before rejoining Lee in time for the Spring’s opening salvoes in May 1864.
Gallagher, Gary W., Ed. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Hess, Earl J. The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2012.
Longstreet, James. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.
Seymour, Digby Gordon. Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War in East Tennessee. Knoxville, TN: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1963.
Sorrel, Gen. G. Moxley. Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer. Reprint. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1905.
U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.