The siege, and Battle of Knoxville, Tennessee

Living in Knoxville, (East Tennessee) I get to walk on the same ground trod by both sides during the war. Knoxville is not a large city, as are many in the U.S. but it was the scene of an important battle late in 1863.
Knoxville was a Union city, and the greater part of East Tn. was aligned with them, in part because they had little tolerance for slavery.The Union had taken control of the city in Sept. 1963, and fortified Knoxville with some 16 forts, and battery emplacements both within, and surrounding the town.These, along with significant trench networks provided more than adequate protection should the armies of the Confederacy attempt to take it. Knox also had the benefit of a heavy railroad to the north of town, and the Holston (now Tennessee) River to its south.
One General Braxton Bragg,(CSA)along with General James Longstreet (CSA) had mightily defeated, and driven the Union forces from Chicamauga,Georgia and they fled into the fortifications around Chattanooga Tn.
The original desire of Gen.Bragg’s Army of Tennessee was to take Chattanooga,thence to take the rest of the State.Gen. Longstreet had attempted unsuccessfully to displace Gen. Bragg, and as a result, was “assigned” the job of laying siege to Knoxville in order to draw off manpower from the forces holding Chattanooga, (as there were plans to take that city at a later date.) And this Longstreet did. (for awhile)
General Longstreet moved towards Knoxville, tripping over the forward positions of Gen. Ambrose Burnside (U.S.) at Campbell’s Station, south of Knoxville. Burnside decided to strengthen the forces at Knoxville rather than oppose Longstreet’s advance in force. So leaving a rear guard to delay Longstreet, He moved into the city, and prepared it for what would come. (The suspense builds,…)
Gen. Longstreet sealed off the various routes to the city as best he could, even stringing an iron chain across the Holston River from his H.Q. at Bleak House, several miles west of the City.
He, and his chief engineer one General Danville Leadbetter (CSA) had planned to make an attack at Ft. Sanders, they two having judged it to be the most vulnerable point in the City’s defenses.
A bit about Ft. Sanders. It was a fairly typical Earthwork fort, basically a square with Bastions at each corner. Now, stories differ on the origin of this fort, some say it was captured from the Confederacy, and some say the Union built it, perhaps the Union improved on an older fort. I cant find anything to absolutely support either argument. Anyway, it rose above the surrounding area to about 70 ft. Surrounding its perimeter was a ditch 12 ft wide, and varying in depth from 8 ft. to more than 12 ft. in some places.
Inside were placed 12 artillery pieces, and a garrison of 440 souls belonging to the 79th New York Infantry. It is said that Union Engineers commanded by Capt. Orlando M.Poe did the work of setting up the fort, and the defensive trench lines surrounding it this included a little trick of placing planks across the ditch to make it appear a shallow 3 to 4 ft deep. They also had strung telegraph wire along the stumps of trees cut for the fort, creating an entanglement much like those used in WW1 with barbed wire.(Barbed wire did not exist in the early 1860’s) .
Information courtesy of “Tennessee encyclopedia of History”, Wiki, Knoxville Civil War Round table. Photo of Mssrs Babcock (left)&Poe (right) The story continues…

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Gen. Longstreet (CSA) planned the attack on Ft. Sanders Nov. 29th, assigning Major Gen. Lafayette McLaws to lead the assault. He commanded three Infantry Brigades lead by Brigadier Gen. Benjamin Humphreys, Br. Gen. Goode Bryan, and Col. Solon Z. Ruff Commanding Wofford’s Brigade. (The accuracy of Col. Ruff’s participation in this action is not verified)
Gen. Longstreet had anticipated the element of surprise for the assault, but this was lost when McLaw’s forces sent skirmishers to take the outer trench line just prior to the attack. This alerted the fort to the coming action, and they were ready.
When the attackers came through the trench line, they became fowled in the wire entanglement, and while getting free of the wire, and being well raked with ball, shot, and canister from the fort ahead,were run over by their own following units. Upon reaching what they though to be a shallow ditch, they were chagrined at finding it to be 8 or more feet deep. into this ditch they jumped, and bunched and remained for the most part, as the defenders had watered the sides of the fort, and the ditch, which in the late November weather (an unusually cold winter it was) had iced over creating a hard unyielding surface too slippery to gain any manner of purchase upon.(for whatever reason, there were no scaling ladders with the attacking troops)
The men of the 79th N.Y. Infantry wasted no time in exploiting this advantage, and mercilessly decimated the attackers with canister, musket fire, and shortening the fuses on artillery shells, lit them and dropped them into the ditch, even burning timber, and whatever else they had to hand.
This confusion was compounded by the fact that the attackers had been totally disordered coming through the wire, and ended up concentrated in one area at the North West Bastion of the fort. They were piling in on one another, and unable to adapt to the conditions in which they found themselves. Some managed to climb on the shoulders of other’s to make a human ladder,and by this means several men made it to the top, three planting standards there, only to be immediately killed, or captured. The flags were taken.The flags are said to be those of the 16th Georgia Inf., 13th Mississippi inf., and 14th Mississippi inf.
The Battle lasted about 20 minutes, called off by Longstreet. In those few minutes of eternity, the Confederacy lost 813 men, though some (about a quarter) were surrendering to avoid recrossing the killing ground, and wire. Union losses were five dead, and eight wounded.
After taking such a plain old whooping, General Longstreet was not amused to find that his former Commander, General Bragg had been soundly routed from Chattanooga, and adding all of this together,on December 4th. he decided to end the siege, and withdraw to winter quarters in North East Tennessee.The little matter of 25,000 Union troops coming to reinforce the area may also have played some role.
The first pic attached is a period image of the ditch. The others are of the bastion location as it is today,(Looking out from the bastion area, over the ditch, etc. nothing remains of Ft. sanders, the site is presently occupied by the Medical school of the University of Tennessee, and homes were built over the glassis, and other parts of the Battlefield. The only things to mark the location , or the events that took place there are a marker sign, and a stone monument from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There were a couple other little fights during the siege, and I will post about them in the near future.


Mighty informative posts, TG, Thank you. :slight_smile:

Kind Regards, Uyraell.

The Headquarters (or hindquarters, depending on your point of view,) of general Longstreet was called Bleak House by its owners, after the D i c kens novel. This was kind of a joke on their part as the place was never bleak in any sense of the word. It was a large brick mansion house, located four or five miles west of Knoxville, on the banks of the Holston River (now Tennessee) It was built with a “tower room” ,and this was used for observation, and sniping by the Confederates who were equipped with Whitworth Rifles, which while costing several times more than the standard infantry weapon, was so accurate at distance, that it was adopted for sniping. Indeed it was one of these rifles that took the life of Union general Wm. Sanders during an action south of the fort. (which was later named for him)
Bleak house also served as an Artillery emplacement, and the point from which the river bar chain was set.
Today, bleak house serves as a museum, and is maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Eastern side of the house is pocked by bullet strikes,that are clearly visible to this day.

This wee bit of a scuffle was launched by Gen. Longstreet in order to take a tactically important position guarding the Southern approaches to Knoxville. Longstreet assigned his chief Cavalry officer General Joseph Wheeler (Gee they had an awful lot of Generals running around,) to the assault.The attack was to begin on November 15th, 1863. This would be no easy task, as the Ft. was flanked East, and West by two other such forts, (Stanley, and Higley) which could, and did, provide Artillery, and Infantry support. As well as other strong points within Knoxville itself. Named for U.S. Army Captain Jonathan C. D ickerson of the 112 th. Illinois Volunteer Mounted Infantry. A 30-year-old carpenter, he played a significant role in Knoxville during the siege of the city in 1863.
Not much is published about this raid, but there is this much. As Wheeler’s men began the attack, they found the hill sides too steep,and slippery to negotiate while being mauled by Artillery, and small arms fire.After a short while,Wheeler’s men fired several volleys toward the top of the hill, and withdrew.(The Confederate equivalent of the Bird)
This is surprising as Gen. Wheeler had always been successful during his operations, having severely disrupted Union supply lines around Chattanooga, to weaken the Union forces for Gen. Bragg’s eventual attack, and when that failed, Wheeler’s forces covered Bragg’s retreat from the area.
I have some images of Ft. D i c kerson,from ground level, Tn. HWY 441, which was once an Indian trail that passes between Forts Stanley, and D i c kerson. And some from the battery area. Lastly, one from across the river in Knoxville, showing the positions of both forts. Stanley on Left.


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Great pics and info, TG. :slight_smile:
In My youth I had little if any interest in the US Civil War, believing it not much different to the Napoleonic wars that preceeded it, and thus not much removed from the mediaeval era, in general effect.
Age has it’s compensations, however: and I’ve come to realise I’m slowly developing an interest mainly due to the tecnological matters of which I was previously unaware.

The movie “Hunley”, while perhaps not pedantically accurate, encouraged me, because when it came out I had not long finished reading Clive Cussler’s work, “Treasures” which details the discovery of the Hunley wreck, and the plans to recover it. This book was a non-fiction work by Cussler, and a damn good read, containing also info on the Merrimac and various other ironclads.

Many Thanks for your great posts, TG. :slight_smile:

Kindest Regards TG, Uyraell.

You are welcome ! good someone is paying attention,:slight_smile: For the U.S. anyway, it was our first modern war. Iron ships, submarine, large Artillery, and modern style transport, and communications.Land mines, and water mines, torpedos, and aerial Balloon reconnaissance. Sadly all of the casualties (well, most any way, were Americans.) Although I cant remember the inventor’s name, a Southern gentleman designed a 48 shot repeating rifle which had it been adopted, and produced in quantity, would have made a mess back then. The South did not have the means to produce the rifle which used 2 fluted rollers which when indexed by a hand lever would close around a cartridge forming the chamber for firing, then as they rotated again, the spent case dropped from the bottom of the receiver while the fresh one came down into the next chamber created. scary thing it was.

It is generally regarded by historians as the first modern war in the series of major wars leading to WWII and beyond, for the reasons you mention and others.

But a terrible first for America and its people at the time.

Thanks for posting, TG, this reminds me that I always tended to recklessly neglect the occurences in the western theater…

The hill on which the Ft. is built is mostly rock, with shallow soil covering it in some places. This position gave the Union pretty much full coverage of the Southern approaches to Knoxville, as well the ability to range to most of the City itself. This made it a very desirable asset to have. Having such steep rocky sides, and being supported from 3 sides by other forts, and the city gun batteries made it near impossible to assault from ground level. It is said that Gen Wheeler had four thousand troops for his attempted assault, though this seems wrong, as its tough to move that many men and not attract lethal attention. The Battery uses about 40% of the hill top, with the rest being clear for observation posts, quarters, etc.
The attached pics will show the steep inclines the attackers would face, the two high spots at each end, with the lower area (saddle) between. The trees in these pics were not present in the 1860’s, so the view of surrounding areas was excellent.

You’re right TG, the pics show how crucial a position Ft Dickerson was.
As you say, the commanding view is exceptional.
Again my friend, many many Thanks for these very informative posts. :slight_smile:

Kindest Regards, Uyraell.

You are very welcome Uyraell, Although the Civil War is a common enough subject here, its not very well known or researched by some outside the U.S. It is something to have it right under your feet everyday the way it is here in the South.

The almost bucolic landscape posted in the photos of Tank G made me forget for a moment how bloody this war was. Good narration “beardo”. :wink:

Ha-Haaa, thank you my friend!

By the way Tank G, I think I ve found you lost twin brother…:mrgreen:

Wow he does look like me, except he has more hair, (and more belly…)Another lost brother would be Zola Levitt, (RIP) he had shorter hair, and was some years older.


Yup, my “find” was closer :mrgreen:, I am sure the guy has a Harley Too.

I would bet on that, several people have come up to me commenting on my resemblance to Zola Levitt, I guess he was popular in my area. I had even considered getting a shirt made saying “I’m not Zola”. I do agree that the fellow in the clip does look alot like me.

How would the American Civil War count as the first modern war as opposed to say the Crimean war?

I had said that it was for us the first modern war, for the reasons I mentioned in my post.The United States had no material part in the hostilities of the Crimean war, having sent only a small number of medical doctors to assist the Russians. (as far as I know) So that war really wouldn’t count for us.