The siege of Knoxville

“The enemy is in full retreat,” Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill recorded on Monday evening, Nov. 16, 1863. “The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded [at Campbell’s Station] was large, our loss was small.”

Indeed, “[m]any of the [Union] men recalled that they almost slept while marching; the officers dozed in the saddle, and men who dropped were spurred on with warnings that to rest was a sure preliminary to [Richmond’s] Libby Prison.” according to independent Knoxville historian Digby Gordon Seymour.

McLaws’ Division, at least, was not pursuing them but had camped for the night–Humphreys’ Brigade, including the 13th Regiment, was near Campbell’s station. Kershaw’s Brigade was a mile farther east.

Dr. James Park, a Presbyterian minister who watched both armies eventually pass by his home, according to Seymour, later said tarrying Union officers “were expecting [their] quick defeat” and so Park told a visiting Longstreet he need only “send in a flag of truce with a summons…to receive an immediate surrender.”

Instead, McLaws’ Division marched to Knoxville at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17, where Longstreet spent all day posting his troops in an arc around the little Eastern Tennessee town of less than 4,000 residents—on the west, north and east sides. Only the forested hills south of town, across the broad Tennessee River, were left unoccupied.

Most of Longstreet’s infantry, including McLaws Division, was massed west of the town. McLaws’ troops, including the 13th, stayed about a thousand yards west of the first Union defense line, according to Seymour. They faced about 700 green Union troops, though one regiment, the 8th Michigan, was armed with the fearsome new, rapid-firing, breech-loading Spencer rifle.

About noon that Tuesday, Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade formed to attack the Union lines. The 13th Regiment was not part of the assault, of course, but according to Seymour it’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred George Washington O’Brien, (originally of the Minutemen of Attala) later said it looked to be easy: the Unionists were “new troops and didn’t know enough to run” and all the Rebs had to do was charge and “take them in.”

It didn’t work out that way. The federals, concealed behind barricades of fence rails, repeatedly held the South Carolinians off. By nightfall Kershaw had given up the attempt. His brigade would try again, however, the next day.

The renewed attack on Wednesday had little more result than the first one. Except to enbolden Union General William P. Sanders to stand in the open long enough for a Reb sniper to shoot him. The sharpshooter (reportedly armed with a Whitworth rifle with a telescope sight) was half a mile away in the tower of the Bleak House mansion where Longstreet had his headquarters.

Sanders was mortally wounded. He was a West Pointer from Mississippi who chose the Union side, and reportedly was a cousin of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Burnside named the westernmost of the town’s many surrounding dirt forts for him: Fort Sanders.

Later, General McLaws reported what his division, including the 13th Regiment did next:

“My line was then definitely formed from right to left, as follows : General Kershaw’s brigade with his right on the [Tennessee] river; General Humphreys next, and then General Wofford’s, commanded by Colonel Ruff, of the Eighteenth Georgia. Rifle-pits, or, rather, a continuous line of trench, was dug, extending, with a few broken intervals, from the Holston [Tennessee] River to a point beyond the northwest bastion of Fort [Sanders]…. My sharpshooters occupying pits in advance of the main bodies on both sides were constantly exchanging shots whenever the slightest opportunity was offered by either party, for even a chance hit, as they were in easy rifle range of each other…”

Both sides, short on rations and proper winter clothing, settled in for a cold-weather siege, with occasional forays against the other. Fort Sanders was the most-heavily defended of the Union fortifications, and its defenders expected an attack at any time and were therefore steadily improving their situation.

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About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Humpreys Mississippi Brigade, Siege of Knoxville, The Minute Men of Attala, The Spartan Band, William H. Hill Diary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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