The Battle of Fort Sanders

By Nov. 28, 1863, the siege of Knoxville was entering its second week. Longstreet, who had been dithering on the question of where best to attack the Union defenses, had finally settled on one—the red-dirt Fort Sanders (above, looking west) with open-top artillery embrasures and defensive cotton bales covered with rawhide on its west parapet—except for the parapets of the northwest bastion (above, approximately where the sentry is standing).

The attack was scheduled at first light on the following morning, a Sunday. The weather was bitterly cold, overcast, and occasionally raining. There was old snow and ice still on the ground and many of the Rebs, including the 13th Regiment, had no coats or blankets or shoes.

“The attack upon the fort was ordered for the 28th. but in order to get our troops nearer the works the assault was postponed until daylight of the 29th,” General Longstreet later wrote. “The line of sharpshooters along our entire front was ordered to be advanced at dark to within good rifle-range of the enemy’s lines, and to sink rifle-pits during the night in its advanced position, so that the sharpshooters along our whole line might engage the enemy upon an equal footing, while our columns made the assault upon the fort.”

The attack originally had been ordered for the 22nd but had been postponed. Then, General McLaws’ order for the attack had the 13th Regiment leading the right-hand of the two assaulting columns. But by the 28th McLaws had written a confusing second order in which he left open both the possibility that the 21st Regiment should lead the Mississippi column and that General Humpreys should decide which regiment should lead it.

All these years later, the most complete description, among a host of contradictory ones, of what actually happened comes from a post-war letter that Captain Wiley Gart Johnson of the 18th Regiment wrote to Confederate Veteran Magazine.

In it the former University of Mississippi student (incorrectly identified by Jess McLean as a member of the 13th Regiment) indicated that the 17th Regiment led the Mississippi column, with the 13th Regiment behind it, while the 18th and 21st regiments joined Longstreet’s “line of sharpshooters.”

In another report to Longstreet, McLaws had singled out the 17th Regiment’s Lieutenant Colonel John C. Fiser as being one of only two regimental commanders in his division who were “of the opinion that they could take the work, and I would put them at it if an assault should be made.” The other colonel was a Georgian, not the 13th’s Colonel Kennon McElroy.

According to Johnson, Fiser, moreover, had bragged that he would chop down the big flagpole that was on the parapet just south of the northwest bastion.

The pole, erected by the bastion’s defenders, flew a giant Stars & Stripes every day in the faces of the Confederate enemy. Fiser even wore the hatchet he said he would use for the chopping clipped to his sword belt. This sort of bravado was not McElroy’s style.

Whereas General Humphreys implies in his after-action report (written more than a month after the battle) that he personally led the attack, and, indeed, McLaws later commended Humphreys “for his zeal, courage, and coolness in conducting that assault,” Johnson says flatly that there was “no general officer in immediate command.”

Instead, he wrote, Humphreys “sent us orders” about the sharpshooting assignment which also said the 17th’s and the 13th’s “two young colonels” had been selected to lead the assault “that they might win new laurels.”

These orders do not appear in the Official Records and apparently were lost. Not unusual as so many other Confederate orders and reports were lost. However, the following does appear in an after-action report in the Official Records by McLaws on Jan. 17, 1864: “…I merely assert that the 17th Miss., Humphrey’s [sic] Brigade and Phillips Ga. Legion of Woffords Brigade…were selected to lead and did lead the assaulting columns…”

Humphreys may have chosen not to lead the attack himself because General William T. Wofford was not on hand to lead the Georgia column of the assaulting force. It was being led by a colonel. Wofford had been called away home to Georgia to attend the funeral of a beloved daughter who’d unexpectedly died of diphtheria.

And given Humphreys very unBarksdale-like performance at Chickamauga (where Longstreet’s after-action report effusively praised Kershaw but gave Humphreys only an “honorable mention”), Humphreys already had a reputation for caution, and so personal caution would not be out of character.

Moreover, in his own after-action report on the Fort Sanders fight, Humphreys confused the compass directions, making the fort’s uncompleted and cotton bale-covered southwest bastion the one that was attacked rather than the northwest one whose parapets were left bare of cotton bales, as Union officers said later, to entice the Confederates to attack there.

So to the action. Shortly after midnight on the 28th, the 18th and 21st regiments drove in the Union pickets just west of Fort Sanders’ northwest bastion. The Mississippians spent the rest of the night digging into the frozen ground. The unusual night attack alerted the Union defenders whose artillery in the elevated fort, and other batteries on the College Hill to the south of it, kept up a steady slow firing all the rest of the night. Their shells and canister flew harmlessly over the Mississippians’ heads. As Johnson wrote, “The enemy in the fort, only a few rods off, tried to depress their guns” but without success.

The 17th and 13th regiments, meanwhile, were assembling in a declivity in the terrain just west of the sharpshooters, out of sight of the Union lines. On their left was the column of Wofford’s Brigade, with the Phillips Georgia Legion in front followed by the 18th Georgia Regiment. They were all preparing to follow McLaws’ orders to attack the northwest bastion, about 100 yards away, at first light, in columns of regiments, with fixed bayonets, no hollering and no firing until they were inside the fort.

Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill recorded that McElroy was “the first in the works,” though that isn’t likely as Fiser and his regiment were in the van. Johnson says McElroy was killed at the edge of the ditch arguing with a Georgia officer over whose regiment had precedence in climbing the parapet. He says Fiser got to the top and was making for the flag pole when “a ball shattered his arm, and he rolled back into the ditch.”

The end result, as McLaws stated in his after-action report was a disaster for the Confederates:

“…the assault failed because…the parapet was hard frozen…which prevented the men from obtaining a foothold, and the absence of a berme upon which the men could mount and start from…”

Moreover the moat-like ditch in front of the bastion, which Longstreet had decided from his imperfect view from a lower elevation was narrow and shallow, turned out to be quite wide and deep. McLaws later estimated that it was at least 20 feet from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the parapet. And the attacking columns had no ladders.

When it was obvious that the first assault columns had failed, a second group of columns, all Georgia units, came in from the north, but with the same result.

Altogether, the failed attacks lasted about 30 minutes. They were further complicated by some ingenious Union defenses and the zeal of the defenders in the northwest bastion. They were, principally, the 79th New York Cameron Highlanders, assisted by parts of the 29th Massachusetts, the 100th Pensylvania and the 2nd Michigan.

The fort was nominally commanded by General Edward Ferraro, but the New York political general (a dancing instructor by profession) was a famous drunk and coward who hid out in his bombproof shelter inside the walls and later wrote a report full of errors. The fort actually was commanded by Lieutenant Samuel Benjamin, a West Pointer, and battery commander of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. His report noted that, during the fighting, Ferraro was nowhere to be seen.

Benjamin and other Union officers had long anticipated an attack on the northwest bastion because of the declivity west of it which was the only spot on the Union lines where attackers could form close by but out of sight. The Union troops were alerted to the morning attack, of course, by the nighttime driving-in of the Union pickets.

Benjamin had arranged several innovative receptions: cannon shells with short fuses to use as hand grenades and boiling water poured down the front slope of the bastion’s parapet during the night which froze, providing the hard-frozen aspect of the parapet McLaws blamed for the Rebel defeat.

Benjamin also arranged for a 12-pounder Napoleon to be hidden from view at the apex of the bastion. It was run up a dirt ramp and fired several surprise rounds of canister as the attackers neared the fort.

Captain Orlando Poe, Burnside’s chief engineer, had the ditch dug deep and the berme McLaws mentions cut away almost entirely. The ditch thus became filled with Mississippians and Georgians who were unable to get out of it. Poe also had telegraph wire strung from the broken tree stumps that littered the approaches to the bastion, to further slow the attack. And, most curiously, he had converging furrows dug into the soil of the approaches which worked to funnel the attackers into a confused mass.

In the end, according to Lieutenant Benjamin, the Union defenders suffered 5 killed and 8 wounded. The Rebel attackers sustained heavy casualties, which, according to General Burnside, amounted to about 500 killed and wounded and 300 captured.

The 13th Regiment contributed 85 of the casualties (20 killed, 20 wounded and 45 captured, according to Jess McLean) and their battle flag also was captured. Their young commander Colonel Kennon McElroy (originally captain of The Lauderdale Zouaves) was killed. His second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred George Washington O’Brien (originally 1st lieutenant of the Minutemen of Attala) was captured.

Captain Charles H.B. Campbell of the Minutemen of Attala (brother-in-law to letter-writer Newton Nash who was killed at Gettysburg) was shot in the head, losing his left eye. He went home on permanent wounded furlough.

Independent Knoxville historian Digby Gordon Seymour has several lengthy, sometimes contradictory versions of the attack and defense in his book Divided Loyalties. I used some of those details, in addition to forming my own conclusions based on the often contradictory memoirs, diaries and letters of both sides for my battle novel Knoxville 1863

Much more on the many other details about the battle not involving the 13th Regiment is available at the blog on my book.

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Battles: Fort Sanders, Confederate Veteran Magazine, Gen. Benjamin G. Humphreys, Gen. James Longstreet, Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Humpreys Mississippi Brigade, Jess N. McLean, Nimrod Newton Nash, Siege of Knoxville, The Battle Flags, The Lauderdale Zouaves, The Minute Men of Attala, The Spartan Band, William H. Hill Diary and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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