Archive for August, 2013

Turnabout for Burnside at Knoxville

by Andy Mateja

After commanding one of the greatest Union debacles at Fredericksburg, fate allowed Maj General Ambrose Burnside to somewhat redeem his military reputation almost a year later at Knoxville. He was matched up once again against the Confederate leader most responsible to the immense casualties Burnside incurred at Fredericksburg: Lt Gen James Longstreet.
This time however their roles were reversed with Longstreet having to attack an intensely fortified position commanded by Burnside.
Longstreet was on detached duty from Robt E Lees’ Army of Northern Virginia and had participated in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in September 1863. However he managed to alienate himself from his current commander Gen Braxton and also President Jefferson Davis by entangling himself in a political squabble initiated by Bragg’s other field commanders against Bragg himself.
The result was Bragg ordering Longstreet to leave his army, which had besieged their defeated Union opponents in Chattanooga to attack the entrenched Union army at Knoxville under Burnside. This at a time Longstreet’s forces were needed the most to prepare for the coming onslaught orchestrated by new Union commander Maj Gen Ulysses S. Grant ,who was concentrating heavy reinforcements from the Eastern and Western armies to relieve the siege of Chattanooga. Despite the ominous Union buildup, Longstreet was ordered away by Bragg (with Davis’ approval) and Longstreet was eager to go. Longstreet was once again in independent command for the upcoming Knoxville campaign.
Longstreet began his movement toward Knoxville on November 5th with his two divisions and cavalry totaling about 15,000 men. Burnside commanded the small Army of the Ohio of about 20,500 men to face Longstreet’s approach. However, rather than waiting for Longstreet, Burnside moved toward Longstreet to keep him engaged when Grant launched his effort to break the siege of Chattanooga.
Longstreet was moving slowly toward his objective due primarily to logistics issues. When he encountered Burnside’s forces a week later at Loudon and Lenoir’s Station, he fell back toward Knoxville while successfully thwarting Confederate attempts to flank his position. Longstreet’s best opportunity to cut off Burnside from reach the safety of Knoxville slipped through his fingers at Campbell’s Station.
Burnside’s efforts to slow Longstreet’s advance which keeping him engages was working better than expected. A further attempt at delaying Longstreet’s advance was made on the Kingston road near a fortification on the outskirts of Knoxville by dismounted Union cavalry commanded by Brig Gen William Sanders. Sanders was killed in the battle and the fortification, originally named Ft Loudon was renamed Ft Sanders in his honor.
As it turned out Ft Sanders was the strongest fortification defending Knoxville, especially when a 12 ft x 8 ft ditch dug in front of the fort and telegraph wire was attached to stumps were added to its defenses.
Longstreet decided rather than attack the fortified position, he was going to lay siege to Burnside’s position and starve his troops into submission. Both armies however were already low on food and after a week of maintain the siege, Longstreet changed his mind and ordered an all-out assault.
Bragg erroneously informed Longstreet that 11,000 reinforcements were being sent when in reality only 2600 were sent. Longstreet postponed his attack until the reinforcements arrived but during the interim, performed a reconnaissance of the area he was going to attack and came to the conclusion the attack would not be successful. Three days were wasted waiting for reinforcements and reconnoitering and a fourth day was added due to inclimate weather.
By now Longstreet was aware that Bragg was defeated at Chattanooga and Union reinforcements were being sent by Grant to aid Burnside. So rather than abandoning the attack and moving into Western Virginia, Longstreet decided to rush his attack before Union help arrived.
However, Longstreet failed to adequately reconnoiter the approaches to Ft Sanders and underestimated the complexity of the Union defenses. Longstreet’s plan of a “surprise morning attack” on November 28th fell apart almost immediately when his troops became entangled in the telegraph wire and tried to advance through the deep and wide ditch. The rain and freezing temperatures added to the confusion by forming ice on the fort’s outer walls. The ditch turned out to be a slaughter pen for the Confederates with concentrated Union guns firing repeatedly at them with the Southerners unable to advance or retreat. The Union forces also used improvised grenades (artillery shells with short fuses) with deadly effect.
The battle was a tremendous victory for Burnside. The Confederate casualties were over 800 killed, wounded and missing, while Union casualties only totaled 13. Longstreet began his sad and dreary retreat on December 4th. As one Union officer claimed after the battle …it was “Fredericksburg reversed”.
Comforting words for the ears of Ambrose Burnside ………………………………

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by Andy Mateja

LT. General James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s senior corps commander and one of Lee’s severest critics, particularly after the Civil War, was given the opportunity by his commander to demonstrate his prowess as an army leader under independent command.
When the Union IX Corps was transferred to the southeast corner of Virginia after the battle of Fredericksburg, Lee reacted quickly by sending two of Longstreet’s divisions (Pickett’s & Hood’s) to cover the Eastern approaches to Richmond. Longstreet went along in person to command the operation.
On Feb 25th 1863 Longstreet became commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina which covered the Eastern portion of both states. His orders were to protect Richmond while gathering food and supplies from the area. He was also ordered to keep his troops ready to move back to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a moment’s notice if they were needed. Besides his own troops, Longstreet now commanded the Confederate troops already in the area which brought his effective strength up to almost 45,000 men.
Instead of focusing on direct threats to Richmond from SE Virginia, Longstreet ordered an attack on New Bern N.C. which had been in Union hands for almost a year. This general who claimed to have urged defensive tactics to Lee at Gettysburg, told his subordinate in North Carolina (Gen D.H. Hill) in charge of the attack “We are much more likely to succeed by operating ourselves than by lying still to await the enemy’s time for thorough preparation before he moves upon us”
Longstreet now had difficulty in getting one of his newly acquired subordinate local commanders to reinforce the planned attack. As a result, Longstreet send troops from his own divisions still positioned miles away to protect Richmond. With 12,000 men, the assault was launched on New Bern which failed due to poorly executed attacks. As overall commander, Longstreet failed to make sure all the troops were available and in position before the attack began.
During this time Longstreet had asked Lee if he could use Hood’s and Pickett’s divisions, currently in position protecting the Eastern approaches to Richmond, to forage for the abundant supplies in the region. Lee acquiesced and further suggested to Longstreet “If you see an opportunity of delivering a damaging blow – do not be idle, but act promptly”
Longstreet immediately planned a move against the town of Suffolk VA with D.H. Hill moving against Washington N.C. in a co-ordinated attack so as to keep the Union troops occupied while precious food and supplies were gathered in the field. Longstreet further reinforced D.H. Hill with troops from Pickett’s division.
Suffolk was a strategic key to the area which had also been in Union hands for almost a year. Longstreet decided to make this the main focus of the attack, as Hill’s efforts against Washington NC at first appeared successful but soon began to fall apart. Longstreet’s plan was to use Confederate Naval support as well as additional troops in the region. Longstreet then did the unthinkable: he replaced the commander (Gen Samuel French) of a local Confederate division with his own man (Brig Gen Micah Jenkins) without informing the commander he was replacing! Longstreet tried to re-assign the French to the command of his artillery, but French would not agree; believing his division was being “stolen” from him.
Determining the fortifications around Suffolk to be too strong to take by direct assault he ordered Hood and Pickett to advance slowly, pushing their Union opponents back into their fortifications. Federal gunboats were offshore, providing additional support to the Union position and defended the lines of communication with Norfolk from being cut by the Confederates. Longstreet’s troops then dug in as well, using an old abandoned Confederate fortification as an anchor for their line. Artillery was added to the Confederate entrenchments to shell the Union position and keep their gunboats at bay. The Confederate artillery was effective in disrupting the Federal Navy’s attempt to keep the lines of communications open and Longstreet was now able to cut those lines and isolate Suffolk. However he refused to do so, fearing he would expose the rear of his army to attack and make it more difficult to rejoin Lee’s army.
Meanwhile the Union commander in Suffolk realized capturing the re-manned Confederate fortification was the key to keeping their lines of communication open. After several failed attempts to seize the fortification, the Union forces combined elements of their army and navy for an effective one-two punch which DID succeed in capturing the fortification and the artillery battery.
Finger pointing was prevalent between the Confederate field commanders on the scene. There was no question that negligence was a major part of the reason for the loss of the fortification. However Longstreet, as commander, did not feel it was warranted to investigate the matter further.
The Union troops began a reconnaissance in force from their southern defenses of Suffolk. After a few days of skirmishing, they pulled back and the fighting ceased around Suffolk. The Northern forces maintained a hold of Suffolk and all the positions they held before Longstreet arrived on the scene. Longstreet’s offensive movements gained nothing.
A few days later on April 29th Longstreet was ordered to rejoin General Lee’s army at Fredericksburg, as the much larger Union army commanded by Gen. Joseph Hooker was on the move, with a major portion of his army crossing the Rappahannock River to flank Lee from the rear. Five days later Longstreet’s two divisions were on their way back north to Lee’s army, which was still more that 140 miles away. However, by this time Lee, outnumbered 2-to-1, had already defeated the main body of Hooker’s army at Chancellorsville and was heading east to defeat the rest of the Union army which he accomplished two days later.
So while Longstreet , in independent command, was unable to defeat any of the elements of the Union forces in his front, Robert E. Lee had won his greatest victory of the Civil War………..without Longstreet !
Longstreet would get another chance at independent command later in the year outside of Knoxville TN. However, like this first time, it would end with lackluster results not commensurate with government and military expectations.

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