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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