The Civil War Battle for Knoxville

On its 150th anniversary, we take another look at the decisive siege—in living color!

The “Butternut Boys,” led by Roger Kelly.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

The “Butternut Boys,” led by Roger Kelly.

It was 150 years ago this weekend that Gen. James “Old Pete” Longstreet ordered a desperate charge up the hill toward the most formidable earthworks in East Tennessee. The men in gray who died here likely didn’t even know it was called Fort Sanders. It had been the fort’s name for only a few days.

Begun by the Confederates, who had held Knoxville for most of the war, and had evacuated just three months earlier, the earthworks had previously borne the rather unimaginative name of Fort Loudoun, perhaps by some casual French-and-Indian War buff, one either unsuperstitious or uninformed about the fate of that British fort several miles downstream, and a century earlier. Even that Fort Loudoun wasn’t well-named. It was named for the Fourth Earl of Loudoun, who never set foot in this region. An enemy of the Scots and an enemy of Americans, he was a lout of a nobleman with few discernible noble qualities.

Rechristened in honor of the young Union brigadier general killed in action. William P. Sanders, just 30, was one of President Lincoln’s freshest promotions. After being mortally wounded by a Confederate sniper on Kingston Pike, Sanders died at the Lamar House downtown, and was buried, secretly, because his commanding officer, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, feared how the news of the popular leader’s death would affect morale in the besieged city. A Kentucky native who’d grown up in Mississippi, Sanders became the war’s only Southern-born general to die for the Union.

When word got out, it was agreed that Fort Sanders made a much better name for a Union fort.

When he ordered the assault on Fort Sanders, Gen. James Longstreet had reason to feel desperate. He’d had the city almost surrounded for several days, and had cut off most supply lines, but couldn’t hold it for long. Reconnaissance informed him General Sherman, victorious in Chattanooga, was marching north, toward Knoxville, with tens of thousands of troops. Longstreet had to make a choice, and there were no especially good ones.

On November 29, 1863, he ordered a charge, and thousands of Confederates lunged afoot toward the western ramparts of Fort Sanders. It happened in the half-light of dawn, a frigid morning when frost covered everything.

Though they knew it was a major challenge, commanders didn’t guess how impregnable Fort Sanders was until their men actually reached it. Defensive features invisible through field glasses, like telegraph wire strung between stumps, and a deep ditch around the ramparts swallowed whole lines of men who were then victim to a rain of fire. In just 20 minutes, the Confederates suffered 813 casualties, including 129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 missing. Only five of the 440 Union soldiers in Fort Sanders were killed, a few others wounded.

The battle has been called “gruesome.” The high number of missing—226 is a lot of men to lose track of in just 20 minutes—likely included Confederates blown apart beyond recognition, probably as well as some who found a way to elude the fog of smoke and fire and horror, and said to hell with it all.

One of the most lopsided battles of the entire war, the Battle of Fort Sanders was such a failure that Gen. Longstreet, after withdrawing his remaining troops to the northeast, offered his resignation.

Knoxville, which Sherman declared to be the best-fortified city he’d ever seen, remained in Union hands for the last 17 months of the war.

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Atypical as it was in several ways, the Battle of Fort Sanders was the deadliest battle ever witnessed in the Knoxville area. In 1890, veterans of that battle, and their families, gathered on the site of the fort, which was still visible, for a spectacular fireworks display. Fifty years ago, at the time of the Civil War centennial, history enthusiasts re-enacted the battle at the site of Fort Dickerson, in South Knoxville.

In recent years, a replica of one bastion of Fort Sanders has been built on a farm in northeast Knox County for a cable TV production. A re-enactment there last month of both the Battle of Fort Sanders and the Battle of Campbell Station—where these photos were taken—did not resemble the Battle of Knoxville in every particular. The reconstruction of Fort Sanders on Washington Pike in Corryton is about half-scale. The October re-enactment was much warmer, and it was in the middle of the day. People just don’t like to get up as early as soldiers do. And no one was badly hurt. But by all accounts, it was almost as noisy.

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