Prelude to the Battle
Tennessee Secedes from the Union
On June 8, 1861, Tennessee became the last Southern state to secede from the Union. The decision, however, was far from unanimous. In the eastern part of the state, the referendum on secession lost by some 20,000 votes at the polls. Starting an independent secessionist movement, citizens of East Tennessee petitioned the state legislature to form a new state that would remain in the Union. The governor responded by sending military personnel to Knoxville to enforce the statewide vote for secession. Despite attempts to coerce the population, many residents in East Tennessee and Knoxville remained pro-Union throughout the American Civil War.
Tennessee’s Strategic Importance
President Abraham Lincoln considered the liberation of East Tennessee to be of paramount importance. Beyond the moral and political duty to support the loyal citizens of that part of the Union, East Tennessee was strategically valuable. The main railway connecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and on to the Deep South ran through Knoxville. In addition, East Tennessee farmers produced large amounts of food supplies that either side could use to sustain their armies if they controlled the area.
Ambrose Burnside’s East Tennessee Campaign
Despite its strategic importance and being high on the president’s list of priorities, events in other theaters of the war delayed any major Union action in the area until the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, moved to occupy East Tennessee in the summer of 1863. By the time Burnside neared Knoxville, events occurring in the Chickamauga Campaign had forced most of the Confederate defenders to move to southern Tennessee, leaving only a token force behind. Burnside’s cavalry reached Knoxville on September 2, almost unopposed. On September 3, Burnside marched his army into Knoxville, where the citizenry warmly received them. With Knoxville occupied, Burnside next captured the Cumberland Gap on September 9, and he turned his attention to clearing the area of any remaining Rebels.
Burnside Ordered South
Shortly after Burnside secured East Tennessee, Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee soundly defeated Major General William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20). Bragg drove Rosecrans’ army out of northern Georgia, back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then besieged the city for two months. As the Union situation at Chattanooga worsened, Washington officials ordered Burnside to leave Knoxville and march south to help lift the siege. Burnside moved toward Chattanooga, but skirmishes with Confederate cavalry from Virginia slowed his advance.
Longstreet Ordered North
Meanwhile, in southern Tennessee, Bragg knew of the threat Burnside’s army posed to his investment of Chattanooga. During the siege, relations between Bragg and fellow Confederate General James Longstreet deteriorated because of Longstreet’s criticism of Bragg’s failure to pursue the defeated Federals more aggressively at Chickamauga. Wanting to rid himself of Longstreet, Bragg received approval from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to detach Longstreet from Bragg’s command and to send Longstreet north to deal with Burnside. Bragg planned on Longstreet being able to drive Burnside away, re-capture Knoxville, and return south before Ulysses S. Grant, who had replaced Rosecrans, could attempt a breakout from Chattanooga.
On November 4, 1863, Longstreet left the Chattanooga area on the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad with a force of about 10,000 infantrymen, supported by about 5,000 cavalry troopers. Progress was slower than expected, however, as the transport trains, loaded with soldiers and supplies, had trouble negotiating the steep mountainous grades in the region. Longstreet did not cross the Tennessee River until November 14.
Battle of Campbell’s Station
The two armies skirmished for two days until they met at the Battle of Campbell’s Station on November 16. Longstreet had hoped to occupy the intersection of Concord and Kingston roads at Campbell’s Station before Burnside, positioning the Confederates between the Federals and Knoxville. Burnside realized the danger of not being able to fall back to his fortifications at Knoxville. Thus, he ordered a forced march to the critical intersection and deployed his soldiers just fifteen minutes before Longstreet arrived. The Confederates launched several successful assaults, each driving the Federals back, but the Union retreats were orderly. Longstreet did not prevent Burnside from occupying his fortifications at Knoxville.
Longstreet Besieges Knoxville
With the Federals safely entrenched in Knoxville, Longstreet decided to besiege the city on November 19. However, Longstreet knew Confederate officials could recall him to Chattanooga if Grant threatened Bragg’s investment there. Thus, Longstreet searched for a weakness in Burnside’s fortifications that he might exploit.
Battle of Fort Sanders
Longstreet determined that Fort Sanders, northwest of Knoxville, was the most vulnerable position in Burnside’s defenses. On November 29, 1863, Longstreet ordered a surprise attack on the fort, which was protected by a twelve-foot-wide ditch with vertical sides nearly four to ten feet deep. Crossing the ditch under enemy fire proved impossible, and the Federals repulsed the assault. The Battle of Fort Sanders was short and only lasted for about twenty minutes. Confederate losses were heavy. Of roughly 4,000 men engaged in the attack, over 800 were casualties (129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 captured). Federal losses were around only twenty men.
Before Longstreet could plan another assault, he received news of Bragg’s defeat at the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 25, 1863) and of the Confederate retreat into Georgia. Bragg ordered Longstreet to abandon his siege at Knoxville and rejoin the Army of Tennessee in Georgia.
Grant, however, had sent a relief force toward Knoxville, commanded by William T. Sherman. Upon learning that Sherman was headed to Knoxville, Bragg changed his mind and ordered Longstreet to stay at Knoxville as long as possible to prevent Sherman from returning to Georgia.
Battle of Bean’s Station and Return to Virginia
Longstreet held out until December 4, when he lifted the Siege of Knoxville and marched his army northeast. Pursuing federal troops engaged Longstreet on December 14 at the Battle of Bean’s Station. The Rebels won a tactical victory by driving the Yankees back by nightfall, but Longstreet did not continue the battle the next day because the Federals entrenched overnight. Instead, he moved off and established winter quarters in the northeastern tip of Tennessee and returned to Virginia in the spring.