The Defences of Knoxville, November 1863: Fort Sanders

The Defences of Knoxville, November 1863: Fort Sanders

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The Defences of Knoxville, November 1863: Fort Sanders

Map taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: III: Retreat from Gettysburg, p.730

Return to Battle of Knoxville

Brig. Gen. William P. Sanders was an unusual Union officer, and not only for his Mississippi upbringing, Robert E. Lee’s attempt to oust him from West Point and his cousin Jefferson Davis’s action to prevent it.

He remained loyal to the Union and was a captain in the new 6th U.S. Cavalry (in whose armored descendant I was a lieutenant-platoon leader in 1968-69) in the Virginia Peninsula Campaign and at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

Later, Gen. Burnside gave him a cavalry command in the Department of the Ohio which brought him to Knoxville in 1863. There he was mortally wounded by a Rebel sharpshooter believed to be firing from the tower at Longstreet’s headquarters in the Bleak House mansion.

The novel closely follows the historical details about this interesting Union cavalry commander who died helping Gen. Burnside’s troops ready the defense of the red-clay fort which would be named for “Doc” Sanders.

Fort Sanders

The pro-Union counties of eastern Tennessee offered little resistance to the occupation of Knoxville by forces under Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside in 1863. As a Confederate army besieged Union forces at Chattanooga, Tennessee later that year, a force under the command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was sent to Knoxville to prevent Burnside's Army of the Ohio from moving in support of Chattanooga. To capture Knoxville, Longstreet decided that Fort Sanders, located northwest of the city, was the only vulnerable place where his men could penetrate Burnside’s fortifications. Longstreet believed he could assemble a storming party, undetected at night, and, before dawn, overwhelm the fort. On November 29th, following a brief artillery barrage directed at the fort’s interior, three Rebel brigades charged forward. Union telegraph wire entanglements delayed the attack, but the fort’s deep outer ditch halted the Confederates. Crossing the ditch was nearly impossible, especially under withering defensive fire from musketry and canister. Confederate officers led their men into the ditch, but, without scaling ladders, few emerged on the other side. A small number entered the fort to be wounded, killed, or captured. The Confederate defeat at Knoxville, plus the loss of Chattanooga four days earlier, put most of eastern Tennessee in Union control for the rest of the war.

Aftermath [ edit | edit source ]

Longstreet called off the disastrous attack after 20 minutes. As the Confederates retreated, Union soldiers captured over 200 in the ditch. It was one of the most lopsided defeats of the war, with the Confederates suffering 813 casualties compared to the Union's 13. ΐ] The combination of this defeat and word that Bragg had been defeated at the Battle of Chattanooga meant the effective end of the Siege of Knoxville. Longstreet did not resume his attacks and withdrew on December 4. His Knoxville Campaign had been a failure, unable to defeat Burnside or to assist Bragg. East Tennessee remained under Union control for the remainder of the war.

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“Its Memory Alone Remains”
The Battle of Fort Sanders took place on what is now known as Fort Sanders Hill near downtown Knoxville. Nothing remains of the original fortifications however this short film provides excellent information about the fortifications and the battle. The fortifications were designed by Orlando Poe who encircled the fort with a deep trench which was not visible upon approach to the walls of the fort. Poe also had interwoven telegraph wire among the tree stumps surrounding the fort which presented a nearly impassable barrier, and utilized brush from the cut trees as additional camouflage. The resulting battle was brutal, resulting in large casualties.
Produced by Steve Dean, this documentary was filmed on a full-scale reproduction of the bastion with the dimensions of the earthwork and ditch taken from Orlando Poe’s description. The title of this film was taken from an 1890’s Blue and Gray Reunion Medal.
Available for purchase at $15.00.

“The Hidden Battlefield”
From the renowned Heartland Series, “The Hidden Battlefield” retells the history of the battle of Campbell Station. On November 16, 1863, nearly 20,000 soldiers fought on two fronts, with hundreds of deaths. Unfortunately little remains at this location to commemorate the 6-hour battle for possession of the crossroads at Campbell Station that resulted in two Medals of Honor being awarded.
The illustrious and knowledgeable Gerald Augustus is featured in this presentation.
Available for purchase at $15.00

Order of Battle

The assault, conducted on November 29, 1863, was poorly planned and executed. Longstreet discounted the difficulties of the physical obstacles his infantrymen would face. He had witnessed, through field glasses, a Union soldier walking across the ditch and, not realizing that the man had crossed on a plank, believed that the ditch was very shallow. He also believed that the steep walls could be negotiated by digging footholds, rather than requiring scaling ladders.

The Confederates moved to within 120-150 yards of the salient during the night of freezing rain and snow and waited for the order to attack. Their attack at dawn has been described as

“cruel and gruesome by 19th century standards.”

They were initially confronted by telegraph wire that had been strung between tree stumps at knee height, possibly the first use of such wire entanglements in the Civil War, and many men were shot as they tried to disentangle themselves. When they reached the ditch, they found the vertical wall to be almost insurmountable, frozen and slippery. Union soldiers rained murderous fire into the masses of men, including musketry, canister, and artillery shells thrown as hand grenades. Unable to dig footholds, men climbed upon each other’s shoulders to attempt to reach the top. A succession of color bearers was shot down as they planted their flags on the fort. For a brief time, three flags reached the top, those of the 16th Georgia, 13th Mississippi, and 17th Mississippi.

79th Infantry Regiment

Mustered in: May 29, 1861
Mustered out: July 14, 1865

The following is taken from New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912.
The 79th Regiment Militia, failing to be ordered to the front for three months, organized, under authority from the War Department, as volunteers at New York city, where, commanded by Lieut-Col. Samuel MeKenzie Elliott, it was mustered in the service of the United States for three years May 29, 1861. The men were recruited principally in New York city the regiment was turned over to the State in September, 1861, and received its numerical designation December 11, 1861. In January, 1864, members of the 51st Infantry, and of the 45th, 50th and 100th Pa. Volunteers, were attached to the regiment, serving with it about two months. May 4, 1864, Col. Samuel McK. Elliott received authority to recruit a regiment, the Cameron Highlanders this authority was modified to recruit for this regiment. May 13, 1864, the men not entitled to be mustered out were formed into two companies, A and B those entitled to be mustered out at the expiration of the term of service of the regiment proceeded to New York city and were there discharged, under Lieut.-Col. John More, May 31, 1864. In November, 1864, the men enlisted by Colonel Elliott joined the companies in the field as Companies C and D in January, 1865, another company, E, joined, and in March, 1865, Company F was organized in the field from recruits received.
The regiment left the State June 2, 1861 served at and near Washington, D. C, where Col. J. C. Cameron joined it, from June, 1861 in 3d Brigade, 1st Division, Army N. E. Virginia, from July, 1861 in Stevens' Brigade, Smith's Division, Army of Potomac, from October, 1861 in 2d Brigade, T. W. Sherman's Expeditionary Corps, from October 21, 1861 in 2d Brigade, 2d Division, Department South, from June, 1862 in 3d Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps, from July, 1862 in 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps, from September, 1862 in the 3d Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps, from, June, 1863 in the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps, from July, 1863 in 2d Brigade, 3d Division, 9th Corps, from March, 1864 Companies A and B with 18th Corps, Army of the James, from May, 1864 in 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps, Army of Potomac, from September 10, 1864 as Provost Guard, 9th Corps, from October 7, 1864 and it was honorably discharged and mustered out, commanded by Lieut.-Col. Henry G. Heffron, July 14, 1865, near Alexandria, Va.
During its service the regiment lost by death, killed in action, 2 officers, 83 enlisted men of wounds received in action, 1 officer, 30 enlisted men of disease and other causes, I officer, 82 enlisted men total, 4 officers, 195 enlisted men aggregate 199 of whom 11 enlisted men died in the hands of the enemy and it, or portions of it.

The following is taken from The Union army: a history of military affairs in the loyal states, 1861-65 -- records of the regiments in the Union army -- cyclopedia of battles -- memoirs of commanders and soldiers. Madison, WI: Federal Pub. Co., 1908. volume II.
Seventy-ninth Infantry.&mdashCols., J. C. Cameron, Isaac I. Stevens, Addison Farnsworth, David Morrison Lieut-Cols., David Morrison. John Morse, Henry G. Heffron Majs., Francis L. Hagadorn, William St. George Elliott, John More, William Simpson, Andrew D. Baird. This regiment, called the Highlanders, was the original 79th militia and was composed mainly of Scotchmen. It was mustered into the service of the United States at New York city, for a three years' term, May 29, 1861, and left for Washington on June 2. It was stationed in the vicinity of Washington until the movement of the army to Manassas, when it was assigned to the 3d brigade, 1st division, Army of Northeastern Virginia and participated in the battle of Bull Run. This, the first battle of the regiment, was a severe initiation, for the command lost 198 in killed, wounded and missing, Col. Cameron being mortally wounded. During September the regiment was posted near Lewinsville, Va., where it several times encountered the enemy and was engaged in a sharp skirmish at Bailey's cross-roads. On Oct. 21, the 79th was attached to the 2nd brigade of Sherman's expeditionary corps, with which it embarked for Hilton Head, S. C., and served in that vicinity until June, 1862. It shared in the gallant attack of Stevens' division, at Secessionville, losing no out of 474 engaged. In July, the troops returned to Virginia and shared in Gen. Pope's campaign, with the 3d brigade, 1st division, 9th corps, losing 105 killed, wounded or missing during the engagements near Manassas. At Chantilly, Gen. Stevens, former colonel of the 79th, was killed. The regiment was active at South mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, but was not closely engaged in the last named battle. It shared the discomforts of Burnside's "Mud March," returned to camp at Fal-mouth, and moved west with the 9th corps, to join Gen. Grant's forces before Vicksburg. The regiment took part in the siege and in the pursuit to Jackson. It then fought at Blue Springs, at Campbell's station, Tenn., and aided in the defense of Knoxville. The men bore uncomplainingly the hardships of the return of the 9th corps across the mountains to Virginia and in May, Cos. A and B were transferred to the 18th corps. The regiment shared the opening battles of the Wilderness campaign and was mustered out at the expiration of its term of enlistment, May 31, 1864. The veterans and recruits served as provost guard at corps headquarters and were reinforced in the autumn of 1864 by the addition of several companies of new recruits. This battalion served before Petersburg until the fall of the city and was mustered out at Alexandria, Va., July 14, 1865. The total enrollment of the regiment was 1,385, exclusive of the battalion organized in 1864, and it lost during service 116 by death from wounds and 83 from other causes. Its record is one of unfailing heroism and devotion to the cause for which it fought and it is ranked by Col. Fox among the "three hundred fighting regiments."

79th Regiment NY Volunteer Infantry | Flank Markers | Civil War

The 79th Regiment, or “Highlanders,” mustered into service for three years on May 29, 1861, and received its numerical designation on December 11,…


Anyone who has studied the Civil War for any length of time knows that it abounds in controversies. Strategy, tactics, and the actions and inactions of leaders on both sides are perpetual grist for the military analysts’ mill. Take the Battle of Knoxville for instance. A battle seemingly as simple and straightforward as the assault on Fort Sanders raises a raft of questions. Should Longstreet have attacked the federal defenses when he first arrived on the scene, or was he right to first reconnoiter the lines and wait for reinforcements? Was Fort Sanders truly the weakest point in Burnside’s defenses, and did an attack on it represent the best chance for Confederate success? Should the attack on November 29 th have been preceded by an extensive artillery barrage as E.P. Alexander maintained? Should the first assault on the fort been immediately followed up by another? And was McLaws negligent in his preparations for the assault and did this negligence contribute to the Confederate defeat as Longstreet averred afterwards in preferring charges? These and many other questions were raised when the smoke first cleared at Fort Sanders, and they remain valid subjects of study today.

One subject that was not at question until recently is the location of Fort Sanders itself. Now a new book by Professor Emeritus Charles H. Faulkner and his wife Terry, Rediscovering Fort Sanders: the American Civil War and Its Impact On Knoxville’s Cultural Landscape, has challenged conventional wisdom in positing that the fort was actually one block west of where it has been assumed to have been. What follows is a paper from Historian Earl Hess and the former Civil War Director of the McClung Museum at UT, Joan Markel, titled “Where was Fort Sanders? Where We Have Always Known It to Be”. The next post is a review of Rediscovering Fort Sanders by Dennis Urban, past president of the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable.

Where was Fort Sanders? Where We Have Always Known It to Be

By Dr. Earl J. Hess and Dr. Joan L. Markel

Knoxville’s Civil War heritage is a precious legacy and is taken seriously by concerned residents. That is why is it vastly important for us to understand fundamental facts of that heritage which have never changed. The location of the city’s most famous Civil War landmark, Fort Sanders, has been up for grabs recently, or so it seems. Terry and Charles Faulkner, in their book, Rediscovering Fort Sanders, argue for a change in that location. The traditionally known site, which is undoubtedly the true site of the fort, is embraced by the block defined by 17 th Street, Laurel Avenue, 16 th Street, and Clinch Avenue, with the Northwest Bastion at 17 th and Laurel, exactly where the historical marker for the fort says it is. But the Faulkners want to move the fort one block west, to 18 th Street. That claim is wrong, assert academically-trained Civil War historians, archaeologists, and Knoxvillians who have studied and read about the Civil War history of our city for decades.

In the last months of 1863, Knoxville experienced intense Civil War military activity. A Confederate army under the command of General James Longstreet was dispatched from Chattanooga to retake our Union held city. Defended by Federal troops since the September 3 arrival of Gen. Ambrose Burnside, a direct attack on the town had not been anticipated. Burnside’s troops were spread out along the railroad line in a race back to town, Union and Confederate troops clashed at Campbell Station on November 16. After stalling Longstreet’s pursuit, the Federals marched 17 miles to defend Knoxville against a direct assault by the Confederate Army.

While Knoxville was a natural fortress, a defensive line had barely been constructed. Here is where the impact of individual excellence, top-notch training, and initiative came to the forefront. Union Captain Orlando Poe, graduate of West Point and Burnside’s chief engineer, had the plans for forts, batteries and connecting trenches already in his head. He organized the returning soldiers into construction units as they made their way back into town. “Dig for your lives” Poe told the exhausted troops using spades and shovels he had packed over the mountains from Kentucky. Civilians of all loyalties were also pressed into service. Poe praised the work of over 200 “contrabands” (African Americans who had been “nowhere to be found” for the CSA commander when the call went out earlier in the year for labor).

Burnside asked Poe’s good friend from West Point days, Gen. William P. Sanders, to hold back Longstreet’s army along Kingston Pike to buy more time for fortifications to be built. Sanders’ dismounted cavalry held the line for several hours, but Sanders himself was shot midday November 18 and died the next. In his honor and at the request of Captain Poe, the fort which would defend the blood-soaked attack on November 29 was named for him.

Today, Fort Sanders has been lost to urban development. But its legacy was ensured by the same fine soldier who built it and named it. Written reports and some of the earliest photographic documentation describe the fort in words and pictures. But engineer Poe did not stop there. Knowing the strength of the defenses of Knoxville, he requested the best survey/cartographic services of the US Government. Two top members of the US Coast Survey, Cleveland Rockwell and R.H. Talcott, arrived in December 1863 to create a precisely accurate topographical map (where contour lines create 3 dimensions) of Poe’s fort. The resulting map was published in the Official Military Atlas of the War of the Rebellion (1891-1895) along with panoramic photos of Knoxville defenses.

Recently in the archives of the US Coast Survey (now a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) the original survey maps produced by Rockwell, north of the river, and Talcott, south of the river, have been located. These maps contain sight lines for the survey instruments and distances between well-known landmarks such as Fort Sanders, the old Court House, Second Presbyterian Church steeple, and the high ground south of the river. Using modern technology and additional historic maps from the US Geological Survey and Sanborn Insurance, map expert Charles Reeves of Farragut has confirmed the accuracy of all these points on the landscape of 2020 Knoxville. (The map of Fort Sanders is available at and an explanation of how the map was created is at

The Poe map pinpoints the street grid of downtown Knoxville that is essentially unchanged since it was laid out in the 1790s. Poe’s street grid matches up perfectly with the street grid on modern maps as far as location of intersections, length and cardinal direction. Aligning the modern street grid over Poe’s map places the western wall of Fort Sanders along 17 th Street.

The compelling nature of new GIS technology applied to the abundance of US Army survey data and the fine topographical maps produced from that precise information, locate the fort exactly where the town has always said it was. The US Army knew where its fort was and recorded that location precisely, between modern 17 th St., Laurel Ave., 16 th St., and Clinch Ave. The signage and monuments are just where Knoxvillians installed them when living memory and earthen remnants of the fort were not in doubt. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at 17 th St. and Laurel Ave. in 1914 when remnants of the earthen fort were still in existence. It serves as a battlefield marker.

Another irrefutable basis for the fort’s location is provided by topography. Every fort has to be on the highest ground and Poe situated Fort Sanders exactly where it could do the most good, on the level top of the ridge which is today crossed by 17 th Street. From here the fort commanded the area north and west, anchoring the northwest corner of the long line of earthworks protecting Knoxville on the north side of the river.

To locate Fort Sanders between 17 th Street and 18 th Street, as the Faulkners would have it, would have appalled Poe and every other soldier in the Union army. That block is not on top of the ridge, but instead encompasses the western slope of the ridge with 18 th Street at least eight or more feet lower in elevation than 17 th Street. This would have rendered Fort Sanders indefensible because the high earth wall (the parapet) would not have protected the interior of the fort from enemy fire. To be defensible, a fort not only had to be on high ground, but on level ground, so the earthen walls provided maximum shielding power. If one side of the fort was considerably higher than the other, it would have been be largely useless because the enemy could have looked right into it, as well as shoot into it.

In fact, Fort Sanders was anything but useless. Early on the frosty morning of November 29, 1863, 2,430 Confederate troops attacked the fort from the northwest, aiming directly at the Northwest Bastion high on the ridge top. In a brief but bloody battle, the Union garrison of 500 men repelled this attack. The Confederates lost 813 men (killed, wounded, or captured) while the Federals lost only about 50 men. Built on the highest “level” ground, with high and broad earthen walls, and fronted by a deep ditch, Fort Sanders easily led to the Union victory. If the Northwest Bastion had been located at the much lower 18 th Street, the Confederates would have had all the advantages they could have easily fired into the sloping fort, overwhelmed the small garrison, and captured Fort Sanders.

Every good position had to be located at the military crest of a slope. That is defined as the point where soldiers can see and fire at any point along the slope in their front. The military crest often was a few feet toward the enemy compared to the natural crest of the slope, but it could never be an entire block away from it without becoming absolutely useless to the defending soldier. There is no crest at all, natural or military, anywhere near 18 th Street, just small ripples in the land. But at 17 th Street, on top of the ridge, the natural and military crests are only a few feet from each other. They both are on ground eight feet higher than any ground near 18 th Street. The lowliest private in the Union army understood this simple and vital aspect of combat in the Civil War.

A third level of evidence arises from historic photographs. Several historic photographs of Fort Sanders were taken in 1864 and ca. 1880, and all of them show the entire fort to be located on the level flat top of the ridge, and not along the slope between 17 th and 18 th Streets. The photograph of the 1890 Blue and Gray Reunion at Fort Sanders clearly depicts the Southwest Bastion with a road crossing it where 17 th Street is now located. The bastion does not extend west down the slope toward 18 th Street but ends on top of the ridge at 17 th Street.

At the beginning of their work, the Faulkners had spoken with us about their theory. We did not agree with it then and still do not. We carefully explained to them all the arguments presented here, but they ignored these and moved forward with their dubious project. But it takes rigorous proof to overturn a well-established and fully supported historical fact, and their evidence is not at all convincing.

Everything points to keeping Fort Sanders where we have always known it to have been located. Poe’s reports and post-Civil War memoirs, the evidence provided by Civil War maps overlaid with modern-day street and topographical maps, fortification theory, doctrine, and practice, the nature of military operations in relation to the lay of the land, and several historic photographs all confirm that Fort Sanders was constructed on top of the ridge, with its western wall along 17 th Street, and not 18 th Street. Knoxvillians need to be aware of these facts and to cherish and preserve that history.

Battlefield today

The Fort Sanders area became the site of many Victorian homes that were built approximately three decades later. Several, especially those located on the uphill sides of streets, are most impressive some have been restored in recent decades. A few were incorporated into the grounds of the 1982 World's Fair. Many more have been divided into apartments and are rented out to University of Tennessee students. The author James Agee was from this area the exteriors for the motion picture version of All the Way Home were shot outside one of the more palatial homes, which has since burned. Agee's novel, A Death in the Family, ends with Agee ("Rufus" in the novel) and his uncle conversing while looking out over the ruins of Fort Sanders.

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Watch the video: Knoxville Under Siege: Uncovering the footsteps of our Civil War history