American Civil War: Knoxville Campaign

Ambrose Burnside in the Civil War
Major General Ambrose Burnside. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Knoxville Campaign - Conflict & Dates:

The Knoxville Campaign was fought in November and December 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:



Knoxville Campaign - Background:

Having been relieved from command of the Army of the Potomac following his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Major General Ambrose Burnside was transferred west to head the Department of the Ohio in March 1863. In this new post, he came under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln to push into East Tennessee as the region had long been a stronghold of pro-Union sentiment. Devising a plan to advance from his base at Cincinnati with IX and XXIII Corps, Burnside was forced to delay when the former received orders to travel southwest to aid Major General Ulysses S. Grant's siege of Vicksburg. Compelled to await IX Corps' return before attacking in force, he instead dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General William P. Sanders to raid in the direction of Knoxville.

Striking in mid-June, Sanders' command succeeded in inflicting damage on the railroads around Knoxville and frustrating Confederate commander Major General Simon B. Buckner. With the return of IX Corps, Burnside commenced his advance in August. Unwilling to directly attack the Confederate defenses in the Cumberland Gap, he swung his command to the west and proceeded over mountain roads. As Union troops moved into the region, Buckner received orders to move south to aid General Braxton Bragg's Chickamauga Campaign. Leaving a single brigade to guard the Cumberland Gap, he departed East Tennessee with remainder of his command. As a result, Burnside succeeded in occupying Knoxville on September 3 without a fight. A few days later, his men forced the surrender of those Confederate troops guarding the Cumberland Gap.

Knoxville Campaign - The Situation Changes:

As Burnside moved to consolidate his position, he sent some reinforcements south to aid Major General William Rosecrans who was pressing into northern Georgia. In late September, Burnside won a minor victory at Blountville and began moving the bulk of his forces toward Chattanooga. As Burnside campaigned in East Tennessee, Rosecrans was badly defeated at Chickamauga and pursued back to Chattanooga by Bragg. Caught with his command strung out between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Burnside concentrated the bulk of his men at Sweetwater and sought instructions on how he could aid Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland which was under siege by Bragg. During this period, his rear was threatened by Confederate forces in southwestern Virginia. Backtracking with some of his men, Burnside defeated Brigadier General John S. Williams at Blue Spring on October 10.

Ordered to hold his position unless Rosecrans called for aid, Burnside remained in East Tennessee. Later in the month, Grant arrived with reinforcements and relieved the siege of Chattanooga. As these events were unfolding, dissent spread through Bragg's Army of Tennessee as many of his subordinates were unhappy with his leadership. To rectify the situation, President Jefferson Davis arrived to meet with the parties involved. While there, he suggested that Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps, which had arrived from General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in time for Chickamauga, be sent against Burnside and Knoxville. Longstreet protested this order as he felt he possessed insufficient men for the mission and the departure of his corps would weaken the overall Confederate position at Chattanooga. Overruled, he received orders to move north with support provided by 5,000 cavalry under Major General Joseph Wheeler.  

Knoxville Campaign - Pursuit to Knoxville:

Alerted to Confederate intentions, Lincoln and Grant were initially concerned about Burnside's exposed position. Calming their fears, he successfully argued for a plan that would see his men slowly withdraw towards Knoxville and prevent Longstreet from taking part in future fighting around Chattanooga. Moving out during the first week of November, Longstreet had hoped to use rail transport as far as Sweetwater. This proved complicated as trains ran late, insufficient fuel was available, and many locomotives lacked the power to climb the steeper grades in the mountains. As a result, it was not until November 12 that his men were concentrated at their destination. 

Crossing the Tennessee River two days later, Longstreet commenced his pursuit of the retreating Burnside. On November 16, the two sides met at the key crossroads of Campbell's Station. Though the Confederates attempted a double envelopment, Union troops succeeded in holding their position and repulsing Longstreet's attacks. Withdrawing later in the day, Burnside reached the safety of Knoxville's fortifications the next day. During his absence, these had been enhanced under the eye of engineer Captain Orlando Poe. In an effort to gain more time for enhancing the city's defenses, Sanders and his cavalry engaged the Confederates in a delaying action on November 18. Though successful, Sanders was mortally wounded in the fighting.

Knoxville Campaign - Assaulting the City:

Arriving outside the city, Longstreet commenced a siege despite lacking heavy guns. Though he planned to assault Burnside's works on November 20, he elected to delay to await reinforcements led by Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson. The postponement frustrated his officers as they recognized that every hour that passed allowed Union forces to strengthen their fortifications. Assessing the city's defenses, Longstreet proposed an assault against Fort Sanders for November 29. Located northwest of Knoxville, the fort extended out from the main defensive line and was seen a weak point in the Union defenses. Despite its placement, the fort was situated atop a hill and fronted by wire obstacles and deep ditch. 

On the night of November 28/29, Longstreet assembled around 4,000 men below Fort Sanders. It was his intention to have them surprise the defenders and storm the fort shortly before dawn. Preceded by a brief artillery bombardment, three Confederate brigades advanced as planned. Briefly slowed by the wire entanglements, they pressed on towards the fort's walls. Reaching the ditch, the attack broke down as the Confederates, lacking ladders, were unable to scale the fort's steep walls. Though covering fire pinned down some of the Union defenders, Confederate forces in the ditch and surrounding areas quickly sustained heavy losses. After approximately twenty minutes, Longstreet abandoned the attack having sustained 813 casualties against only 13 for Burnside.

Knoxville Campaign - Longstreet Departs:

As Longstreet debated his options, word arrived that Bragg had been crushed at the Battle of Chattanooga and forced to retreat south. With the Army of Tennessee badly wounded, he soon received orders to march south to reinforce Bragg. Believing these orders to be impracticable he instead proposed remaining around Knoxville for a long as possible to prevent Burnside from joining Grant for a combined offensive against Bragg. This proved effective as Grant felt compelled to dispatch Major General William T. Sherman to reinforce Knoxville. Made aware of this movement, Longstreet abandoned his siege and withdrew northeast to Rogersville with an eye to eventually returning to Virginia.

Reinforced at Knoxville, Burnside sent his chief of staff, Major General John Parke, in pursuit of the enemy with around 12,000 men. On December 14, Parke's cavalry, led by Brigadier General James M. Shackelford was attacked by Longstreet at the Battle of Bean's Station. Mounting a tenacious defense, they held through the day and withdrew only when enemy reinforcements arrived. Retreating to Blain's Cross Roads, Union troops quickly built field fortifications. Assessing these the next morning, Longstreet elected not to attack and continued withdrawing northeast.

Knoxville Campaign - Aftermath:

With the end of the standoff at Blain's Cross Roads, the Knoxville Campaign came to an end. Moving into northeast Tennessee, Longstreet's men went into winter quarters. They remained in the region until spring when they rejoined Lee in time for the Battle of the Wilderness. A defeat for the Confederates, the campaign saw Longstreet fail as an independent commander despite an established track record leading his corps. Conversely, the campaign helped reestablish Burnside's reputation after the debacle at Fredericksburg. Brought east in the spring, he led IX Corps during Grant's Overland Campaign. Burnside remained in this position until being relieved in August following the Union defeat at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg.  

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Knoxville Campaign." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Knoxville Campaign. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Knoxville Campaign." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).