The Battle of Fort Sanders – Knoxville, Tennessee November  1863

Confederate General James Longstreet was assigned to attack the battlements surrounding Knoxville, Tennessee which were occupied by Union General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio in November 1863, and capture that city. Knoxville was extremely important to the war efforts of both armies.

Preparing the attack, Longstreet spent several days watching the members of the Union Army as they re-enforced the walls, trenches, and levees surrounding Knoxville and he felt Fort Sanders, situated several hundred feet west of the main enclosure, would be the perfect target. He decided to make Fort Sanders his attack target beginning November 29.

What Longstreet didn’t realize was that those defenses, under the direction of Union Captain Orlando Poe, General Burnside’s Chief Engineer, were not as they appeared through his field glasses. The Yankees had dug a ‘ditch’ about twelve feet wide and six-to-ten feet deep along the outer perimeter of the fort’s levees and walls, with the inner sides of the ditch almost vertical. Captain Poe had also managed to surreptitiously string telegraph wire between hundreds of tree stumps which dotted the sloping hill atop which Fort Sanders was situated. General Longstreet, in watching the defensive preparations, saw Union soldiers easily walking back and forth across the ditch, but what he didn’t realize was that the soldiers were actually walking on planks which they then removed after dark.

Early that morning General Longstreet assembled about 5,000 seasoned Rebel troops and sent them up that hill. They were slowed considerably by the wires between the tree stumps, where the Yankee sharpshooters managed to pick off a number of them, but when they reached the ‘ditch’ as the Yankees had named it, they simply tumbled into the trench, giving the Union soldiers easy targets, “like fish in a barrel.”

To make matters worse, there had been a light rain in the night, making the sides of the ditch slippery and owing to some unexplained oversight, the Rebels brought no assault ladders.

The battle lasted 20 minutes. The Confederates lost 813 killed that morning, compared to General Burnside’s losses of 13.