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What happened to Burnside’s East Tennessee Campaign after Blountville?

Ned Jilton II • Oct 2, 2019 at 6:45 PM

I hope many of you were able to get out to last week’s Battle of Blountville Civil War reenactment. The people there put a lot of effort into the event and it shows.

Last week’s column left Gen. Ambrose Burnside standing triumphantly in Blountville after his forces had driven the Rebels out. But what happened next?

The next day, Burnside sent a detachment toward Zollicoffer (Bluff City) to capture the railroad and keep pushing the Confederates out of East Tennessee with the hopes of advancing into Virginia and going for the saltworks north of Abingdon. But the Rebels were dug in on the hills between there and Blountville, and the Union soldiers suffered a tough setback.

Before Burnside could gather more of his army and attack again, word arrived about the massive Union loss at the Battle of Chickamauga. With Gen. William Rosecrans’ defeated army falling back into Chattanooga, there was now a serious threat from behind Burnside, and Knoxville could fall back into Confederate hands.

Prudent measures required Burnside to withdraw his forces from Northeast Tennessee back into Knoxville and possibly make ready to reenforce Rosecrans in Chattanooga. But before they could reach Knoxville, his forces would have to fight a battle near Greeneville.

On Oct. 3, Confederate cavalry forces under the command of Brig. Gen. John S. Williams moved to attack the railroad in Bulls Gap and disrupt the Union line of communication when they ran into Union cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Carter. The two sides skirmished briefly before breaking off.

On Oct. 10, Williams’ Confederates and Carter’s Union troopers, both now reenforced, met about nine miles from Bulls Gap and began what would be called the Battle of Blue Springs.

The battle opened with part of the Union cavalry attacking the Confederates while the other part circled around behind. In the meantime, Col. Orlando Poe, Burnside’s chief engineer, scouted the Rebel position for a weak place in the line — and he found it.

The First Division of Burnside’s Ninth Corps arrived later in the afternoon and, using Poe’s information, broke the Confederate line. The Rebels withdrew to Virginia and Burnside continued on to Knoxville with another victory in his East Tennessee campaign.

When Burnside arrived in Knoxville, he learned that Gen. James Longstreet, with most of the First Corps of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was leaving Chattanooga and heading for Knoxville.

Longstreet’s forces played a key role in the victory at Chickamauga and were now moving to keep Burnside from reenforcing Rosecran at Chattanooga, take Knoxville and drive the Union forces out of East Tennessee.

Burnside chose to fight a delaying action west of Knoxville to buy time for his forces to gather at Knoxville where Poe had been fortifying the city. The two sides met at Campbell’s Station, (known today as the city of Farragut), and a sharp engagement ensued.

Longstreet used his aggressive cavalry to turn Burnside’s flanks, but Burnside countered with well placed artillery and a quick redeployment of his troops. Move by move, Burnside countered everything Longstreet did while slowly falling back toward Knoxville.

The Confederates suffered about 570 causalities to the Federals 400 and Burnside had successfully delayed Longstreet. Under cover of darkness, the Union soldiers fell back into the now heavily fortified Knoxville.

Now Longstreet would have to decide to take the city by siege or by assault. On Nov. 29, 1863, Longstreet chose assault.

Longstreet had moved his army into the hills around Knoxville and thought he spotted a weak place in the Federal defenses. The location was known as Fort Sanders.

During the night, the Confederates moved to within 150 yards of the fort in a freezing rain. At dawn, the cannons roared and 3,000 Rebels charged the 400 men inside, then immediately learned the engineering brilliance of Poe.

Poe had the trees in front of the fort cut down so there would be a clear field of fire. Between the stumps and through the brush left behind, he had strung telegraph lines at knee height. The dark wires were hard to see in the early morning light, and the Rebels soon found themselves tangled up and an easy target for the soldiers in the fort.

When the charging soldiers untangled themselves and reached the base of the fort wall, they found another surprise from Poe: a ditch.

Longstreet had seen Union soldiers walking through the ditch when he scouted the fort with his binoculars and thought it to be about knee deep. What he had failed to realize is that Poe had boards placed at certain locations for the soldiers to walk across. In reality the ditch was about 8 feet deep. The charging Rebels fell in and many became trapped.

Then there was the wall of the fort itself.

Longstreet, seeing that Fort Sanders was an earthen structure, figured the men would be able to dig handholds and climb the wall. But Poe had made the walls almost straight up and the freezing November rain made them icy.

Despite all the obstacles, some soldiers did make it to the top of the wall. In fact, three color bearers planted their flags there, only to be shot down. In a little more than 40 minutes, the fight was over and the Rebels fell back.

The Confederates suffered 813 casualties, nearly 30% of their attacking force. Poe later wrote that he was unaware in the annals of military history where a storming party was so nearly annihilated. The 400 men in the fort suffered about 20 casualties.

In an act of mercy, Burnside sent some of his own soldiers out under a white flag to help the Confederates recover their dead and wounded from the ditch at the wall.

Longstreet was thinking of attacking again when bad news reached him from Chattanooga. Gen. U.S. Grant had routed the forces of Gen. Braxton Bragg, who had sent Longstreet away, and was dispatching forces under the command of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to Knoxville to reinforce Burnside.

Both Longstreet’s and Burnside’s East Tennessee campaigns were over.

Longstreet would leave Knoxville and he and his forces would winter in the Hamblen, Hawkins and Greene county area, fighting the Battle of Bean Station during that time before rejoining Lee in Virginia.

The General Longstreet Museum is located in Russellville, between Bulls Gap and Morristown at 5915 E. Andrew Johnson Highway.

Burnside had enjoyed a successful campaign in East Tennessee with several victories. With his reputation somewhat restored, he and his 9th Corps would eventually leave Knoxville to rejoin the Army of the Potomac.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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