The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/The Retreat from Lenoir's and the Siege of Knoxville
THE RETREAT FROM LENOIR'S AND THE SIEGE OF
Late in October, 1863, the Ninth Army Corps went into camp at Lenoir's Station, twenty-five miles southwest of Knoxville, East Tennessee. Since April, the corps had campaigned in Kentucky, had participated in the siege of Vicksburg, had accompanied Sherman into the interior of Mississippi in his pursuit of Johnston, had returned to Kentucky, and then, in conjunction with the Twenty-third Army Corps, marching over the mountains into East Tennessee, in a brief but brilliant campaign under its old leader and favorite, Burnside, had delivered the loyal people of that region from the miseries of Rebel rule, and had placed them once more under the protection of the old flag. But all this had not been done without loss. Many of our brave comrades, who, through a storm of leaden hail, had crossed the bridge at Antietam, and had faced death in a hundred forms on the heights of Fredericksburg, had fallen on these widely separated battle-fields in the valley of the Mississippi. Many, overborne by fatigue and exposure, had laid down their wasted bodies by the roadside and in hospitals, and had gently breathed their young lives away. Many more, from time to time, had been rendered unfit for active service; and the corps, now a mere skeleton, numbered less than three thousand men present for duty. Never did men need rest more than they; and never was an order more welcome than that which now declared the campaign ended, and authorized the construction of winter quarters.
The Thirty-sixth Massachusetts Volunteers—then in the First Brigade, First Division, Ninth Corps—was under the command of Major Draper,—Lieutenant-Colonel Goodell having been severely wounded at the battle of Blue Springs, October 10. The place selected for the winter quarters of the regiment was a young oak grove, nearly a quarter of a mile east of the village. The camp was laid out with unusual care. In order to secure uniformity throughout the regiment, the size of the log-houses—they were to be ten feet by six—was announced in orders from regimental head-quarters. The work of construction was at once commenced. Unfortunately, we were so far from our base of supplies—Camp Nelson, Kentucky—that nearly all our transportation was required by the Commissary Department for the conveyance of its stores. Consequently, the Quartermaster's Department was poorly supplied; and the only axes which could be obtained were those which our pioneers and company cooks had brought with them for their own use. These, however, were pressed into the service; and their merry ringing, as the men cheerfully engaged in the work, could be heard from early morning till evening. Small oaks, four and five inches in diameter, were chiefly used in building these houses. The logs were laid one above another, to the height of four feet, intersecting at the corners of the houses like the rails of a Virginia fence. The interstices were filled with mud. Shelter-tents, buttoned together to the size required, formed the roof, and afforded ample protection from the weather, except in very heavy rains. Each house had its fireplace, table, and bunk. On the 13th of November the houses were nearly completed; and as we sat by our cheerful fires that evening, and looked forward to the leisure and quiet of the winter before us, we thought ourselves the happiest of soldiers. Writing home at that time, I said that, unless something unforeseen should happen, we expected to remain at Lenoir's during the winter.
That something unforeseen was at hand; and our pleasant dreams were destined to fade away like an unsubstantial pageant, leaving not a rack behind. At four o'clock on the morning of the 14th I was roused from sleep by loud knocks on the new-made door. In the order which followed, "Be ready to march at daybreak," I recognized the familiar, but unwelcome voice of the Sergeant-Major. Throwing aside my blankets, and leaving the Captain dreamily wondering what could be the occasion of so unexpected an order, I hurried to the quarters of the men of Company D, and repeated to the Orderly Sergeant the instructions just received. The camp was soon astir. Lights flashed here and there through the trees. "Pack up! pack up!" passed from lip to lip. "Shall we take everything?" Yes, everything. The shelter-tents were stripped from the houses, knapsacks and trunks were packed. The wagon for the officers' baggage came, was hurriedly loaded, and driven away. A hasty breakfast followed. Then, forming our line, we stacked arms, and awaited further orders.
The mystery was soon solved. Longstreet, having cut loose from Bragg's army, which still remained in the vicinity of Chattanooga, had, by a forced march, struck the Tennessee River at Hough's Ferry, a few miles below Loudon. Already he had thrown a pontoon across the river, and was crossing with his entire command, except the cavalry under Wheeler, which he had sent by way of Marysville, with orders to seize the heights on the south bank of the Holston, opposite Knoxville. The whole movement was the commencement of a series of blunders on the part of the Rebel commanders in this department, which resulted at length in the utter overthrow of the Rebel army of the Tennessee. General Grant saw at once the mistake which the enemy had made, and ordered General Burnside to fall back to Knoxville and intrench, promising reinforcements speedily. Knoxville was Longstreet's objective. It was the key of East Tennessee. Should it again fall into the enemy's hands, we would be obliged to retire to Cumberland Gap. Lenoir's did not lie in Longstreet's path. If we remained there, he would push his columns past our right, and get between us and Knoxville. It was evident that the place must be abandoned; and there was need of haste. The mills and factories in the village were accordingly destroyed, and the wagon-train started north.
The morning had opened heavily with clouds, and, as the day advanced, the rain came down in torrents. A little before noon, our division, then under the command of General Ferrero, moved out of the woods; but, instead of taking the road to Knoxville, as we had anticipated, the column marched down the Loudon road. We were to watch the enemy, and, by holding him in check, secure the safety of our trains and material, then on the way to Knoxville.
A few miles from Lenoir's, while we were halting for rest, General Burnside passed us on his way to the front. Under his slouched hat there was a sterner face than there was wont to be. There is trouble ahead, said the men; but the cheers which rose from regiment after regiment, as with his staff and battle-flag he swept past us, told the confidence which all felt in "Old Burnie."
Chapin's brigade of White's command (Twenty-third Army Corps) was in the advance; and about four o'clock his skirmishers met those of the enemy, and drove them back a mile and a half. We followed through mud and rain. The country became hilly as we advanced, and our artillery was moved with difficulty. At dark we were in front of the enemy's position, having marched nearly fourteen miles. The rain had now ceased. Halting, we formed our lines in thick woods, and stacked our arms,—weary and wet, and not in the happiest of moods.
During the evening a circular was received, notifying us of an intended attack on the enemy's lines at nine o'clock, p. m., by the troops of White's command; but, with the exception of an occasional shot, the night was a quiet one.
The next morning, the usual reveille was omitted; and, at daybreak, noiselessly our lines were formed, and we marched out of the woods into the road. But it was not an advance. During the night General Ferrero had received orders to fall back to Lenoir's. Such, however, was the state of the roads, that it was almost impossible to move our artillery. At one time our whole regiment was detailed to assist Roemer's battery. Near Loudon we passed the Second Division of our corps, which during the night had moved down from Lenoir's, in order to be within supporting distance. But the enemy did not seem disposed to press us. We reached Lenoir's about noon. Sigfried, with the Second Division, followed later in the day. Our brigade (Morrison's) was now drawn up in line of battle on the Kingston road, as it was thought that the enemy, by not pressing our rear, intended a movement from that direction. And such was the fact. The enemy advanced against our position on this road, about four o'clock, and drove in our pickets. The Eighth Michigan was at once deployed as skirmishers. The Thirty-sixth Massachusetts and Forty-fifth Pennsylvania at the same time moved forward to support the skirmishers, and formed their line of battle in the woods, on the left of the road. Just at dusk, the enemy made a dash, and pressed our skirmishers back nearly to our line, but did not seem inclined to advance any further.
A portion of the Ninth Corps, under Colonel Hartranft, and a body of mounted infantry, were now sent towards Knoxville, with orders to seize and hold the junction of the road from Lenoir's with the Knoxville and Kingston road, near the village of Campbell's Station. The distance was only eight miles, but the progress of the column was much retarded. Such was still the condition of the roads that the artillery could be moved only with the greatest difficulty. Colonel Biddle dismounted some of his men, and hitched their horses to the guns. In order to lighten the caissons, some of the ammunition was removed from the boxes and destroyed; but as little as possible, for who could say it would not be needed on the morrow? Throughout the long night, officers and men faltered not in their efforts to help forward the batteries. In the light of subsequent events, it will be seen that they could not have performed any more important service. Colonel Hartranft that night displayed the same spirit and energy which he infused into his gallant Pennsylvanians at Fort Steadman, in the last agonies of the Rebellion, when, rolling back the fiercest assaults of the enemy, he gained the first real success in the trenches at Petersburg, and won for himself the double star of a Major-General.
Meanwhile, Morrison's brigade remained on the Kingston road in front of Lenoir's. The enemy, anticipating an evacuation of the place, made an attack on our lines about ten o'clock, p. m.; but a few shots on our part were sufficient to satisfy him that we still held the ground. Additional pickets, however, were sent out to extend the line held by the Eighth Michigan. The Thirty-sixth Massachusetts and Forty-fifth Pennsylvania still remained in line of battle in the woods. Neither officers nor men slept that night. It was bitter cold, and the usual fires were denied us, lest they should betray our weakness to the enemy. The men were ordered to put their canteens and tin cups in their haversacks, and remain quietly in their places, ready for any movement at a moment's notice. It was a long, tedious, fearful night; what would the morrow bring? It was Sunday night. The day had brought us no rest,—only weariness and anxiety. No one could speak to his fellow; and in the thick darkness, through the long, long night, we lay on our arms, waiting for the morning. Ah, how many hearts there were among us, which, overleaping the boundaries of States, found their way to Pennsylvanian and New England homes,—how many, which, on the morrow, among the hills of East Tennessee, were to pour out their young blood even unto death!
At length the morning came. It was cloudy as the day before. White's division of the Twenty-third Corps was now on the road to Knoxville; and, besides our own brigade, only Humphrey's brigade of our division remained at Lenoir's. About daybreak, as silently as possible, we withdrew from our position on the Kingston road, and, falling back through the village of Lenoir's, moved towards Knoxville, Humphrey's brigade covering the retreat. Everything which we could not take with us was destroyed. Even our baggage and books, which, for the want of transportation, had not been removed, were committed to the flames. The enemy at once discovered our retreat, but did not press us till within a mile or two of the village of Campbell's Station. Humphrey, however, held him in check, and we moved on to the point where the road from Lenoir's unites with the road from Kingston to Knoxville. It was evidently Longstreet's intention to cut off our retreat at this place. For this reason he had not pressed us at Lenoir's, the afternoon previous, but had moved the main body of his army to our right. But the mounted infantry, which had been sent to this point during the night, were able to hold him in check, on the Kingston road, till Hartranft came up.
On reaching the junction of the roads, we advanced into an open field on our left, and at once formed our line of battle in rear of a rail fence, our right resting near the Kingston road. The Eighth Michigan was on our left. The Forty-fifth Pennsylvania was deployed as skirmishers. The rest of our troops were now withdrawing to a new position back of the village of Campbell's Station; and we were left to cover the movement. Unfurling our colors, we awaited the advance of the enemy. There was an occasional shot fired in our front, and to our right; but it was soon evident that the Rebels were moving to our left, in order to gain the cover of the woods. Moving off by the left flank, therefore, we took a second position in an adjoining field. Finding now the enemy moving rapidly through the woods, and threatening our rear, we executed a left half-wheel; and, advancing on the double-quick to the rail fence which ran along the edge of the woods, we opened a heavy fire. From this position the enemy endeavored to force us. His fire was well directed, but the fence afforded us a slight protection. Lieutenant Fairbank and a few of the men were here wounded. For a while, we held the enemy in check, but at length the skirmishers of the Forty-fifth Pennsylvania, who were watching our right, discovered a body of Rebel infantry pushing towards our rear from the Kingston road. Colonel Morrison, our brigade commander, at once ordered the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts and Eighth Michigan to face about, and establish a new line, in rear of the rail fence on the opposite side of the field. We advanced on the double-quick; and, reaching the fence, our men with a shout poured a volley into the Rebel line of battle, which not only checked its advance, but drove it back in confusion. Meanwhile, the enemy in our rear moved up to the edge of the woods, which we had just left, and now opened a brisk fire. We at once crossed the fence in order to place it between us and his fire, and were about to devote our attention again to him, when orders came for us to withdraw,—it being no longer necessary to hold the junction of the roads, for all our troops and wagons had now passed. The enemy, too, was closing in upon us, and his fire was the hottest. We moved off in good order; but our loss in killed and wounded was quite heavy, considering the length of time we were under fire.
Among the killed was Lieutenant P. Marion Holmes of Charlestown, Mass., of whom it might well be said,
"He died as fathers wish their sons to die."
Lieutenant Holmes had been wounded at the battle of Blue Springs a little more than a month before, and had made the march from Lenoir's that morning with great difficulty. But he would not leave his men. On his breast he wore the badge of the Bunker Hill Club, on which was engraved the familiar line from Horace, which Warren quoted just before the battle of Bunker Hill,—"Dulce et decorum est pro patriâ mori." In the death of Lieutenant Holmes, the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts offered its costliest sacrifice. Frank, courteous, manly, brave, he had won all hearts, and his sudden removal from our companionship at that moment will ever remind us of the great price with which that morning's success was bought.
The enemy now manoeuvred to cut us off from the road, and pressed us so hard that we were obliged to oblique to the left. Moving on the double-quick, receiving an occasional volley, and barely escaping capture, we at length emerged from the woods on the outskirts of the little village of Campbell's Station. We were soon under cover of our artillery, which General Potter, under the direction of General Burnside, had placed in position on high ground just beyond the village. This village is situated between two low ranges of hills, which are nearly a mile apart. Across the intervening space, our infantry was drawn up in a single line of battle, Ferrero's division of the Ninth Corps held the right, White's division of the Twenty-third Corps held the centre, and Hartranft's division of the Ninth Corps held the left. Benjamin's, Buckley's, Getting's, and Van Schlein's batteries were on the right of the road. Roemer's battery was on the left. The Thirty-sixth Massachusetts supported Roemer.
The enemy, meanwhile, had disposed his forces for an attack on our position. At noon he came out of the woods, just beyond the village, in two lines of battle, with a line of skirmishers in front. The whole field was open to our view. Benjamin and Roemer opened fire at once; and so accurate was their range, that the Rebel lines were immediately broken, and they fell back into the woods in confusion. The enemy, under cover of the woods on the slope of the ridge, now advanced against our right. Christ's brigade, of our division, at once changed front. Buckley executed the same movement with his battery, and, by a well-directed fire, checked the enemy's progress in that direction. The enemy next manœuvred to turn our left. Falling back, however, to a stronger position in our rear, we established a new line about four o'clock in the afternoon. This was done under a heavy fire from the enemy's batteries. Ferrero was now on the right of the road. Morrison's brigade was placed in rear of a rail fence, at the foot of the ridge on which Benjamin's battery had been planted. The enemy did not seem inclined to attack us in front, but pushed along the ridge, on our left, aiming to strike Hartranft in flank and rear. He was discovered in this attempt; and, just as he was moving over ground recently cleared, Roemer, changing front at the same time with Hartranft, opened his three-inch guns on the Rebel line, and drove it back in disorder, followed by the skirmishers. Longstreet, foiled in all these attempts to force us from our position, now withdrew beyond the range of our guns, and made no further demonstrations that day. Our troops were justly proud of their success; for, with a force not exceeding five thousand men, they had held in check, for an entire day, three times their own number,—the flower of Lee's army. Our loss in the Ninth Corps was twenty-six killed, one hundred and sixty-six wounded, and fifty-seven missing. Of these, the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts lost one officer and three enlisted men killed, three officers and fourteen enlisted men wounded, and three enlisted men missing.
At six o'clock, p. m., Ferrero's division, followed by Hartranft's, moved to the rear, taking the road to Knoxville. White's division of the Twenty-third Corps covered the retreat. Campbell's Station is a little more than sixteen miles from Knoxville; but the night was so dark, and the road so muddy, that our progress was much retarded, and we did not reach Knoxville till about four o'clock the next morning. We had now been without sleep forty-eight hours. Moreover, since the previous morning we had marched twenty-four miles and fought a battle. Halting just outside of the town, weary and worn, we threw ourselves on the ground, and snatched a couple of hours of sleep. Early in the day—it was the 17th of November—General Burnside assigned the batteries and regiments of his command to the positions they were to occupy in the defence of the place. Knoxville is situated on the northern bank of the Holston River. For the most part, the town is built on a table-land, which is nearly a mile square, and about one hundred and fifty feet above the river. On the northeast, the town is bounded by a small creek. Beyond this creek is an elevation known as Temperance Hill. Still farther to the east is Mayberry's Hill. On the northwest, this table-land descends to a broad valley; on the southwest, the town is bounded by a second creek. Beyond this is College Hill; and still farther to the southwest is a high ridge, running nearly parallel with the road which enters Knoxville at this point. Benjamin's and Buckley's batteries occupied the unfinished bastion-work on the ridge just mentioned. This work was afterwards known as Fort Sanders. Roemer's battery was placed in position on College Hill. These batteries were supported by Ferrero's division of the Ninth Corps, his line extending from the Holston River on the left to the point where the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad crosses the creek mentioned above as Second Creek. Hartranft connected with Ferrero's right, supporting Getting's and the Fifteenth Indiana Batteries. His lines extended as far as First Creek. The divisions of White and Hascall, of the Twenty-third Corps, occupied the ground between this point and the Holston River, on the northeast side of the town, with their artillery in position on Temperance and Mayberry's Hills.
Knoxville at this time was by no means in a defensible condition. The bastion-work, occupied by Benjamin's and Buckley's batteries, was not only not finished, but was little more than begun. It required two hundred negroes four hours to clear places for the guns. There was also a fort in process of construction on Temperance Hill. Nothing more had been done. But the work was now carried forward in earnest. As fast as the troops were placed in position, they commenced the construction of rifle-pits. Though wearied by three days of constant marching and fighting, they gave themselves to the work with all the energy of fresh men. Citizens and contrabands also were pressed into the service. Many of the former were loyal men, and devoted themselves to their tasks with a zeal which evinced the interest they felt in making good the defence of the town; but some of them were bitter Rebels, and, as Captain Poe, Chief-Engineer of the Army of the Ohio, well remarked, "worked with a very poor grace, which blistered hands did not tend to improve." The contrabands engaged in the work with that heartiness which, during the war, characterized their labors in our service.
At noon, the enemy's advance was only a mile or two distant; and four companies of the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts—A, B, D, G—were thrown out as skirmishers,—the line extending from the Holston River to the Kingston road. But the enemy was held in check at some little distance from the town by Sanders's division of cavalry. The hours thus gained for our work in the trenches were precious hours, indeed. There was a lack of intrenching tools, and much remained to be done; but all day and all night the men continued their labors undisturbed; and, on the morning of the 18th, our line of works around the town presented a formidable appearance.
Throughout the forenoon of that day there was heavy skirmishing on the Kingston road; but our men—dismounted cavalry—still maintained their position. Later in the day, however, the enemy brought up a battery, which, opening a heavy fire, soon compelled our men to fall back. The Rebels, now pressing forward, gained the ridge for which they had been contending, and established their lines within rifle range of our works.
It was while endeavoring to check this advance that General Sanders was mortally wounded. He was at once borne from the field, and carried into Knoxville. While a surgeon was examining the wound, he asked, "Tell me, Doctor, is my wound mortal?"
Tenderly the surgeon replied, "Sanders, it is a fearful wound, and mortal. I am sorry to say it, my dear fellow, but the odds are against you."
Calmly the General continued, "Well, I am not afraid to die. I have made up my mind upon that subject. I have done my duty, and have served my country as well as I could."
The next day he called the attention of the surgeon to certain symptoms which he had observed, and asked him what they meant.
The surgeon replied, "General, you are dying."
"If that be so," he said, "I would like to see a clergyman."
Rev. Mr. Hayden, chaplain of the post, was summoned. On his arrival, the dying soldier expressed a desire that the ordinance of baptism should be administered. This was done, and then the minister in prayer commended the believing soul to God,—General Burnside and his staff, who were present, kneeling around the bed. When the prayer was ended, General Sanders took General Burnside by the hand. Tears—the language of that heartfelt sympathy and tender love belonging to all noble souls—dropped down the bronzed cheeks of the chief as he listened to the last words which followed. The sacrament was now about to be administered, but suddenly the strength of the dying soldier failed, and like a child he gently fell asleep. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
The enemy did not seem inclined to attack our position at once, but proceeded to invest the town on the north bank of the Holston. He then commenced the construction of a line of works. The four companies of the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts which had been detailed for picket duty on the morning of the 17th, remained on post till the morning of the 19th. Thenceforward, throughout the siege, both officers and men were on picket duty every third day. During this twenty-four hours of duty no one slept. The rest of the time we were on duty in the trenches, where, during the siege, one third, and sometimes one fourth, of the men were kept awake. The utmost vigilance was enjoined upon all.
Meanwhile, day by day, and night by night, with unflagging zeal, the troops gave themselves to the labor of strengthening the works. Immediately in front of the rifle-pits, a chevaux-de-frise was constructed. This was formed of pointed stakes, thickly and firmly set in the ground, and inclining outwards at an angle of forty-five degrees. The stakes were bound together with wire, so that they could not easily be torn apart by an assaulting party. They were nearly five feet in height. In front of Colonel Haskins's position, on the north side of the town, the chevaux-de-frise was constructed with the two thousand pikes which were captured at Cumberland Gap early in the fall. A few rods in front of the chevaux-de-frise was the abatis, formed of thick branches of trees, which likewise were firmly set in the ground. Still farther to the front, were wire entanglements stretched a few inches above the ground, and fastened here and there to stakes and stumps. In front of a portion of our lines another obstacle was formed by constructing dams across First and Second Creeks, so called, and throwing back the water. The whole constituted a series of obstacles which could not be passed, in face of a heavy fire, without great difficulty and fearful loss.
Just in rear of the rifle-pits occupied by the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts was an elegant brick mansion, of recent construction, known as the Powell House. When the siege commenced, fresco-painters were at work ornamenting its parlors and halls. Throwing open its doors, Mr. Powell, a true Union man, invited Colonel Morrison and Major Draper to make it their head-quarters. He also designated a chamber for the sick of our regiment. Early during the siege, the southwestern and northwestern fronts were loopholed by order of General Burnside, and instructions were given to post in the house, in case of an attack, two companies of the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts. When the order was announced to Mr. Powell, he nobly said, "Lay this house level with the ground, if it is necessary." A few feet from the southwestern front of the house, a small earthwork was thrown up by our men, in which was placed a section of Buckley's battery. This work was afterwards known as Battery Noble.
Morrison's brigade now held the line of defences from the Holston River—the extreme left of our line—to Fort Sanders. The following was the position of the several regiments of the brigade. The Forty-fifth Pennsylvania was on the left, its left on the river. On its right lay the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts. Then came the Eighth Michigan. The Seventy-ninth New York (Highlanders) formed the garrison of Fort Sanders. Between the Eighth Michigan and Fort Sanders was the One Hundredth Pennsylvania (Roundheads).
On the evening of the 20th, the Seventeenth Michigan made a sortie, and drove the Rebels from the Armstrong House. This stood on the Kingston road, and only a short distance from Fort Sanders. It was a brick house, and afforded a near and safe position for the enemy's sharpshooters, which of late had become somewhat annoying to the working parties at the fort. Our men destroyed the house, and then withdrew. The loss on our part was slight.
For a few days during the siege, four companies of the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts were detached to support Roemer's battery on College Hill. While on this duty the officers and men were quartered in the buildings of East Tennessee College. Prior to our occupation of East Tennessee, these buildings had been used by the Rebels as a hospital; but, after a vigorous use of the ordinary means of purification, they afforded us pleasant and comfortable quarters.
The siege had now continued several days. The Rebels had constructed works offensive and defensive in our front; but the greater part of their force seemed to have moved to the right. On the 22d of November, however, they returned, not having found evidently the weak place in our lines which they had sought. It was now thought they might attack our front that night; and orders were given to the men on duty in the outer works to exercise the utmost vigilance. But the night passed quietly.
With each day our confidence in the strength of our position increased; and we soon felt able to repel an assault from any quarter. But the question of supplies was a serious one. When the siege commenced, there was in the Commissary Department at Knoxville little more than a day's ration for the whole army. Should the enemy gain possession of the south bank of the Holston, our only means of subsistence would be cut off. Thus far his attempts in this direction had failed; and the whole country, from the French Broad to the Holston, was open to our foraging parties. In this way a considerable quantity of corn and wheat was soon collected in Knoxville. Bread, made from a mixture of meal and flour, was issued to the men, but only in half and quarter rations. Occasionally a small quantity of fresh pork was also issued. Neither sugar nor coffee was issued after the first days of the siege.
The enemy, foiled in his attempts to seize the south bank of the Holston, now commenced the construction of a raft at Boyd's Ferry. Floating this down the swift current of the stream, he hoped to carry away our pontoon, and thus cut off our communication with the country beyond. To thwart this plan, an iron cable, one thousand feet in length, was stretched across the river above the bridge. This was done under the direction of Captain Poe. Afterwards, a boom of logs, fastened end to end by chains, was constructed still farther up the river. The boom was fifteen hundred feet in length.
On the evening of the 23d the Rebels made an attack on our pickets in front of the left of the Second Division, Ninth Corps. In falling back, our men fired the buildings on the ground abandoned, lest they should become a shelter for the enemy's sharpshooters. Among the buildings thus destroyed were the arsenal and machine-shops near the depot. The light of the blazing buildings illuminated the whole town. The next day the Twenty-first Massachusetts and another picked regiment, the whole under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hawkes of the Twenty-first, drove back the Rebels at this point, and reoccupied our old position.
The same day an attack was made by the Second Michigan on the advanced parallel, which the enemy had so constructed as to envelop the northwest bastion of Fort Sanders. The works were gallantly carried; but before the supporting columns could come up, our men were repulsed by fresh troops which the enemy had at hand.
On the 25th of November the enemy, having on the day previous crossed the Holston at a point below us, made another unsuccessful attempt to occupy the heights opposite Knoxville. He succeeded, however, in planting a battery on a knob about one hundred and fifty feet above the river, and twenty-five hundred yards south of Fort Sanders. This position commanded Fort Sanders, so that it now became necessary to defilade the fort.
November 26th was our national Thanksgiving day, and General Burnside issued an order, in which he expressed the hope that the day would be observed by all, as far as military operations would allow. He knew the rations were short, and that the day would be unlike the joyous festival we were wont to celebrate in our distant homes; and so he reminded us of the circumstances of trial under which our fathers first observed the day. He also reminded us of the debt of gratitude which we owed to Him who during the year had not only prospered our arms, but had kindly preserved our lives. Accordingly, we ate our corn bread with thanksgiving; and, forgetting our own privations, thought only of the loved ones at home, who, uncertain of our fate, would that day find little cheer at the table and by the fireside.
Allusion has already been made to the bastion-work known as Fort Sanders. A more particular description is now needed. The main line, held by our troops, made almost a right angle at the fort, the northwest bastion being the salient of the angle. The ground in front of the fort, from which the wood had been cleared, sloped gradually for a distance of eighty yards, and then abruptly descended to a wide ravine. Under the direction of Lieutenant Benjamin, Second United States Artillery, and Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Ohio, the fort had now been made as strong as the means at his disposal and the rules of military art admitted. Eighty and thirty yards in front of the fort, rifle-pits were constructed. These were to be used in case our men were driven in from the outer line. Between these pits and the Fort were wire entanglements, running from stump to stump, and also an abatis. Sand-bags and barrels were arranged so as to cover the embrasures. Traverses, also, were built for the protection of the men at the guns, and in passing from one position to another. In the fort were four twenty-pounder Parrotts (Benjamin's battery), four light twelve-pounders (of Buckley's battery), and two three-inch guns.
Early in the evening of the 27th there was much cheering along the Rebel lines. Their bands, too, were unusually lavish of the Rebel airs they were wont occasionally to waft across the debatable ground which separated our lines. Had the enemy received reinforcements, or had Grant met with a reverse? While on picket that night, in making my rounds, I could distinctly hear the Rebels chopping on the knob which they had so recently occupied on the opposite bank of the river. They were clearing away the trees in front of the earthwork which they had constructed the day before. Would they attack at daybreak? So we thought, connecting this fact with the cheers and music of the earlier part of the night; but the morning opened as quietly as its predecessors. Late in the afternoon the enemy seemed to be placing his troops in position in our front, and our men stood in the trenches, awaiting an attack; yet the day wore away without further demonstrations.
A little after eleven o'clock, p. m., November 28th, I was aroused by heavy musketry. I hurried to the trenches. It was a cloudy, dark night, and at a distance of only a few feet it was impossible to distinguish any object. The men were already at their posts. With the exception of an occasional shot on the picket-line, the firing soon ceased. An attack had evidently been made on our pickets; but at what point, or with what success, was as yet unknown. Reports soon came in. The enemy had first driven in the pickets in front of Fort Sanders, and had then attacked our line which was also obliged to fall back. The Rebels in our front, however, did not advance beyond the pits which our men had just vacated, and a new line was at once established by Captain Buffum, our brigade officer of the day.
It was now evident that the enemy intended an attack. But where would it be made? All that long, cold night—our men were without overcoats—we stood in the trenches pondering that question. Might not this demonstration in our front be only a feint to draw our attention from other parts of the line, where the chief blow was to be struck? So some thought. Gradually the night wore away.
A little after six o'clock the next morning, the enemy suddenly opened a furious cannonade. This was mostly directed against Fort Sanders; but several shots struck the Powell House, in rear of Battery Noble. Roemer immediately responded from College Hill. In about twenty minutes the enemy's fire slackened, and in its stead rose the well-known Rebel yell, in the direction of the fort. Then followed the rattle of musketry, the roar of cannon, and the bursting of shells. The yells died away, and then rose again. Now the roar of musketry and artillery was redoubled. It was a moment of the deepest anxiety. Our straining eyes were fixed on the fort. The Rebels had reached the ditch and were now endeavoring to scale the parapet. Whose will be the victory,—O, whose? The yells again died away, and then followed three loud Union cheers,—"Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!" How those cheers thrilled our hearts, as we stood almost breathless at our posts in the trenches! They told us that the enemy had been repulsed, and that the victory was ours. Peering through the rising fog towards the fort, not a hundred yards away,—O glorious sight!—we dimly saw that our flag was still there.
Let us now go back a little. Under cover of the ridge on which Fort Sanders was built, Longstreet had formed his columns for the assault. The men were picked men,—the flower of his army. One brigade was to make the assault, two brigades were to support it, and two other brigades were to watch our lines and keep up a constant fire. Five regiments formed the brigade selected for the assaulting column. These were placed in position not more than eighty yards from the fort. They were "in column by division, closed in mass." When the fire of their artillery slackened, the order for the charge was given. The salient of the northwest bastion was the point of attack. The Rebel lines were much broken in passing the abatis. But the wire entanglements proved a greater obstacle. Whole companies were prostrated. Benjamin now opened his triple-shotted guns. Nevertheless, the weight of their column carried the Rebels forward, and in two minutes from the time the charge was commenced they had filled the ditch around the fort, and were endeavoring to scale the parapet. The guns, which had been trained to sweep the ditch, now opened a most destructive fire. Lieutenant Benjamin also took shells in his hand, and, lighting the fuse, tossed them over the parapet into the crowded ditch. One of the Rebel brigades in reserve now came up in support, and planted several of its flags on the parapet of the fort. Those, however, who endeavored to scale the parapet were swept away by the fire of our musketry. The men in the ditch, satisfied of the hopelessness of the task they had undertaken, now surrendered. They represented eleven regiments. The prisoners numbered nearly three hundred. Among them were seventeen commissioned officers. Over two hundred dead and wounded, including three colonels, lay in the ditch alone. The ground in front of the fort was also strewn with the bodies of the dead and wounded. Over one thousand stands of arms fell into our hands, and the battle-flags of the Thirteenth and Seventeenth Mississippi and Sixteenth Georgia. Our loss was eight men killed and five wounded. Never was a victory more complete; and never were brighter laurels worn than were that morning laid on the brow of the hero of Fort Sanders,—Lieutenant Benjamin, Second United States Artillery.
Longstreet had promised his men that they should dine that day in Knoxville. But, in order that he might bury his dead, General Burnside now tendered him an armistice till five o'clock, p. m. It was accepted by the Rebel general; and our ambulances were furnished him to assist in removing the bodies to his lines. At five o'clock, two additional hours were asked, as the work was not yet completed. At seven o'clock, a gun was fired from Fort Sanders, the Rebels responded from an earthwork opposite, and the truce was at an end.
The next day, through a courier who had succeeded in reaching our lines, General Burnside received official notice of the defeat of Bragg. At noon, a single gun—we were short of ammunition—was fired from Battery Noble in our rear, and the men of the brigade, standing in the trenches, gave three cheers for Grant's victory at Chattanooga. We now looked for reinforcements daily, for Sherman was already on the road. The enemy knew this as well as we, and, during the night of the 4th of December, withdrew his forces, and started north. The retreat was discovered by the pickets of the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts, under Captain Ames, who had the honor of first declaring the siege of Knoxville raised.
It would be interesting to recount the facts connected with the retreat of the Rebel army, and then to follow our men to their winter quarters, among the mountains of East Tennessee, where, throughout the icy season, they remained, without shoes, without overcoats, without new clothing of any description, living on quarter rations of corn meal, with occasionally a handful of flour, and never grumbling; and where, at the expiration of their three years of service, standing forth under the open skies, amid all these discomforts, and raising loyal hands towards heaven, they swore to serve their country yet three years longer. But I must pause. I have already illustrated their fortitude and heroic endurance.
The noble bearing of General Burnside throughout the siege won the admiration of all. In a speech at Cincinnati, a few days after the siege was raised, with that modesty which characterizes the true soldier, he said that the honors bestowed on him belonged to his under officers and the men in the ranks. These kindly words his officers and men will ever cherish; and in all their added years, as they recall the widely separated battle-fields, made forever sacred by the blood of their fallen comrades, and forever glorious by the victories there won, it will be their pride to say, "We fought with Burnside at Campbell's Station and in the trenches at Knoxville."
- This statement is confirmed by the following extract from Pollard's (Rebel) "Third Year of the War." Speaking of his charge on Fort Sanders, he says: "The force which was to attempt an enterprise which ranks with the most famous charges in military history should be mentioned in detail. It consisted of three brigades of McLaw's division;—that of General Wolford, the Sixteenth, Eighteenth, and Twenty-fourth Georgia Regiments, and Cobb's and Phillip's Georgia Legions; that of General Humphrey, the Thirteenth, Seventeenth, Twenty-first, Twenty-second, and Twenty-third Mississippi Regiments; and a brigade composed of General Anderson's and Bryant's brigades, embracing, among others, the Palmetto State Guard, the Fifteenth South Carolina Regiment, and the Fifty-first, Fifty-third, and Fifty-ninth Georgia Regiments."—pp. 161, 162.