Civil War Book Review: The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee

The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee by Earl J. HessHess, Earl J. The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee. (The University of Tennessee Press: October 2012). 424 pages, illustrations, 22 maps, bibliography, endnotes, index. ISBN: 978-1-57233-916-3 $39.95 (Hardcover).

Check another previously poorly covered campaign off the list.  With The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee, Earl Hess has produced the first modern day campaign study of this overlooked side show in East Tennessee.  While the Knoxville Campaign does not come to mind as one of the most decisive campaigns of the war, the presence of so many Confederates there who might have been better utilized on the heights overlooking Chattanooga does make it indirectly important.  The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee is a fine traditional military history look at this November-December 1863 campaign.

Earl Hess has been on a roll lately, producing his fortifications trilogy, writing a history of the Battle of the Crater, and taking a sweeping view of the Civil War in the west.

Anyone who reads Civil War history for awhile learns of the importance Abraham Lincoln put on East Tennessee and the Unionist sentiment which existed in this mountainous area.  Although Lincoln continuously urged his generals to wrest this area from the Confederates, the time never seemed quite right and his generals always argued against such a course.  Then Rosecrans’ Tullahoma Campaign of late summer 1863 occupied Bragg’s attention and drove his Army of Tennessee completely out of their eponymous state.  The time was right, and Lincoln had Ambrose Burnside put together troops in Kentucky for an invasion, and conquered the area from August-September 1863 with few casualties.  He had utilized the Twenty-Third Corps for the task while his own Ninth Corps moved on the area slowly from Vicksburg.  Confederates under Simon Bolivar Buckner abandoned the area to help Bragg slow down Rosecrans’ seemingly unstoppable advance.

Once Burnside took over the area, he worked hard to create strong points, work on supply routes in a country where supply was difficult to impossible depending on the weather, and was set to reinforce Rosecrans with some of his force.  Then Rosecrans suffered a catastrophic defeat at Chickamauga and fear for Burnside’s safety grew.  Rather than reinforcing Rosecrans with Burnside, he was ordered to stay put while the 11th and 12th Corps from the east came to Rosy’s aid.

Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, Longstreet had come west to help Bragg win at Chickamauga, and then promptly joined the cabal of generals in Bragg’s army who wanted to see him sacked.  Bragg, growing tired of this threat, detached Longstreet and sent him to East Tennessee with orders to take Knoxville.  The stage was set for the Knoxville Campaign.

In a running fight from Loudoun to Knoxville from November 15-18, 1863, Burnside conducted a skillful retreat which consistently held Longstreet in check and prevented the Confederates from cutting him off from the all-important garrison at Knoxville.  Hess indicates Wheeler’s Cavarly would have been extremely useful in this phase of the campaign, but Wheeler had been sent on a raid to attempt to capture Knoxville unexpectedly from the south.  Wheeler failed to sneak into Knoxville, but otherwise had good success on the raid.

While this running battle came closer and closer to Knoxville, Engineer Orlando Poe worked tirelessly to construct an imposing ring of earthworks around Knoxville while supplies were gathered and brought into the city to withstand a siege.  What would eventually be called Fort Sanders, for Union cavalry officer William P. Sanders, who sacrificed his life to buy time for the Union construction efforts, was the key to the area Longstreet eventually faced.

The true key to Knoxville, the high ground south of the Tennessee River, was only lightly contested during what was not really a siege in the true sense of the word.  The Union army was able to construct a pontoon bridge over the Tennessee River to collect supplies from loyalists in the French Broad valley to the south of town.  Longstreet did not have enough men to stop these efforts.

The climax of the campaign came on November 29, 1863, when McLaws’ Division attempted to storm Fort Sanders.  Lack of ladders to scale the high walls as well as some confusion by supporting troops led to a bloody repulse.  Longstreet heard of the disaster which had befallen Bragg’s men at Chattanooga several days earlier and decided to retreat to the northeast, moving closer to Virginia.  Although Longstreet would remain in East Tennessee into early 1864, even briefly considering an invasion of Kentucky, Sherman’s “rescue” force and the imposing works at Knoxville made the final result of the campaign inevitable.  Abraham Lincoln finally had control over East Tennessee, a control the Union would not relinquish for the rest of the Civil War.

Adequate supply, always an issue for a Civil War army, was doubly important here.  Longstreet started with many disadvantages of supply.  He had no railroad connection with Bragg’s forces, and no other rail line to serve his supply needs.  In addition, he didn’t have nearly enough wagons to supply his men in the coming campaign.  Burnside, on the other hand, had some advantages which he utilized.  First, knowing a siege might be coming, the Federals drove as many supplies in Knoxville as they could.  Second, because Longstreet could not fully invest Knoxville, supplies kept trickling into the city throughout the entire “siege”.  Hess does an excellent job of discussing this issue repeatedly, something which had an oversized amount to do with the ultimate outcome.

Hess pulls no punches in assigning Longstreet a large portion of the blame for his failure in this campaign.  The author fairly points out that Longstreet’s success was at best a long shot given the poor supplies and very limited amount of time he had available to make a difference.  Longstreet needed to decisively defeat Burnside in open battle before he reached Knoxville.  This was the only way he could free East Tennessee of Union control AND be able to reach Bragg in time to confront Grant’s growing forces at Chattanooga.  Hess believes Longstreet had a chance to catch Burnside and cut him off from Knoxville had he been more willing to trust his guides and had Wheeler’s cavalry been present to get around Burnside’s flank.  As it was, Burnside deflected every attempted effort to cut him off from his base at Knoxville, and by the time the Confederates settles into a quasi-siege any real benefits for the Confederates were gone.  Longstreet punctuated this failure with an ill-advised and ill-conceived assault on Fort Sanders at the northwest corner of the Federal works ringing Knoxville.  Longstreet chose to blame his subordinates for his failures, mainly Lafayette McLaws and Evander Law.  Both situations turned ugly.  McLaws and Longstreet, who had been childhood friends, were never friendly again after McLaws’ court martial, in which he was eventually exonerated of all charges.  Through an extended misunderstanding, Longstreet also thought Evander Law was trying to get his Alabama brigade removed from Longstreet’s command due to Law and his division commander Micah Jenkins not getting along.  Longstreet tried to remove Law from his brigade command and tried to move the Alabama Brigade under Buckner’s command.  Neither strategy worked.  The only commander Longstreet succeeded in removing was Jerome Robertson, the Texas brigade’s commander.  He was removed from command and replaced by John Gregg, who would die at the head of the Texans the next summer at the Siege of Petersburg.  Hess shares Alexander Mendoza’s interesting look at the parallels between these feuds and those Bragg had with his own subordinates, including Longstreet.  In any event, this series of feuds reflected poorly on Longstreet and did nothing to better the efficiency of his

On the other side, Hess believes Ambrose Burnside did well.  As an aside, although Burnside is often pointed to as one of the very worst generals to disgrace the Union army with his presence in the entire war, he did quite well on several occasions, Knoxville and the North Carolina coast in 1862 being two notable exceptions to the popular view.  Burnside did exactly what the Union needed him to do.  He pulled Longstreet away from Bragg at an absolutely critical time, kept Longstreet occupied until it was too late, and didn’t panic or flee Knoxville when this was a very real option.  Burnside was looked upon as the savior of East Tennessee for decades after the war by loyalist residents of the area.  Engineer Orlando Poe played the most important role in getting Knoxville prepared to withstand Longstreet’s possible investment.  He utilized some existing earthworks and constantly improved the entire string of fortifications before, during and after the “Siege” of Knoxville.  The Federals made good use of the supplies in the area and made sure to keep at least a small flow of supplies into the city throughout the campaign to prevent starvation.

The maps in the book, while well done and numerous, were disappointing in one major respect.  East Tennessee, as related above, is a mountainous area.  When discussing operations in areas which such major elevation changes, lines of elevation are a must.  They just weren’t present here, with at most one or two lines drawn to represent “high ground”.  More would have been better in this case.  While that is a somewhat serious issue, numerous photographs and drawings of major points of action help the reader better understand what the two sides were dealing with.  Also, it should be pointed out that the maps which do exist zoom in and out at the appropriate times, showing the larger campaign when necessary and moving down to regimental level combat when those actions are being discussed in the text.  Hess is also a master at showing all of the numerous Federal fortifications in great detail, and included several graphics which solely focused on that aspect of the campaign.

The book utilizes standard endnotes at the end of the entire book, not chapter by chapter.  Hess relies on the Official Records and its recent Broadfoot Supplement along with the papers of many key individuals in the campaign.  The number of archival materials utilized is staggering, with over eight pages in the bibliography listing archives and the contents used in the creation of the book.  Due to the shortage of modern day treatments of this campaign, many of the books listed are first person accounts written before the turn of the century.  Hess includes a great deal of material on the city of Knoxville and the surrounding region and is clearly comfortable in discussing the area.  A nice touch at the end of the book is a look at how the battlefield changed and how the “siege” was celebrated in Knoxville in the post-war years.  A pretty standard order of battle is also included.  Unit commanders are listed down to battery/regimental level and gun tube numbers and types are included, though strength reports are for entire armies only.

The University of Tennessee Press was the obvious choice for publishing this book.  First, UTP is one of the foremost academic publishers of Civil War books today.  Second, what would be the campus of the University of Tennessee is literally on the front lines of the Siege of Knoxville, with the former area of Fort Sanders eventually being gobbled up by the school.

Earl J. Hess has produced a solid campaign study of Longstreet’s efforts to force Burnside out of East Tennessee which, if not definitive, is an excellent starting point for further research on this series of events.  The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee will set the standard for this campaign for years to come.  Those interested in the exploits of Longstreet’s Corps during the majority of its stay in the Western Theater will want to own this book.  Those interested in the history of East Tennessee and its role in the Civil War will not want to miss this one either.  Finally, anyone looking to collect good campaign studies, especially on the overlooked and forgotten campaigns of the Civil War, should make room for this book on their shelves.

Note: This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.


One response to “Civil War Book Review: The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee

  1. Don Hallstrom Avatar
    Don Hallstrom

    Hello Tocwoc

    Thanks for the review. I fully agree that , Prof. Hess is rolling. I also think that most of his recent projects have been very successful and widely accepted. I’m looking forward to his next title, Kennesaw Mountain. At the rate he is going, he may then have something published in the fall.


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