Some events in life seem small at the time but later prove bigger than they at first seemed. On the other hand, some events seem, at the moment that they occur, bigger than they really are. Such was the case with an event that began 154 years ago today.
The Union army was besieged in Chattanooga, licking its wounds from its earlier whipping at the hands of the Confederate army at the Battle of Chickamauga. But it was also offering thanks that the Confederate commander, General Braxton Bragg, had not capped his pursuit of them with an immediate attack on Chattanooga. Had he done so, his generals griped, the Confederates could have defeated the battered Unionists and perhaps even turned the tide of the war. But Bragg had stopped his attack, thereby snatching ultimate defeat from the jaws of victory when, weeks later, General Grant’s Yankees attacked the Confederates at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and trounced them.
But that was yet in the future. Meanwhile, Bragg’s generals griped and complained, hardly any more than General James Longstreet (left), who had recently been transferred from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to help Bragg. He had arrived at Chickamauga just in time to launch an assault through a gap in the Union lines and gain the victory for the South at that bloody site. Bragg, partially to rid himself of Longstreet’s disgruntledness after Bragg settled in to besiege Chattanooga, ordered Longstreet to advance northward against the Union forces that held Knoxville. Dragging his feet and continuing to gripe about nearly everything, Longstreet reluctantly moved northward.
At Campbell’s Station, just southwest of Knoxville, the Confederate forces clashed with Union troops under General
Ambrose Burnside. Then Longstreet chased them right into Knoxville’s city limits, where, in a last-ditch stand by the Yankees, the commander of their rear guard, Lieutenant William P. Sanders (left), was killed by a Confederate sniper. The last of the Yankees scurried into the safety of the city’s defenses, particularly within a small salient on the west side of town called Fort Loudon, in the midst of what today is the University of Tennessee campus. The fortress had been built by the Confederates, but the city had changed hands, and the Union troops renamed it Fort Sanders in honor of their fallen lieutenant.
Thus began the Siege of Knoxville. Had Longstreet attacked immediately, the Confederates might have won. But he didn’t. Again he delayed, giving the Yankees time to strengthen their
fortifications. Specifically, they strung telegraph wire from stump to stump in front of the fort and dug a deep ditch around the base of the walls. Seen from Longstreet’s headquarters at the Bleak House (now called Longstreet’s Headquarters or Confederate Memorial Hall), the ditch wasn’t very deep.
But then Longstreet received word from Bragg that Grant’s troops had broken out of the siege at Chattanooga, pushing the Confederates back into Georgia, and that General Sherman was on his way to Knoxville to rescue Burnside by lifting Longstreet’s siege of Knoxville. Knowing that he would be outnumbered when Sherman arrived, Longstreet decided to attack and capture Knoxville before that could happen.
He launched the attack in the freezing predawn darkness of November 29. The soldiers who surged forward, the rebel yell coming from their throats, tripped over the telegraph wires in the darkness, and the soldiers charging behind fell on them. It was a mass of confusion. Then those who managed to get through the wire obstructions reached the ditch and leaped into it. But it was deeper than they had thought. They tried to climb up the walls of the fort and found that they were almost too steep to climb. During the night, the Yankee defenders had poured water down them. As it ran down, it froze, making the walls even more treacherous. Adding to this confusion, the Union troops inside the fort were firing down point-blank upon the attackers.
In the roughly 20 minutes before Longstreet finally called off his attack, 129 Confederates were killed, 458 were wounded, and 226 were reported missing. Union losses were five killed and eight wounded. One newspaper of the time reported that the Battle of Fort Sanders ranked right up there with the Battle of Gettysburg in importance. Granted, after that 20 minutes of history, the Confederacy never again controlled East Tennessee, but to declare that event to be equal to Gettysburg was, we now know, an exaggeration.
But we must put ourselves into the shoes of the people who lived at the time and in that place. To them, it was equal to or greater than any other battle fought in the war. To the families of the Union and Confederate soldiers who fell that day, it was the greatest battle, the longest day.
I grew up and attended public school in Knox County. I never heard from my teachers anything about the Battle of Fort Sanders. I grew up thinking that Fort Sanders was simply a community with a hospital–Fort Sanders Presbyterian–in the middle of it. Not until I was in college did I learn of that historic 20-minute event. And the explanation for that studied omission of historical fact can only be that East Tennessee was so divided during the war that no one really wanted to remember or commemorate it. When Tennessee voted on the secession issue, East Tennessee voted overwhelmingly for the Union; only within the city of Knoxville did secession pass. And then, once war broke out, both sides drafted people from the area into their armies. People there really didn’t want to fight on either side; they just wanted to be left alone. Many of them fled to Kentucky or into the dark, high corners of the rugged Smoky Mountains to escape conscription. And every time the city changed hands, those who felt strongly wreaked vengeance on those who had mistreated them when the other side had been in control.
History is often a matter of perception. There are multiple viewpoints to every event. Just as multiple eyewitnesses to a traffic accident often give different stories about what happened and offer differing details, so it is with historical events. As we study history, we need to keep that in mind and avoid making simplistic conclusions or assessments.
The people who are so eager to tear down monuments need to keep that in mind, too. There’s no substitute for knowing all the sides to a story and recognizing that each perspective deserves its memories and monuments. The spot where Fort Sanders once stood and hundreds of soldiers on both sides fell in such a short period of time is now a quiet residential area. It includes two inconspicuous monuments, one to each side in the conflict, that most Knoxvillians never knew existed until the monument wreckers began their assault on historical memory.