Last night I found myself in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville. I decided to take a quick stroll over to the 79th New York Infantry monument, a testimony to a short but brutal Civil War battle.
East Tennessee’s considerable Unionist population was a thorn in the Confederacy’s side. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio arrived in September of 1863 and surrounded Knoxville with a network of fortifications; at the northwest end stood a bastion surrounded by an eight-foot ditch, above which rose a steep embankment.
James Longstreet, sent from Chattanooga to deal with Burnside, tried to cut the Union forces off from their fortifications at the Battle of Campbell’s Station on November 16. When that failed, the two sides settled into a siege; during the stand-off, a Confederate sharpshooter mortally wounded General William P. Sanders. The northwest bastion, held by the 79th New York, was re-named in his honor, and was also the focal point for the Confederate attack on November 29.
Crossing a field obstructed by telegraph wire strung between tree stumps, the Confederates plunged into the ditch, only to find themselves unable to climb the frozen walls without scaling ladders. A few managed to make it to the top; many more fell to Union bullets and hand grenades sent over the walls and into the ditch. The attack lasted only twenty minutes, during which the Confederates suffered 813 casualties. Union losses were only thirteen.
In the nineteenth century (as in the twenty-first), Knoxville grew to the west, and the area occupied by Fort Sanders eventually became a neighborhood of Victorian houses; one of the natives of this area was James Agee. Today it’s mostly occupied by students from the University of Tennessee. The 79th monument near the corner of 17th and Laurel is one of the few reminders of what took place there.
(The top image is an illustration of the attack by Lloyd Branson, from the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable’s website, which offers an account of the Civil War in and around the city. The bottom photo, from the Library of Congress, was taken by George Barnard after Longstreet abandoned the city. The Tennessee River is in the foreground, with East Tennessee University beyond.)