Tag Archives: Fort Sanders

Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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Civil War lectures at the McClung Museum

The Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee is hosting a series of Sunday lectures on the Civil War in Knoxville, starting this Sunday.  While you’re there, you can check out the Ft. Sanders exhibit; it’s pretty cool.  Click here for details.

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Flash forward, Ft. Sanders edition

Here’s some more virtual time travel.  This is Fort Sanders on the western outskirts of Knoxville, TN.  It was the site of a failed Confederate attack in November 1863, but I think the photo is from 1864.

Library of Congress (LC-B811- 4008)

Now the site of the fort is well within the city.  Here’s the same view, give or take a block or two.

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Take a Civil War walking tour

…of Knoxville, with Jack Neely as your virtual guide.  His “Secret History” column in the Metro Pulse is always an intriguing read.  Any city that hosted both Union and Confederate rallies on the same street and at the same time is bound to have some notable stories to tell.

If you’ve got an appetite for more, there are a couple of books worth recommending.  Robert Tracy McKenzie’s Lincolnites and Rebels explores the political struggles in Knoxville during the Civil War era.  Digby Seymour’s Divided Loyalties provides a detailed account of the fighting in and around town, particularly the dramatic Confederate assault on Fort Sanders in 1863.

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A belated exhibit endorsement

When I was a kid, one of my favorite haunts was the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum.  My dad and I usually found some excuse to stop by whenever we were in Knoxville so I could check out the fossils.

Back in those days, one of the smaller exhibits was a display on Knoxville in the Civil War.  It was in a tiny room next to a specimen storage area, with a potent smell of formaldehyde in the air.

The McClung has changed a lot in recent years, upgrading its core exhibits and bringing in some first-rate traveling shows.  The new galleries on Tennessee paleontology, southeastern Native Americans, and human origins are on a par with any museum in the country.  It was exciting to see all this going on, especially as someone who’d been visiting for years.  So when the museum unveiled an updated Civil War exhibit back in 2007, I determined to get down there and see it as soon as possible. 

For various reasons, though, I never did.  Circumstances would always get in the way.  (I’d be in Knoxville but remember the exhibit too late to get to the museum, I’d be on campus but run short on time, etc.)

A few weeks ago I had to run to UT on an errand, so I was determined to hit the McClung, forty-five-minute parking permit be darned.  I hoofed it over to the museum, pored over the new exhibit, absolutely loved it, and made a note to recommend it to all of you fine people.

Then I forgot to do so.  (They say your short-term memory is the first thing that goes.)

So allow me to extend my deepest apologies, and to partially redeem myself by directing your attention to the museum’s website about the exhibit.

This display is a fine piece of historical interpretation, one that packs a lot of information into a confined space with clarity of presentation and elegance of design.  The 1863 Confederate siege of the city and attack on Fort Sanders take center stage, but it covers the wartime political divisions in East Tennessee and the way Knoxvillians remembered the war, too.  We’ve come a long way from the days when the Civil War Knoxville display consisted of a few artifact cases and photographs tucked away in a back room.

A few features deserve special mention.  There’s a nice cross-section of armaments and accoutrements on display, along with archaeological material and some archival pieces.  One of the things that I really enjoyed was an interactive, 3-D map of the siege, where the major positions and other key locations lit up with the push of a few buttons.  The exhibit also includes a video with computer renderings of the fortifications and surrounding terrain, alongside footage of the same area as it appears now.  I’m very familiar with Knoxville, but seeing all this really helped me get my head around the geography of the siege in a way that it had never been before.

The museum is also screening a documentary on Fort Sanders, shot in and around a full-scale replica of the earthwork.  This modern-day fort proved so impressive that it’s still used in reenactments of the assault.

So there’s my belated endorsement.  See this exhibit.  It’s well worth the hassle of trying to park at UT.

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Digging up one battlefield, tearing up another

Here’s a story that ran on the NBC affiliate out of Knoxville last night.  Archaeologists are excavating the site of Confederate works from the siege of Knoxville and assault on Ft. Sanders.

Here’s another one about the Orange County Board of Supervisors striking a blow for low-wage, dead-end retail jobs; corporate competition for locally-owned businesses; and even more encroachment on Virginia’s historic landscape.  Enjoy that soup, Esau.

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Assault on Fort Sanders

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.

digital file from original neg. of left half

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.)

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