The Fight For Tennessee: July 1863 to January 1864

Siege of Knoxville

Why did the attack on Knoxville fail?

On November 29, 1863, after numerous delays, Longstreet sent his men forward. Longstreet often guessed “right,” but on this occasion he was dead wrong. The federal defenders of Fort Loudon were awake when the first cannon roared at 6 A.M., and they were ready when the bayonet charge came ten minutes later. Hoping for surprise, Longstreet had his men attack without any rifle or musket fire: they came ready with the bayonet. The defenders poured in a heavy rifle fire, and the attackers were taken totally off-guard by telegraph wires, artfully strung between trees. In an attack such as this, the attackers needed every second to gain ground; that they lost as much as thirty seconds getting over and past the telegraph wires made all the difference.

The first attack was a total failure, and just as a second assault was in preparation, Longstreet called the whole thing off. He had just received an urgent message indicating that the Federals had won a great victory at Missionary Ridge and that he was needed to prevent a total collapse in the Western theater. His losses were 700 men, killed, wounded, or missing, and to add to his discomfort was the knowledge that the garrison of one well-placed fort, rather than the strength of Burnside’s entire army, had repelled him.


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