|Fort Sanders and College|
About 6 AM on Sunday, November 29th, the enemy opened a heavy artillery fire upon Fort Sanders, to which no reply was made, because our limited supply of ammunition made it necessary to reserve it for use at a more critical moment. The fire continued for about twenty minutes and then slackened, whereupon the columns moved to the assault, and were at once met by all the fire that could be concentrated upon them from our lines. Encountering the wire entanglements, their organization was somewhat disturbed, but the movement was not seriously checked thereby, nor did the slight abatis retard it. Although suffering from the terribly destructive fire to which they were subjected, they soon reached the outer brink of the ditch. There could be no pause at that point, and, leaping into the ditch in such numbers as nearly to fill it, they endeavored to scale the walls. Having no scaling ladders, a portion of the men, scrambling over the shoulders of their comrades planted, the battle flags of the 13th and 17th Mississippi and the 16th Georgia upon the parapet, but every man who rallied to them was either killed or captured and the flags were taken.
Meanwhile those who remained in the ditch found themselves under a deadly flank fire of musketry and canister, supplemented by shells thrown as hand-grenades from inside the fort, without the slightest possibility of returning a blow. Advance and retreat were about equally difficult, and it needed but a very short exposure to convince them that if any were to leave the ditch alive it could only be by the promptest surrender. Those who were able to walk were brought through the ditch to the south-eastern angle and there entered our lines as prisoners. Such of the assaulting forces as had not entered the ditch fell back, at first sullenly and slowly, but flesh and blood could not stand the storm of shot and shell that was poured upon them, and they soon broke in confused retreat.
The assault had been gallantly made, but was repulsed in little more time than is required to describe it. When the result became apparent Longstreet directed the withdrawal of the supporting brigade, but the order did not reach Anderson in time to prevent his troops from pushing on as though the assault had been successful. They swerved however somewhat to their left, and attacked a short distance to the eastward of the designated point, only to meet with as decided, though not so bloody, a repulse.
The assaulting columns were rallied under partial cover some five or six hundred yards from Fort Sanders and there reorganized but no further open attempt to carry our lines was made.
Many reasons have been assigned for the failure of this assault, and there some difference of opinion in regard to the matter. Some of those opposed to us, of unquestioned ability and fairness, have attributed it to the warning given us by taking our picket line the night before, the insufficient use of their artillery and the improper direction taken by two of the columns, resulting in their intermingling and consequent confusion. The opinion has been confidently expressed that a subsequent assault would have been successful. All this assumes, first, that we were not already vigilant and waiting for the attack; second, that a heavy and continued artillery fire would have greatly damaged and demoralized us; third, that the confusion arising from the convergence of the advancing columns would not have occurred again; fourth, that the "works were very faulty in plan and very easy to take by a properly managed assault ": and last but not least, that the troops of the enemy were better than ours. The first of these assumptions is erroneous, the second greatly exaggerated, the greatly exaggerated third might have been verified but again might not the fourth is correct only within the limits and to the extent already explained and the last has no evidence to sustain it.
No one is more ready and willing than the writer to admit the excellence of the troops that fought us at Knoxville. They had few equals and I believe no superiors. But in making this admission, I do not abate one particle of my confidence in the valor and persistency of those who opposed them. They possessed those qualities in as high degree as General Longstreet's men or any others, and the succession of events had only served to improve their morale. It may fairly be doubted whether any disaster to our arms was imminent.
Again, the repulse may have been due to the existence of fewer faults in the works than supposed; to the measures adopted by us to remedy the faults which did exist; to the passive obstacles of wire entanglements, depth of ditch, and unusual relief of the parapet; to the enemy's error in deciding it to be unnecessary to provide scaling ladders for the storming party; and finally and emphatically, to a sufiicient garrison of the coolest, bravest, and most determined men. Each of these reasons seems to me to have contributed its share to the result, and some of them were surely of much graver moment than any of those assigned by the other side.
The successful resistance of the 29th did not lead to any remission of labor on our defenses. Work was continued by the troops with the energy that had characterized their efiorts thus far, but the enemy gave little indication of a purpose to do anything further upon their works of attack. On the 1st of December, large trains belonging to the enemy were seen moving to the eastward, and again on the 3d and 4th and on the night of the 4th his troops were withdrawn and the siege was raised. We had not yet heard the result of General Grant's operations at Chattanooga.
The conduct of the men who stood in the trenches at Knoxville cannot be overpraised. Half starved, with clothing tattered and torn, they endured without a murmur every form of hardship and exposure that falls to the lot of the soldier. The question with them was not whether they could withstand the assaults of the enemy, but simply whether sufficient food could be obtained to enable them to keep their places in the line. That they were not reduced to the last extremity in this regard is due to the supplies sent in by the loyalists of the French Broad settlements, who took advantage of Longstreet's inability to invest the place completely, and under cover of the night fogs floated down to us such food and forage as they could collect. (Source: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Being for the Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers,Volume 3, Part 2, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson, Clarence Clough Buel, 1888)