Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The New York 79th Volunteer Infantry in East Tennessee

New York State Military Museum Civil War Exhibit Opening 061 Some rights reserved

At Knoxville:

"A patrol was sent through the town to arrest all stragglers, quite a number of whom were brought in and sent to their respective commands. At three o'clock in the afternoon the regiment was ordered to report to Colonel Morrison at the front, but, while on the way there, was ordered back again to headquarters where tents were pitched for the night. Early on the morning of the 18th we joined the brigade at the front, where, however, we remained but a few minutes.

The principal defensive work was a fort half a mile west of the city and near the Kingston turnpike. It had been begun by the enemy during their occupancy of the town and was called by them Fort Loudon. But little progress had been made towards its completion, until it became evident that a retreat from Lenoir was necessary, when Captain Poe had taken measures to put the work in a defensive state. A large number of laborers had been employed night and day for that purpose, and when the troops arrived Lieutenant Benjamin, who was also chief of artillery, had been specially charged with its defense, and he requested that the Highlanders be assigned to duty as the regular garrison. His request being granted, we were ordered there and felt quite proud of the distinction conferred upon us. On reporting at the fort, positions were assigned the various companies by Lieutenant Benjamin. B, H and K were placed in the northwest bastion, the other companies being distributed at various points along the west and north fronts. Captain William Montgomery was in command of the regiment.

When we entered the fort an engagement was in progress, about a mile distant on the Kingston road, between the enemy's advance, under General McLaw, and our cavalry and mounted infantry, under General Sanders of the Twenty Third corps. The latter had been ordered to hold the enemy in check as long as possible, in order that the troops arriving might be placed in proper positions to resist an attack. For several hours Sanders command held the enemy at bay, but was gradually driven in by superior numbers, until the Confederates came within short range of the shells from our twenty pounders, when the engagement ceased for a while. In the afternoon the fight was renewed, and as the combatants were in plain sight about half a mile distant on the hill just below the Armstrong House, we watched the operations with a good deal of interest. Benjamin's guns sent several shells into the enemy's lines, but the opposing forces were so close together that our own men were in as great danger from the shells as were the enemy, and Benjamin's fire ceased.

McLaw had been ordered by Longstreet to push on and force his way into the city, but the task was a difficult one to perform. Reinforcements arriving, the enemy finally drove Sanders from his position, and we were prepared to give the rebels a warm reception, should they come within range of our rifles. General Burnside was looking over the parapet of the fort, watching the engagement, and when he saw Sanders driven back, he went from point to point along the west front of the fort, encouraging the men, advising us to 'keep cool. fire low, and be sure and hit something every time.' But the enemy contented himself with driving back Sanders force and occupying the crest of the hill. General Sanders, a gallant soldier, was mortally wounded and died a day or two afterwards, and our fort was named in honor of his memory. Just before dark we noticed that the high ground to the northwest of the fort and about a mile distant was also occupied by the enemy. Our pickets were now established on the north and west and about four hundred yards distant from the fort. The enemy had established his picket line about four hundred yards distant from our own. Thus ended the first day of the siege.

Now that our thoughts may be turned from the enemy for a moment, let us look at the situation within the Union lines. Knoxville is situated on the north bank of the Holston river, on a plateau about three quarters of a mile square, and bounded on the east and west by two streams called respectively First creek and Second creek. To the east of First creek, and a quarter of a mile distant, is an elevation called Temperance Hill, about two hundred and thirty feet above the level, and half a mile north of the river; on this elevation was built Fort Huntington Smith. To the east of this was Mabry's Hill, of about the same elevation, on the eastern extremity of which, and three quarters of a mile from the first named fort, was Fort Hill. On the north of the city, beginning at First creek, there were: Battery Billingslee (sp), Battery Wiltsee, Fort Comstock and Battery Galpin the latter flanked on the left by Second creek. To the west of Second creek was Battery Zoellner, and about seven hundred yards to the southwest of that was Fort Sanders, two hundred feet above the river. Six hundred yards south of Fort Sanders, and seven hundred yards from the river, was Battery Noble, while Fort Byington, on College Hill, defended an inner line, about six hundred yards east of Battery Noble. Between the river and Battery Noble on the west, or southwest, and the river and Fort Hill on the east of the city, were lines of intrenchments, while other lines connected the forts and earthworks already mentioned. Abattis and chevaux de frise were placed in front of many of the positions, and in front of Fort Sanders there was also a wire entanglement- placed there by Lieutenant Benjamin, the wires strung from stump to stump in order to obstruct and break up the lines of an attacking column. At the beginning of the siege, however, few of the works above mentioned had been begun, but soldiers citizens and negroes worked night and day till they were completed.

The troops were distributed as follows: Morrison's brigade stretched from the river in an irrregular line northwest to Fort Sanders, and the rest of the division from the fort to Second creek. Between that point and First creek the Second division held the line, while White's and Hascall's divisions of the Twenty Third corps stretched easterly to Fort Hill, and thence southwest to the river. South of the river, is a range of hills between three and four hundred feet high, commanding the town but most of the important points were occupied by portions of the Twenty Third corps, the enemy having batteries on two points only, and those about a mile and a half southwest of Fort Sanders.

There were no siege guns at any point on our lines. Roemer's light battery occupied College Hill; Benjamin's and Buckley's were in Fort Sanders; Gitting's and the Fifteenth Indiana batteries were placed on the line between Second and First creeks, and Simm's Twenty Fourth Indiana and Henshaw's and Shield's batteries, with one section of Wilder's, were distributed along the line held by White and Haskell, while the two other sections of Wilder's and all of Konkle's guns were south of the river. Two howitzers were placed at the bridge heads covering the crossing of the river. The East Tennessee and Virginia (or Georgia) railroad skirted the north side of the town and ran in a general southwesterly and northeasterly direction. All interest was centered on the lines north and west of the town.

The only part of Fort Sanders that was at all in a defensive condition when we entered it, was the west and a portion of the north fronts, and even in these no embrasures had yet been cut. From Captain Poe's report the following description of the fort is taken: 'It is a bastioned earth work, built upon an irregular quadrilateral, the sides of which are respectively one hundred and twenty five yards south front, ninety five yards west front, one hundred and twenty yards north front, and eighty five yards east front. The eastern front is entirely open and is to be enclosed with a stockade; the south front was about half done; the western front was finished except cutting the embrasures; the north front was nearly finished. Each bastion was intended to have a pan coupe.' Referring to the assault he states further: 'A light twelve pounder was mounted in the pan coupe (of the northwest bastion) and did good service. The ditch of the fort was twelve feet in width, and in many places as much as eight feet in depth. The irregularities of the site were such that the bastion angles were very heavy, the relief of the lightest one being twelve feet. The relief of the one attacked was about thirteen feet, and together with the depth of the ditch, say seven feet, made a height of twenty feet from the bottom of the ditch to the interior crest. From the fort the ground sloped towards the Confederates making a natural, but rather irregular glacis. All trees had been cut away from this glacis, the ground was thickly covered with stumps, the branches of trees had been utilized to form an abattis, and a wire entanglement had been made by stretching telegraph wire from stump to stump."
(Source: The Seventy-ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Google ebook), Press of Brandow, Barton & Company, 1886, William Todd, pp. 367-269)

Monument near the University of Tennessee campus

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