HESS: The Knoxville Campaign (2012)

Posted: 1/1/2014
Reviewed By: Lawrence Kreiser, Jr.

The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee by Earl J. Hess. University of Tennessee Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 1572339950. $29.95.

The Confederate offensive to capture the Union-held city of Knoxville, Tennessee, during late 1863 is among the lesser-known campaigns of the Civil War. The reasons for the neglect are several. Most important, the three-week campaign that stretched from mid-November through early December had little direct influence on the larger flow of the war but at nearby Chattanooga. With some of its forces outside of Knoxville, the attempts of the weakened Confederate Army of Tennessee to capture that important Union railroad and supply hub collapsed in embarrassing battlefield defeat at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge on November 24-25.  The subsequent Confederate retreat from Chattanooga ended any serious threat to wrest Tennessee from Union control. Beyond a seeming lack of strategic significance, the Knoxville Campaign also is largely neglected in the public mind and the academic scholarship because no large-scale battle occurred. Vicious fighting did occur in a several minute Confederate assault on Fort Sanders, a Union defensive work outside of Knoxville, on November 29, but the losses were small by late war standards (and overshadowed by the almost staggering casualties suffered in the fighting at Chickamauga, in northern Georgia, in late September 1863).

Earl Hess brings long overdue attention to the maneuvers and fighting around Knoxville. A prolific Civil War author and an associate professor at Lincoln Memorial University, Hess acknowledges that Knoxville “may have been a sideshow to the big show at Chattanooga” (xii). Still, the Confederate capture of the city had the potential to exert a larger influence on the war. Extraordinarily sensitive to the Union sentiment that pervaded much of east Tennessee, Lincoln might have ordered a weakening of the Union army at Chattanooga prior to the battle there.  Or, the Confederates might have used Knoxville as a springboard for an invasion into Kentucky that spring. The Confederate high command dismissed the idea as a bit hare brained when suggested in early 1864, but only after the battlefield reverses that actually had happened in Tennessee.

Hess takes a wide-ranging approach to the topic. For readers interested in military history, the maneuvers around Knoxville and the fighting at Fort Sanders are covered in great detail. The lesser-known engagements as the Confederates attempted to maneuver the Union defenders out from Knoxville at Lenoir’s Station on November 13-15, and Campbell’s Station the next day are described in their own chapters. The engagement at Bean’s Station in mid-December, as the Confederates dallied about whether to abandon or defend east Tennessee, also receives its own chapter.

Readers interested in the actual workings of armies while in the field will also find much of interest, and here Hess makes perhaps his greatest contribution to the study of the Knoxville Campaign and the Civil War in general. The logistics of an active campaign that often receive only a passing mention in other battle studies receive ample space in The Knoxville Campaign. Hess details the struggles of officers and men to find enough to eat and, as the weather turned bitterly cold, to wear. He also details life on the picket lines that, for many soldiers, formed their most active contribution to the campaign.

Soldiers’ motivations are mentioned only sparingly by Hess. The lack of analysis to why Union and Confederate soldiers fought at Knoxville is not overly surprising, given the relatively brief time frame of the campaign. These men had enough to do over their three weeks around Knoxville in marching, skirmishing, and fighting than to discuss the war and its progress. Still, for readers interested in why soldiers endured often meager rations, thin clothing, and hostile bullets, the book is focused largely elsewhere.

The Knoxville Campaign is deeply researched. In addition to newspapers and unit histories, Hess draws upon letters and diaries housed at 61 different repositories.  The book also has excellent maps and a number of black-and-white images. For readers wanting a deeper insight into either the Knoxville Campaign or the workings of Civil War armies in general, this is an excellent starting point.


Lawrence J. Kreiser, Jr. is an Asociate Professor of History at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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