By Dorothy E. Kelly, Knoxville Civil War Roundtable
Copyright 1998 by Dorothy E. Kelly. All rights reserved.
The Civil War brought division, dissension and hardship to Blount County, but no major battles. At one point in the War, however, Blount County found prominence thrust upon it as blue and gray cavalry wrestled for access to the “back door” to Knoxville.
Shortly after the September 1863 Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Confederate Major General James Longstreet moved from Chattanooga toward Knoxville with orders to capture or drive the Federals under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside out of East Tennessee. Longstreet’s cavalry under Major General Joseph Wheeler was ordered to push through Blount County to claim the heights on the Holston (now Tennessee) River opposite Knoxville. For several weeks prior to Longstreet’s advance in November of 1863, Blount County played host to Union cavalry under the command of Brigadier General William P. Sanders. Sanders’ assignment was to guard the Little Tennessee River fords against roving bands of Confederate cavalry and to notify the Federal authorities of any Confederate advance through Blount County. Blount County Unionists and Home Guards served as guides and scouts for the Federal cavalry, collecting information and reporting on Confederate activity in the area.
While Blount County was primarily Unionist in sentiment, Confederate sympathizers were still in evidence. On November 12, Sanders reported to Gen. Burnside, in Knoxville, that a small party of Confederates had attacked his pickets at Maryville. The Rebels had escaped detection because they were led by a “doctor from Maryville” who brought them in by the Chilhowee Mountains and, after the Confederates stole a few horses, led them out by way of Montvale Springs.
Loyal Blount County citizens continued to report Confederate crossings at Motley’s and Niles’ Fords, but upon reconnaissance, Federal cavalry usually failed to find anything but a few Confederate deserters. Sanders also reported from Maryville that there were “a terrible number of roads leading to this place” (present day maps prove this point) — presumably complicating security. These constant reports of elusive Confederates and fear of rising water in Little River at his back caused Sanders to move his main camp and wagon train north of Maryville and Little River. The new camp was near the community of Rockford, a few miles closer to Knoxville. Sanders left only one brigade at Maryville . This timely move saved the better part of Sanders’ cavalry, for on the dark, rainy morning of November 14, a Rebel whirlwind in the form of Wheeler’s Cavalry blew through the camp of the Eleventh Kentucky Cavalry at Maryville. Wheeler’s orders were to attack the detachment stationed at Maryville and force his way through to Knoxville. The capture of the heights opposite Knoxville would enable the Confederates to bombard the Federal works and city, forcing the Federals to evacuate. The Confederate surprise was complete as Wheeler’s Cavalry dashed into the Federal camp, scattering the Kentuckians in all directions. A number of the fleeing Federals were wounded in the confusion and eventually 151 of the Kentucky cavalrymen were rounded up.
In Sanders’ camp at Rockford, the roar of firearms alerted the Federals to the presence of the enemy. Sanders had received reports from scouts and civilians warning of a buildup along the Little Tennessee River, but reports gave no indication that Sanders’ 1,500 men were facing “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler and 4,000 hard-riding Confederate cavalrymen. The unwitting troops sprang to their saddles without their breakfast and, in a matter of moments, the First Kentucky and Forty-Fifth Ohio were galloping to the rescue of their comrades. The Federal troopers were so anxious to reach the field that they neglected to put out a skirmish line. Wheeler’s men, expecting an attack, were prepared for the onslaught and the charging Federals found themselves fired upon from the front and both flanks. The fire was too withering to endure. The Federals retreated across Little River and rallied on the north bank, awaiting Wheeler’s charge. Wheeler, however, was unaware of the size of Sanders’ force and failed to follow up on his success. During the night the Federals retreated toward Knoxville. The Confederate crossing of Little River next morning was unopposed, but was not completed until almost noon due to the poor condition of the ford. Once across, Wheeler’s men found their advance constantly checked as they were forced to skirmish with the out-manned, but stubborn, Federal cavalry. Three miles from Little River the Confederates found their next obstacle — the bridge over Stock Creek. Or what was left of it. The bridge over Stock Creek, perched on the Blount-Knox County line, was partially destroyed and the Creek itself was too deep for horses to ford. The reinforced Federal cavalry had taken “a strong and elevated” position overlooking the ford and were prepared to make hot work of the Confederates’ entrance into Knox County. Wheeler dismounted about half his force and crossed the creek under cover of fire from his artillery. His advance uphill across open fields was hotly contested by both rifle and cannon fire from the Federals, but Wheeler successfully pushed back the Federal left wing, forcing them to retreat.
After repairing the bridge, Wheeler crossed over his entire force and engaged Sanders’ troops in a rolling battle up to the heights above Knoxville. Having forced the back door, Wheeler was in for a disappointment. Instead of finding lightly defended hills, he discovered impossibly steep slopes on 300-foot ridges, defended by infantry and artillery as well as cavalry. (These heights would later be crowned by the fortifications of Forts Higley, Dickerson, and Stanley.) Wheeler exchanged fire with the Yankee batteries, but the formidable heights and their defense force convinced him that his task was impossible. The back door had slammed in his face.
Convinced that storming the heights would be too costly in time and manpower, Wheeler and his cavalry retreated back through Blount County, crossed the Holston , and rejoined Longstreet on his advance to Knoxville. Wheeler’s defeat at Knoxville’s back door was even more important than it would appear, for it was during Wheeler’s absence that Longstreet lost the opportunity to bag Burnside and the major portion of his army at Campbell’s Station, 16 miles south of Knoxville. In the absence of cavalry, the Confederates reached the vital road junction just 20 minutes after the Federal army which had blocked the road, thus insuring that Burnside’s army would reach the comparative safety of the defenses of Knoxville.
The dogged determination shown by the outnumbered Federal cavalry in Blount County foreshadowed the determination of the Federal troops defending Knoxville in the next few weeks. The outnumbered Federals stubbornly endured the siege of Knoxville and its culmination at the Battle of Fort Sanders. The approach of 25,000 reinforcements under General William T. Sherman a few days later concluded all hopes of Confederate reoccupation of Knoxville. The front door was also closed.