Anyone who has studied the Civil War for any length of time knows that it abounds in controversies. Strategy, tactics, and the actions and inactions of leaders on both sides are perpetual grist for the military analysts’ mill. Take the Battle of Knoxville for instance. A battle seemingly as simple and straightforward as the assault on Fort Sanders raises a raft of questions. Should Longstreet have attacked the federal defenses when he first arrived on the scene, or was he right to first reconnoiter the lines and wait for reinforcements? Was Fort Sanders truly the weakest point in Burnside’s defenses, and did an attack on it represent the best chance for Confederate success? Should the attack on November 29th have been preceded by an extensive artillery barrage as E.P. Alexander maintained? Should the first assault on the fort been immediately followed up by another? And was McLaws negligent in his preparations for the assault and did this negligence contribute to the Confederate defeat as Longstreet averred afterwards in preferring charges? These and many other questions were raised when the smoke first cleared at Fort Sanders, and they remain valid subjects of study today.
One subject that was not at question until recently is the location of Fort Sanders itself. Now a new book by Professor Emeritus Charles H. Faulkner and his wife Terry, Rediscovering Fort Sanders: the American Civil War and Its Impact On Knoxville’s Cultural Landscape, has challenged conventional wisdom in positing that the fort was actually one block west of where it has been assumed to have been. What follows is a paper from Historian Earl Hess and the former Civil War Director of the McClung Museum at UT, Joan Markel, titled “Where was Fort Sanders? Where We Have Always Known It to Be”. The next post is a review of Rediscovering Fort Sanders by Dennis Urban, past president of the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable.
Where was Fort Sanders? Where We Have Always Known It to Be
By Dr. Earl J. Hess and Dr. Joan L. Markel
Knoxville’s Civil War heritage is a precious legacy and is taken seriously by concerned residents. That is why is it vastly important for us to understand fundamental facts of that heritage which have never changed. The location of the city’s most famous Civil War landmark, Fort Sanders, has been up for grabs recently, or so it seems. Terry and Charles Faulkner, in their book, Rediscovering Fort Sanders, argue for a change in that location. The traditionally known site, which is undoubtedly the true site of the fort, is embraced by the block defined by 17th Street, Laurel Avenue, 16th Street, and Clinch Avenue, with the Northwest Bastion at 17th and Laurel, exactly where the historical marker for the fort says it is. But the Faulkners want to move the fort one block west, to 18th Street. That claim is wrong, assert academically-trained Civil War historians, archaeologists, and Knoxvillians who have studied and read about the Civil War history of our city for decades.
In the last months of 1863, Knoxville experienced intense Civil War military activity. A Confederate army under the command of General James Longstreet was dispatched from Chattanooga to retake our Union held city. Defended by Federal troops since the September 3 arrival of Gen. Ambrose Burnside, a direct attack on the town had not been anticipated. Burnside’s troops were spread out along the railroad line; in a race back to town, Union and Confederate troops clashed at Campbell Station on November 16. After stalling Longstreet’s pursuit, the Federals marched 17 miles to defend Knoxville against a direct assault by the Confederate Army.
While Knoxville was a natural fortress, a defensive line had barely been constructed. Here is where the impact of individual excellence, top-notch training, and initiative came to the forefront. Union Captain Orlando Poe, graduate of West Point and Burnside’s chief engineer, had the plans for forts, batteries and connecting trenches already in his head. He organized the returning soldiers into construction units as they made their way back into town. “Dig for your lives” Poe told the exhausted troops using spades and shovels he had packed over the mountains from Kentucky. Civilians of all loyalties were also pressed into service. Poe praised the work of over 200 “contrabands” (African Americans who had been “nowhere to be found” for the CSA commander when the call went out earlier in the year for labor).
Burnside asked Poe’s good friend from West Point days, Gen. William P. Sanders, to hold back Longstreet’s army along Kingston Pike to buy more time for fortifications to be built. Sanders’ dismounted cavalry held the line for several hours, but Sanders himself was shot midday November 18 and died the next. In his honor and at the request of Captain Poe, the fort which would defend the blood-soaked attack on November 29 was named for him.
Today, Fort Sanders has been lost to urban development. But its legacy was ensured by the same fine soldier who built it and named it. Written reports and some of the earliest photographic documentation describe the fort in words and pictures. But engineer Poe did not stop there. Knowing the strength of the defenses of Knoxville, he requested the best survey/cartographic services of the US Government. Two top members of the US Coast Survey, Cleveland Rockwell and R.H. Talcott, arrived in December 1863 to create a precisely accurate topographical map (where contour lines create 3 dimensions) of Poe’s fort. The resulting map was published in the Official Military Atlas of the War of the Rebellion (1891-1895) along with panoramic photos of Knoxville defenses.
Recently in the archives of the US Coast Survey (now a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) the original survey maps produced by Rockwell, north of the river, and Talcott, south of the river, have been located. These maps contain sight lines for the survey instruments and distances between well-known landmarks such as Fort Sanders, the old Court House, Second Presbyterian Church steeple, and the high ground south of the river. Using modern technology and additional historic maps from the US Geological Survey and Sanborn Insurance, map expert Charles Reeves of Farragut has confirmed the accuracy of all these points on the landscape of 2020 Knoxville. (The map of Fort Sanders is available at http://www.reevesmaps.com/map_catalog_civil.htm#CAR-MAP-573 and an explanation of how the map was created is at http://www.reevesmaps.com/NOAA-map-creation.pdf.)
The Poe map pinpoints the street grid of downtown Knoxville that is essentially unchanged since it was laid out in the 1790s. Poe’s street grid matches up perfectly with the street grid on modern maps as far as location of intersections, length and cardinal direction. Aligning the modern street grid over Poe’s map places the western wall of Fort Sanders along 17th Street.
The compelling nature of new GIS technology applied to the abundance of US Army survey data and the fine topographical maps produced from that precise information, locate the fort exactly where the town has always said it was. The US Army knew where its fort was and recorded that location precisely, between modern 17th St., Laurel Ave., 16th St., and Clinch Ave. The signage and monuments are just where Knoxvillians installed them when living memory and earthen remnants of the fort were not in doubt. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at 17th St. and Laurel Ave. in 1914 when remnants of the earthen fort were still in existence. It serves as a battlefield marker.
Another irrefutable basis for the fort’s location is provided by topography. Every fort has to be on the highest ground and Poe situated Fort Sanders exactly where it could do the most good, on the level top of the ridge which is today crossed by 17th Street. From here the fort commanded the area north and west, anchoring the northwest corner of the long line of earthworks protecting Knoxville on the north side of the river.
To locate Fort Sanders between 17th Street and 18th Street, as the Faulkners would have it, would have appalled Poe and every other soldier in the Union army. That block is not on top of the ridge, but instead encompasses the western slope of the ridge with 18th Street at least eight or more feet lower in elevation than 17th Street. This would have rendered Fort Sanders indefensible because the high earth wall (the parapet) would not have protected the interior of the fort from enemy fire. To be defensible, a fort not only had to be on high ground, but on level ground, so the earthen walls provided maximum shielding power. If one side of the fort was considerably higher than the other, it would have been be largely useless because the enemy could have looked right into it, as well as shoot into it.
In fact, Fort Sanders was anything but useless. Early on the frosty morning of November 29, 1863, 2,430 Confederate troops attacked the fort from the northwest, aiming directly at the Northwest Bastion high on the ridge top. In a brief but bloody battle, the Union garrison of 500 men repelled this attack. The Confederates lost 813 men (killed, wounded, or captured) while the Federals lost only about 50 men. Built on the highest “level” ground, with high and broad earthen walls, and fronted by a deep ditch, Fort Sanders easily led to the Union victory. If the Northwest Bastion had been located at the much lower 18th Street, the Confederates would have had all the advantages; they could have easily fired into the sloping fort, overwhelmed the small garrison, and captured Fort Sanders.
Every good position had to be located at the military crest of a slope. That is defined as the point where soldiers can see and fire at any point along the slope in their front. The military crest often was a few feet toward the enemy compared to the natural crest of the slope, but it could never be an entire block away from it without becoming absolutely useless to the defending soldier. There is no crest at all, natural or military, anywhere near 18th Street, just small ripples in the land. But at 17th Street, on top of the ridge, the natural and military crests are only a few feet from each other. They both are on ground eight feet higher than any ground near 18th Street. The lowliest private in the Union army understood this simple and vital aspect of combat in the Civil War.
A third level of evidence arises from historic photographs. Several historic photographs of Fort Sanders were taken in 1864 and ca. 1880, and all of them show the entire fort to be located on the level flat top of the ridge, and not along the slope between 17th and 18th Streets. The photograph of the 1890 Blue and Gray Reunion at Fort Sanders clearly depicts the Southwest Bastion with a road crossing it where 17th Street is now located. The bastion does not extend west down the slope toward 18th Street but ends on top of the ridge at 17th Street.
At the beginning of their work, the Faulkners had spoken with us about their theory. We did not agree with it then and still do not. We carefully explained to them all the arguments presented here, but they ignored these and moved forward with their dubious project. But it takes rigorous proof to overturn a well-established and fully supported historical fact, and their evidence is not at all convincing.
Everything points to keeping Fort Sanders where we have always known it to have been located. Poe’s reports and post-Civil War memoirs, the evidence provided by Civil War maps overlaid with modern-day street and topographical maps, fortification theory, doctrine, and practice, the nature of military operations in relation to the lay of the land, and several historic photographs all confirm that Fort Sanders was constructed on top of the ridge, with its western wall along 17th Street, and not 18th Street. Knoxvillians need to be aware of these facts and to cherish and preserve that history.
Earl J. Hess, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Lincoln Memorial University and author of The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2012), Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2007), and In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Joan L. Markel, Ph.D. in Archaeology, recently retired from McClung Museum, University of Tennessee.