Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hess: "THE KNOXVILLE CAMPAIGN: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee"

[The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee by Earl J. Hess (University of Tennessee Press, 2012). Cloth, 22 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:263/418. 978-1-57233-916-3 $39.95]

Until now, Digby Gordon Seymour's popular and thrice revised, but non-scholarly, illustrated study Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War in East Tennessee1 was the only useful history of the Confederate attempt to recapture Knoxville. A vast improvement is  Earl Hess's deeply researched and critically sound The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee. This new release more than rectifies the scholarly deficiency in the literature of the campaign.

The Knoxville Campaign provides a full rendering of military events in East Tennessee from August 1863 through the April 1864. Hess begins with a nice, albeit brief, summary of Ambrose Burnside's invasion through the mountains from Kentucky and his army's occupation of East Tennessee. The author then discusses the strategic options available to both sides in the wake of the September 1863 Confederate victory at Chickamauga and Union attempts to relieve the Army of the Cumberland bottled up in Chattanooga.

From there commences a clearly described operational history of James Longstreet's campaign to recapture Knoxville. In terms of depth of tactical detail and complexity, Hess's study occupies the middle ground between popular writing and specialized microhistory, shading toward the latter. It should satisfy the needs and wants of most serious students. A thorough picture of the defenses of Knoxville is presented, and the reasons behind the failure of the short lived but bloody Confederate assault on Fort Sanders [November 29, 1863] are effectively conveyed.  With the approach of a large Union relief force, Longstreet abandoned the "siege" and relocated his command to a new position northeast of Knoxville. For several months, except for a failed attempt in December to crush the federal cavalry at Bean's Station, most of the fighting in the region consisted of skirmishes over ground both sides wished to use for foraging.

You will rarely read praise of Ambrose Burnside outside the printed pages of his foremost biographer2, but Hess also depicts Burnside at his best. His invasion of East Tennessee from Kentucky (discussed briefly but well in the book) was a skillful operation. Although one might argue that Burnside allowed his occupying forces to become a bit scattered, his competent troop handling at Lenoir's and Campbell's stations denied the Confederates the chance to defeat Union forces in the open. His defense of Knoxville was equally solid. Unfortunately for Burnside, very high profile failures in command of the Union's largest army [Fredericksburg] and as a subordinate [the Crater] overshadowed his excellent leadership and conduct of mid-sized independent operations (e.g. the Carolina coast and East Tennessee). Engineer officer Orlando Poe3 is another Union hero of the campaign. His professional oversight of the construction of a series of detached forts and connecting trench lines rendered the city of Knoxville impervious to direct assault by a force of Longstreet's size.

Hess's critical yet fair assessment of Longstreet's performance is largely in agreement with that of historian Alexander Mendoza, the author of a recent study detailing Longstreet's tenure in the West4. In offensive operations in East Tennessee, Longstreet failed at every turn. His best chance of recapturing Knoxville was to defeat Burnside in the open, but Confederate attacks at Lenoir's Station and later at Campbell's Station were poorly planned and executed, and the federals escaped. Hess makes a good point that Longstreet was badly hampered by poor maps and guides, but the general also misused Joe Wheeler's cavalry, sending them away to threaten Knoxville from the south side of the Tennessee River when they might have rendered more effective service remaining with the main force and striving to cut off Burnside's retreat. Longstreet was able to disengage cleanly when a large relief force under William T. Sherman approached.  He maintained a threatening posture in the theater until returning to Virginia months later in the spring of 1864, but the offensive capability of his command remained poor, exemplified by the missed opportunity at Bean's Station5. Like other historians, Hess faults Longstreet for fostering a divisive atmosphere in his own command by pursuing charges against capable division and brigade commanders like Lafayette McLaws, Evander Law, and Jerome Robertson. Longstreet might also be criticized for clinging too long to a fantastical scheme of mounting his entire force for a raid into Kentucky. On the positive side, Longstreet kept his command in fighting shape and was able to position himself for several months as a viable threat to the rear of the Union army group assembling around Chattanooga.

In terms of the complicated internal politics and social history of Civil War East Tennessee, the subjects are broached only briefly, which is perfectly fine given the fact that a voluminous literature touching upon these themes already exists6. A great deal of supplemental material is provided in the appendices. In addition to orders of battle and a register of the Knoxville forts located on both sides of the river, an eclectic collection of information related to Knoxville and the campaign (e.g. on reunions, monuments, literature, art, compensation claims, and current state of the various battlefields) is included. The book is also well illustrated, making good use of the Barnard photographs of the Knoxville defenses. Maps are plentiful and generally useful, although more unit position and terrain detail for the tactical maps would have been appreciated. As one expects from a Hess project, the bibliography is bursting with source material of all types, headlined by a massive collection of manuscript materials located in repositories all over the country.

Earl Hess's The Knoxville Campaign impressively fulfills the need for a modern scholarly account of military operations in upper East Tennessee from the summer of 1863 through the spring of 1864. This original history should excite all western theater students and deserves a spot on the bookshelves of all Civil War libraries.

1 - In 2009, I posted a brief assessment of the various editions of Seymour's book. See  Navigating the three editions of "Divided Loyalties".
2 - Burnside by William Marvel (Univ of N Carolina Pr, 1991).
3 - For an excellent biography of Poe, see Paul Taylor's Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer (Kent St Univ Pr, 2009).
4 - Confederate Struggle For Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West by Alexander Mendoza (TAMU Press, 2008).
5 - The most detailed accounts of the fighting in East Tennessee after the termination of the Knoxville siege can be found in David C. Smith's self published, and quite scarce, Campaign to Nowhere (1999, rep. 2013).
6 - For Knoxville specifically, Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford UP, 2006) by Robert McKenzie is recommended.

More CWBA reviews of UTP titles:
* To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond: Stabilization and Reconstruction in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1864-1866
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 3: Essays on America's Civil War
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War
* Great Things Are Expected of Us: The Letters of Colonel C. Irvine Walker, 10th South Carolina Infantry, C.S.A.
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War
* Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South
* Yale's Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary
* The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged
* The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion
* Echoes of Thunder: A Guide to the Seven Days Battles
* Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863–1864
* Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River
* Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West


  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. I think all the reviews of this title have been positive. I'm not surprised, most of the authors books seem to be deeply researched and very well done.

    Don Hallstrom

    1. Hi Don,
      In my mind, he's always been a safe bet.

  2. Great review! Looking forward to reading it.

    Hess is great. So prolific but so reliable. One of my favorite late 20th-early 21st century Civil War historians.



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