The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee by Earl J. Hess
One of the ironies of the Civil War in Tennessee was that Union armies quickly occupied much of Middle and West Tennessee—where support for secession had been overwhelming after Fort Sumter—whereas the deliverance of staunchly Unionist East Tennessee was of relatively low priority for much of the war. The explanation was essentially logistical. Although President Abraham Lincoln pressed for the liberation of the area for political reasons, Union generals repeatedly argued that the military risks of an invasion of the region far outweighed the anticipated benefits. With formidable mountain barriers to the east and west and solidly Confederate states both north and south, East Tennessee was a "horror," to quote William Tecumseh Sherman. Thus it was not until late summer 1863 that a Union army under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside finally marched into upper East Tennessee, emboldened by the decision in Richmond to send most of the Confederate troops in the area to reinforce General Braxton Bragg in his struggle against Union Major General William Rosecrans near Chattanooga.
In the first week of September, Burnside's force of some twelve to fifteen thousand troops marched triumphantly into Knoxville—the largest town of upper East Tennessee and the most important transportation hub—to the delight of jubilant loyalists who welcomed the Yankee soldiers as deliverers. Less than three months later, in mid-November, an army of nearly twenty thousand Confederates [End Page 456] under Lieutenant General James Longstreet would seek to smash Burnside's army and reclaim the region. The siege that resulted was a costly Confederate failure, punctuated by the Rebels' lopsided and bloody defeat in the twenty-minute-long battle of Fort Sanders in late November. This work, by acclaimed Civil War historian Earl Hess, is the most thorough, scholarly treatment of this military campaign ever produced. It will be of interest to history buffs and military historians interested in the western theater of the Civil War.
Hess's exhaustively researched study recreates the struggle between Burnside and Longstreet in meticulous, painstaking detail. He carefully sets the stage for the campaign, beginning with Bragg's questionable decision to weaken his force after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga by sending Longstreet's divisions (on loan from the Army of Northern Virginia) to strike at Burnside more than a hundred miles to the north. If the undertaking were to succeed, it was imperative that Longstreet strike Burnside quickly and decisively and then rejoin Bragg before the concentrating forces under newly appointed Union commander Major General Ulysses Grant launched an offensive from Chattanooga. A long shot from the start, the campaign failed miserably, partly for logistical reasons, partly because of the bickering and incompetence of Longstreet and his lieutenants, and partly because of Burnside's effective response to the Confederate thrust.
Hess focuses narrowly on the military campaign itself, and many of the defining characteristics of recent trends in military history—including careful attention to the ideology of enlisted men, the effect of war on civilians, and the interplay between front line and home front—are muted in his study. His approach is also more descriptive than analytical. He packs his narrative densely with facts, impressively mining an array of archival sources for evidence about the campaign—his footnotes and bibliography run to an eye-catching ninety-six pages—but he does not always distinguish between significant and extraneous details as effectively as he might. When he concludes in the end that Braxton Bragg had "sent away some of his best troops" [End Page 457] in a failed attempt "to retake a city of secondary importance" the reader is left wondering why the author believes that the campaign merits the lavish attention he has accorded it (p. 247).
Tracy McKenzie is chair of the history department at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of One South or Many?: Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (1994) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (2006).