Longstreet intends to take Fort Sanders at Knoxville by bayonet charge. He assigns the attack to McLaws’ three brigades and instructs one of Jenkins’ brigades to provide support on the left. Then he issues orders that no one fire except the sharpshooters in the newly captured rifle pits—and they are to “pick off every head that might appear above the parapets until the fort is carried.” So carefully is this order observed, that “not a gun was loaded in three brigades.” It is a morning made raw by rain and snow, and the ground is frozen and rime-covered. The attackers wade theough the waist-deep creek whose banks hide them from the defenders and await the signal to advance. They are about 120 yards from the fort. A few rounds from signal guns launch the charge.
As the Confederates run forward yelling, the Federal guns and muskets open fire at point-blank range. The attackers are coming from such a short distance that there is no need to take aim. Suddenly the leaders of the charge begin falling to the ground and cursing. The Federals have strung telegraph wire knee-high among the stumps left when the approaches to the fort were cleared; it is perhaps the first use of wire entanglements during the war. Cries of “Halt!” come from the Confederate officers, but the men can’t stop. Pressed on from behind, they stumble; more men push forward, and fall “amid the dead and dying.” The wires are quickly cleared away, and the line of attackers leap into the ditch. As it turns out, the ditch is on the average eight feet deep; once in it the men are confronted by an almost vertical, ice-covered wall rising sixteen feet before them. They are trapped. A murderous fire pours down on the attackers, and men fall by the scores. There is no way anyone can dig footholds in the wall under that fire. Some soldiers leap onto the shoulders of their comrades and try to reach the top of the wall. Those who make it are instantly shot down. Lieutenant Samuel L. Benjamin, the Federal artillery commander in the fort, had instructed his men to prepare fifty cannon shells with three-second fuses. Now the defenders light the fuses and toss the shells over the parapet among the attackers. It is a massacre. A few attackers get to the top long enough to plant their battle flags. One young officer, Adjutant T.W. Cummings of the 16th Georgia, climbs through an embrasure and is immediately dragged inside. He endears himself to his captors by demanding their surrender before he was marched away. For awhile Confederate soldiers continue to mill helplessly in the ditch and at the base of the wall, unable to advance and unwilling to retreat through the furious Federal fire that is raking the open fields. Finally some begin to slip away. Others surrender. Inside the fort, one weary Irish prisoner takes out his pipe, reaches for a light, and says wryly to his captured mates: “Bedad, boys, General Longstreet said we would be in Knoxville for breakfast this morning; and so some of us are!”
After about twenty minutes of fighting, Longstreet approaches to within 500 yards of the fort and observes a disaster in the making as he will later report: “I saw some of the men straggling back, and heard that the troops could not pass the ditch for want of ladders and other means. Almost at the same moment I saw that the men were beginning to retire in considerable numbers, and very soon the column broke up entirely and fell back in confusion.” The Confederate commander calls a halt to the slaughter. By the time the firing dies down, his men have suffered heavy losses—813 casualties in those few bloody minutes—and have done little damage to the enemy. Burnside’s casualties in the fort total eight dead and five wounded. It is “Fredericksburg reversed.”
The field in front of the fort is littered with dead and wounded, and immediately after the battle Burnside offers Longstreet a truce so he can gather up his casualties. Longstreet gratefully accepts. Then the Confederate general pulls his force together and begins to assess his situation. But just half an hour after the repulse a courier brings a message from President Davis about Chattanooga. Knowing that Grant will be sending reinforcements after the defeat of Bragg, there is little to do but to eventually retreat toward Virginia.
When General Grant returns to Chattanooga, Tennessee, this night, he finds to his disgust that those reinforcements under Granger are still there—the corps commander is reluctant to go, having decided for himself that the relief of Burnside at Knoxville is a very bad move to make. Grant gives command of the expedition to Sherman; the relief force will consist of the Army of the Tennessee plus Granger’s corps. Granger himself will be transferred to the Department of the Gulf, where he will serve for the rest of the war. Then Grant sets down on paper his plans for the rescue of Knoxville, and he takes pains to see that a copy “in some way or other” falls into Longstreet’s hands. If Longstreet understands that an overwhelming force is about to descend on him, he might depart without further bloodshed.
In the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia, the Army of Northern Virginia spadework continues as across the run the Army of the Potomac reconnoiters. Action breaks out at Parker’s Store and New Hope Church as Meade, preparing an assault, seeks for a weak spot in Lee’s defensive line. Meade is determined to try for a breakthrough, if one of his corps commanders can only find him a weak spot in the gray defenses. Come night, when Sedgwick and Warren report that they have found what he wants on both flanks of the position, he issues instructions for an attack in the morning. Sedgwick is to open with his artillery at 7 am on the right, attracting the enemy’s attention in that direction, and Warren will launch an assault one hour later at the far end of the line, supported by French, who will feint at the rebel center, and by Newton, who will mass in his rear to help exploit the breakthrough. Similarly, Sykes is to move up in close support of Sedgwick, whose bombardment is to be followed by an assault designed to shatter the Confederate left. With both flanks crumpled and no reserve on hand to shore them up, Lee should fall back in disarray and the blue reserves will hurry forward to complete his discomfort and destruction.
Skirmishing occurs also at Brentsville and near Jonesville, Virginia, and at Bloomfield, Missouri.
President Lincoln is reported much better following his bout with a mild form of smallpox.