brought Civil War home for East Tennessee
Dorothy E. Kelly Special to the News Sentinel
The June 21, 1863, edition of Knoxville’s Daily
Register features the “Visit of the Yankees to Knoxville” the
previous day, recounting a Union cavalry raid into Confederate-held
It was this small, divided Southern town’s first
real brush with war, bursting shells and casualties. Rural East
Tennessee was largely Unionist, while Knoxville was primarily
Confederate. President Abraham Lincoln urged Union generals
commanding in Kentucky to invade East Tennessee to give the
residents relief. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, recently given command in
Kentucky, was willing but did not have sufficient troops. He decided
to send a cavalry raid into East Tennessee to destroy the important
railroad and bridges carrying supplies and troops to the Confederate
Chosen to lead this raid was Kentucky-born, Mississippi-raised
William Price Sanders. Sanders was a graduate of West Point and
colonel of the 5th Kentucky Cavalry U.S. and served on Burnside’s
staff. The raid was to be carried out by a select force of cavalry
and mounted infantry from Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky and the 1st
East Tennessee Mounted Infantry under Col. Robert K. Byrd of
Kingston, whose men also served as guides. Assembly point was
Williamsburg, Ky., where the men and horses underwent a thorough
inspection. Two cannons were provided along with 800 rounds of
ammunition. Sanders left Williamsburg on the morning of June 14,
crossing the Cumberland River into Confederate territory.
Following Sanders as he forded the Cumberland was a second force
of about 800 Ohio troops under Col. Samuel Gilbert. Gilbert was to
create a diversion to enable Sanders to enter Confederate territory
without detection. As Sanders moved southwest toward Montgomery
County, Gilbert’s men moved southward to engage the Confederates
defending Big Creek Gap in the Cumberland Mountains.
Gilbert met the Confederates at Pine Mountain Gap, just north of
Big Creek Gap, and drove them back. The next morning his dismounted
troops once again drove the Confederates back and, by nightfall had
pushed them to Big Creek Gap. They skirmished all of the following
day, withdrawing after dark with their mission accomplished.
Confederate Gen. Simon B. Buckner, commanding from Knoxville,
shifted troops from numerous posts, believing this was the
long-expected full-scale invasion.
Thanks to Gilbert’s ruse, Sanders approached his first target at
Wartburg undetected. The 1st Tennessee was given the assignment of
leading the advance on the major supply base for Gen. John Pegram
and the Confederate cavalry. The attack was so unexpected that it
was concluded without firing a shot, resulting in the capture of
more than 100 troops, horses, mules, wagons, ammunition, food and
supplies. A few soldiers who had been posted outside the town
escaped capture and spread the alarm. Sanders moved on toward Loudon
and an impressive railroad bridge across the Tennessee River.
Bypassing Kingston, the cavalry soon learned that earthworks at the
Loudon Bridge had been strengthened and were too strong to be
quickly captured. By now their presence had been detected and they
were forced to also bypass Loudon.
Lenoir’s Station (present-day Lenoir City), the first contact
with the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad, was next. When word of
the cavalry’s approach reached Lenoir’s Station, prominent Knoxville
resident, physician, historian and State and Confederate banker Dr.
James G.M. Ramsey was visiting his daughter Henrietta (Mrs.
Benjamin) Lenoir. Ramsey boarded a freight train headed for
Knoxville, where he reported to Gen. Buckner and then quickly boxed
up the bank’s funds, loading them on the last train to leave
Knoxville, escorting it to a bank in Abingdon, Va., for safekeeping.
At Lenoir’s Station, Sanders captured only an artillery
detachment. He learned that the Confederates had withdrawn 30
minutes before. The depot still was a real prize, completely filled
with military stores: cannons, 2,500 small arms, ammunition, saddles
and harnesses. The 7th Ohio was given the task of destroying the
depot and supplies; one soldier wrote that the “prisoners were
paroled amid the bursting shells and shrapnel” and “I can only think
of throwing stones through a hornet’s nest, they seem to perforate
the roof and sides of the building with ease.” The Federal column
began their primary assignment: destroying the railroad track,
burning culverts and bridges, and disrupting telegraph
communications as they moved toward Knoxville.
And as Sanders’ men worked their way toward Knoxville, the town
tried to prepare. Buckner, still believing that the major threat was
coming from the Big Creek Gap area, had moved to Clinton to
“concentrate his forces.” Col. R.C. Trigg was left with part of his
own Virginia infantry, a small contingent of Florida troops and no
serviceable artillery. To these were added local militia, private
citizens and convalescents from military hospitals. Eight pieces of
field artillery were found, and horses, harnesses and drivers were
requisitioned from the quartermaster. Artillery was placed around
Knoxville on College Hill, near the Asylum Hospital, Summit Hill and
Alarmed civilians also tried to respond. “Such a scene of
Confusion,” reported Frances (Mrs. Benjamin Rush) Strong. Some
volunteered to protect the town by joining ranks with the militia.
Others used “omnibuses and carriages” to move the sick from College
Hill and Asylum Hospitals, while some few “packed up and left town,”
Late in the afternoon, Sanders’ men were approaching Knoxville on
the Kingston Road (today’s Kingston Pike) when they noticed a
resident in the act of mounting his horse. Dr. Harvey Baker was
planning to ride to Knoxville to alert authorities. Just who fired
first is in question, but shots were fired and Baker ran for the
house. The cavalrymen followed. There was an exchange of shots and
Baker was killed in his home in view of his family. The house today
is known as the Baker-Peters House.
Sanders’ men arrived in the vicinity of Knoxville just before
dark to find pickets waiting for them on the outskirts. After
dispersing them a rear-guard was left to engage any enemy troops
that might be following, and the main force circled around to the
north of town to position themselves for the next day’s action. At
about midnight the rear guard judged that no force was following
them and left to rejoin Sanders. However, they missed a turn and
stumbled into the edge of Knoxville, drawing fire from Confederate
pickets and frightened waiting citizens. The rear guard immediately
withdrew a short distance and waited for first light to extricate
themselves and rejoin the main force.
On the morning of June 20, 1863, Sanders’ line of battle emerged
from woods on the plateau area just north of the railroad depots.
The dismounted cavalrymen moved forward. About 8:15 the Confederate
battery on Summit Hill opened up on the Federals, whose two cannons
returned fire. Federal skirmishers and sharpshooters moved forward
across the open land on the east end of the line but were met by
artillery fire, forcing them to take cover behind houses and fences.
The Federals again advanced but were met with canister fire and
forced to retire.
With the blast of the first cannon, the shocked citizens of
Knoxville realized they were actually under fire. Strong reported
that she went outside at the first sound of cannon fire and “you
ought to have seen the (blacks), women and dogs run down this hill!
While outside a shell passed over our heads. (We) all rushed in our
house where it was quite a scene. The women were all crying, the
children screaming and the shells still flying.”
She wrote that the shelling went on for about an hour and a half,
and while some of the shells fell in town, most went over the river.
Although losses on both sides were small, there were some casualties
among the town folk. Capt. Pleasant McClung, in charge of the
Ordnance Department, was mortally wounded while manning a cannon and
lived only two hours.
Realizing he could not take Knoxville and that time was growing
short, Sanders and his men withdrew eastward along the railroad. One
trooper reported that they could still hear the Confederates
shelling the empty woods north of town. The destruction began once
again. McMillan Station, 13 miles from Knoxville, and the railroad
bridge and county road bridge over Flat Creek were soon torched. The
cavalry was surprised to see a locomotive steaming down the track
toward them. Confederate troops based at Strawberry Plains had
become concerned about the sound of gunfire and had decided to
investigate. Upon seeing the railroad destruction and the
substantial Union force, the engine suddenly reversed and the men
returned “in haste” to alert their troops.
In the midst of this destruction, one soldier paused to comment
on the beauty of the place, “The valley of the Holston is very
beautiful. Beyond, blue mountains are seen through a smoky haze.”
This reverie was interrupted by a report that the rear guard was
being challenged by part of Col. John Scott’s Confederate Cavalry,
reminding Sanders that time was growing short.
Sanders’ next major target was the massive bridge at Strawberry
Plains on the north bank of the Holston River. Its garrison numbered
less than 400 men, about 200 of whom were members of Thomas’ Legion
of Cherokee Indians and mountaineers. Sanders forded the river three
miles below the bridge. He sent part of his infantry directly toward
the earthworks and stone wall of the Stringfield Cemetery as a
second contingent circled around to attack the rear. The frontal
attack met with canister and grape shot. However, it was a short but
vicious fight with the Federals taking the fortifications, more than
100 troops, five pieces of artillery, the bridge and the town, which
proved to be a bonus with supplies belonging to the Confederate
Commissary. The men took needed supplies, then burned the remainder
and the depot. The massive bridge had been built on 11 piers 40 feet
above the Holston and stretching 1,600 feet. “It is dark when we
fire it,” reports one soldier, “and the spectacle is magnificent.
The heavens glow as fire and the river is a band of gold.” The men
were rewarded with a full night’s sleep — the first since the day
after crossing the Cumberland.
Early the next morning the men were again in their saddles ready
for another day of destruction. As they passed through the village
of New Market, they were welcomed by ladies coming to the road with
water, pies and cakes. They also warned that the Confederates were
close and watching from the mountaintops. The next objective was the
town of Mossy Creek (present day Jefferson City), where they made
quick work of the 300-foot railroad bridge, the depot, numerous
supplies, a locomotive and cars. They also burned a Confederate salt
peter factory and a gun factory.
Time was running out, however, and Sanders knew it. He had been
in enemy territory for six days and safety was 60 torturous miles
and three river crossings away. He left the railroad and led his men
northwest to cross the Holston River once again. He planned to cross
Clinch Mountain at Powder Springs Gap but was alerted by a local
woman that Scott’s cavalry lay in wait. Sending a small force to
skirmish with the enemy, Sanders and his men took a farm road and
reached the gap safely. They covered 10 miles before daylight
despite at one point experiencing Confederate rifle fire, which rang
out from the darkness, passing over their heads. Cavalry or
guerrillas? They never knew.
The Clinch River was crossed safely the next morning but with the
Confederates on their heels. Sanders headed for Rogers Gap, one of
the few gaps along the Cumberland Mountain with a road that would
accommodate their force. In late afternoon they crossed Powell River
at Leech’s Ford unopposed, but as they neared Powell Valley Road the
scouts were surprised to find Confederate patrols posted at every
gap along the mountain and Rogers Gap blocked by timber, infantry
and artillery. Sanders chose to force a smaller, less well-defended
gap to his left, but knew he could not take his artillery. The
artillerymen were ordered to destroy their precious guns — the
original two and three that had been captured. Sanders made several
feints on the waiting Confederate infantry and cavalry now lining
the valley, until he saw confusion and a shifting of troops and then
ordered “Forward!” The furious rush further confused the
Confederates and gave Sanders the edge as his determined men stormed
the road and swarmed and scrambled up the mountain.
Although the Confederates tried to recover, the Federals now
controlled the heights and returned their fire. Horses had to be
abandoned. Soon darkness shielded the escaping cavalry, and they
stumbled and slid down the north side of the mountain in small
squads and groups of two or three, some threatened by rattlesnakes
or Confederates, others by slopes so precipitous that they had to
wait until morning to descend. They made their way to Boston, Ky.
On June 23, Sanders reported to Gen. Burnside: 50 miles of
railroad track destroyed; more than 3,000 feet of bridge burned; 15
pieces of artillery captured and more 2,500 small arms destroyed
along with ammunition; a gun factory and a salt peter factory.
Several hundred horses and mules had been captured, as well as 461
Confederates — all of whom were paroled. Sanders’ loss: 2 men
killed, 4 wounded and 13 missing.
The Confederate government’s defenses of East Tennessee and the
railroad where inadequate and vulnerable, which had been
embarrassingly revealed by 1,300 hardy horsemen and one bold
Southern-born Union colonel.
Dorothy E. Kelly is a native of East Tennessee and a local
historian whose ancestors served in both Confederate and Union
armies. She is a past president of the Knoxville Civil War
Roundtable and of the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association.
This account of Sanders’ Raid, which occurred 150 years ago, June
16-23, 1863, is condensed from her article in North & South magazine
on the subject.