Sanders' raid brought Civil War home for East Tennessee
A March, 1864, photograph, shows the rebuilt railroad and county road Flat Creek bridges which were destroyed after Col. William P. Sanders left Knoxville on June 20, 1863. (Library of Congress)

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 East Tennessee.

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 army.

(See an animated map of Sander's Raid.)

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 Mabry’s Hill.

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,” wrote Strong.

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.