Friday, December 6, 2013

The 48th/150th: "Holding Out To The Bitter End. . . :" Captain Bosbyshell Reports on the Knoxville Campaign

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago today, Confederate forces under General James Longstreet continued slipping away from Knoxville, heading northeast, toward the mountains. Their campaign against Burnside's forces was over and they had been defeated--soundly.
The East Tennessee or Knoxville Campaign certainly does not rank among the most famous operations of the Civil War but it was an important one and a campaign the soldiers of the 48th were proud to have been a part of. There was much marching, some fighting, and a lot of sleepless nights. In a previous post, I summarized the campaign and the 48th's involvement in it. Today is a letter written by Captain Oliver Bosbyshell, commanding Company G, 48th PA, written on December 12, 1863, from Knoxville to the Editors of Pottsville's Miners' Journal. The letter is somewhat lengthy, but it does present a fine summary of what the soldiers of the 48th endured while campaigning under Burnside in East Tennessee:

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Confederate Troops Under Lafayette McLaws Attack Fort Sanders on 11/29/1863

December 12, 1863:
Messrs. Editors: It may not be uninteresting to give you a resume of the doings of this brigade, but more particularly the 48th, during the last month. At the risk of wearying you somewhat, here's at it. Let me preface my jottings down of last month's actions, with a remark or two concerning the activity of the Union forces since their first occupation of East Tennessee. This brigade left Camp Nelson on the 12th of September, 1863, and since then to the present time, just three months, has marched 364 miles and traveled by railroad 128 miles, making 492 miles in all, besides having engaged in three fights and as many skirmishes, and being besieged twenty days. Whoever declares that the campaign in East Tennessee campaign has been an inactive one, deserves to be conscripted into a negro regiment and fed on quarter rations for the period of three years.

On the 14th of November orders to break camp reached us at our beautiful camping ground near Lenoir. On the 15th we were at Loudon skirmishing with the rebels all day--this brigade being the last to leave, and in part protecting the rear of the Army of the Ohio in its retreat toward Knoxville. Upon being relieved the brigade was pushed forward to the front (stopping long enough at Lenoir to be fresh rationed) to take up a position on the Kingston Road, which leads into the Knoxville Road near Campbell's Station, and upon which there was every reason to believe the enemy would come in on to cut off our retreat towards Knoxville. It was daylight when the brigade reached the spot designated. Col. Sigfried, to whom the task of preventing the enemy's approach in this direction had been assigned, had scarcely thrown forward his cavalry skirmishers half a miles when they became engaged with the rebel skirmishers. It became evident that much depended upon our holding this position, General Burnside's orders being to hold it at all hazards, until reinforced, and well was it held, although the brigade was severely pressed on all sides. The fighting at the junction of the roads was sharp and savage. Receiving orders to fall back we did so in good style. Thus opened the battle of Campbell's Station. It was an all day's fight, commencing early on the 16th, and darkness put an end to it. The fight after the affair in the woods at the junctions of the roads became one of the grandest sights in military display. The battlefield was clear from woods or obstructions of any kind, so that the participants could view the movements of each other without difficulty. We could plainly discern the enemy's movements, and then all our own were visible also. It was a grand military drill, and beat all the evolutions of a battalion day one could imagine. Some say General Burnside is incapable of handling a large body of troops. An eye-witness of his skillful maneuvering on the battlefield at Campbell's Station will say differently. It is the opinion of those that ought to know that there have been few is any battles fought during this war in which so many evolutions had to be performed, and in which troops had been so skillfully handled. Your correspondent does not pretend to set up his own opinion, but he made good use of his eyes, and certainly never beheld a grander picture, or never noticed how beautifully every movement coincided with a counter-movement of the enemy. Maj. Gilmour arrived from the east in time to participate in this engagement, and commanded the 48th during it. The regiment behaved well and lost one killed (Sergeant Joseph Reed, Company H), one wounded and a prisoner (Private Isaac Arndt, Company I), and one missing (Private George Livingston, Company A). After dark the retreat was continued to Knoxville, where we arrived early on the morning of the 17th.

Knoxville Gen. Burnside determined to hold, so the pick and the shovel were put into requisition, and digging and shoveling became as regular a habit as drawing one's breath. Finally we succeeded in becoming strongly entrenched--impregnable as was afterwards proven.

One of the severe duties to be performed was picketing. Scarcely a day passed but some of our men were killed or wounded on the picket line, and indeed so close did the rebel pickets get that it was unsafe for a head to appear above our line of entrenchments, as was demonstrated by the killing and wounded of several of this brigade. On the night of the 23rd of November the picket line in front of this brigade was driven in by a strong column of the enemy. Col. Sigfried determined to reestablish his line, so he selected for that purpose the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment, and the 21st Massachusetts Regiment. At daylight on the morning of the 24th these two regiments made a most gallant charge (the 48th being managed by Maj. Gilmour, who managed the affair most handsomely), driving the rebels back in great confusion, killing and wounding a number, and capturing some prisoners. Our line was reestablished. The 48th behaved most nobly. Its conduct not only on this occasion, but many others, deservedly stamps it as a veteran organization. Be it understood that the 21st did well also, but I speak particularly of the 48th, because the people reading this feel more interest in it. On one other occasion our pickets were driven in, but the line was reestablished by the Second Brigade. The picket line of this brigade at the end of the siege remained in the same place it held at the opening of the siege. It would render my letter of any almost interminable length were I to describe the many scenes and incidents attending the siege of Knoxville. Never were troops called upon to endure greater hardships, or placed in more perilous situations, and not once did they shrink from doing their duty.

Of the assault on Fort Sanders you have already better accounts than I can give. It clearly demonstrated to Longstreet that our works were going to be defended and that our position was impregnable. The anxiety attending the siege was keenly visible on all countenances, but one could plainly discern the determination of holding out to the bitter end. This feeling all possessed; not a man in the trenches but said we could hold our position. Longstreet held out as long as he safely could, but deeming it politic to escape the snare being laid for him, pulled up stakes and left on the evening of the 5th inst. About nine o'clock the same morning Col. Sigfried took his brigade out to gather up whatever stragglers could be found in the neighborhood. The 48th did the skirmishing and brought in a number of prisoners. By four in the afternoon we returned to Knoxville, having scoured quite a considerable part of the country. Monday last we started after the rebels and reached this point  on Wednesday, where we are at present resting from the severe trials of the last month.

I have given you but the mere skimming--better pens than mine must describe the realities we have passed through. In justice to the noble soldiers of this army it should be done. Braver men never drew the breath of life--they are soldiers, every inch of them.

Captain Oliver C. Bosbsyhell, 48th Pennsylvania

Captain Oliver Christian Bosbyshell
wrote frequently of the 48th's experiences during the Civil War

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