New history: an error and an argument

There’s a new history on the Battle of Fort Sanders, one of the few ever written. It’s Lincoln Memorial University historian Earl J. Hess’s 2012 The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee.

I bought a copy to see if there was anything new on the assault and defense. Unfortunately, I found less than I had previously discovered on my own, though the bibliography has a few things in it I wasn’t aware of. All in all, I wouldn’t recommend the book.

I found one grating error, grating because it’s no more than a repeat of an error in an earlier history, and an old argument, also found in the earlier work, which, bearing no additional evidence in the new book, still seems weak to me.

The error concerns which Mississippi regiment led the Rebels’ right-hand column in the attack. Hess repeats the assertion of others that it was the Thirteenth Mississippi commanded by Colonel Kennon McElroy.

In fact, the regiment’s own division commander, General Lafayette McLaws, states in an after-action report included in the Official Records that it was the Seventeenth Mississippi, commanded by Colonel John Fiser.

Writing in a report dated Jan. 17, 1864, McLaws says: “…I merely assert that the 17th Miss., Humphrey’s [sic] Brigade and Phillips Ga. Legion of Woffords Brigade…were selected to lead and did lead the assaulting columns…”

It’s an easy error to make if you only read McLaws initial order for the attack, in which he specifies that the Thirteenth will lead the right-hand column. McLaws apparently changed it later because Fiser, loudly asserting that he would chop down the Northwest Bastion’s flag pole, was obviously the more aggressive of the two regimental colonels.

Belligerence was never the courtly McElroy’s style. “Old chivalry,” as Romy Lowe, one of my fictional Mississippi privates calls him in the novel.

And so, in “Knoxville 1863,” I have the Seventeenth, whose Colonel Fiser has a hatchet clipped to his sword belt to cut down the pole, leading the attack with the Thirteenth coming up behind them.

The argument is more complicated, as most arguments are, and I admit that it’s debatable. Repeated from the earlier history, the third (2002) edition of independent historian Digby Gordon Seymour’s  Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War In East Tennessee, the argument is about whether U.S. Army regular 1LT Samuel Nicoll Benjamin took too much credit for the successful federal defense of the fort, and also whether he unfairly maligned New York political General Edward Ferraro.

It’s the stark difference in rank between Benjamin and Ferraro that seems to animate Seymour and Hess in defending Ferraro from Benjamin who claims the general hid out in a bombproof during the battle and was nowhere to be seen. Which I included in the novel.

Hess finds someone who claims to have seen Ferraro out and about and of course Ferraro himself wrote an after-action report that claims he was in full command. But Ferraro’s subsequent behavior at the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg in 1864 bears out Benjamin.

There Ferraro was drunk in a bombproof behind the lines while his soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops, charged to their deaths in the crater. His presence might not have changed that but the fact remains he wasn’t with them or around to issue them orders. The irony is that, being a New York political general in the first place, he was shortly thereafter promoted.

As for Benjamin’s claim to have built the fort without the help of the engineers, which Hess and Seymour criticize, we can’t be sure how much effort Union engineer Captain Orlando Poe actually put into the job, though we can assume he did some work and therefore that Benjamin is exaggerating.

But Hess cites Poe doing exactly the same thing, declaring that he built Fort Sanders, when it was already there when he got to Knoxville, though only partially constructed. It was the work of Confederate Colonel Danville Leadbetter, who was said to have been the oldest engineer in the Union army when the war began.

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in "Knoxville 1863", Disputes and errors of fact, Fort Sanders, Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Orlando Poe, Samuel Nicoll Benjamin, Seventeenth Mississippi, The Phillips Georgia Legion, Thirteenth Mississippi and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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