I wanted to do something special in honor of Veteran’s Day, and I think the best way to
do that is to let one of Mississippi’s Confederate soldiers speak for himself. The following letter was written by Edward M. Burruss, a private in Company D, 21st Mississippi Infantry, about the assault made by his brigade at the Battle of Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 29, 1863. As fate would have it, the 21st Mississippi was placed in reserve for the attack, so Burruss had to watch as his fellow Mississippians assaulted Fort Sanders, a nearly impregnable Yankee bastion. His words are a much better tribute to the valor of Mississippi’s Civil war soldiers than anything I could ever possibly write:
On the morning of the 29th Nov. an attack on the fort was ordered – This fort was what is known as a Star Fort – the strongest of all forts – & it was the most immense work of any kind that I have ever seen. It was protected by an abattis of several hundred yards width – All this was reported to Genl. Longstreet & also the fact that the parapet was insurmountable without ladders. Longstreet however was pleased to prefer the information of his staff officers who ‘had scrutinized the work with strong field glasses’ at the distance of a mile or mile & a half, to that of men & officers who had been skirmishing for a week within 350 or 400 yards of the fort – So the attack was ordered without any of the proper arrangements.
Two regiments of our brigade & two from Genl. Bryant’s were ordered for the ‘Forlorn Hope.’ It was the turn of the 13th & 17th [Mississippi] to go on picket that morning & of the 18th & 21st to support – consequently it fell to the lot of the 13th & 17th to bear the brunt of the fight while we supported…It was an intensely, bitterly cold morning – water froze on my whiskers while washing my face & if there had been no other reason this should have been sufficient to defer the charge – It was awful – almost apalling to think of fighting – of getting wounded on such a morning. However Longstreet had ordered it & it must be done & not a murmur did I hear.
About half an hour before day break we were drawn up in line of battle as near the fort as possible without being seen & awaited the signal which was to be the opening of a battery in quick succession on our right as soon as the gunners could see to shoot. My eyes were watery from cold but this became more so from deeper cause as I looked down the line of half clothed, less than half shod heroes & saw their knees actually smiting together & their teeth russling like dry bones – but not from fright; watched their look of calm confidence & then thought of the terrible struggle that awaited them.
However just after day’s break the guns on our right crashed forth their ‘loud alarm’ one, two, three, four, five & at the some time the sharp shooters in our front opened, sounding like a cane-break on fire. Every one straightened himself into position & drew a quick breath; ‘forward the 13th & 17th’ & it seemed to me that I could see the words before me freeze into a tangible form & shape. The 18th & 21st stood fast.
I watched the colors of the two regiments as they struggled forward through bushes &
briars & over rocks & logs. The Yankees were taken partially by surprise & we did not meet the resistance expected. It was enough however as it was. I watched the flags getting nearer & nearer the fort, suddenly they went down almost out of sight but came up again & I saw the color-bearer of the 17th scramble about half way up the parapet, plant his flag staff in the side & then fall back headlong in the ditch. We thought the fort carried & raised a yell of admiration & encouragement – the work had not commenced.
Instead of there being not a ditch in front – nothing but the parapet to climb over – as Longstreet’s allwise staff had represented there was a ditch of from 4 to 8 feet deep & from 10 to 14 feet wide – which made the parapet from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the work about 18 feet high. You must remember also that the ground was frozen hard as a rock: the boys would scramble up the sides – the powder of the Yankees guns burning their faces – one would slip & in falling knock a dozen back in the ditch. What few reached the top were shot like hogs & fell headforemost inside the fort.
Still they might have succeeded – nay probably would – but about that time Colonel Ruff commanding Wofford’s Brigade misunderstood his instructions & instead of simply acting as support brought up to the fort the whole brigade. This was of course twice the number necessary: they crowded one another the different commands became mixed & confused & finally Wofford’s men fled ingloriously. Still our brigade & Bryant’s fought on until finally General Humphreys though best to order them to fall back before they were all killed – & thus ended the Battle of Knoxville.
The slaughter of the 13th & 17th Mississippi regiments was every bit as bad as Burruss described it. In his after action report, General Benjamin Humphreys stated that the two regiments lost 140 men killed, wounded, or missing in the assault. He then paid tribute
to his men saying: “I am called upon to notice the patience, fortitude, and constancy with which the troops endured the privations and hardships of the campaign; the ardor, zeal, and courage with which they discharged every duty; and especially the valor and heroic daring of the Thirteenth and Seventeenth Mississippi Regiments in the assault.”
Edward M. Burruss, the eloquent writer of this letter, continued to serve in the ranks as a private until he was badly wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Never able to return to the 21st Mississippi, he survived the war, and returned home. He died in 1878 and is buried in Bowling Green Cemetery, Woodville, Mississippi.