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The Federal Commanders at Buffington - Part IV: William P. Sanders

When one hears about the Buffington Island battle, we often hear about John H. Morgan and the Confederate point of view, but we rarely delve into the Federal leadership. This series of posts will talk about the various Union brigade and provisional division commanders in an effort to bring to light their stories. In the first post we presented Brigadier General Edward H. Hobson and in the second installment we covered Colonel August V. Kautz. Our third post was about Henry M. Judah. Today's post focuses on the man whose promising Civil War career was cut short by a sharpshooter's bullet at Knoxville, William P. Sanders.


William P. Sanders

William Price Sanders was born on August 12th, 1833 near Kentucky's capitol of Frankfort, but at the age of six his father, being from Mississippi, moved the family to Natchez, where Sanders would spend his youth. Sanders politically connected father, attorney Lewis Sanders, would secure an appointment for his son to the United States Military Academy, William attending West Point 1852 to 1856. Sanders would graduate forty-first in his class (out of forty-nine), which included Robert E. Lee's nephew Fitzhugh Lee . He was not a stellar cadet, and was slated for dismissal in 1854 (the dismissal having been signed by Lee), but his politically connected father, along with Sanders' cousin, then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, were able to intervene and prevent Sanders' dismissal. Sanders would see service in the dragoons in the western territories, and when the Civil War started Sanders would stay loyal to the Union. As a member of the Second Dragoons (later renamed the Sixth Cavalry), Sanders would be promoted to first lieutenant then four days later to captain, and would serve in Virginia and at Antietam. When Ambrose Burnside became commander of the Department of the Ohio, he gave Sanders a command in the department and Sanders went to Cincinnati. On March 4th, 1863 Sanders received a promotion to colonel of the Fifth Kentucky Cavalry and a month later was appointed chief of cavalry of the District of Central Kentucky (within the Department of the Ohio).


Burnside directed Sanders to launch a raid into east Tennessee, and on June 14th Sanders would lead 1,500 mounted troops and two artillery pieces on what would be known as Sanders' Knoxville Raid (on this raid was Meigs Countian William McKnight). The object of the raid was to destroy bridges along the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. This important line was one of the main arteries supporting the Confederate forces in the Eastern Theater. Departing Mount Vernon, Kentucky, Sanders' force would move through Williamsburg before crossing into Tennessee. The column would pass near Huntsville, then bear southwest towards Kingston. A primary goal of the raid was to destroy the bridge at Loudon, but it was found to be too heavily guarded, so Sanders turned towards Lenoir Station, wreaking havoc to the rails, telegraph lines, and burning depots as well. All along the raid this was the result - destruction to Confederate infrastructure and a disruption to the flow of supplies. Sanders would move around Knoxville and push north towards the gaps along Powell and Cumberland Mountains. The Federals lost less than twenty men on the raid, while burning three railroad bridges, capturing and paroling nearly 500 Confederates, capturing numerous horses, and three guns. Sanders was forced to abandoned all the artillery in the steep climb over Cumberland Mountain. The eleven day raid was deemed a success.

A Spencer Rifle issued to the Ninth Michigan Cavalry Regiment

After the east Tennessee raid Sanders was sent as part of the Federal forces that would pursue John H. Morgan during the Great Raid. On the field of battle at Buffington Island, Sanders would be leading a small brigade of Michigan troops, consisting of the Eighth and Ninth Michigan Cavalry Regiments and a two gun section of the Eleventh Michigan Battery. The impact of this brigade is often overlooked, but being armed with primarily Spencer rifles, the small number of troopers (about 250 men) were able to create a large volume of fire due to their seven-shot repeaters.


Arriving on what is now the Bald Knob-Stiversville Road, the Michigan troops moved east and then swung north and northeast, pushing the retreating Confederates towards the north end of the Portland Bottoms (indicated by the numbers 7 and 9 on the map).


After the Great Raid Sanders would be appointed chief of cavalry for the Army of the Ohio and shortly thereafter be appointed to brigadier general (the nomination however was never confirmed by the United States Senate). Sanders would command a brigade and then later a division during Ambrose Burnsides' defense of Knoxville.


Sanders' life would soon be cut short by a sharpshooter's bullet as Sanders was defending the Kingston Road one mile from Knoxville. Mortally wounded on November 18th, 1863, Sanders was taken to the Lamar House in Knoxville, where he would die the next day. Initially buried in Knoxville, his remains would be taken to the Chattanooga National Cemetery. One of the defensive positions was renamed Fort Sanders in his honor, and was successfully defended ten days after Sanders' death.



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