During the stalemated investment of Chattanooga, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet quarreled. On President Jefferson Davis' approval, to ease command tensions and divert Union attention from Chattanooga operations, Longstreet, 2 divisions led by Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws and Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins, and 2 artillery battalions under Col. E. Porter Alexander and Maj. Austin Leyden were sent to attack Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's East Tennessee troops at Knoxville. Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's 5,000 cavalry, directed to lend support, brought Longstreet's strength to 17,000 men.
Departing on November 4, Longstreet's force struggled northeast up the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad, arriving in front of the Little Tennessee River near Louden on the 14th. Wheeler traveled east of Longstreet's force to Maryville, which is south of Knoxville. From the 13th, he moved north probing Knoxville's southern approaches; through the 17th, he scouted the south banks of the Holston River west of the city. Longstreet's infantry and artillery crossed the Little Tennessee the night of the 14th, west of louden, alerting a Union outpost. Burnside rushed from Knoxville to organize the withdrawal of advanced IX and XXIII Corps troops in the Louden area.
Travelling parallel northeast routes from the Little Tennessee, Union and Confederate forces shadowed one another through the 15th, Longstreet hoping to attack the Federals near Lenoir. Burnside's troops slipped away and a race began between Confederate and Union forces to reach Campbell's Station, a strategic intersection on the Kingston road to Knoxville; the first to reach it might fend off or capture the other. On the 16th, Burnside's men arrived at the intersection 15 minutes ahead of Longstreet's troops, fought a delaying action until nightfall, and, behind a cavalry screen, retreated into the safety of Knoxville's fortified lines on the 17th. Confederates advanced, probing Knoxville's lines, and drove in an advanced brigade of Union cavalry, killing its commander, Brig. Gen. William P. Sanders. This began the seige of Knoxville.
The city's lines were strengthened by several lunettes; Fort Sanders on the northwest was the most prominate and easily approached. Longstreet targeted it for assault on the 20th, but postponed the attack several times: 2 night attacks were planned and cancelled; an attack was postponed to await the arrivals of 2 reinforcing brigades under Brig. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson; and Sanders was briefly dropped as an objective on advice of consulting engineer Brig. Gen. Danville Leadbetter. Longstreet at last settled again on Sanders, assaulting it at dawn on the 29th. A deep ice-and-rain-slicked ditch around the fort helped defeat the attack. Troops caught there could not mount the parapets and were shot up badly. After withdrawal, a second attack was called off; Longstreet, observing the assault, had been handed a telegram announcing Bragg's retreat from Chattanooga into north Georgia and ordering Longstreet to his support.
Confederate intelligence reported Union troops in the field, either to pursue Bragg or intercept Longstreet. Longstreet decided to remain at Knoxville, draw Federals away from Bragg, then escape. Knoxville stayed beseiged until Confederate withdrawal northwest on the night of December 4. Union Maj. Gen. John G. Parke headed a feeble pursuit. Confederates hiked 5 days to Rogersville, resting and gathering supplies there until the night of the 13th, when they backtracked southeast for a dawn attack on Parke's advance on Bean's Station. The engagement there, where Federals under Brig. Gen. James M. Shackelford escaped capture, effectively ended the Knoxville Campaign.
Skirmishes occured in the surrounding Clinch Mountains district through December. Lomgstreet marched his troops south of the Holston to winter quarters at Russelville on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, remaining there until March, 1864, when ordered to the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate losses in the Knoxville Campaign totaled 1,296 in killed, wounded, and missing. The Federals lost 681. The campaign is widely held to be the Confederates poorest, its major failing most often cited as the splitting of Bragg's forces around Chattanooga, leaving insufficient numbers and supplies for success either there or at Knoxville.