Rearguard action fought during the Knoxville campaign (American Civil War). A Confederate army of around 20,000 men under James Longstreet had been detached from the army besieging Chattanooga on 4 November and sent up the Tennessee valley in an attempt to recapture Knoxville. Knoxville, at the heart of Unionist east Tennessee, had been liberated by a Federal army under General Burnside on 3 September.
Longstreet needed a quick victory. U. S. Grant had taken command at Chattanooga and was busily preparing to attack the Confederate army around the city. Longstreet's mission was to capture Knoxville and return to Chattanooga before Grant could launch that attack. His biggest problem was the limited amount of rail transport available on the line between Chattanooga and Knoxville. It took him until 13 November to reach the Tennessee River at Huff's Ferry, two miles below the railroad crossing of the river at Loudon (the railroad bridge had earlier been destroyed by retreating Confederates).
Overnight on 13-14 November the Confederate force crossed the Tennessee River on a pontoon bridge. Burnside had been alerted to their presence, and had moved most of his command to the area between Loudon and Knoxville. The defences of Knoxville were not ready to withstand a siege, and so Burnside intended to fight a delaying action along the line of the railroad to give his engineers at Knoxville more time to work. He also needed time to return his artillery to Knoxville along the railroad.
The Confederate advance turned into a running battle. On 15 November Burnside was camped at Lenoir. Before daylight on the following day, Burnside despatched General Hartranft's division to seize a road junction at Campbell's Station. The rest of the army then moved past this position to form a defensive line about three quarters of a mile further on. Hartfraft repulsed an attack by McLaws's Confederate division, then joined Burnside's line.
At about twelve Longstreet launched an attack on the Federal line, hoping to turn both flanks. His attack on the Federal right came clossest to success, forcing one brigade to change front (move to face in another direction to deal with an attack on its flank). The attack on the left was less successful, but Burnside noticed that Longstreet was moving towards some high ground on the Federal left, and at about 2 p.m. ordered a withdrawal to another ridge, about three quarters of a mile to the rear.
His army was in place on the new line by 4 p.m., just in time to repel a determined attack on its left flank (again by McLaws's division). Another Confederate division made an attempt to march around the Union left flank, but on this short winter day darkness stopped it. After dark Burnside withdrew from the field, and the next morning his troops started to arrive back at Knoxville. Both sides probably suffered about 300 casualties, but as Burnside's artillery and supply trains had been able to return to Knoxville, Campbell's Station can be counted as a Union victory. If Longstreet had managed to win a victory at Campbell's Station, the siege of Knoxville may well have followed a very different course, if it had happened at all.