January 17, 1864 – Federals and Confederates moved toward Dandridge to gather much-needed foodstuffs for the hungry troops in the bitter eastern Tennessee winter.
The Federal Army of the Ohio, stationed at Strawberry Plains, had stripped the surrounding countryside of forage. The troops therefore began moving toward Dandridge, an important crossroads town near the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, that promised more provisions. They were led by Major General Philip Sheridan.
Federal cavalry under Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis drove off Confederate horsemen probing near the town, unaware that Lieutenant General James Longstreet had mobilized his infantry to seize Dandridge as well. Most of Sturgis’s men took the Morristown Road to Kimbrough’s Crossroads, while a detachment met enemy cavalry southeast of Dandridge, at the bend of Chunky Road. When these Federals could not drive the Confederates off, they fell back to Dandridge.
Sturgis received word on the 17th that the Confederates were preparing to attack, and he invited Sheridan to come watch him “whip the enemy’s cavalry.” Sheridan declined, as he was still leading his infantry toward Dandridge. Sturgis readied for the enemy horsemen, but he was surprised to see that they were backed by Longstreet’s infantry. Sturgis fell back to join the main Federal force.
Sheridan set up defenses outside Dandridge and called on the remaining troops under Major Generals Gordon Granger and John G. Parke for support. As the Federals probed the Confederate lines about four miles from town, Longstreet’s troops moved around the Federals’ flank and nearly into their rear. Longstreet did not send his heavy guns with them because “the ringing of the iron axles of the guns might give notice to our purpose.”
Granger arrived to take command, and Sheridan’s division began building a bridge below Dandridge that would allow the Federals to forage in the region and return to their camps at Strawberry Plains and Knoxville. Sheridan’s bridge was seemingly completed, “but to his mortification, he found at dark that he was on an island, and that it would require four more hours to complete this bridge.”
Longstreet arranged his men in attack positions around 4 p.m. Parke, who had arrived on the scene with Granger and Sheridan, reported to Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Army of the Ohio from Knoxville, at 6:30 p.m.:
“There is no doubt that Longstreet’s whole force is immediately in our front on the Bull’s Gap and the Bend of Chunky Roads. They advanced on us this evening. We have no means of crossing the river. I shall fall back on Strawberry Plains.”
According to Longstreet, “As the infantry had had a good long march before reaching the ground, we only had time to get our position a little after dark. During the night the enemy retired to New Market and to Strawberry Plains, leaving his dead upon the ground.” Granger issued the orders to withdraw at 9 p.m. The Federals left their partially completed bridge behind.
As the Confederates camped for the night, Foster feared they may have been reinforced by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. However, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck informed him that according to the latest intelligence, “Longstreet has had no re-enforcements from Lee of late.”
The Confederates entered Dandridge on the morning of the 18th. In his memoirs, Longstreet wrote:
“When I rode into Dandridge in the gray of the morning the ground was thawing and hardly firm enough to bear the weight of a horse. When the cavalry came at sunrise the last crust of ice had melted, letting the animals down to their fetlocks in heavy limestone soil. The mud and want of a bridge to cross the Holston made pursuit by our heavy columns useless.”
Longstreet noted that the Federal retreat seemed “to have been made somewhat hastily and not in very good order.” He began a half-hearted pursuit, and “the men without shoes were ordered to remain as camp guards, but many preferred to march with their comrades.” The Confederates could not make much progress because “the bitter freeze of two weeks had made the rough angles of mud as firm and sharp as so many freshly-quarried rocks, and the partially protected feet of our soldiers sometimes left bloody marks along the roads.”
The Federals continued falling back, as Foster directed them to keep retreating all the way to Knoxville. Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding XXIII Corps, stated that “in the afternoon, the rain changed to moist driving snow. The sleepy, weary troops toiled doggedly on; the wagons and cannon were helped over the bad places in the way, for we were determined not to abandon any, and the enemy was not hurrying us.”
Stopping short of Strawberry Plains that night, Cox recalled, “We halted the men here and went into bivouac for the night… sheltered from the storm and where the evergreen boughs were speedily converted into tents of a sort, as well as soft and fragrant beds.” Cox wrote that “it had been a wretchedly cheerless and uncomfortable march, but the increasing cold and flying snow made the camp scarcely less inclement.”
This small engagement at Dandridge caused an uproar in Washington, as officials believed that the Federals might abandon eastern Tennessee altogether. Halleck reminded Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Western Theater, that President Abraham Lincoln considered holding the region “the very greatest importance, both in a political and military point of view, and no effort must be spared to accomplish that object.”
Halleck then asked Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, to “please give particular attention to the situation of General Foster’s army in East Tennessee, and give him all the aid which he may require and you may be able to render.” Thomas could do nothing except ship more supplies to Foster’s army. The Federal high command would eventually realize that the engagement did not portend the disaster that they feared.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 390