January 26, 1864 – Federals and Confederates clashed for two days, resulting in minor victories for both sides in this forbidding region of eastern Tennessee.
Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio from Knoxville, had been pressured by his superior, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, to drive the enemy out of eastern Tennessee. A portion of Foster’s army had clashed with Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederates at Dandridge, and Longstreet had threatened to pursue the Federals all the way back to Knoxville.
Foster feared that Longstreet might have been reinforced to the point that he could lay siege to Knoxville once more. But after receiving further information, Foster reported to Grant on the 22nd, “The enemy presses vigorously, and is about seven miles from town… I am now satisfied that Longstreet has been considerably re-enforced, but not large enough, I think, to warrant his renewing the siege of this place.” Scouts informed Foster that Longstreet’s Confederates still held Dandridge and had been reinforced by a division.
The next day, Federal scouts from Major General Jacob D. Cox’s XXIII Corps probed for nearby Confederates but could not find them. Foster reported that “the rebels have ceased to press vigorously.” With Longstreet no longer an immediate threat, Foster stated that it was “absolutely necessary that the army have rest.” He then informed Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, that “the enemy has retired and I am now putting the tired troops in cantonment, where they may rest a little before the spring campaign.”
Foster placed IX Corps between Longstreet and Knoxville, and IV and XXIII corps on the Tennessee River, with the former at Kingston and the latter at Loudon. He continued complaining of supply shortages, stating that “the bread thus far received from Chattanooga has not amounted to one-tenth of the ration. We now have only enough for the hospitals.”
Meanwhile, Grant misinterpreted Foster’s messages to mean that Longstreet was still pursuing the Federals. He asked Foster if he could “organize a cavalry force to work its way past Longstreet south of him, to get into his rear and destroy railroad and transportation, or cannot (Orlando) Willcox (who temporarily commanded IX Corps) do this from the north?” If this could not be done, Grant ordered Foster to see that battle was “given where Longstreet is now.”
Grant then asked Thomas to send the rest of IV Corps to reinforce Foster, and “take the command in person, and on arrival at Knoxville to take command of all the forces” since Foster was suffering from a wound that made it “impossible for him to take the field. In justice to himself, and as I want Longstreet routed and pursued beyond the limits of the State of Tennessee, it is necessary to have a commander physically able for the task.”
Grant wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who had pressed Grant to keep the Federal hold on eastern Tennessee:
“Foster telegraphs that Longstreet is still advancing toward Knoxville. I have directed him to get his cavalry to Longstreet’s rear, or give battle if necessary. I will send Thomas with additional troops to insure Longstreet’s being driven from the state.”
Andrew Johnson, Tennessee’s military governor, joined with Grant in urging a command change at Knoxville. However, Johnson did not have Thomas in mind. He wrote President Abraham Lincoln on the 24th, “I hope that it will be consistent with the public interest for General (Ambrose E.) Burnside to be sent back to East Tennessee. He is the man; the people want him; he will inspire more confidence than any other man at this time.” But Burnside had left the Army of the Ohio to oversee soldier recruitment in his native New England.
While the opposing infantries settled into tenuous winter quarters in eastern Tennessee, the opposing cavalries continued their foraging and scouting operations. Both Federals and Confederates operated around the French Broad River, skirmishing from time to time as the Federals held the south bank and the Confederates held the north. Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, commanding the Federal cavalry, lamented that stripping the countryside of foodstuffs forced civilians to starve:
“I do not know that it can be avoided, but I may say that it is a pity that circumstances should compel us to entirely exhaust the country of these loyal people. If we remain here long they must suffer, and it will be impossible for them to raise anything next year. The necessity for pressing supplies leads immediately to plundering that soldiers find no difficulty in taking the step from the one to the other, and in spite of all I can do to the contrary. It is distressing to witness the sufferings of these people at the hands of the friends for whom they have been so long and so anxiously looking. You cannot help it; neither can I, and I only refer to it because my heart is full of it.”
Both sides had to venture farther and farther from their bases to find food, and soon Longstreet’s Confederates were out near Newport, some 15 miles east of their base. Moxley Sorrell, Longstreet’s aide-de-camp, advised, “As the enemy has now a large force on the south side of the French Broad, it will be necessary for your operations and movements to be conducted with great caution.”
Grant’s orders to drive Longstreet out of the region filtered down to Sturgis, commanding the Federal cavalry, who was to push the Confederates out of their winter quarters at Morristown and Russellville. Foster informed Grant that Sturgis was preparing to move, “but thus far he has found it impossible to execute it from the opposition met with and the worn-down condition of the horses. I do not think it practicable at this time to advance in force and attack Longstreet at Morristown.”
Foster then referred to his own condition, which was made worse by the terrible weather: “The sooner I obtain relief by an operation, the sooner I can return to active duty. Cannot I leave now for this purpose?” Grant briefly considered taking command himself as he began searching for a suitable replacement.
Foster did not want to fight Longstreet, but a fight was coming regardless. Sturgis left his base at Sevierville on the 26th, heading north and east toward Dandridge. As the Federals approached, Longstreet dispatched his cavalry under Major General William T. Martin to cross the French Broad and attack Sturgis’s rear. The Confederates rode to the Fair Gardens area, about 10 miles east of Sevierville.
As skirmishing began, Sturgis initially reported that the Confederates were “making no very determined assault.” However, Martin’s troopers eventually drove one of Sturgis’s regiments to the fork in the Sevierville road leading to either Fair Gardens or Newport.
A Confederate detachment attacked Federals under Colonel Frank Wolford northeast of Sevierville and pushed them toward the town as the day ended. Sturgis reported from Sevierville, “Many of his (Wolford’s) men came into this place and report that the enemy had infantry.” Sturgis began concentrating his cavalry while calling for infantry support. He wrote Foster, “The enemy is evidently very strong and exultant over their last few days’ operations. We will do the best we can, but I do not feel like promising much.”
By the next day, the Confederates had concentrated on the Newport road, with their line running from near the Dickey House southeast to McNutt’s Bridge on the Big East Fork of the Little Pigeon River. On the Federal side, Sturgis was now reinforced by three infantry regiments. Sturgis decided to act first and sent his Federals against Martin’s troopers.
Supported by artillery, the Federals pushed the Confederates back a mile before crossing the East Fork under cover of their guns. The two sides charged and countercharged, with neither giving ground as the Confederates made a stand near McNutt’s Bridge. Colonel Oscar La Grange’s Federal brigade charged a Confederate battery, and a group of soldiers rallied around their flag. According to La Grange, the guns were captured, “the drivers sabered, and the teams stopped in a deep cut within a quarter of a mile.”
Martin finally fell back to Fair Gardens. The Federals sustained 60 to 70 casualties, while the Confederates lost 312 (200 killed or wounded and 112 captured), along with two guns. Sturgis had defeated Longstreet’s cavalry using just one of his three cavalry divisions. Sturgis claimed, “In the whole day’s fighting their loss must be very large.” Longstreet confirmed this:
“General Martin had a severe cavalry fight on the 27th. He was driven back four miles, with a loss of 200 killed, wounded, and missing, and 2 pieces of artillery. The enemy’s cavalry has been greatly increased by the cavalry from Chattanooga. Most of the cavalry force from that place is now here… We can do but little while this superior cavalry force is here to operate on our flank and rear. Do send me a chief of cavalry.”
Sturgis declared, “We will pursue them until we drive them out of the country, or are driven out ourselves.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 391-92; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 252-53