January 28, 1864 – The Federals looked to follow up their victory at Fair Gardens, while Major General Ulysses S. Grant looked to replace the Federal commander at Knoxville.
On the 27th, Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, commanding the cavalry in the Federal Army of the Ohio, defeated half of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate cavalry under Major General William T. Martin with just one division. That night, Sturgis vowed to pursue and destroy the enemy, as locals reported that the retreating Confederates “presented the appearance of a panic-stricken mob as they were running through the mountains.”
The next morning, Sturgis directed his other two divisions to advance on Dandridge, where Longstreet’s corps was based. Martin, calling for reinforcements, received support from cavalry under Brigadier General Frank C. Armstrong and infantry under Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson. The Federals approached the French Broad River and came upon the Confederate reinforcements crossing the waterway and taking up strong defenses.
The Confederates easily repulsed Federal attacks near Swann’s Island. When Sturgis received word that Longstreet was trying to get between the Federal army base at Knoxville and Sturgis’s base at Sevierville, he ordered a withdrawal. The Federals fell back to Sevierville, but when the Confederates advanced to confront them, they continued retreating to Maryville, south of Knoxville.
Longstreet now controlled the region between Sevierville and Dandridge, which provided much-needed forage for his troops. Sturgis reported, “Our loss in this engagement is pretty severe, about eight officers that I now know of, and a great many men I fear.” He also regretted the loss of Sevierville, stating, “It is hard to leave these loyal people to the mercies of the enemy, but it can’t be helped. If I had had a division of infantry at Sevierville, I could have annihilated both these divisions of rebel cavalry…”
Meanwhile, General Grant, commanding the Federal Military Division of the Mississippi, continued pressing Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Army of the Ohio, to send his entire army to confront Longstreet. Foster had resisted, citing the unforgiving countryside, his troops’ lack of supplies, and his own condition (he was still recovering from a wound that needed treatment).
Grant responded, “While you may deem it impracticable to immediately assume the offensive against Longstreet, keep at least far out toward him active parties to watch his movements and impede any advance he may make by positive resistance.” Unaware of the fighting between Sturgis and Martin, Grant advised Foster to “be prepared at any moment on receipt of orders for offensive operations.”
Grant contacted Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, and reiterated that Foster may need his help. Thomas replied, “I am trying to get up forage enough for a 10-days’ expedition, and if successful will make a strong demonstration on Dalton and Resaca (in Georgia), unless Longstreet’s movements compel me to go to East Tennessee.”
Revisiting Foster’s request to be removed as commander so he could tend to his wound, Grant considered several candidates. These included Thomas and Major General James B. McPherson, commanding a corps in the Army of the Tennessee. Ultimately, Major General John Schofield was chosen, having recently been removed as commander of the contentious Department of Missouri. Schofield headed toward his new assignment as Foster prepared to obey Grant’s orders to launch an offensive.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 392; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 252-53; Wilson, David L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 642