Eastern Tennessee: Longstreet Wins and Foster Leaves

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.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

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.

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References

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

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Eastern Tennessee: The Sevierville Engagement

January 26, 1864 – Federals and Confederates clashed for two days, resulting in minor victories for both sides in this forbidding region of eastern Tennessee.

Gen J.G. Foster | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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.

Gen S.D. Sturgis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

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References

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

Turmoil in Missouri Continues

January 22, 1864 – The Lincoln administration tried addressing the troubling state of Missouri with a reorganization designed to help both militarily and politically.

Federal Maj Gen John M. Schofield | Image Credit: Flickr.com

After three years of war, Missouri remained a state in turmoil. Major military activity had ended long ago, but raiding and skirmishing continued at countless points, and the political situation was in great disarray. Major General John Schofield, heading the Department of the Missouri, had caused much dissension between the Radicals from Kansas and the conservative Missourians within the Republican Party.

Schofield tried striking a balance between the two factions by supporting conservatives for public office while voicing support for President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He ended up being mistrusted by both. A delegation had gone to Washington last fall to demand that Lincoln replace Schofield with Benjamin F. Butler, but Lincoln refused.

Lincoln backed the new Unionist government in Missouri, which was largely made up of conservatives like himself. He urged Schofield to avoid politics whenever possible and enforce the new state laws. When Schofield employed the state militia, Radicals accused him of consorting with Confederates and demanded that the militia be absorbed into the Federal army.

In December, Schofield became embroiled in more controversy when he refused to endorse the Radical candidate running for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln summoned the general to Washington, where Schofield explained that Kansas and Missouri were just too divided politically to be reconciled. Lincoln tried solving this problem by splitting up the Department of the Missouri.

Under General Order No. 1, a renewed Department of Kansas was created, which included Kansas, the Nebraska Territory, and Fort Smith, Arkansas. This limited Schofield’s department to Missouri, Arkansas (except Fort Smith), and Alton, Illinois. Major General Samuel R. Curtis was assigned to command the Department of Kansas.

Next, a new Department of Arkansas was created to strip Schofield of authority over that state. Major General Frederick Steele would head this new department, which controlled all of Arkansas except Fort Smith. Steele was assigned to not only conquer the areas currently under Confederate control but also restore the state to the Union under Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan.”

Third, a new Northern Department was created to strip Schofield of authority over Alton, Illinois. Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman was assigned to command this entity, which encompassed Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, with headquarters at Columbus, Ohio.

And finally, Schofield himself would be replaced by Major General William S. Rosecrans, the recently deposed commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans’s detractors had condemned him for failing to break the siege of Chattanooga, while his supporters claimed that he would have broken it had he been given more time. Lincoln, always willing to give a general a second chance, saw this as an opportunity to restart both military and political relations in Missouri. Schofield, whom Lincoln did not blame for the state’s troubles, would eventually come east to head the Army of the Ohio.

Meanwhile, the provisional Unionist government in Missouri was dealt a blow when its governor, Hamilton R. Gamble, died. He was replaced by Lieutenant Governor Willard Hall, who assured his fellow Unionist Missourians that he would continue enforcing Gamble’s policies, which included backing the Unionist forces in driving all Confederate sympathizers out of the state.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 361; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407-08, 502; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 387-88, 391, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 452, 455, 457-59; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 537; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 23, 176; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Reconstruction Gets Under Way in Tennessee

January 21, 1864 – Unionists assembled at Nashville and approved a resolution forming a constitutional convention to restore Tennessee to the Union.

17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson | Image Credit: learnnc.org

Military Governor Andrew Johnson, who attended the assembly, called upon the delegates to form a new government. He urged them, “Begin at the foundation, elect the lower officers, and, step by step, put the government in motion.”

Regarding who should be allowed to vote in the election for convention delegates, Johnson declared that anyone “who has engaged in this Rebellion has been, by his own act, expatriated” and thus had no right to suffrage “until he has filed his declaration and taken the oath of allegiance.” Johnson went further than other governors by equating Confederates with foreigners, but at the same time he opened a path for them to regain their rights as citizens.

Johnson hoped to encourage Confederates to lay down their arms and pledge loyalty to the Union by announcing that he was “for a white man’s Government, and in favor of free white qualified voters controlling this country, without regard to Negroes.”

As for the slavery issue, Johnson said, “Now is the time to settle it.” He alleged that the Confederates had “commenced the destruction of the Government for the preservation of slavery, and the Government is putting down the Rebellion, and, in the preservation of its own existence, has put slavery down, justly and rightfully, and upon correct principles.”

There was no need to debate emancipation, as it was already being done in Tennessee. According to Johnson, the main focus should now be on restoring a Unionist government while “leaving the Negroes out of the question.” After that, the next phase would be “assigning the Negro his new relation” to whites in society. And since slaves outnumbered free blacks in Tennessee, it should be as simple to “contain them in one condition as in another.”

Of the black man, Johnson asserted, “If he can rise by his own energies, in the name of God let him rise,” though he reminded his white Unionist audience that he did not “argue that the Negro race is equal to the Anglo-Saxon–not at all.” In keeping with President Abraham Lincoln’s policy of colonization, Johnson expressed hope that “the Negro will be transferred to Mexico, or some other country congenial to his nature, where there is not that difference in class or distinction, in reference to blood or color.”

After ranging over various other topics, Johnson returned to the task at hand of restoring Tennessee to the Union. He concluded, “Things have a beginning, and you have put the ball in motion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 361; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 456

Confederates Target New Bern

January 20, 1864 – Confederate commanders looked to take back a key point on the North Carolina coast to better feed their armies.

Federal forces had captured New Bern, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, in early 1862. Since then, the Confederates made sporadic attempts to take it back, but by this time, it had become an important objective because the Federal warehouses there could feed the Confederate armies through the winter.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

New Bern was especially important to General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in ravaged, war-torn Virginia. If Confederate forces could seize the town, they could use the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad to transport the foodstuffs and supplies north into Virginia.

Now that the Federal and Confederate armies in northern Virginia had gone into winter quarters, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”

Lee acknowledged that the Federal garrison at New Bern had been strongly fortified, but it “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” So were the Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby waters.

Lee stated, “A bold party could descend the Neuse (River) in boats at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.” To do this, and to secure the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” there, “a bold naval officer” and experienced men would be needed. Lee asked, “Can they be had?”

Davis responded two days later, “Your suggestion is approved, but who can and will execute it?” Davis stated that a naval fleet could not be assembled any time soon. He also suggested that Lee should lead the New Bern operation himself:

“You could give it form, which would insure success… without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered… It would be well to send the brigade, and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”

Lee waited over two weeks to reply, “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” Without acknowledging Davis’s offer to personally lead the troops in the attack, Lee stated he would take command, “but I consider my presence here (in northern Virginia) always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” Lee also reiterated the need for a gunboat fleet, writing, “With their aid I think success would be certain.”

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Leadership ultimately devolved upon Major General George Pickett, who had taken command of the Department of North Carolina last fall. Pickett’s force would consist of 13,000 infantrymen, 900 cavalry troopers, and 17 guns. Lee worked with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, Pickett’s second-in-command, to develop the attack plan. It began with 14 naval cutters under Commander John T. Wood clearing the Federal gunboats off the Neuse River, thus “driving the enemy from their guns” on shore. Pickett would then launch a three-pronged advance:

  • An infantry force, Brigadier General Seth M. Barton’s 600 cavalry, and 14 guns would attack New Bern from the southwest, below the Trent River.
  • An infantry force, Colonel James Dearing’s 300 cavalry, and three guns would advance from the northeast and capture Fort Anderson, across the Neuse from New Bern.
  • Hoke’s division, joined by Pickett, would advance on New Bern from the northwest.

In addition to these joint army-navy operations, Brigadier General William H.C. Whiting, commanding Confederates at Wilmington, would move 35 miles southeast to attack the Federal garrison at Morehead City. Lee wrote Pickett, “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements.” Lee recommended troop placements and authorized Pickett to abort the attack if necessary. He then stated, “If successful, everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.”

From there, Lee urged Pickett to oversee “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.” Offering more specifics, Lee instructed, “If you have to use the telegraph, merely say, ‘The day is’–name the day of the month; he (Whiting) will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”

Lee directed Hoke to personally deliver the instructions to Pickett and “explain to him fully the plan of operations.” As Hoke moved his Confederates south into North Carolina, he was to coordinate efforts with draft officials “to get conscripts and recruits.”

The mobilization began on the 30th, and Pickett’s forces began arriving outside New Bern the next day. The operation continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524

Reconstruction Begins in Arkansas

January 19, 1864 – A legally dubious convention amended the Arkansas constitution to abolish slavery in the state.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Delegates assembled at Little Rock to consider constitutional changes, the most important of which was to end slavery in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. The delegates were not popularly elected to represent the people of Arkansas, and as they debated, the popularly elected (pro-Confederate) state government continued functioning in southwestern Arkansas, which was not yet under Federal military occupation.

Under this amended Unionist constitution, Arkansas was now eligible to be restored to the U.S. Convention delegates approved submitting the constitution to a popular vote on March 14. Those eligible to vote would be white men who swore allegiance to the Union. Lincoln wrote Major General Frederick Steele, commanding the Federal occupation forces in the Department of Arkansas:

“Sundry citizens of the State of Arkansas petitioned me that an election may be held in that State, in which to elect a Governor; that it be assumed at that election, and thenceforward, that the Constitution and laws of the State, as before the rebellion, are in full force, except that the Constitution is so modified as to declare that there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…”

According to Lincoln, the legality of the constitutional convention was not to be questioned; as long as the delegates voted to abolish slavery, Steele was authorized to “fix the rest.” The delegates elected Isaac Murphy as provisional governor until the elections were held in March. Lincoln would leave Steele to work with civil authorities on the details of forming the new Unionist government for Arkansas, as long as those details included ending slavery.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16868-85; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 360-61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10303; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 390-91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 456-58; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Eastern Tennessee: The Dandridge Engagement

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.

Gen S.D. Sturgis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 390