‘A Wretchedly Cheerless and Uncomfortable March’ – Union Retreat from Dandridge

January 18, 1864 (Sunday)

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.

-General James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox

When General James Longstreet entered the town, vacated by the Federals only hours before, he could find no way to give chase. He found the citizens to be friendly enough, and found that General Gordon Granger, who had commanded the Union troops the day before, had left his flask in the home of an apparent Southern sympathizer. Longstreet counted this as a sort of contraband and confiscated it with its last two fingers of libation.

General Parke
General Parke

It was noted by Longstreet in his Official Report that the Northern retreat seemed “to have been made somewhat hastily and not in very good order.” However, it was not so hasty that the Federals couldn’t tote along their weapons and accouterments. At the time, Longstreet claimed that half his men were without shoes, and that was the reason why they did not pursue. In his memoirs he stated that “the men without shoes were ordered to remain as camp guards, but many preferred to march with their comrades.” He also made note that “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.” Neither the condition of his army nor the roads over which they must tramp allowed any forward progress.

But all of this was unknown to the Federals. It was either rumor or remembrance that the Confederates had gained the fords of the river, and where threatening to cut off the line of retreat. That was, of course, Longstreet’s goal, but on this date, he wasn’t able to reach it.

Sheridan, here's your wagons.
Sheridan, here’s your wagons.

For General Philip Sheridan, the retreat was a major headache. He had been ordered to build a bridge to aid in a possible advance, and had used all of his wagons in its construction. When it was discovered that the bridge spanned only to an island, and then when the retreat was called, the bridge had to be given up. He made a quick argument that the entire retreat be postponed until he could recover all of the wagons he had sunk into the water. But that idea was refused. “I determined to take upon myself the responsibility of remaining on the ground long enough to get my wagons out of the river,” wrote Sheridan after the war, “so I sent out a heavy force to watch for the enemy, and with the remainder of the command went to work to break up the bridge.” By the dawn of this date, he “recovered everything without interference by Longstreet.”

Sheridan concluded that the Confederates were actually about to march east for Lynchburg, Virginia and that the entire battle of Dandridge was a ruse to throw the Federals off the scent. For the time being, Longstreet had no such desires, and would soon look toward Kentucky as his next target.

By midday, the troops had been on the march for over sixteen hours. It had become clear to General John Parke, overall commander of the Federal army in the field, that Longstreet was not pressing, though the cavalry was nipping at the flanks of the retreating columns. Parke conceded that the “risks for night unknown.”

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

Union General Foster, who was in command at Knoxville, thirty or so miles away, decided that since the army was falling back, they may as well just come all the way back to the city. He had originally sent them northeast to Strawberry Plains and then to Dandridge to block any attempt Longstreet might make upon Knoxville. But now that Longstreet seemed to actually be making such a stab, he decided to concentrate his forces in the city. For a time, he even contemplated giving up Knoxville all together, but after realizing that the move would likely cost him half of his artillery, it was abandoned.

Though the battle of Dandridge was a small affair, and even the retreat all the way back to Knoxville was of little matter, it caused quite a huge stir in Washington. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wrote to General Grant, commanding in Nashville, reminding him that the President and Secretary of War regarded the holding of East Tennessee as “the very greatest importance, both in a political and military point of view, and no effort must be spared to accomplish that object.”

To General George Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, Halleck requested that he “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.” All that Thomas could do at the present, however, was send a few extra supplies and maybe work a little harder on repairing the railroad. Also, he wanted Foster to somehow supply him with a bit of lumber by opening up a sawmill.

General Jacob Cox
General Jacob Cox

Meanwhile, the Federals would continue their retreat as the weather grew colder throughout the day. General Jacob Cox, commanding the Twenty-Third Corps recalled 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.”

When night fell, not all of the troops had made it to Strawberry Plains. Cox’s corps came to within three miles, but could no farther. “We halted the men here and went into bivouac for the night,” recalled Cox. The camp was on a wooded slope, where the men were “sheltered from the storm and where the evergreen boughs were speedily converted into tents of a sort, as well as soft and fragrant beds.”

All in all, Cox remembered, “it had been a wretchedly cheerless and uncomfortable march, but the increasing cold and flying snow made the camp scarcely less inclement.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p126, 127-128, 130; Part 2, p79, ; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; Memoirs by Philip Henry Sheridan; History of the 112th Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry by Bradford F. Thompson; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 2 by Jacob Dolson Cox . []
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‘A Wretchedly Cheerless and Uncomfortable March’ – Union Retreat from Dandridge by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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