January 17, 1864 (Sunday)
General Philip Sheridan had arrived late the previous night, too late to make any difference to the small skirmishes that had kicked up around Dandridge, Tennessee. So confident had been General Sturgis of victory, and so ignorant was he of the true numbers of Rebels, that he had invited Sheridan to witness his troopers “whip the enemy’s cavalry.” Sheridan politely demurred as he found himself in charge of the two corps of troops winding their way from Strawberry Plains, north of Knoxville, to Dandridge.
Federal cavalry tangled with not only their Rebel counterparts, but also infantry under the command of James Longstreet. It had been unexpected, and though Samuel Sturgis, leading the Union troopers, had successfully driven off the Rebel horse soldiers, the infantry was another matter entirely.
With the arrival of the Federal troops under Sheridan, things on this morning seemed more or less even. He had placed his troops around the town before putting in a call for both Generals Gordon Granger, commanding the Fourth Corps, and John Parke, commanding the entire army.
From all reports, not only was Longstreet’s entire corps near by, but he had been reinforced by as many as two divisions from General Lee’s army in Virginia. Their object, it seemed, was to break through or perhaps around the Federal army and reinvest Knoxville.
Through the night, Longstreet, like Sheridan, had readied his men, strengthening their lines as new units arrived. But the morning was quiet, each side probing and searching for the other. The Federals discovered the Rebel line four miles from the town, and by all appearances, they were about to attack.
This was true. Longstreet had discovered a way to get around the Federal flank nearly to the rear. He had originally wished to send artillery, but figured “the ringing of the iron axles of the guns might give notice to our purpose.” Instead, he sent sharpshooters followed by dismounted cavalry from John Bell Hood’s old Division.
General Granger had arrived and took command of the Union forces from Sheridan, who saw to his own division. His objective for the day was to build a bridge below Dandridge so foraging parties could ply their trade without tangling with the Rebels. Oddly, few reports made mention of the thrust, and so it was probably little more than a demonstration.
Sheridan had agreed to build it on the condition that each division contribute twenty-five wagons that he could disassemble and transform into a span. “As my quota of wagons arrived,” wrote Sheridan after the war, “they were drawn into the stream one after another by the wheel team, six men in each wagon, and as they successively reached the other side of the channel the mules unhitched, the pole of each wagon run under the hind axle of the one just in front, and the tailboards used so as to span the slight space between them.”
Sheridan’s plan worked splendidly until he ran out of wagons and had to use all of his own division’s to make it across. When the bridge was complete, he crossed a brigade, “but to his mortification,” relayed General Parke in his report submitted the following day, “he found at dark that he was on an island, and that it would require four more hours to complete this bridge.”
By dark, or at least 4pm, General Longstreet was finally ready to attack. “As the infantry had had a good long march before reaching the ground,” wrote Longstreet in his report, “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.”
General Parke described the situation it in a 6:30pm dispatch to General Foster in Knoxville: “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.”
As the Federals retreated from Dandridge through the dark, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck was learning that it was highly unlikely that Longstreet had been reinforced by Lee. General Meade had taken a short leave from the Army of the Potomac, and so John Sedgwick was in command. He firmly stated that “Longstreet has had no re-enforcements from Lee of late.” He concluded this not only from his own reconnaissance, but from Rebel deserters as well.
The order to retreat came at 9pm, issued from General Granger’s headquarters (with the obvious approval of General Parke). By 11pm, nearly all of the command was on the road. They would march all the next day, returning to their camps at Strawberry Plains. Longstreet would enter Dandrige the next morning.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p79, 80, 93; Part 2, p116, 117; 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. [↩]