‘Our Loss is Pretty Severe’ – Union Cavalry Defeated in Tennessee

January 28, 1864 (Thursday)

Samuel Sturgis
Samuel “Foot-in-Mouth” Sturgis

“We will pursue them until we drive them out of the country,” wrote Union cavalry commander Samuel Sturgis the night previous, “or are driven out ourselves.” One of his three divisions of cavalry had routed half of their Confederate counterparts. They fled into the darkness, and Sturgis vowed to track them down.

Reports came in from the citizens that the enemy had escaped in every direction. They threw away their arms “and presented the appearance of a panic-stricken mob as they were running through the mountains.” Well after midnight, the word was still coming in. As his men gave chase through the dark, they stumbled onto the position of the Rebel cavalry who they had not routed.

Gone, or mostly gone, were the troopers from John Morgan’s Rebel Division, dispersed as they were. The remaining division, under Frank Armstrong, had been too far to the north the previous day to be of any use. Now, as Sturgis’ men neared French Broad River, they came upon them. It being too late to accomplish much of anything, they fired a volley into it and returned toward Sturgis’ headquarters at Sevierville.

With this bit of knowledge, Sturgis directed his entire command – all three divisions, toward the town of Dandridge on the French Broad. The approach was led by the divisions under Israel Garrard and Frank Wolford. Like Armstrong’s Rebel division, they had been too far away to take part in the previous day’s skirmishing. They were tired from lack of forage, but ready.

Just after 8am, both moved towards Dandridge, on the other side of the river. To cross, they had their choice of two fords, both of which spanned islands – Fain’s just above the town, and Swann’s just below. They found no Rebels on their side of the river, but the fords were held by pickets. This march and the reconnaissance took all of the morning and some of the early afternoon.

Sturgis’ men halted and watched as Rebel infantry filed into line on the other side of the river from the lower, Swann’s Island. It was a small force and Col. Garrard was considering making an attempt when a much larger column of enemy infantry was spotted at the upper, Fain’s Island. These Rebels, however, did not stop, but splashed their way across the cold ford and onto the island itself.

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

This all happened so quickly that Garrard had time to reinforce the small band that had been sent to picket the Fain’s Island ford. With a few shots, the Rebels crossed over to the south side of the river and established a fine defensive position. Garrard was not ordered to attack and declined any unspoken offer.

At the same time, General Sturgis was preparing Wolford’s Division and the brigade under Oscar La Grange for an attack. Though Garrard had apparently not seen it, Sturgis held that Armstrong’s Confederate Cavalry was indeed on the south side of the river. But just as they were about to make the assault, Garrard got word through that Rebel infantry was crossing at Fain’s Island. They had apparently been watching the procession for an hour – long enough to see that it was three full brigades.

Sturgis quickly gathered that such a force could easily cut off their line of retreat. To make his escape, he ordered Wolford to attack the Rebels in his front. This Wolford did, and pushed the enemy back a little, but descried their main line and could do no more. La Grange’s men had probed forward as well, discovering Confederate breast works, from which the Rebels poured a destructive fire. Joining Armstrong’s Cavalry were three regiments of infantry, and any hope was lost.

Frank Armstrong
Frank Armstrong

When further word came in that even more Rebels were crossing the river six miles below Dandridge, and some were even seen between Sevierville and Knoxville, Sturgis knew he was beaten. Dusk was now upon them, and he took advantage. He ordered Wolford to retreat, and would soon follow with the rest. Meanwhile, Garrard’s Division deployed a few regiments in the hopes of holding back the Rebel advance long enough for the rest of Sturgis’ troopers to retire to relative safety.

In this, they were successful, though the day was ultimately lost. Most of Sturgis’ command withdrew from even Sevierville. “Our loss in this engagement is pretty severe,” wrote Sturgis at the next morning, “about 8 officers that I now know of, and a great many men I fear.”

From opposite Dandridge, most marched to Sevierville and thence to Maryville, south of Knoxville. Col. Garrard’s Brigade remained behind near Sevierville for the night, and would make their way to join the rest of the corps the next morning. The Confederates held not only Dandridge, but took Seviersville as well. With it came the mostly unravaged land holding forage for the men and horses.

“It is hard to leave these loyal people to the mercies of the enemy,” wrote Sturgis, “but it can’t be helped. If I had had a division of infantry at Sevierville, I could have annihilated both these division of rebel cavalry, for the rout was complete and the men scattered beyond all possible hope of reorganization in Morgan’s division.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p134-135, 136-137, 145, 148, 150. []
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‘Our Loss is Pretty Severe’ – Union Cavalry Defeated in Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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