January 16, 1864 (Saturday)
The scarcity of forage had driven both armies to fan out north of Knoxville, Tennessee. James Longstreet’s Confederates had encamped for the winter near Bull’s Gap, while the Federal Army of the Ohio, commanded by John Parke, occupied Strawberry Plains, thirty miles or so southwest. Each commander had sent his cavalry in the direction of Dandridge, a town located between the two camps. The Southerners were the first to arrive, but two days previous, the Union troopers had pushed them back. The following day all was more or less peaceful in the area.
General John Foster, commanding the Union troops from Knoxville, wished to move his entire army to Dandridge, and so began to move them in that direction on the previous day. Through the morning and afternoon of this date, they were still on the march. Seven major roads entered and exited the town of Dandridge, and was thus considered a fairly important hub. General Samuel Sturgis, helming the Northern cavalry wished to secure a crossroads several miles closer to the Confederate camp. Having three divisions, he sent one to the northeast, up the Bend of Chunky Road, while the other two moved more easterly along the road toward Bull’s Gap.
Unbeknown to Sturgis, after the Rebel cavalry was driven back, Longstreet decided to move his infantry to secure Dandridge. The Confederates also divided their forces, sending the cavalry out the Bend of Chunky Road, while the infantry marched steadily from Bull’s Gap. Soon, the Federal division sent to the northeast discovered all of the Rebel cavalry in their front. Sturgis, who was riding with the remaining divisions, received word that his troops were outnumbered and in need of support.
He knew that if they could get to the crossroads they could easily move on the enemy’s right flank, and they picked up their pace accordingly. At the same time, he doubled one of his remaining two divisions back to Dandridge, hoping they could serve as some sort of reinforcements. When Sturgis arrived at the crossroads, instead of a clear path to the Rebel left flank, he found Longstreet’s infantry waiting with artillery.
Though the reinforced division on the Bend of Chunky Road was able to drive back the Rebel cavalry, Sturgis’s main column could do little with the Rebel infantry in their front.
Through the afternoon, word of Longstreet’s advance had echoed even to Washington. General Grant in Nashville had been notified that the Rebels had been reinforced by as many as two divisions of infantry and were on their way to retake Knoxville. Though he could send no reinforcements of his own, he wired General Thomas in Chattanooga to see what he could do. Thomas, however, had just asked Grant for reinforcements which he hoped could come from Knoxville.
Back at Dandridge, things were in a bit of confusion. General Parke was in Knoxville, leaving, perhaps, Philip Sheridan in command, though apparently telling nobody about it. Sheridan’s Division had advanced on this day toward Dandridge, but by nightfall had not yet reached its limits.
Over the cold night, the skirmishers would exchange fire, and both sides would bring up infantry, knowing well that come sunrise, the fields around Dandridge would turn red.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p80, 93-95; Part 2, p109-110; 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. [↩]