A LIFE AND DEATH FIGHT FOR FOOD
It’s late summer in 1863. The blood that was shed at Gettysburg has dried, but the repercussions of the Confederate setback in Pennsylvania could still be felt throughout the South. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has gone into a period of rest and refitting with the full intention of renewing the deadly fight at the first possible opportunity.
With that thought in mind, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, now Robert E. Lee’s most trusted field commander, proposed a daring plan for the Confederate military to re-establish control of the state of Tennessee by deadly force. General Longstreet believed that if the Confederate Army of Tennessee could be reinforced by troops from Virginia, the Union advance into the deep South could be halted. This new strategy was presented to the highest government officials in Richmond, which included President Jefferson Davis who had the final say in such important matters. After a lengthy discussion between President Davis and General Lee, this plan of attack was finally approved with orders to proceed as soon as possible.
On the ninth day of September 1863, General Lee bid goodbye to General Longstreet and his troops with the admonition that if practicable, to win a great victory in the Tennessee campaign. Trains which pulled hundreds of box and flat cars were loaded with men, horses, and supplies of all kinds. With them also rode the hope of reversing the strategic losses suffered by Confederate forces in recent months. No one at that moment could foresee that within a few short weeks this grand strategy would be carried out with thousands of fighting men converging on the small river town of Dandridge, in the heart of East Tennessee.
FIGHTING THEIR WAY INTO TENNESSEE
The long trip by train from Virginia to Tennessee was made even longer with the closing of the railroads that had only recently been in Confederate hands. A sizeable Union army under the leadership of General Ambrose Burnside had advanced as far east as Knoxville before General Longstreet could make his move into the state. This sudden turn of events forced the Confederates to travel through both North and South Carolina, finally arriving in Catoosa Georgia on the 19th day of September, some ten days after boarding the trains in Virginia. Longstreet’s men would be obliged to cross over the border into Tennessee on foot. However, before that could be accomplished, these battle hardened men from the Army Of Northern Virginia would have to fight their way through a huge Union force blocking the way at a little place called Chickamauga Creek situated just outside of Chattanooga.
The Battle of Chickamauga was a bloody, brutal two day affair fought on Georgia soil, but near enough to Tennessee to feel the September breezes blowing down from the heights of Lookout Mountain. Southern men from the Army of Tennessee, fighting alongside troops from the Army of Northern Virginia, violently broke through Yankee lines on September 20th, and a great Confederate victory was won. The Union army under General William Starke Rosecrans, in a near panic, retreated into Chattanooga and waited for help.
Braxton Bragg, in his capacity as overall Confederate commander, soon turned this major Confederate victory at Chickamauga into a poorly thought out siege of the recently defeated Union forces that were now nearly encircled inside of Chattanooga. General Longstreet, along with the majority of Confederate officers present at the battle, felt that a siege was not in the best interest of the current situation. Disagreements broke out among the various Confederate officers on what the army should or should not do. Finally on the 9th of October, President Jefferson Davis made the trip south to confer with his field generals on the best plan of action. What followed were several days of meetings and discussions on strategy. Various plans were debated. The results were neither satisfactory nor helpful. In the meantime, the Union soldiers made themselves as comfortable as they could in Chattanooga while the Confederates did little or nothing.
With things at a standstill, the decision was finally made to send General Longstreet further into East Tennessee toward the Smoky Mountains and Knoxville. By this time, with days and weeks of unnecessary delay, General Longstreet believed the opportunity for a successful military campaign in Tennessee had all but passed. But being the good soldier that he was, he followed orders and on November 5th, 1864, Longstreet’s men began their drive deep into the heart of East Tennessee.
THE EAST TENNESSEE CAMPAIGN
This large Confederate advance into the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee was carried out by a force of approximately 20,000 infantry, cavalrymen, and artillerymen, and was the cause of great worry for Union authorities. General Grant, now commander of all United States forces, stated that if General Longstreet was not driven out of East Tennessee the last great battle of the war would surely be fought there.
So began the Confederate march into East Tennessee. The Rebel forces moved methodically toward their destination of Union occupied Knoxville. Small skirmishes between Federal pickets and Confederate cavalry marked the line of march. On the 15th of November, the two opposing armies met in a more spirited fight at Campbell’s Station before Burnsides forces broke off the engagement and rushed back into the safety of a fortified Knoxville. Southern forces followed close on the heels of the retreating Yanks. Stopping on the outskirts of Knoxville, General Longstreet surveyed the situation and, by nightfall of the 17th of November, had his troops well established in close proximity to the Union lines.
General Longstreet’s first impression was that his Confederate forces could close off all access to and from the city, thereby, starving the Yankees into surrender. He was in the process of doing just that when he received urgent orders from General Bragg to attack the enemy in Knoxville without delay. That order was carried out in the early morning hours of November 29th when several brigades of Confederate infantry assaulted the Union line at a fortified point known as Fort Sanders. The attack quickly faltered when Confederate infantry encountered a 12ft defensive ditch that had been dug in front of the fort. When it became evident that the attack was doomed, orders were issued by General Longstreet for his troops to fall back. Over eight hundred Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in less than thirty minutes in the ill-fated attack. Union losses were small in comparison.
With the disappointing failure at Fort Sanders, and with new information that several thousand Federal soldiers were on their way to reinforce the Knoxville garrison, General Longstreet decided to move his forces away from the city. On the night of December the 4th, Confederate soldiers left the outskirts of Knoxville and took up the cold march along the west bank of the Holston River. Along with the difficult logistics of moving such a large body of men and animals, General Longstreet had to contend with fighting a rear-guard action. Union troops had moved out of the defenses of Knoxville to begin a pursuit of the Confederates.
Six days later on the 10th of December, General Longstreet received word from President Jefferson Davis which gave him independent command from General Bragg’s authority. Longstreet promptly began looking for a way to strike a blow at those Union forces now positioned outside the safety of Knoxville. On December 15th, General Longstreet finally saw an opportunity for his troops to turn and attack, and they did so at the small hamlet of Bean’s Station. A severe fight ensued with Union forces finally retreating back down the valley. With a successful blow dealt to the enemy, Longstreet continued moving his men and material eastward until he found suitable winter quarters outside of Morristown, Tennessee just before Christmas. This would be his main base of operations throughout the winter of 1863-1864.
A WANT FOR FOOD BECOMES THE ENEMY
With the onset of cold weather, the Confederates shifted their attention away from fighting and focused instead on building secure winter huts. The decision to suspend offensive operations proved prophetic as the most severe winter in decades roared into the mountains of East Tennessee. Temperatures dropped well below freezing for days on end, with both armies suffering the effects of the numbing cold.
Not only had the intense cold become an issue of survival, but food, or the lack of it, soon became a critical component of the war for these Confederate soldiers. Living off the land became the only choice for General Longstreet to provide the necessities of such a large army. Soon foraging parties were sent out from their winter camp in search of anything a man or animal could eat.. Traveling several miles in many directions, they soon found that most of the wheat and oats grown last summer in the region had already been taken or hidden by Union troops. However, they soon discovered that corn and pumpkins were in abundance along the French Broad River bottoms some twenty miles away near the town of Dandridge. They immediately set about collecting as much food-stock as they could load into wagons and haul back to camp. This great store of food was enough to keep flesh on the bones of the men and animals of General Longstreet’s army during the winter.
However, in mid-January a grave threat to that food supply occurred when the Union army made a bold move toward Dandridge. Leaving the comfort of their winter quarters in Strawberry Plains on January 12th, some 26,000 Union soldiers took up the march with Dandridge as their destination. This move would not only threaten the Confederates vast foraging grounds along the French Broad River, but would also place the winter encampment of General Longstreet in jeopardy. Moving such a large force of men and supplies was slow at best under the most perfect of conditions. But moving such a large contingent of men and horses over snow covered and frozen roads was a logistics nightmare for Union General John G. Parke who was put in charge as field commander of the operation.
A testament to the difficult winter conditions which existed is that it took two full days before the first Union soldier set foot in Dandridge. The leading element of cavalry rode in on January 14th. Confederate pickets stationed on the other side of town were surprised to see such a large force of the enemy moving into Dandridge. A mounted rider was quickly sent up-river giving the news to General Martin whose men were guarding the foraging parties. General Martin, disturbed to hear of such a large force of the enemy nearby, promptly sent a message to General Longstreet to inform him of the situation. Without hesitation, General Longstreet ordered his men from their comfortable winter huts and started them on the twenty mile march to Dandridge. It became a foot race of sorts between Longstreet’s men coming from Russellville, and General Parke’s troops marching from Strawberry Plains. The Union army had the advantage having started two days before, and the Confederates were disadvantaged by the fact that many of their men were in dire need of proper shoes. With this threatening move by the Yanks, General Longstreet knew full well that if they lost the rich foraging grounds near the French Broad River that it would be a long hungry winter for his men. Both armies were on the move toward a collision course. All day and much of the night on the 15th of January, some 46,000 men were marching toward the small town of Dandridge.
General Longstreet decided on a strategy of splitting his forces. They would cautiously approach Dandridge on separate roads that would eventually converge on the town. As this plan was being carried out by the Rebels, the Union cavalry had moved in and occupied Dandridge. They also established defensive positions east of town while waiting for their main body of troops.
On the morning of January 16th, General Longstreet, riding at the head of the lead infantry columns, decided to go on ahead to get a better feel for the land. He and his staff soon came upon Confederate cavalry skirmishing with Union troopers. The General personally lead 600 dismounted Texas soldiers on a flanking attack against the Federal line. A Confederate staff officer riding beside General Longstreet was shot and wounded during this initial fighting. The Texicans soon got the upper hand and began pushing the Yankee horsemen back. Finally, under pressure from heavy fire, the Union line broke and made a hasty retreat.
In the meantime back in Dandridge, the Union high command had become aware of the fighting outside of town. They quickly came up with a plan that would skirt the enemy’s forward movement and strike directly at the Confederate rear. General Samuel D. Sturgis, in charge of the Union cavalry, ordered additional men to mount up and ride from Dandridge. In order to reach their intended destination, the Federal horseman had to pass thru Widow Kimbrough’s Crossroads. Little did they realize that a large portion of Longstreet’s infantry under the command of General Micah Jenkins had camped at the crossroads the night before. They were waiting on word from General Longstreet on whether to stay put or continue their march toward Dandridge.
A few miles out of Dandridge the Union troopers could hear rifle fire off in the distance. They were ordered to pick up the pace and since no Confederates were expected along the way, no advance riders were sent ahead to scout. As they neared the crossroads, they were caught completely by surprise when they received a terrific volley of rifle fire from a large body of hidden Confederate infantry. The lead Union columns were cut down and confusion reigned for several hectic moments among the Federal soldiers. It took some time before the Union officers could regain control in the ranks of the frightened men. After a brief but spirited exchange of rifle fire between the two opposing forces, the Confederates brought up their artillery support. That was when the Federals decided enough was enough. The bugler sounded retreat and several hundred Union cavalrymen put spurs to their horses and headed back to the safety of their main defensive lines around Dandridge.
This ended the fighting on the 16th of January. With darkness coming on, both armies were busy bringing up more troops to bolster their positions. Back in Dandridge, Union General Parke and several of his officers met to discuss their plans for the next day. They had grown a bit nervous over the situation not knowing how many Rebels they faced. They wrongly believed rumors that General Longstreet had received reinforcements from Virginia in the form of Picket’s division. This information proved to be untrue, but would play a major role in the outcome of the battle. In the meantime, General Longstreet held a council of war around the campfire that lasted well past midnight. He intended to continue moving his men forward in the morning, all the while probing for weaknesses in the Union line. The plans were finalized and both armies spent an uncomfortable night out in the cold weather waiting for daylight.
The morning of January 17th broke cloudy and cold with a thick winter fog blanketing Dandridge. The Federal plan for the day began with a Union attempt to span the French Broad River below Dandridge with a pontoon bridge. General Parke insisted that it should be in place before a major attack could be set in motion. This bridge would be the Union army’s salvation if they were badly beaten in the fight that was coming. It would allow the army to retreat out of town if necessary, and by cutting the lines holding the floating bridge in place, prevent the Confederates from giving chase. In addition to the bridge work, General Parke sent two infantry regiments to bolster his cavalry now stationed just east of town. These troops would be the eyes of the Union army.
On the Confederate side, troops were up early answering roll call and preparing breakfast. Shortly afterwards, they were ordered into formation and began a slow advance toward Dandridge. General Longstreet wanted a cautious approach toward the Federal lines until it could be determined what lay in his front.
The shooting didn’t get started until shortly after noontime. Detachments of Confederate cavalry, along with several regiments of infantry, met up with the Union forward outposts. The Confederates quickly drove the Union pickets from their positions. As these retreating soldiers ran past a section of the Union line, they informed their fellow Yankees that Longstreet’s whole army was headed straight toward them. Within a few minutes of the initial contact, fighting broke out all along the main battle line. Two Federal regiments, the 125th Ohio and the 93rd Ohio, sent out earlier as support for the cavalry, soon found themselves in the thick of the fight.
As the opening shots were still ringing out, a regiment of South Carolina sharpshooters began moving into position along a wooded ridge that overlooked a strategic portion of the Union line. From this hillside, these men would play a key role in the Battle of Dandridge.
By early afternoon, General Longstreet decided to press his forces against the Union defenses. He ordered his cavalry and a portion of his infantry to advance on the center and right of the Federal lines. As they did so, the Yankees opened up on the advancing Confederates with deadly rifle fire. In addition to the musket volleys by the infantry, Union artillery stationed nearby on a prominent hill opened fire as well. From this elevated position they could direct their shells into the Confederates at several different points on the battlefield.
With the fighting escalating, General Longstreet ordered up his artillery as well. As soon as these guns were unlimbered, a cannon duel ensued. But as it turned out neither side would be able to utilize their heavy guns to the fullest. This battle would be decided by men on foot.
On the Federal left, dismounted Union troopers were sent out to try and dislodge the Confederate sharpshooters from their advantageous position along the ridge. A severe fight broke out between the two opposing forces. At first, the dismounted cavalrymen made some headway into the woods below the sharpshooters, but the deadly fire from the Confederates soon brought the Union advance to a standstill.
At the same time a large body of Confederate infantry arrived on the battlefield. Troops that had been waiting at Widow Kimbrough’s Crossroads under the command of General Micah Jenkins suddenly appeared on the Union left flank. Placing his men in battle formation, General Jenkins moved them onto the contested hillside in support of the Confederate sharpshooters. The appearance of such an overwhelming force of men sent the Union troops running.
Over in the center of the battlefield, the men of the 125th Ohio found themselves in a position where they could neither advance or retreat without a great loss of life. They had abandoned their earlier position at a split rail fence and had taken cover in a natural low place in a near-by field. They found a measure of safety there until they became the targets of rifle fire coming from the ridge above where the South Carolina sharpshooters were now able to focus their full attention on them. The Ohio boys spent the greater part of the afternoon pinned down in this position, but from this natural rifle pit, the Union soldiers were able to return fire. However, they knew that their position was untenable. They also knew that only the arrival of fresh reinforcements or sundown could save them.
On the far right of the Union line, the Confederates were also applying steady pressure. The men of the 93rd Ohio were being shot up by the attacking Rebels. Left alone without reinforcements, these tough Mid-westerners finally had to give way, retreating back toward Dandridge. With the Union right flank falling back, those forces still fighting in the center of the battlefield were now in danger of being flanked.
It was now growing late in the day and the Confederates were unable to consolidate their battlefield gains before it grew dark. Nightfall put an end to the aggressive actions by the Rebels. The 125th Ohio, still without any reinforcements, took advantage of the darkness as they eased themselves out of their deadly predicament and attempted to slip across a nearby creek. They were heading for a steep hill on the other side where the Union artillery sat. As they splashed across the creek, Confederate rifles were blindly aimed and fired at the hillside opposite their positions. Several of the Ohioan’s were wounded and killed in the hasty retreat. No one knew it at the time, but these shots in the dark would be the last ones fired in the battle.
Back in Dandridge, Union General Parke had gathered his commanders to seek their advice on the next course of action for the army. The commanders were split in their opinions. Some wanted to abandon their positions in Dandridge and march for New Market, while others wanted to stay and fight it out. It was finally decided that the Union forces would pull out and live to fight another day. One of the main reasons for retreat was the fact that the pontoon bridge that was to be used as an escape route was still uncompleted. Due to the heavy fog of the morning, Union engineers had built the bridge out onto a large island which sat in the middle of the French Broad River. After General Parke learned of this crucial mistake the deal was sealed as far as he was concerned. He wouldn’t take a chance on bringing on a full-scale engagement. Besides it had begun to rain, the temperature had risen above freezing and soon the roads would become impassable for horses, wagons and heavy artillery. At 9:30 pm on the 17th of January, the order to pull out was issued.
In order to conceal their retreat, Federal soldiers were ordered to build large campfires on the hillsides surrounding Dandridge to give the appearance of their determination to stay and fight it out. While the smoke from these fires drifted towards the Rebel lines, the Yanks moved in the opposite direction. Before midnight, the lead elements of the Federal army were on the road marching toward Mossy Creek. Just as predicted, the steady rain and thawing temperatures quickly turned the roads to mush. It was a slow and exhausting march for both men and horses alike. By three in the morning, the rear guard had left the streets of Dandridge. With them went the best chance of driving General Longstreet and his men out of East Tennessee.
Unaware of the Federal withdrawal, the Confederates spent a wet and worrisome night. They fully expected that come morning a bloody and decisive battle lay ahead for them on the hills surrounding Dandridge.
When daylight broke on January 18th, Longstreet’s men primed and loaded their weapons and bravely stepped off for the attack. They advanced in multiple battle lines toward the Union positions, but they found no enemy. Dandridge had been abandoned by the Federals.
As General Longstreet and his staff rode into Dandridge, an elderly lady, whose home had been used as Union headquarters, came out onto the front porch and invited the men inside. It seems that the Union high command had departed in such a hurry that they left behind a flask of whiskey. It was graciously accepted by the Confederate officers who promptly drank a toast to the retreating men in blue.
The Battle of Dandridge thus ended. The outcome assured the Confederates of a much needed food supply that would last throughout the winter. General Longstreet’s men would remain in East Tennessee until they were re-called by General Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864. A few months after leaving Dandridge, General Longstreet would be severely wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness. Confederate General Micah Jenkins, also a participant at Dandridge, would be killed in that same battle.
In 1990, the Congress of the United States created the Civil War Sites Advisory Committee. This committee was given the task of identifying and documenting the more than 10,500 battle and skirmish sites that had been fought between 1861 and 1865 across the American landscape. Because of growing national concern over the increasing loss of Civil War sites to modern development, the committee was to determine the most important of these sites. The statuses of these threatened battlefields were documented with an eye toward future preservation. The Battle of Dandridge was chosen as one of the top 384 battles fought during the war. The area east of town where the battle was fought has been classified as threatened with no clear plan of preservation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:ROGER CAMPBELL KELLEY
Roger Campbell Kelley was born and raised in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. In addition to his poetry, he is the author of a number of historical books including, They Kill Us to Keep Us, and Where the Daffodils Grow, that showcase the momentous events of American history as seen through the eyes the common man. He is a well-recognized historian of the War Between the States and in recent years has worked in both movie and documentary films, as well as television and live stage productions.