Fall of 1863 – Gen. Longstreet’s force sent from VA to assist Gen. Braxton Bragg at Chickamauga. The Confederates gained a costly victory at Chickamauga, and the Federals were driven into Chattanooga.
Bragg then ordered Longstreet to lead a force against Knoxville, which was held by Federal Gen. Ambrose Burnside.
Longstreet’s seige was unsuccessful and he was now cut off from Bragg. He retreated east along the Holston River pursued by Burnside to Bean Station where Longstreet defeated Burnside’s cavalry. Longstreet went into winter camp with his 20,000 soldiers at Russellville. His cavalry set up a defensive line running from Rutledge through Talbott Station on the railroad to Dandridge and the French Broad River.
On December 25th Gen. Sturgis’s calvary succeeded in taking Mossy Creek where there was a fierce battle on December 29th between Sturgis and Gen. Martin. Martin was driven back to Talbott Station and Mossy Creek became the forward post for the Union Army in the valley.
In January of 1864 comes one of the coldest winters in memory, which becomes the greatest enemy of both armies. On Jan. 1st the temperature dropped to 29 degrees below zero and finding shelter, heat, and food became each army’s main concern. Longstreet has to forage as far away as Swann’s Island and the river bottoms above Dandridge. Union scouts along the south side of the French Broad River learn that Longstreet plans to forage all the river bottoms from Dandridge to Newport and send the report back to Knoxville urging an infantry force be sent to preserve the corn before Longstreet can haul it off. Both sides make plans to move toward Dandridge intent on preserving the rich river bottom crops for their own use.
On January 14th the Union forces begin arriving around Dandridge and the citizens of the town realize that a conflict is eminent. The forces of Wolford and Martin meet along the Chucky Road east of Dandridge and skirmish. Wolford is driven back to within a mile of Dandridge as help begins to arrive along the Morristown road. The Federals hold and night falls. The streets of Dandridge are filled with all sorts of equipment. The whole village is aglow with lantern and torchlight. Never has the place seen such a mass of confusion.
Longstreet upon hearing that Dandridge was occupied by the Union forces, started an all-out effort to protect his vital forage grounds and he was determined not to be driven from his permanent camp at Russellville. Longstreet moved 61 regiments of Infantry, 18 regiments of Cavalry with 20 pieces of artillery into position east of Dandridge.
January 16th – Gen. Sturgis intended to flank the Confederate cavalry, but was pushed back when Gen. Wolford met Martin’s cavalry head on. Skirmishing and small isolated fighting continued throughout the day with both armies maintaining their lines by nightfall.
January 17th – In the valley at this time Longstreet has 20,000 men with 20 pieces of artillery, and the Federals have 26,000 men and 34 pieces of artillery. The Union forces again attempted to attack the Confederate forces but are again pushed back, this time closer to Dandridge. During the two days of fighting there was never a large-scale effort by either army. Most fighting was done in skirmishing and small engagements, each time the Union forces being forced back.
Gen. Sheridan had been ordered to build a pontoon bridge across the French Broad River as defensives escape route from Dandridge should Longstreet push into town. In the fog of the early morning he had chosen a spot just below town which appeared the most narrow spot and constructed the bridge. When a horse and rider where sent across after the completion it was discovered that the bridge had been built onto Fain Island and there was another section of the river to cross on the opposite side of the island.
By the evening of the 17th, the opposing commanders were still feeling out the other’s position. Back in Dandridge, Gen. Parke received word that Longstreet had received major reinforcements, which was a false rumor. Due to this information, the steady rain which was turning the roads into ankle deep mud, and the failed escape bridge, Gen. Parke decided to withdraw his forces back to New Market and Strawberry Plains. During the night the Union forces slip away and on the morning of the 18th Longstreet moves into Dandridge to find the Union army gone.
A potential major battle involving upwards of 50,000 soldiers was avoided.