Winter harsh to local troops in Civil War

Civil War happenings Jan. 12-18, 1864:

All the troops stationed in Eastern Tennessee said January 1864 was extremely cold.

Isaac Gause with the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry said at least 20 inches of snow had fallen by the end of 1863, and the men felled large trees and these logs were burned day and night in large fires. The men had brushed the snow away and slept on brush around the fire, until the heat from the flames and the frost from the ground made them seek other accommodations.

Reports came in of infantry men freezing to death, for they had not drawn clothing since August. The cavalry was in the same condition. Isaac and the men who had chased Morgan over Ohio had no new clothes since June, and Isaac said his only shirt was shredded.

In spite of this, Isaac was eager to re-enlist. He had signed up and served for three years, re-enlisting gave the men a $400 bounty payment. A friend did not re-enlist, saying he felt he had done enough, but Isaac said he left home to preserve the Union and he still felt that way. Isaac was now called a veteran and given 36 day leave to go home.

Meanwhile the officers of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry talked with General Sheridan, who believed the cavalry should be an independent command, Sheridan’s fellow Army officers thought he was a fanatic.

Soldiers in the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry also had to sleep out in the open and cut wood for fires. On a foraging expedition, they bivouacked at a Mill along the Holston River and did acquired some bacon, but they had marched 19 miles with nothing to eat.

In a Jan. 13, 1864, letter to his wife, Col. Emerson Opdycke of Hubbard said they slept along the river bank with Confederate General Longstreet’s men firing at them from the opposite bank.

Three Confederates deserted, coming to the 125th camp, reporting that they had been living off the land and that things were scarce. They scoured the countryside for corn but found little.

Colonel Hartley reported that the people had mostly everything already taken from them, even though they were sympathetic to the Confederates and thus called Rebs. They had no oxen, horses or mules to pull a plow, so their future was very gloomy.

Returning to camp, Colonel Opdycke reflected on the need to stay where they could not get supplies and he praised his men who, being on short rations, never complained and were cheerful and full of hope. His noble, heroic men restored his appreciation of human nature. His letter dated Jan. 19, 1864, to his wife Lucy described what is now known as the Battle of Dandridge.

Gen. Jacob Cox had been with General Grant, who came to inspect the men. When Grant reached Nashville, he reported to the War Department that the men were not ready for any movement against the Confederates.

The troops had inadequate clothing and shoes so that only two-thirds of them could march. Supplies were also low, ice on the rivers hampered the boats.

General Cox got some shoes and clothes by way of a steamboat, the Lookout, which General Thomas sent to him from Chattanooga.

General Cox and the 125th OVI were at Strawberry Plains, just east and north of Knoxville along the Holston River. Instead of tents, the soldiers made structures from limbs and branches with boughs of pine or leaves on top.

In spite of General Grant’s report, General Halleck was convinced the army should engage the Confederates.

Ice on the river had broken the pontoon bridge at Knoxville and on Jan. 12th, General Foster telegraphed General Grant that their conditions had become worse. The cavalry reported that there was corn in Sevierville, so it was proposed to ferry across the French Broad River to forage.

The men who had no shoes and inadequate clothes would be left to guard the bridge. The cavalry was ordered to guard the flank of the infantry who were marching to Dandridge on Jan. 15, 1864.

On the morning of Jan. 17th, the 125th OVI and the 93rd OVI were out on picket line, in the rear of the cavalry outposts. After noon, the cavalry pickets fell back and told the 125th that Longstreet’s whole army was coming. Lieutenant Colonel Moore of the 125th formed a line of battle on the best ground and awaited the Confederates.

The Confederates were met with a terrific fire. They could not advance and fell back, but they advanced again, and with the help of the cavalry, the Union line held.

With darkness, most of the men only had 10 rounds of ammunition, and they fell back toward a forest, firing at the enemy all the way. Reaching the safety of the trees, the men lit campfires, then went back to Knoxville.

Their loss was 25 men killed, wounded or missing. Most of the missing were found to be dead. Adjutant Seabury Smith of Co. I was killed.

Lucy Opdycke knew Adjutant Smith, and Colonel Opdycke related this loss in his letter. The colonel was crossing the river with his other men and was not engaged in the Battle of Dandridge. General Sheridan later told Opdycke that the 125th behaved finely, although it was reported that other troops gave way and exposed their flanks.

All the drilling and training had been worth it, for the 125th continually proved that they were steady under fire. The men had confidence in the leadership of their officers and the officers had confidence in their men.

Sources: ”Cox: Recollections of the Civil War, Vol. Two,” by Jacob Dolson Cox. Leonaur, 2007; ”To Battle for God and the Right, The Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke,” ed. By Glenn Longacre and John Haas, University of Illinois Press, 2003; ”Ralsa C. Rice, Yankee Tigers Through the Civil War with the 125th Ohio,” ed. By Richard Baumgartner & Larry Strayer, Blue Acorn Press, W.Va., 1992.

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.