Fort Dickerson was one of sixteen Federal forts and battery emplacements constructed around Knoxville during the Civil War. Temporary earthworks were thrown up here in November 1863. Designed by Capt. Orlando M. Poe, Chief Engineer of the Army of Ohio, the fort was completed between December 1863 and February 1864 by the 21st Ohio Artillery Battery. This irregular shaped fort was constructed of earth and timber with 25 gun embrasures (openings through which cannon were fired). These enabled the defenders to move cannon to the area under attack. Only four to six cannon were usually stationed in the fort.
The forts surrounding Knoxville were named for Federal officers who died during the Knoxville Campaign. Ft. Dickerson was named in honor Capt. Jonathan C. Dickerson of 112th Illinois Mounted Infantry, who was killed in action at Cleveland, TN.
Ft. Dickerson, rising 200 feet above Knoxville and the Holston (now Tennessee) River, was flanked on the west by Ft. Higley and on the east by Ft. Stanley. These forts were designed to protect Knoxville from the south and guard the roads from Maryville and Sevierville.
The fort came under direct attack only once during the early stages of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s Campaign to capture Knoxville. Confederate Gen. “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler was ordered to take the heights opposite Knoxville and, with 4,500 cavalry, surprised the Federal cavalry outpost at Maryville on the morning of November 14, 1863. The sound of the attack alerted Gen. William P. Sanders’ Federal Cavalry Division of 1,500 men who were headquartered a few miles away at Rockford. Although vastly outnumbered, Sanders stubbornly fought a series of delaying actions that enabled the Federals to dig rudimentary earthworks and man the fort with both artillery and infantry. The surprised Confederates found not only cavalry, but also infantry and artillery waiting at Ft. Dickerson. After exchanging artillery and small arms fire Wheeler was convinced that the heights could not be easily taken. Due to the formidable heights, steep slopes and unexpected firepower, Wheeler decided that further attacks would be too costly in both manpower and time. The Confederates retreated southward, rejoining Longstreet’s force after the Battle of Campbell’s Station on November 16th.
Ft. Dickerson has survived for over 140 years, but is now a mere shell of the the 1864 fort. The parapet which once sheltered the soldiers with its six-foot walls is now barely knee high; gun embrasures are marked by mere hints of depressions in the walls; the collapsed powder magazine is a shallow depression, and the dry ditch around the fort is now partially filled with the earth washed down from the parapet. Abuse, overgrowth and erosion from the wind and rain have ravaged its strong design, but Fort Dickerson still stands as an enduring reminder of East Tennessee’s role in the Civil War.
Photo Gallery: Fort Dickerson