Fort Dickerson was one of sixteen earthen forts and battery emplacements surrounding Knoxville built by the Federal army during the Civil War. Just across the Holston (now Tennessee) River from Knoxville loomed formidable heights, rising approximately 200 feet above surrounding terrain and commanding the city. Upon these heights during the winter of 1863-64 were built Forts Dickerson, Stanley and Higley. The middle fort was named for Captain Jonathan C. Dickerson, 112th Illinois Mounted Infantry, who was killed in action near Cleveland, Tennessee.
Only one serious attempt was made to attack the city from the south side of the river. In mid-November, 1863 Confederate General James Longstreet and his army drove toward Knoxville from Chattanooga. Longstreet sent Confederate cavalry under General Joseph (“Fightin’ Joe”) Wheeler to attack and capture the heights. However, Federal cavalry under General William P. Sanders were on guard in the area of Maryville and Rockford. On the dark, rainy morning of November 14, the Confederate force surprised the Federal 11th Kentucky Cavalry at Maryville, routing and capturing a large number of Kentuckians. Sanders’ main camp at Rockford was awakened by the sounds of musket fire and sprang to their saddles. The Federals, not realizing their force of 1,500 was woefully outnumbered by the 4,000 man Confederate force, stubbornly held a line along Little River. Wheeler, also unaware of his enemy’s strength, failed to immediately follow up his success. The next morning as Wheeler pushed his force forward, his advance was constantly checked and forced to skirmish with the obstinate Federals. At Stock Creek, the bridge had been burned and Sanders’ men hotly contested attempts to cross the creek and rebuild the bridge. After finally being pushed back, the Federals forced the Confederates to engage in a rolling battle up to the base of the heights above Knoxville. The Confederates were surprised to find that they were no longer facing only cavalry, but also infantry and artillery dug in on the heights of what was to become Fort Dickerson. After exchanging rifle and artillery fire and examining the terrain, General Wheeler ordered a withdrawal, pronouncing the terrain too steep, and the heights too well defended, rendering the proposed attack too costly in both time and manpower. Wheeler’s men withdrew to join Longstreet in the siege of Knoxville; Sanders and his men crossed the river to delay the on-coming Confederate force on Kingston Pike where he was mortally wounded two days later.
Fort Dickerson, which was designed by Captain Orlando M. Poe, Chief
Engineer of the Army of the Ohio, was completed after the Siege of
Knoxville by the 21 Ohio Battery of Artillery and Cameron’s
Brigade. The fort had strong gates of logs and a covered powder
magazine in the center. The surrounding walls of earth were much
higher than today, containing 25 embrasures (openings through which
cannon fired). Four to eight cannon were usually in place in the
fort and could be moved to different embrasures to fire on the
The Knoxville Civil War Roundtable has placed three iron replica 3-inch Ordnance Rifles in the fort and has installed several interpretative signs with information on the fort, the actions at Knoxville and the importance of Knoxville’s role in the Civil War. Each November the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable holds a Civil War weekend for the public. Fort Dickerson is a city park open dawn to dusk.