By: COL (ret) Ed Lowe
Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee had driven William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland north, Rosecrans sheltering inside Chattanooga following the Union defeat at Chickamauga in mid-September 1863. Less than a week after corralling his forces into the area, confident of the soon-to-arrive dispatched XI and XII Corps and its 15,000 soldiers led by Joseph Hooker, Rosecrans took his one brigade off of Lookout Mountain and assembled his army to the north side of the Chattanooga Creek. There Rosecrans waited.
The city of Chattanooga was strategic in importance to both the North and the South, in particular in the form of transportation. Rail lines extended their reach towards Nashville, Knoxville, and Atlanta. Thus, the significance of holding and utilizing these lines proved of vital importance to both the Union and Confederacy. And as Rosecrans hunkered down inside Chattanooga, Braxton Bragg helped himself to the key terrain that surrounded the city, hoping to choke off the vital Union supply line.
Lookout Mountain towered at 2,400 feet above sea level, an ominous and intimidating behemoth that Union soldiers awoke to every morning. Lookout Valley lay to the west of Lookout Mountain and an almost equally daunting Missionary Ridge ran parallel to Lookout Mountain, about three miles to the east. The Tennessee River slithered around Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga, making its way south toward the critical Union supply facility a Bridgeport, AL. Unimpeded, the river, the railroad, and road networks could sustain Rosecrans’s army. However, Confederate forces atop Lookout Mountain and posted in the valley forced Rosecrans to make a more arduous and difficult supply route, some sixty miles over Walden Ridge, severely stretching Rosecrans’s ability to supply his army.
Supply challenges did not just prove a headache to Rosecrans, but also Braxton Bragg. The railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga could only provide so much daily sustenance for Bragg’s hungry soldiers and horses. Moreover, the lack of supply wagons and dwindling resources around the Chattanooga area only heightened Bragg’s anxiety about his supply issues. Strategically placed on Moccasin Bend, Union artillery pieces made traversing Lookout Mountain a dangerous proposition, further complicating supply matters if James Longstreet or Braxton Bragg wanted to permanently position forces west of the mountain into Lookout Valley. As Dave Powell highlighted, the Confederates “could not linger indefinitely in the area without slowly starving to death. This Rebel dilemma would prove to be the key to reopening an effective Union supply line into Chattanooga.” And it was into this environment that Ulysses S. Grant made his appearance.
Having relieved Rosecrans of his duty as commander and replacing him with George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, Grant reached Stevenson, AL after dark on October 21 and met Rosecrans. By all accounts, Rosecrans impressed Grant with his knowledge on the obstacles the army faced in Chattanooga, even offering some recommendations. Grant concluded in his memoirs, “My only wonder was that he had not carried them out.”
Still hobbled from a riding accident and having to traverse Walden’s Ridge, Grant arrived in Chattanooga on the evening of October 23. While interpretations on the meeting between Grant and Thomas vary, Grant quickly assessed the situation that he faced in Chattanooga. Captain Horace Porter observed, “So intelligent were his inquiries, and so pertinent his suggestions, that he made a profound impression upon everyone by the quickness of his perception and the knowledge which he had already acquired regarding important details of the army’s condition.” Not satisfied to remain on the defensive, Grant quickly sought a way to regain the offensive against Bragg. First, however, he had to get supplies moving. As Wiley Sword pointed out, “Grant’s obvious mental toughness seemed to suggest that here was a commander to manage rather than be managed by future operations.”
Opening up the Cracker Line, Cracker, a reference to the military ration of hardtack that soldiers relied upon, was Grant’s first objective. And to do just that, Grant leaned upon the also recently arrived new Chief of Engineers for the Army of the Cumberland, Baldy Smith. Smith’s plan was intricate in details, resigning itself to coordination at various levels of command. Identified as the main effort, Brigadier General William Hazen would lead a selected group of soldiers in pontoon boats down the Tennessee River to the planned bridge site at Brown’s Ferry. Brigadier General John Turchin’s brigade would march over Moccasin Bend and shuttle across using the same pontoons. Seizing the hills surrounding Brown’s Ferry, the Union soldiers would dig in and begin establishing the crossing site. Meanwhile, Joe Hooker’s two corps would move to clear out Lookout Valley. Once secure in Union hands, steamboats could move between Bridgeport and Kelly’s Ferry, offloading and moving supplies through Cumming’s Gap along Racoon Mountain and into Chattanooga.
Selected for their bravery and poise under fire, 1,000 men gathered themselves in the early morning hours of October 27, 1863, along the shores of the Tennessee River. The men crowded onto the rickety pontoon boats and set off for Brown’s Ferry, hugging the right bank for concealment from any prying Confederate sentinels that might be upon the opposite bank. A splash in the distance might raise concern that a soldier had been knocked into the water; however, the Confederates took no notice and the boats drifted towards their objective.
Just a few months prior, William Oates and his 15th Alabama had stared down the charge of Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine at a little place called Gettysburg. Now, on a quiet, chilly early morning, they were about to face another Union assault, an assault that Oates had suspected might be in the works. Oates had received intelligence that an enemy column consisting of infantry, artillery, and cavalry was crossing the river at Bridgeport. Oates quickly sent dispatches to his senior leaders, hoping to at least receive another regiment for support. However, Oates and his men were left to their devices as LTC James Foy and his 23rd Kentucky disembarked from their boats and made their way up the steep bank. The Battle for Brown’s Ferry was on.
However, in less than half an hour, the fight was over. Before he was wounded, Oates had attempted a counterattack with two companies, charging his men to “walk right up to the foe…placing the muzzle of his rifle against the body of a Yankee before he fired.” The growing beachhead of Union soldiers along the bank and surrounding hills drove Oates and his men back. The Union had over 5,000 men assembled, preparing defenses and building a pontoon bridge within an hour after landing. Grant informed Henry Halleck that “The question of supplies may not be regarded as settled.” At a cost of just under two dozen casualties, the Cracker Line was now open for the movement of supplies. A Confederate effort west of Lookout Mountain shortly after the Union captured Brown’s Ferry failed to disrupt the Union supply route that was now open. As Shelby Foote noted, “There was no better example, in the whole course of the war, of what the combination of careful planning, ingenuity, and great daring could accomplish under intelligent leadership.”
Cozzens, Peter. The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles of Chattanooga. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. 2 Volumes. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885.
Oates, William C. The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and Its Lost Opportunities, with a History of the Fifteenth Alabama and the Forty-Eight Battles in Which it was Engaged. Reprint (1985). New York, 1905
Powell, David. The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020.
Sword, Wiley. Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.
U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.