The Battle of Wauhatchie
COL (Ret) Ed Lowe
The bold Federal maneuver against Brown’s Ferry along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga had relinquished the Confederate stranglehold on Union supply operations, prompting U.S. Grant to wire Halleck on October 28, 1863, that the matter of supplies “may now be regarded as settled.” For Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, he had few real options available to him. An inconsistent Confederate supply system had also hardened his men and horses to the pain of hunger. Bragg must either close the Federal supply system now open or any hope of gaining victory against Grant would greatly diminish. Distraught by the Federal occupation of Brown’s Ferry, Bragg asked his commander tasked with Lookout Mountain and the areas to the west, James Longstreet, to meet with him on Lookout Mountain to discuss how to regain the initiative.
Longstreet had come to believe any Federal advance would come from the south, causing a censure by Bragg when they met on October 28 for sending up false alarms. As they exchanged sometimes heated words, it was brought to their attention of a Federal force advancing along the road toward Brown’s Ferry; this turned out to be Hooker’s command. The two officers then noticed a small portion of the Federal force stop at Wauhatchie, just three miles from Brown’s Ferry. Accompanied by a large supply train of wagons, this small force was John Geary’s division of the XII Corps, roughly 1,500 in strength. “James Longstreet,” wrote Dave Powell, “sensed an opportunity.”
Bragg urged an attack for the re-taking of Brown’s Ferry, key to once again thwarting Federal supply efforts. Even offering up additional forces for this operation by Bragg, Longstreet had his sights set solely on the smaller force at Wauhatchie. Sensing the chance with Geary's small division, Bragg understood any assault would also include an effort against the growing Federal force at Brown’s Ferry: The two senior Confederate commanders were not on the same sheet of music.
Longstreet’s competent artillery commander, Edward Porter Alexander, noted that Longstreet had only four brigades from Hood’s division, now commanded by Micah Jenkins, for the attack. And of these, Law, Benning, and Robertson, “had suffered severely, both at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, and scarcely averaged 700 men.” Moreover, bringing additional forces to bear meant having to cross over the dangerous section that was the north face of Lookout Mountain. Two Federal artillery batteries located on Stringer Ridge that was on Moccasin Bend made traversing the mountain extremely hazardous. It may very well be this reason why Longstreet advocated a night attack against Wauhatchie.
Any assault along difficult and rough terrain is challenging, made especially so when conducted at night. In his memoirs, Longstreet indicated that he waited til midnight for any forward movement of his brigades, to include the arrival of his other division, LaFayette McLaws. Gathered around his officers and realizing the time was late and McLaws would not arrive, Longstreet made the wrong assumption that Jenkins must have realized the assault was called off. “I rode back to my headquarters,” Longstreet confessed, “failing to give countermanding orders. The Gallant Jenkins, however, decided that the plan should be abandoned, and went to work in its execution by his single division.”
Jenkins quickly gave out orders. John Bratton, who took over his South Carolina brigade, would serve as the main effort in attacking Geary’s force at Wauhatchie. Law oversaw the
supporting efforts with the brigades of Robertson’s Texas brigade, his own brigade, commanded by James Sheffield. These two brigades had the mission to deny any reinforcements coming from the Brown’s Ferry area, effectively protecting Bratton’s force. Henry Benning’s brigade on Law’s left, would reinforce Bratton as needed. The only problem, however, is that once they got into position in the early morning hours of October 29, Law had placed his units on the ridge, parallel to the road and not in any semblance of a blocking position. As Edward Porter Alexander indicated had Law arrayed his forces with two brigades to the front, one in reserve, across the road, the “effort to hold the road against efforts to reinforce Geary might have been much more effective.”
Rightly criticized for having left Geary in such a vulnerable position, Hooker scrambled to assemble a relief force for Geary’s small division, shooting off orders to the XI Corps commander, Oliver O. Howard, and one of his division commanders, Carl Schurz. Adolph von Steinwehr’s division would follow behind Schurz. The scurrying of oftentimes conflicting orders emanating from Hooker’s headquarters, the moonlit night impeded by passing clouds, and a cold chill “all contributed to make the Union response about as confused as the Confederate attack,” concluded Steven Woodworth.
Brigadier General John Geary was not a professionally trained soldier; however, he was competent and had grown into a sturdy commander. A mayor of San Francisco and future governor of Kansas, Geary sensed the potential dangers for his men and kept his men vigilant during the night. Understanding the terrain and the key placement of a four artillery pieces helped Geary secure an advantage over his Confederate opponents, who reached out into the darkness for the elusive enemy. As Bratton’s attack commenced in the early morning hours of October 29, “the fire of the men,” exclaimed one soldier from the 149th New York, “was directed by watching the explosion of the enemy’s muskets.” Geary’s men ended up denying Bratton’s men any chance of success, relatively by themselves. The reinforcing elements from Brown’s Ferry focused much of their attention either on Law’s forces along the ridgeline or simply halted in place.
After a couple of hours, Jenkins elected to call off the attack. Obviously as Bratton withdrew, he needed the support of Law’s forces to allow a movement back across Lookout Creek, unimpeded from Union forces in the area. Law had also received orders to withdraw but the timing of these orders seemed contrary with Jenkins’ intention. In the post-battle analysis, both Law and Jenkins were at odds with the decision of when and how to withdraw, causing further animus in the proud division that bore the name of John Bell Hood.
Not surprisingly, Bratton force carried the majority of the 400+ casualties the Confederates sustained, Hooker roughly the same in number, including John Geary’s own son. Without question now, Grant could expect no further efforts for Confederate attempts to disrupt his supply lines. And the botched Confederate operation at Wauhatchie further frustrated the relationship between Bragg and Longstreet. Perhaps sensing a command relationship beyond repair, Bragg soon dispatched Longstreet in early November to deal with Burnside’s force arrayed around the Knoxville area. In less than a month, Grant moved against Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, causing some to wonder if Longstreet’s two divisions might have made a difference had they remained in Chattanooga.
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