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The Reopening of the Tennessee River.—1863

THE very last order General Rosecrans gave to the engineer-in-chief was to make a thorough reconnoissance of the south bank opposite the west side of Moccasin Point. General Smith carried out his instructions on October 19. He found an opening low in the ridge bordering the river, through which a small creek discharged into it, with Brown's Ferry at its mouth. This opening, or gorge, offered a way for landing parties to gain by a rush the first heights rising from 250 to 300 feet to the right and left of it and commanding the narrow valley between them and Lookout Mountain, and the roads running through it towards the town from a lower ferry. From that position the communications of the enemy up the Lookout Valley and over Raccoon Mountain could also be threatened. It was discovered further that the ridge was occupied by only a thin chain of pickets, which it seemed quite practicable to surprise. General Smith was so well satisfied with the feasibility of the proposed lodgement that he immediately matured plans for effecting it without delay. He submitted it to General Thomas, as the new army commander, who laid it, with his approval, before General Grant upon his arrival. The very next morning, the two generals were conducted to the ground by General Smith, who explained the topography and his proposed coup de main. He convinced them of the soundness of his plan, and they authorized him on the spot to proceed with the necessary preparations.

General Smith was assigned to the command of the expedition to be formed for his purposes. The brigades of Generals Hazen and Turchin, numbering over 4000 men, and three batteries under Major Mendenhall, were ordered to report to him. The programme was to make the movement partly by water and partly by land. Fifty pontoons built for another bridge were prepared, each to carry twenty-five armed men and the rowers, together with two flat-boats holding forty and seventy-five men respectively. This flotilla would thus be manned by about 1600 men drawn from both brigades, with General Hazen in command, and was to pass down the river at night to the selected points for landing, a distance of nearly nine miles from Chattanooga. The remainder of the infantry and the artillery were to march under cover of night to the proper point on the east bank (the western front of Moccasin Point), whence the infantry was to be hurried in over the pontoons, directly after the landing of Hazen's men, while the guns remained to cover by their fire, if necessary, the operations of the joint forces. Complete surprise was, of course, the main condition of success.

General Smith invited me to accompany him on the expedition, and I gladly accepted. The preparations were pushed day and night, and with as much secrecy as possible. Even the brigade commanders learned the real purpose only the day before the expedition took place. As a number of boats had yet to be built and nearly all the oars to be made and the men instructed in rowing, it was not until the evening of the 26th that everything was ready. I was notified to join General Smith at midnight, and was promptly on hand. He kindly furnished me with a mount for the occasion. I had enjoyed a long sleep before starting and felt fresh enough for the night's adventures. We crossed over the bridge to the north side at about one o'clock, and had a good deal of difficulty in finding our way. Fortunately it did not rain, but it was very dark, and the very bad road was blocked by Turchin's command and the artillery. But we reached the landing-place of the ferry (which in ordinary times ran to the mouth of the gorge opposite) by two o'clock, dismounted and stretched on the ground, awaiting developments. Absolute silence was enjoined in order not to excite the attention of the enemy. No lights or fires were permitted. It was really remarkable how quiet the 3000 men and hundreds of animals, that bivouacked huddled together near the bank, were kept for the next few hours. Not a sound was heard by the rebel pickets, as was subsequently learned, though they were only about a quarter of a mile from us,

The flotilla was manned by one o'clock, but did not get under way until 3 A.M. The fifty-two boats moved noiselessly out in long procession. It was found directly that the current would carry them along without the use of oars. After floating down for three miles, the boats came in sight of the first rebel picket fires, but, by keeping well up the east bank, were not discovered by the enemy until the first boat touched the other bank, when a few shots, which were returned from the flotilla, were fired at them. This was the first sign to our party that the boats had reached their destination. It was then nearly five o'clock. I had fallen asleep leaning against a tree, but was aroused by the stir about me. We saw nothing but the signal fires just lighted by our side to indicate the landing-points, but we heard the noises caused by the disembarkation, as well as the commands of officers. In about twenty minutes, sharp musketry was again heard and continued for some time. We inferred that the rebel grand guard was attempting to drive our men into the river. Our anxiety was relieved by the appearance of several boats which, having discharged their loads, came to carry over Turchin's men. More and more boats followed them, and the passage over was affected with such regularity and rapidity that by daylight all the infantry and even a section of artillery were on the west bank. Towards dawn some rebel guns had been brought up and threw a number of shells at the boats, but without doing any damage or interrupting the transfer.

I crossed over with General Turchin on one of the last boats, and soon ascertained that General Smith's plan had been successfully carried out in every detail. We stepped on the bank, a short distance to the right of the mouth of the gorge at which the first landing was effected, and near which stood the small house of the ferryman, the only human habitation in sight. The gorge formed the bed of a small creek then running so full that it could be crossed only by a foot-bridge of a single log over which our men had to pass in single file. The gorge was just wide enough for the stream and an ordinary road hugging it closely and running up and over the ridge, and the slopes on each side were very abrupt and difficult of ascent. The summit was sharp and but a few feet wide. These hills fringed a valley over a mile wide, partially cultivated, and enclosed to the west by the high parallel range of the Raccoon Mountain.

Hazen and Turchin were to take the hills respectively to the left and right of the gorge. Fifty men of the Twenty-third Kentucky, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Foy of that regiment, having landed first, quickly moved up the road about a quarter of a mile to the crest, and commenced building breastworks, after throwing out some skirmishers. Shortly afterwards the latter reported the approach of a force of the enemy. They turned our detachment and compelled it to fall back until they came upon more of our troops under Colonel Langdon of the First Ohio. A stand was then made, the enemy were checked and finally driven off. It was ascertained that the rebel body charged with guarding the river consisted of three small regiments of Law's brigade of Longstreet's corps, with three pieces of artillery; but they were so scattered along the river that only 150 men attacked Foy's men. They left six dead and a number of wounded. We lost less than forty in all and captured the rebel camp, some cattle and a lot of forage. Our forces then occupied the ridge to the right and left, according to programme, and fortified themselves as strongly as possible with breastworks and abattis. As soon as the last troops had crossed over, the construction of a pontoon bridge was commenced, and pushed so energetically that it was completed before dark. I was one of the first to recross on it and make my way back to Chattanooga, and reached my quarters very tired and hungry at seven.

The good news I brought was sent by General Willich to the regiments of his brigade and to the other brigade commanders, and was welcomed with much joy in the camps. The achievement at Brown's Ferry was a great step towards the unlocking of the river route to Bridgeport, but it could not bear the full desired fruit without such further movements on our part as would prevent the enemy from rendering the position gained useless by again obstructing navigation from other points on the left bank, between the Ferry and Bridgeport. The only way to accomplish this effectually was to shut him out from the approaches to the river by the valley of Lookout Creek, or, in other words, by occupying it ourselves. This was to be Hooker's task. It was intended that he should execute it simultaneously with the other move. He was ordered to concentrate his command for this purpose some days before General Smith's expedition was authorized; but if Dana's report of October 23 to Secretary Stanton can be believed, he was laggard about this on the ground that his wagon trains had not yet arrived. He did not commence the movement until the morning of the 27th, the very time the expedition was landing at the Ferry. Dana, who went to Bridgeport to accompany Hooker, wired thence on that day to his superior that the General was in an unfortunate state of mind towards the plan he was to execute, finding fault, criticising, dissatisfied, and truculent. Hooker's force was to consist of Schurz's and Steinwehr's divisions of the Eleventh Corps, under General Howard, and Geary's second division of the Twelfth Corps. He was strengthened, moreover, by two brigades of General Palmer's division, which started on the night of October 24 from Chattanooga to join him by way of Rankin's Ferry.

Hooker's troops were ordered to move without wagons, with three days rations and forage, and sixty rounds on their persons. They passed directly over and crossed the Tennessee from Bridgeport by a pontoon bridge, with Steinwehr's division in the lead, and followed the road along the base of Sand Mountain to Shellmound, where they entered the valley of Running Water Creek, up which they marched to Whiteside, where they went into camp late in the evening. The next morning, the column continued up Running Water Creek to the watershed, and descended through the gorge into the Lookout Valley. It pushed on as far as Wauhatchie without meeting any opposition; but, a short distance from that place, near the junction of the Brown's Ferry and Chattanooga road, the cavalry advance suddenly received fire from rebels concealed in the underbrush on a hill close to the road. The column halted and a brigade was deployed to the left and another to the right of the location of the rebels, in order to cut them off; but the enemy fled across Lookout Creek and set fire to the railroad bridge over it. Resuming the march, our troops became exposed to the fire of the batteries on Lookout Mountain, which commanded that part of the valley; but the shells they threw did no injury. Between four and five, the mouth of Lookout Valley was reached and a junction effected below it by Howard with the command of General Hazen. The Eleventh Corps went into camp less than a mile from Brown's Ferry, with its left resting on the ridge occupied by Hazen, and its right at the base of Raccoon Mountain. Geary's division was directed to encamp near Wauhatchie, three miles from the Twelfth Corps, in a position covering the two roads leading from Lookout Valley to Kelley's Ferry, the first below Brown's.

We had lost but a few men so far, but the enemy did not intend to yield the position of Lookout Valley so easily. They had observed the division of Hooker's force and determined to take advantage of it by a night attack. General Hazen was said at the time to have been so strongly impressed with this danger that he sought General Hooker and urged him to concentrate, but without effect. Hooker considered an attack improbable, and the control of the roads to Kelley's Ferry too important for any risk. General Geary's division consisted of three very weak brigades numbering together not over 1500 men. This division commander had noticed that his movements and numbers were clearly observable from the rebel signal-station on Lookout Mountain; moreover, very active signalling from it made him apprehend that something was contemplated against him during the night, and he therefore exercised extra precaution in posting his pickets and grand guards. But as Howard's corps had apparently cleared the valley of the enemy to the north, he assumed that any move upon him would come from the south, and he guarded against surprise mainly from that direction. His men slept on their arms, with their cartridge-boxes on. Their rest was not disturbed until nearly eleven o'clock, when some picket firing led General Geary to have the whole camp aroused. All was quiet again until after midnight, when the discharge of the guns of our pickets to the north and east gave warning of the approach of the enemy from the side he was least expected. General Geary had barely time to form a line when a heavy body fell upon his left, firing and cheering.

Lieutenant-General Longstreet, commanding the left of the investing army, was ordered on October 27 to dislodge our troops from their new position at Brown's Ferry. While observing it with General Bragg from Lookout Mountain, he was apprised of the approach of Hooker's column. Repairing to a nearer point of observation, they watched the march of Howard's corps down the valley and saw Geary's division, which they took to be the rear guard, come to a halt. They made a correct estimate of the strength of both bodies, and saw in the long distance separating them their opportunity for swooping down upon and destroying the smaller one. General Law's brigade, a detachment of which had been encountered by Howard's cavalry advance, already lay in concealment behind one of the low short ridges traversing the Lookout Valley, half way between Howard and Geary. General Longstreet directed the other three brigades of Jenkins's (formerly Hood's) division, which were lying on the east side of the mountain, to concentrate at its base, and to move around it and join Law, who was ordered to advance close to the road between our two bodies. Part of the division was then to move upon Geary, the remainder to prevent the Eleventh Corps from reinforcing him, by blocking the road, and, if circumstances were favorable, to attack and stampede our troops over the river. Otherwise, Jenkins was to withdraw after Geary's destruction. Jenkins moved with three brigades, as ordered, but found it so difficult to work around the mountain that he did not reach his destination before midnight. Law's and Robertson's brigades were to hold the position occupied by Law, Bratton's was to surprise Geary, and Benning's to be stationed within reinforcing distance of Bratton. The main reliance was on the panic which they expected to produce on our side by the night surprise.

Bratton attacked with the Hampton Legion and Fifth South Carolina on the right, and the First, Second, and Sixth South Carolina and Palmetto Sharpshooters on the left. His line advanced within short range before firing, when a hot exchange of musketry ensued. The enemy tried to force first our left, then our right and centre. Bratton asserts that he drove part of our line through its camp and beyond the trains behind it; but Geary insists that not a foot was yielded at any point, and that every rebel forward move was repelled. He admits, however, that the Hampton Legion almost succeeded in gaining the road to Kelley's Ferry in his rear, but they were caught in flank and driven back with considerable loss in killed and wounded. The enemy had no artillery, but our division battery kept up an incessant shower of grape and canister upon the assailants at short range. The fighting continued till after three o'clock, when our men's cartridge-boxes were nearly empty. Fortunately, the hostile fire then slackened, and the rebels gave up the struggle and withdrew from the field, leaving their severely wounded behind. Geary naturally claimed a decided victory, but it appears conclusively from the rebel official reports that Bratton was ordered to retire by General Jenkins in consequence of what had happened in the meantime to the brigades of Law and Robertson.

The sudden and heavy firing towards Wauhatchie was heard and its meaning at once understood by General Hooker, who immediately sent a direct order to Schurz's division, which was encamped close to his headquarters, to hasten to the aid of Geary, and, at the same time, notify General Howard of this order, with the further one to double-quick Steinwehr's in the same direction. The two divisions were promptly under arms. General Schurz, after making sure that his three brigades were ready to move, put himself at the head of the leading brigade under Brigadier-General Tyndale. The corps commander joined him and rode with him for a time. The column moved, with flankers on each side, in bright moonlight. After marching for half a mile, the left flankers were attacked, and the head of the column received a heavy volley from a hidden force, wounding one of Schurz's staff at his side and several men. The leading regiment stopped and a few shots were fired in return, when the march was resumed. Schurz then learned that his other two brigades, which he had supposed to be following Tyndale's closely, had been halted some distance behind by order of General Hooker. About the same time, he received an order from the latter, by an aide-de-camp, to take from the enemy and hold a height to his left, commanding the gap in the spur of hills through which the main road to Chattanooga turns to the east. Tyndale's men were formed and climbed up the steep slope and speedily drove the rebels from the intrenched crest after a short engagement, and remained in that position. This encounter was with Robertson's brigade, which formed the left of the rebel line on the hills.

Meantime, Steinwehr's division had a similar experience. After being under way for a short time, its head also received a volley from another hill flanking the Chattanooga road on the north. Howard ordered the height to be taken, and Steinwehr assigned the task to Smith's brigade. A line of three small regiments, not exceeding 700 men in all, made for the hill and ascended it under severe fire, without returning it, trusting to their bayonets, as ordered. As they reached the crest, the enemy fled, leaving their intrenching tools and fifty prisoners in our hands. They proved to be Law's brigade, outnumbering our force by one-half. It was the capture of the two hills which led the rebel division commander to the conclusion that his venture was hopeless, and to his order to all his brigades to fall back beyond Lookout Creek.

After Tyndale's brigade was in position, General Schurz, in order to ascertain why his other brigades were kept behind, rode back and found General Hooker, and, reporting to him that the hill had been occupied, asked for further instructions. The Commanding General asked him curtly why he had not pushed his column to the support of Geary. He answered very properly because only Tyndale's brigade had been at his disposal and employed in taking the hill. He was then ordered to reinforce Geary without delay, and did so; but none of his troops reached the latter before half-past five, over two hours after the rebels had given up the fight with him.

The affair has become known as the “Battle of Wauhatchie,” but hardly deserves to be designated as such, considering the smallness of the number engaged and the losses on each side. Our casualties were 420, of which Geary lost 216 and Smith's brigade 164. We had eleven officers killed, including the two of Geary's battery, which also lost one-third of its men and half of its horses. The rebel loss was much exaggerated in our reports. Even General Thomas gave it as 1500 in his despatches to Washington. In reality, it was not much over 500; that of Bratton's brigade alone was 356. But while this encounter was of small importance in this respect, the effect of it was very consequential for us, as it deterred the enemy from any other attempt to recover control of the left bank, and put our ability to hold the place beyond all doubt, and thus gave us the undisputed use of the river route for supplying Chattanooga. The rebel surprise was well planned, but turned out only another of the many instances of night attacks (owing to the great difficulty of managing them properly, especially in a broken and wooded country), becoming more hurtful to the assailants than to the assailed. If Law's and Robertson's brigades, which were very well placed for preventing Howard from succoring Geary, had attacked determinedly, instead of remaining more on the defensive, the result would probably have been different. Even as it was, they kept Howard's two divisions from giving aid to Geary until he had saved himself by the gallant struggle of his command. The passiveness of Benning's brigade, which does not seem to have fired a shot, has never been explained.

General Bragg was bitterly disappointed by the failure of his best division, numbering fully 5000 men, as he said in his report to the War Department, and pitted, as they were, against “parts of the 11th and 12th Corps, troops which have more notoriety for their want of steadiness under fire than anything else. The officers do not seem to have appreciated a night attack. It should have been made with great vigor and promptness, and completed before the enemy could have time to know our purposes. . . . The reports of Generals Jenkins and Law conflict, each apparently claiming that the other was at fault.” Bragg ascribed the miscarriage directly to the jealousy of these two generals.

On our side, the affair had a painful sequel. As has been seen, although General Hooker promptly issued orders, as soon as the firing was heard, to reinforce Geary with the whole of Howard's corps, not a man reached Geary until long after his fighting was over. My narrative shows how this happened. But, strange to say, General Hooker, who was solely responsible for it, committed the outrageous injustice in his official report of charging General Schurz and one of his brigade commanders, by implication, with disobedience of orders in not going promptly to the relief of Geary, as ordered. The censured generals did not see Hooker's report until January, but then at once made application for courts of inquiry. General Schurz obtained one, before which the facts were proved by the most conclusive evidence to be just as I have related them. The result of the investigation was a complete exoneration of the division commander and his subordinate and a thorough humiliation of Hooker, whose conduct was explained at the time by his being under the influence of liquor during the engagement. Another explanation is that he had hated Schurz ever since the battle of Chancellorsville, and that the utterly unfounded charge was probably due to vindictive malice.