Chattanooga: Breaking the Siege

October 30, 1863 – The “cracker line” opened when the first Federal transport brought 40,000 rations to the hungry Federal soldiers under siege in Chattanooga.

By mid-October, the Confederate siege had forced the Federals to go on half rations due to their inability to adequately bring supplies into Chattanooga. Soldiers began shouting “Crackers!” at officers in the hope of receiving more food. Meanwhile, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s special correspondent in the city, Charles A. Dana, wrote of Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the army under siege:

“Amid all this, the practical incapacity of the general commanding is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious… If the army is finally obliged to retreat, the probability is that it will fall back like a rabble, leaving its artillery, and protected only by the river behind it.”

Major General Ulysses S. Grant became the commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi soon afterward, and he quickly replaced Rosecrans with Major General George H. Thomas before setting off to take personal command in the city.

Chattanooga from the north bank of the Tennessee River | Image Credit:

Chattanooga from the north bank of the Tennessee River | Image Credit:

Federal officials called all available forces in the Western Theater to augment the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. This included five divisions under Major General William T. Sherman, who boarded transports at Eastport on the Tennessee River that were loaded with supplies. Federal gunboats guarded this important supply route by water. Sherman headed up the river on the 19th, the day Rosecrans lost his job.

Grant traveled from Louisville, Kentucky to Stevenson, Alabama, where he conferred with Rosecrans on the night of the 21st about the situation in nearby Chattanooga. The men shared a cordial discussion in Rosecrans’s railroad car despite their dislike for each other. When the talk ended, Rosecrans headed north and Grant spent the night at Bridgeport.

The next day, Grant began his difficult journey up the Sequatchie Valley, through the mountains, and around the Confederate siege lines toward Chattanooga. Grant’s hip, which had been dislocated two months ago in a riding accident, made the journey even more difficult. He did not reach Thomas’s headquarters until the night of October 23.

Dana informed Stanton that Grant had arrived “wet, dirty, and well.” Grant conferred with Thomas, while Dana reported that “the change at headquarters here (under Thomas) is already strikingly perceptible. Order prevails instead of universal chaos.” But the sight of Confederate campfires on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain above the town made the situation dire for the Federals. Grant reported:

“Up to this period our forces in Chattanooga were practically invested, the enemy’s lines extending from the Tennessee River, above Chattanooga, to the river at and below the point of Lookout Mountain, below Chattanooga, with the south bank of the river picketed nearly to Bridgeport, his main force being fortified in Chattanooga Valley, at the foot of and on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, and a brigade in Lookout Valley. True, we held possession of the country north of the river, but it was from 60 to 70 miles over the most impracticable roads to army supplies.”

Thomas reported that only a few cartridges were left for each soldier, and even less food. Grant and Thomas personally scouted the Confederate lines, riding their horses within shooting range to see the enemy besiegers. The next day, Thomas presented a plan devised by the army’s new chief engineer, General William F. Smith to break out of town. The plan entailed opening a supply line below Racoon Mountain at Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River, enabling suppliers to ship goods to the army quicker than the current 60-mile overland route over forbidding mountainous terrain. Grant quickly approved this secret plan.

Soon afterward, Major General Joseph Hooker’s XI and XII Corps crossed the Tennessee at Bridgeport as General William B. Hazen’s men of IV Corps began laying a pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry. A Federal brigade under General John B. Turchin crossed the river and pushed back a hard charge by the 15th Alabama to secure a beachhead.

On the 27th, Federals completed the bridge as Hooker’s men moved to the western foot of Lookout Mountain. At 3 a.m., some 3,500 Federals moved out of Chattanooga to Brown’s Ferry, while another 1,500 advanced seven miles downriver. At daybreak, the Federals reached the west bank and beat back a Confederate attack to secure the bridgehead. The Federals lost just six killed and 32 wounded, and the bridge was completed by afternoon. This opened the “cracker line” from Brown’s Ferry to the Federal supply base at Bridgeport.

As Brigadier General John W. Geary’s Federal division guarded communications at Wauhatchie Station, Confederates fell back from Racoon and Lookout mountains. On the morning of the 28th, a furious General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, learned that nobody had informed him of yesterday’s action at Brown’s Ferry.

Bragg summoned Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding Confederates in that sector, to his headquarters. Messengers interrupted their argument by telling them that Federals were advancing. Moving to a vantage point overlooking the valley, the men saw Geary’s Federals moving toward Brown’s Ferry. Bragg ordered Longstreet to attack the Federal bridgehead there.

Longstreet scheduled a rare night attack on Geary’s division at Wauhatchie Station. Hooker had left Geary behind as a rear guard while the remaining Federals moved toward Moccasin Point. A Confederate division under General Micah Jenkins advanced against Geary at 10 p.m. but got lost in the dark. Longstreet suspended the attack, but Jenkins did not receive the order until fighting had already begun.

The Federals put up stiff resistance against the Confederate attack, relying on muzzle flashes to see the enemy in the dark. The Federals formed a “V” shape line that repelled the Confederate assaults until Jenkins disengaged around 4 a.m. on the morning of the 29th and withdrew back to Lookout Mountain. The Federals suffered 78 killed, 327 wounded, and 15 missing while Confederates lost 34 killed, 305 wounded, and 69 missing.

This Federal victory secured their new supply line. A concerned President Jefferson Davis telegraphed Bragg from Richmond:

“It is reported here that the enemy are crossing at Bridgeport. If so it may give you the opportunity to beat the detachment moving up to reinforce Rosecrans as was contemplated… You will be able to anticipate him, and strike with the advantage of fighting him in detail… the period most favorable for actual operations is rapidly passing away, and the consideration of supplies presses upon you the necessity to recover as much as you can of the country before you.”

Davis suggested sending Longstreet’s forces to attack the Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville. Considering the animosity between Bragg and Longstreet, Bragg responded that detaching Longstreet from the Army of Tennessee “will be a great relief to me.”

On October 30, the Federal steamboat Chattanooga arrived at the town with 40,000 rations to feed the Federals. Grant wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck: “The question of supplies may now be regarded as settled. If the rebels give us one week more time I think all danger of losing territory now held by us will have passed away, and preparations may commence for offensive operations.”

With the “cracker line” in place, Grant began planning a counteroffensive against Bragg’s Confederates outside town.



  • Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 436-37
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18899-908
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 767, 783, 802-05, 811, 820, 837
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 363-66
  • Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 89-97, 100
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 425-27
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 133-35

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One thought on “Chattanooga: Breaking the Siege

  1. […] of Tennessee besieging the town, blamed this setback on Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s defeat at Wauhatchie in late October. To this President Jefferson Davis replied, “The result related is a bitter […]


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