October 20, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant left Louisville to take personal command of the Federals besieged in Chattanooga as the new commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi.
By the time Grant boarded the train to head south, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was slowly starving in Chattanooga. It had been reinforced by two corps from the Army of the Potomac, but Confederates had cut most of the supply lines into the city, making it almost impossible to feed the troops. General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, directed Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps to seal up all supply routes, but a few roundabout routes through the mountains remained open, thus giving the Federals a slim chance for survival.
More Federal reinforcements under Major General William T. Sherman were on their way from the west. His corps now consisted of five divisions with the addition of two from Memphis. Sherman’s men and supplies were loaded on transports at Eastport, Mississippi, and escorted by Federal gunboats as they steamed down the Tennessee River. This was an important water-borne supply route, but General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck still required Sherman to rebuild the Memphis & Charleston Railroad from Iuka, Mississippi, to Stevenson, Alabama, a distance of 161 miles.
Grant stopped at Nashville on the night of the 20th and moved on to Stevenson the next day. There Grant met with Major General William S. Rosecrans, whom Grant had just removed as Army of the Cumberland commander. Rosecrans graciously discussed the military situation in Grant’s railcar, even though the two men disliked each other. Rosecrans then departed northward while Grant spent the night in Bridgeport, about 40 miles down the Tennessee River from Chattanooga.
The rest of the journey to the besieged city had to be made on horseback through the mountains. This posed a problem for Grant because he was still on crutches due to injuries suffered when he fell off his horse in early September. Grant later wrote:
“There had been much rain, and the roads were almost impassable from mud, knee-deep in places, and from wash-outs on the mountain sides. I had been on crutches since the time of my fall in New Orleans, and had to be carried over places where it was not safe to cross on horseback. The roads were strewn with the debris of broken wagons and the carcasses of thousands of starved mules and horses.”
With his crutches lashed to his saddle, Grant and his party rode carefully over the muddy terrain up the Sequatchie Valley and over Walden’s Ridge, unable to use the direct approach to the city because it was covered by Confederate artillery. The group stopped for the night about halfway to Chattanooga, and then continued on the 23rd, when they encountered slightly better terrain.
Major General George H. Thomas, now commanding the Federals in Chattanooga, awaited Grant’s arrival. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, observing operations in Chattanooga, informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that since Thomas had taken over, “the change at headquarters here is already strikingly perceptible. Order prevails instead of universal chaos.”
Grant finally arrived at Thomas’s headquarters that night. Dana described Grant as “wet, dirty, and well.” One of Grant’s staffers, Colonel James H. Wilson, made a point of Thomas’s lack of hospitality; he did not offer any food, drink, or dry clothes to his new superior. Thomas quickly corrected this, but Grant would only accept food as he asked for a briefing on the situation.
Thomas and his officers explained that the men were going hungry because they could only get supplies from wagon trains vulnerable to Confederate cavalry as they moved 60 miles along the barely usable road from Bridgeport, through the Sequatchie Valley, and over Walden’s Ridge in the Cumberland Mountains. Grant later 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 then referred Grant to Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, the army’s chief engineer. Smith had been removed from the Army of the Potomac and demoted for criticizing Major General Ambrose E. Burnside after the Battle of Fredericksburg; now he sought to redeem himself.
Smith had developed a plan to supply the army via Brown’s Ferry, a river crossing about 10 miles downriver from Chattanooga. A road extended from the ferry through Lookout Valley, which the Confederates only lightly guarded. If the Federals could seize the ferry, they could facilitate the flow of supplies from Bridgeport to Chattanooga in half the time it took supplies to move through the mountains.
Grant listened to Smith’s plan and later wrote, “He explained the situation of the two armies and the topography of the country so plainly that I could see it without an inspection.” Grant also learned that Smith had already begun implementing the plan:
“(Smith) had established a saw-mill on the banks of the river, by utilizing an old engine found in the neighborhood; and, by rafting logs from the north side of the river above, had got out the lumber and completed pontoons and roadway plank for a second bridge, one flying bridge being there already. He was also rapidly getting out the materials and constructing the boats for a third bridge. In addition to this he had far under way a steamer for plying between Chattanooga and Bridgeport whenever we might get possession of the river. This boat consisted of a scow, made of the plank sawed out at the mill, housed in, and a stern wheel attached which was propelled by a second engine taken from some shop or factory.”
Grant judged the plan to be solid, but he asked if the troops had enough ammunition to keep the supply line open. He was told that each man only had a few cartridges, but once the line was opened, the ammunition at Bridgeport could be shipped to the troops. This would be a gamble, but it could be the only way to save the army. Grant approved opening what became known as the “cracker line.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 429; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 436-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18899-908; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 335-36; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 783, 802-05; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 363; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 424-25; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 133-35, 189