October 24, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant personally inspected the proposed supply route at Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee and approved the plan to open the “cracker line” to feed the Federals besieged in Chattanooga.
Despite recovering from a serious hip injury, Grant was back on his horse on the morning of the 24th for inspections. He studied the terrain around the landing at Brown’s Ferry and noted that just a single Confederate brigade from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps patrolled the area.
Grant also continued consulting with Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, the army’s chief engineer who had discovered this route. Smith had been working on this plan with members of Major General William S. Rosecrans’s staff before Rosecrans was removed from army command.
Securing Brown’s Ferry would enable the Federals to control the Tennessee River below Confederate-held Raccoon Mountain. This allowed them to ship supplies from Bridgeport to Chattanooga via water, and although the supplies would have to cross the Tennessee twice, they could be shipped much faster than the current overland route by wagon trains through the Cumberland Mountains.
Under Smith’s plan, two Federal brigades would seize control of Brown’s Ferry, while Major General Joseph Hooker’s XI and XII corps would move across the Tennessee at Bridgeport, double-back toward Brown’s on the south bank of the river, clear out Confederates as they went, and help build a bridge at the ferry site.
Hooker doubted that the plan would work because his troops would have to move around the southern end of Lookout Mountain, on which Confederates could hide and ambush them from above. Hooker told Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, “It is a very hazardous operation, and almost certain to procure us a defeat.”
Hooker asked Grant for more time to prepare, but Grant instead directed Smith to go ahead and seize Brown’s Ferry with the two brigades without waiting for Hooker. Smith worried that without Hooker’s support, the Federals might not be able to hold it. Smith explained that just to get to the ferry, “Fifteen hundred men, under Brigadier-General (William) Hazen, were to embark in the boats and pass down the river a distance of about nine miles, seven of which would be under the fire of the pickets of the enemy.”
Both Smith and Hooker prepared their forces throughout the 25th. Hooker ordered Howard to move out at 9 a.m. the next day, but Howard explained that he had only one functioning artillery battery. Hooker replied, “We will march to-morrow if we go without any.” But then Hooker changed his mind and wrote Howard, “It will not be possible to bring all the force together in season to march to-morrow. Let everything be in readiness for an early start the following morning.”
Meanwhile, General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, guessed that if the Federals tried breaking out of Chattanooga, they would do so on the left, or west, of the Confederate line, held by Longstreet’s corps and anchored by Lookout Mountain. Longstreet wrote, “I have no doubt but the enemy will cross below and move against our rear. It is his easier and safest move.” By this time, Bragg was also receiving reports that Federals were gathering at Bridgeport, but neither he nor Longstreet made any moves to bolster the army’s left.
Confederates reported “a part of artillery going down on the opposite side of the river and that their pickets were doubled along the water front.” Cavalry troopers from Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s command reported a potential Federal river crossing at Bridgeport. If successful, the Federals could cut off Longstreet’s line of retreat. Longstreet received this news but decided to await further developments before acting.
At 3 a.m. on the 27th, Hazen’s 1,500 Federals began moving down the Tennessee on 24 pontoon boats, trading shots as they passed the Confederates on shore. The second brigade of 3,500 men led by Brigadier General John B. Turchin moved across Moccasin Point, a stretch of land opposite Raccoon Mountain, unnoticed. Hazen’s men rode the current to Moccasin Point, where they joined Turchin. The Federals then advanced to Brown’s Ferry, beyond the range of Confederate guns on Lookout Mountain.
The Federals reached the west bank of the Tennessee around daybreak, where Colonel William Oates’s 1,000 Confederates and three cannon tried stopping their advance. After a sharp 10-minute fight, the advance Confederate units fell back to their main camp. From there, a scout told Oates that only “seventy-five or one hundred” Federals were approaching. Oates later recalled, “I had the long roll beaten, and gave orders for the men to leave their knapsacks in camp and their little tent flies standing.”
Oates sent skirmishers forward with orders “to walk right up to the foe, and for every man to place the muzzle of his rifle against the body of a Yankee when he fired.” The skirmishers soon learned that they were vastly outnumbered. Oates was shot through the hip but managed to ride off to avoid capture. His men fell back to the safety of the west side of Lookout Mountain as the Federals secured Brown’s Ferry. The Federals lost just six killed and 32 wounded.
Meanwhile, Hooker’s Federals crossed the river at Bridgeport and cleared the Confederates from Raccoon Mountain before stopping at the western foot of Lookout. Hooker posted a division at Wauhatchie Station to guard his communications. Smith’s Federals completed their pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry around 4:30 p.m. This would enable their supply train to cross.
Longstreet watched the action from atop Lookout Mountain and remained convinced that the Federals planned to feint against Brown’s Ferry while attacking in earnest from Bridgeport to try turning Bragg’s left. Bragg directed Longstreet to stop the Federals’ “designs,” which Longstreet tried doing by sending a brigade to Bridgeport. But he did not inform Bragg of the engagement at Brown’s Ferry, and by nightfall, Hooker was within 10 miles of linking with Smith there.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 436-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 336; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 364-65; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 89-91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 425-26; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 675; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 133-35, 189, 808-09