October 28, 1863 – News that Federals had secured Brown’s Ferry enraged General Braxton Bragg, and Lieutenant General James Longstreet planned to counter with a Confederate night assault.
Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, continued his tenuous siege on the Federals in Chattanooga. However, the Federals had opened a new supply line at Brown’s Ferry. Bragg did not know about this until the morning of the 28th. Infuriated, he wrote Longstreet, commanding that sector of the army, “The loss of our position on the left is vital,” because it “involves the very existence of the enemy at Chattanooga.”
The loss of Brown’s Ferry threatened to render Bragg’s siege pointless because Federals could use the bridgehead there to ship supplies from Bridgeport to the hungry soldiers in Chattanooga. Bragg rode to Lookout Mountain to discuss the matter with Longstreet in person. When he could not find Longstreet, he looked down in the valley below and saw the Federals had indeed laid a pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry. Bragg’s worst fears had been realized.
Bragg finally met with Longstreet around 10 a.m., and since the men already disliked each other, a heated argument quickly ensued. Bragg blamed Longstreet for failing to defend Brown’s Ferry, while Longstreet blamed Bragg for issuing vague orders and insisting that the true Federal threat was at Bridgeport, from which the enemy could launch a flank attack.
Couriers interrupted the argument with news that the Federals were advancing through the Lookout Valley. This confused the generals, who believed the enemy would come either from Brown’s Ferry or on Longstreet’s flank, not his front. Moving to a vantage point overlooking the valley, Bragg and Longstreet could see the Federals marching toward Brown’s Ferry. Bragg ordered Longstreet to attack and then returned to his headquarters.
The Federals moving through Lookout Valley belonged to Major General Joseph Hooker, led by XI Corps. Hooker’s goal was to join forces with the troops at Brown’s Ferry. Hooker directed his rear guard, a division of XII Corps under Brigadier General John W. Geary, to halt at Wauhatchie Station, a stop on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, about three miles southwest of Brown’s Ferry. Geary was to guard Hooker’s communications and the road leading west to Kelley’s Ferry.
Although Bragg expected Longstreet to attack the main Federal force assembling at Brown’s Ferry, Longstreet planned to cut off Hooker’s rear by attacking Geary’s isolated division instead. Three Confederate brigades would move from the eastern slopes of Lookout Mountain to join Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s brigade in a rare night assault at 10 p.m. The brigades belonged to Brigadier General Micah Jenkins’s division of Longstreet’s corps.
Longstreet informed Bragg around 6 p.m., “There is another column and train just in sight. I hope to be able to attack it in flank soon after dark.” Law protested the plan, arguing that “even if he (Jenkins) gained a temporary success during the night, the light of the next morning would reveal his weakness, with a force of the enemy on both sides of him, each of which would be superior in numbers to his whole force.”
Geary’s 1,500 men camped for the night near Wauhatchie. They had not yet established communications with the Federals at Brown’s Ferry. The Confederate attack was delayed until after midnight due to men getting lost in the dark. Longstreet decided to suspend the attack, but Jenkins did not receive the order until fighting had already begun.
The Confederates attacked from the north and east, hoping to separate Geary’s men from Hooker’s main force. Geary was surprised, but his men quickly put out their campfires and formed a “V” shape defense line, as Geary sent a regiment west to guard Kelley’s Ferry. Heavy clouds blocked the moonlight, making muzzle flashes the only light in most places.
Hooker heard the firing and sent Howard’s XI Corps to reinforce Geary. One of Howard’s divisions, led by Major General Carl Schurz, got lost and did not see action. But when Jenkins could not prevent the rest of Howard’s corps from linking with Geary, he ordered a withdrawal to Lookout Mountain.
In this confusing battle, the Federals sustained 420 casualties (78 killed, 327 wounded, and 15 missing), while the Confederates lost 408 men (34 killed, 305 wounded, and 69 missing). Howard’s XI Corps performed well despite past defeats while part of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Hooker accused Schurz of incompetence for getting lost, but Schurz was later absolved by a court of inquiry.
Longstreet tried charging Law with poor conduct since he had opposed the attack; he also accused Jenkins’s men of lacking the aggressiveness needed for a night attack. He especially singled out Brigadier General Jerome Robertson, who commanded a brigade in Jenkins’s division. Longstreet wrote of Robertson, “This officer has been complained of so frequently for want of conduct in time of battle that I apprehend that the abandonment by his brigade of its position of the night of the 28th may have been due to his want of hearty co-operation.”
All charges against Law and Robertson were dropped due to time constraints. Longstreet pulled his men back, giving Brown’s Ferry to the Federals. Hooker’s men drove the remaining Confederates off Raccoon Mountain, and the “cracker line” from Bridgeport to Chattanooga was soon fully operational. With the Confederate siege effectively broken, 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 (still unaware that Major General William S. Rosecrans no longer commanded the Federals) suggested that Bragg send Longstreet to Knoxville soon after. Later that day, the Federal steamboat Chattanooga left Bridgeport pulling two barges filled with 40,000 rations. The boat fought the strong current and reached Brown’s Ferry by dawn on the 30th.
Later that day, the Chattanooga reached its namesake city, and the “cracker line” was officially opened, providing hardtack, or “crackers,” to the hungry men. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander in Chattanooga, 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.” Grant later wrote:
“In five days from my arrival in Chattanooga the way was open to Bridgeport and, with the aid of steamers and Hooker’s teams, in a week the troops were receiving full rations. It is hard for any one not an eye-witness to realize the relief this brought. The men were soon reclothed and also well fed, an abundance of ammunition was brought up, and a cheerfulness prevailed not before enjoyed in many weeks. Neither officers nor men looked upon themselves any longer as doomed. The weak and languid appearance of the troops, so visible before, disappeared at once. I do not know what the effect was on the other side, but assume it must have been correspondingly depressing.”
But Grant was not entirely satisfied. He confided to Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana that he disliked Hooker and wanted to remove him from command, along with Major General Henry W. Slocum heading XII Corps. Dana informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “He would himself order Hooker and Slocum away, but hesitates because they have just been sent here by the President. Besides, I think he would rather prefer that so serious a proceeding should come from headquarters.”
Dana reported that Hooker had “behaved badly ever since his arrival,” and Slocum had sent “a very disorderly communication” complaining about serving under Hooker, whom he (Slocum) despised. Dana wrote, “Altogether Grant feels that their presence here is replete with both trouble and danger. Besides, the smallness of the two corps requires their consolidation.”
Regardless of his issues with the commanders, Grant soon began planning a counteroffensive against Bragg’s Confederates outside Chattanooga.
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