Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the new Federal Military Division of the Mississippi, left Louisville, Kentucky on October 20 to take command of the Army of the Cumberland besieged in the key city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time Grant boarded the train to head south, the Federals were slowly starving. They 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, and these gave 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 met with Andrew Johnson, the appointed military governor of Tennessee. According to Grant, Johnson “delivered a speech of welcome. His composure showed that it was by no means his maiden effort. It was long, and I was in torture while he was delivering it, fearing something would be expected from me in response. I was relieved, however, the people assembled having apparently heard enough…”
Grant moved on to Stevenson the next day. There he 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 there was no love lost between these two generals. Colonel James H. Wilson of Grant’s staff noted, “The meeting was brief and courteous but not effusive. They were far from sympathetic with each other.”
According to Grant, Rosecrans “described very clearly the situation at Chattanooga, and made some excellent suggestions as to what should be done. My only wonder was that he had not carried them out.” Rosecrans then left for Cincinnati to await further orders.
Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Eleventh Corps, came aboard the train to welcome Grant, whom he had never met. As the generals got acquainted, a staff officer brought a message from Howard’s superior, Major-General Joseph Hooker, stating that Hooker was not feeling well and would like Grant to come to his headquarters to meet. John A. Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, told the messenger that Grant himself was not feeling well, and Grant said, “If General Hooker wishes to see me he will find me on this train.”
Howard witnessed this exchange and later wrote, “Grant took this first occasion to assert himself. He never left the necessity for gaining a proper ascendancy over subordinate generals, where it was likely to be questioned, to a second interview.” Hooker quickly came over to meet Grant in his railcar and, according to Howard, “paid his respects in person.” Grant declined Hooker’s invitation to spend the night at his headquarters and instead moved on to Bridgeport and stayed with Howard.
Bridgeport was about 40 miles down the Tennessee River from Chattanooga. But the journey to the besieged city would take up to 75 land miles on horseback through the rugged mountains. This posed a problem for Grant because he was still on crutches, “lame and suffering” from injuries suffered when he fell off his horse in early September. When Grant left at dawn of the 22nd, he had to be lifted into the saddle by Rawlins, “as if he had been a child.” 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. They were unable to use the direct approach to Chattanooga because it was covered by Confederate artillery. The group was only able to cover a dozen miles before stopping at a small village near Jasper for the night. Colonel Wilson was sent ahead to inform the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland that Grant was on his way.
The new commander was Major-General George H. Thomas. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. 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.”
The storm continued on the 23rd as Grant and his party set out to finish their torturous journey. They ascended Walden’s Ridge in the Cumberland Mountains and rode across the pontoon bridge leading into Chattanooga near nightfall. Thomas had been informed of Grant’s impending arrival, but he had not expected Grant to get there so soon. Dana reported that Grant arrived at Thomas’s headquarters that night, “wet, dirty, and well.”
Grant and Thomas were on coldly professional terms; some thought that Grant might have resented Thomas because Thomas had briefly replaced him as Army of the Tennessee commander after the Battle of Shiloh. Wilson made a note 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 sat near the fire, lit a cigar, and asked for a briefing on the situation.
Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff wrote that Grant sat as “immovable as a rock and as silent as a sphinx” as he listened to Thomas and his officers. They explained that the troops 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. 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. Grant had known Smith at West Point, and Porter wrote that when Smith began talking, Grant “straightened himself up in his chair, his features assumed an air of animation, and in a tone of voice that manifested a deep interest in the discussion… began to fire whole volleys of questions.”
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 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 Thomas had already approved and 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 wanted to inspect the lines for himself, but for now he tentatively approved opening what became known as the “cracker line.”
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