Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the new Federal Division of the Mississippi, had arrived in Chattanooga on October 23. The Federal Army of the Cumberland, Major-General George H. Thomas commanding, was virtually trapped in the city by General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Federal reinforcements were still arriving, but the main concern was finding a way to feed all these troops.
Grant had tentatively approved a plan to open a supply route at Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River, and he set out to inspect this line and any other possible weaknesses in the enemy’s siege line on the morning of the 24th. He was joined by Thomas and Brigadier-General William F. “Baldy” Smith, the army’s chief engineer who had devised this plan. The officers inspected the lines and assessed their situation:
- To the Federals’ left was Missionary Ridge, a 300-foot-high eminence that started east of Chattanooga and ran southwest for about seven miles.
- To the right was Lookout Mountain, an even more imposing ridge at 1,000 feet high, on the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga.
Confederates were positioned on the crest of Missionary Ridge, with their guns pointing down on the Federals below. There was no way to get supplies from the east. There were five possible supply routes through Lookout Mountain, but the Confederates controlled four of them, and the fifth was the extremely difficult route that Grant had taken to get into Chattanooga.
Grant, Thomas, and Smith then 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. 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 their base at Bridgeport, Alabama, 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.
Smith’s plan called for two Federal brigades to seize the area around Brown’s Ferry while Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Eleventh and Twelfth corps (reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac) crossed the Tennessee at Bridgeport, double-backed toward Brown’s Ferry on the river’s south bank, cleared out the small Confederate force in the area, and helped to build a bridge at the ferry. Grant endorsed Thomas’s approval of Smith’s plan, and Federals began quickly moving to open this supply route, which they called the “cracker line.”
Meanwhile, officials at Washington worried that Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio, stationed at Knoxville in eastern Tennessee, was in danger of being isolated and attacked by a separate Confederate force. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck notified Grant on the 24th of rumors that a corps from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, “from 20,000 to 25,000 men, has left Lee’s army and gone to Tennessee… As Burnside will be obliged to move all his forces up the valley, you must guard against Bragg’s entrance into East Tennessee, above Chattanooga.”
Grant responded by writing to Major-General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee, who was in the process of sending reinforcements from Mississippi to Chattanooga. Sherman was currently adhering to Halleck’s orders to repair the Memphis & Charleston Railroad as he went, but Grant now wrote him, “Drop all work on Memphis & Charleston Railroad, cross the Tennessee and hurry eastward with all possible dispatch toward Bridgeport, till you meet further orders from me.”
The Brown’s Ferry operation proceeded at once. Hooker received his orders, but he 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 the Eleventh 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 on hand 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.”
Nevertheless, Smith noted, “it was deemed better to take this risk than to attempt to launch the boats near the ferry, because they would move more rapidly than intelligence could be taken by infantry pickets.” The Federals hurried to assemble a river flotilla to transport Hazen’s Federals. In support of Hazen was the second brigade, which would march overland to Brown’s Ferry and camp in the woods east of the Tennessee.
Starting on the 25th, according to Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, orders “were given for the taking of vigorous and comprehensive steps in every direction throughout the new and extensive command.” Grant left the Brown’s Ferry operation in the hands of Thomas and Smith, and he informed Halleck about the new supply line: “If successful, and I think it will be, the question of supplies will be fully settled.”
Grant explained that Thomas’s army could not do much for Burnside without Sherman’s help because it “is in bad condition to move, for want of animals of sufficient strength to move his artillery, and for want of subsistence… I will endeavor to study up my position well and post the troops to the best of my judgment, to meet all contingencies. I will also endeavor to get the troops in a state of readiness for a forward movement at the earliest possible day.”
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