The condition of the Federal forces trapped in Chattanooga was getting progressively worse. Only one tenuous supply line through the rugged Cumberland Mountains was feeding the entire force, and the horses that were needed to haul the wagons were breaking down. Quartermaster-General Montgomery C. Meigs reported, “The animals with this army will now nearly all need three months rest to become serviceable. They should be returned to Louisville for this purpose. Hard work, exposure, short grain and no long fodder have almost destroyed them.”
Federals therefore began working feverishly to open a new “cracker line” that could get food and other supplies to the army much quicker. This line would be opened at Brown’s Ferry, on the Tennessee River below Chattanooga, which was only lightly guarded by Confederate troops. Two Federal brigades were sent to seize this point on October 25, with support from two corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major-General Joseph Hooker.
Hooker ordered Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Eleventh Corps, 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 laying siege to the Federals, 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 Lieutenant-General James 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, Confederate scouts had informed Bragg that Hooker was gathering his Federals at Bridgeport, on the Confederate left. Bragg directed Longstreet to reconnoiter that area, but Longstreet only had one brigade there. That brigade was being led by Colonel William Oates, an interim commander who was unaware that the regiments assigned to guard the western base of Lookout Mountain had withdrawn. Thus, there were no Confederates nearby to contest the Federal efforts to secure Brown’s Ferry below Chattanooga.
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 reported a potential Federal river crossing at Bridgeport, and if successful, the Federals could cut off Longstreet’s line of retreat. Longstreet received Bragg’s order but did nothing. He believed the movement was just a feint; he also resented both Bragg’s leadership and President Jefferson Davis’s recent decision to retain Bragg as army commander. Longstreet did not answer Oates’s request for reinforcements either.
By the 27th, the Federals were ready to make their move to take Brown’s Ferry. The first part of the plan involved sending Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s 1,500 Federals down the Tennessee on 24 pontoon boats while in range of Confederate guns. The second part involved 3,500 Federals under Brigadier-General John B. Turchin marching across Moccasin Point, a stretch of land opposite Raccoon Mountain, unnoticed.
Hazen’s Federals marched down to the riverfront around 1 a.m. and boarded the boats in silence. The bright moon began dimming around 3 a.m., which worked in the Federals’ favor. 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. Hazen announced, “We’ve knocked the cover off the cracker box.”
The Federals reached the west bank of the Tennessee around daybreak, where 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.
The final part of the Federal plan involved Hooker’s Federals crossing the Tennessee at Bridgeport, clearing the Confederates from Raccoon Mountain, and securing the western base of Lookout Mountain. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, reporting to Washington from Hooker’s headquarters, sent messages critical of Hooker’s supposed delay in moving out. Dana wrote, “Troops are now just moving out for Shellmound and Raccoon Mountain. Hooker… is in an unfortunate state of mind for one who has to co-operate, fault finding, criticizing, dissatisfied… he is quite as truculent toward the plan he is now to execute as toward the impotence and confusion of the old regime.”
Howard’s Eleventh Corps led the march that began at dawn on the 27th, followed by a division of the Twelfth Corps under Brigadier-General John W. Geary. Despite the horrible condition of the roads, Howard’s Federals advanced to within 10 miles of Brown’s Ferry before stopping for the night. Geary stopped at Shellmound. Hooker ordered the advance to resume at 5 a.m. on the 28th. He posted a division at Wauhatchie Station to guard his communications, and the Federals completed their pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry. This would open the “cracker line” by enabling 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 could hear the skirmishing at Brown’s Ferry from his headquarters on Missionary Ridge and ordered Longstreet to “make all necessary dispositions to dislodge” the Federals. Longstreet responded by sending a brigade to Bridgeport. But he did not inform Bragg of the engagement at Brown’s Ferry, and the Federals were poised to concentrate all their forces there the next day.
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