By the morning of October 28, Federal forces had secured Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River below Chattanooga. This opened the “cracker line” that could bring supplies to the starving Federal troops besieged in Chattanooga. A supporting Federal force led by Major-General Joseph Hooker was on its way to reinforce the Federals at the ferry.
General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, continued his tenuous siege on the Federal army in Chattanooga. But Bragg did not know that the Federals had opened a new supply line at Brown’s Ferry until the morning of the 28th. Infuriated, he wrote to Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, whose corps was responsible for that sector of the line, “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 Longstreet’s headquarters to discuss the matter in person, but he was told that Longstreet was atop Lookout Mountain. Bragg finally met with Longstreet around 10 a.m.
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 while continuing to insist 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, but Longstreet would only consent if he could do it under cover of darkness. Bragg agreed and returned to his headquarters.
The Federals moving through Lookout Valley belonged to Hooker, led by the Eleventh Corps. Hooker’s goal was to join forces with the troops at Brown’s Ferry. Hooker directed his rear guard, a division of the Twelfth 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. But Longstreet recognized that this placement left Geary isolated.
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. Once Geary was destroyed, Longstreet would then turn against the main force at Brown’s Ferry.
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.” Bragg had expected Longstreet to attack the main Federal force at Brown’s Ferry, but he seemed satisfied with this change in plans as long as it resulted in Longstreet taking some kind of offensive action.
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.” Longstreet may have underestimated the enemy. He had faced the Eleventh and Twelfth corps in combat before and asserted that “these troops have more notoriety for their want of steadiness under fire than for anything else.”
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 Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh 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). Among the killed was Lieutenant E.R. Geary, an artillerist and son of General Geary. Howard’s Eleventh Corps performed well despite past defeats as 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.
The Confederates lost 408 men (34 killed, 305 wounded, and 69 missing). 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.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Takes Command. Open Road Media, Kindle Edition, 2015.
- Cozzens, Peter, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.