October of 1863 was a lean month for the Union Army of the Cumberland, trapped in Chattanooga. Joe Wheeler’s Rebel cavalry kicked off the month by destroying a Union supply train of nearly 800 wagons on Walden Ridge. Though they were chased off, more trouble lay ahead. Rain fell. Rivers and creeks rose to flood stage. Roads were churned to mud. The 60 mile round-a-bout trip from Chattanooga to Bridgeport became all but impassible.
By the middle of the month, it was obvious to everyone: Either the Federals opened up the Tennessee River to bring supplies into Chattanooga, or they would have to leave. Or starve, which to some seemed equally likely.
The Union answer to their supply woes was “The Cracker Line,” which involved transporting supplies up the river as far as Kelly’s Ferry, then bridging the Tennessee twice, first at Brown’s Ferry and then opposite Chattanooga proper, to relieve the supply pinch. At 3:00 a.m. on October 27, a Union brigade floated downstream to Brown’s Ferry in 50 pontoon boats, seized the landing in a coup de main, and drove off the two Confederate regiments defending that site. With daylight, they erected a bridge, and soon a second brigade was across.
On October 28 a second Union column appeared. This was Joseph Hooker’s combined XI/XII Corps command, marching from Bridgeport to link up with the Brown’s Ferry force. By that afternoon, 10,000 Federals occupied Lookout Valley, the bulk of them camped around Brown’s Ferry. Hooker left one small division of the XII Corps at the rail junction of Wauhatchie (6 regiments, about 1,700 men) to guard the entrance to Running Water Canyon.
When Braxton Bragg heard about the Union crossing at Brown’s Ferry, he decided to examine the state of affairs personally. Early on the 28th he ventured from his headquarters on Missionary Ridge to meet James Longstreet on Lookout Mountain. Bragg, angry that the Federals had secured a lodgment, wanted Longstreet to counter-attack and drive the Brown’s Ferry Federals back into the Tennessee River. The two generals were still conferring when a courier brought word of Hooker’s appearance in the valley below.
From a vantage on the western brow of Lookout, Bragg and Longstreet gaped at Hooker’s column as it linked up with the Brown’s Ferry force. Bragg, already furious that the Federals had achieved a lodgment at the Ferry, now fumed as more Blue troops established control over the rest of the valley below. Unless they could be driven away, the siege of Chattanooga was effectively over.
How had the Confederates lost Lookout Valley so easily? Why were there so few Confederates in the valley to begin with? Longstreet placed only a brigade there – Brigadier General Evander Law’s, of Alabama – and even half of that command was inopportunely withdrawn just before the Yankees struck.
There has been a great deal of historical debate over the exact reason for this lack of a significant Confederate presence west of the mountain. Most historical commentators tend to blame Longstreet’s carelessness, arguing that he was too busy pouting over his supposed failure to supplant Bragg. In most analyses Longstreet is portrayed as neglectful and out of touch with what was happening on his own front.
I find this argument unconvincing. There are in fact two very good reasons why the Confederate presence west of Lookout was confined to a token force, reasons that tend to get dismissed or overlooked by modern analysis.
First, there is the matter of logistics. Bragg’s Army of Tennessee lacked an adequacy of wagons before all the reinforcements started to arrive, and none of the new troops brought their transport with them. Those wagons were promised to arrive arrive later, but little few ever did – certainly not by the end of October. Fortunately, Bragg’s railhead now extended to Chickamauga Station. With most of his army on Missionary Ridge, hauling supplies to them and to the men occupying Chattanooga Valley (between Mission Ridge and Lookout’s eastern face) was manageable; though the overall capacity of the railroad strained to meet the daily needs of some 70,000 men.
It proved more difficult to supply the men atop Lookout Mountain. Fortunately, holding Lookout’s north and west faces required many fewer troops, which eased that strain; but a strain it remained. Throughout the siege of Chattanooga, the Rebels never held the Mountain with more than a division’s strength, 5-6,000 men.
And what of those troops sent to hold Lookout Valley? Supplying those forces proved to be exceedingly difficult. Why?
Within days of the Union retreat into Chattanooga, William Rosecrans dispatched two artillery batteries to hold the hills on Moccasin Bend. An infantry brigade supported those guns, but the cannon of the 18th Ohio and 10th Indiana Batteries proved the key to constraining Rebel movements into and out of Lookout Valley.
These ten artillery pieces; six 3-inch Ordnance rifles from the 18th Ohio and four 10-pound Parrott rifles from the Indiana 10th (later augmented by two 20-pound Parrotts) collectively dominated the only accessible road between Chattanooga and Lookout Valleys. This road, the Wauhatchie Pike (parts of it are still usable today; watch for street signs marked “Old Wauhatchie Pike”) ran across the northern shoulder of Lookout Mountain. The road lay within easy cannon-shot of Moccasin Bend. Accurate Union gunnery soon made daylight transits impossible, and even nighttime crossings became perilous.
Denied virtually all use of the Pike, the Confederates faced a severe logistics challenge. The next road to pierce Lookout Mountain’s rock-walled western escarpment down into Lookout Valley was 20 or more miles to the south, in Johnson’s Crook, on the road leading to Trenton. Any Confederate wagon train departing hauling supplies into Lookout Valley from Chickamauga Station via this route would face an arduous 100-mile round-trip, climbing and then descending the mountain each way: Clearly an impossibility given Bragg’s limited and much-dilapidated rolling stock.
The primary reason why no more than a brigade of Confederates ever held Lookout Valley, then, was simple. Any larger force placed there would eventually starve.
The second reason why so few Confederates operated in Lookout Valley was because Bragg and Longstreet also differed on the nature of the next Union threat. Longstreet believed, even after Union troops swarmed up the riverbank at Brown’s Ferry, that the most likely Federal effort to sieze Lookout Mountain would come from the south, where Union troops could ascend the palisade well south of the Moutain’s tip (via Johnson’s Crook, again) and then drive north along the plateau. Though he understood this danger, Bragg largely dismissed it. However, Longstreet’s assessment contained valid, unarguable points. A successful Union attack against the north or west faces of Lookout would be exceedingly difficult. Even the Craven House plateau (a bench about 1/3 of the way up the mountain’s shoulder, which carried the Wauhatchie Pike west across Lookout’s northern face) could be held by a brigade or so.
But if the Federals ascended the mountain at Johnson’s Crook, and then turned north as Longstreet feared, defending against that threat would require Longstreet’s entire corps – and who, then, would be left to hold Chattanooga Valley?
This was not mere speculation on Longstreet’s part. When the Federals maneuvered Bragg out of Chattanooga back in September, Thomas’s XIV Corps did exactly that. Later, when Confederate cavalry commander Joseph Wheeler was ordered – by Bragg – to capture the summit of Lookout Mountain at the end of September, he also did so by approaching from the south.
Additionally, If Lookout Mountain were to fall, any force placed in Lookout Valley would be completely cut off. Longstreet could lose the Mountain and the Valley – and perhaps much of his entire corps – in a single bad day. Not only did more troops in the Valley mean fewer troops to hold the already-overtaxed lines atop the Mountain, but it also potentially represented a large bag of prisoners for the Union.
In short, the southern approach was the most logical and likely direction for Grant to attack if he wanted the mountain. It certainly promised the best chance of success. Hence, Longstreet’s primary attention was focused on that threat.
Longstreet was proved wrong: The Federal commanders opted for the more daring course. But that did not mean Longstreet was careless. It is in fact very hard to see how he could have placed more strength in Lookout Valley without gravely weakening his defenses elsewhere, and given the existing Confederate supply limitations.
With the Federals now firmly ensconced in that same valley, however, Bragg demanded a response. Bragg expected Longstreet to counter-attack, with his whole corps, if necessary. Bragg even authorized Longstreet to use William H. T. Walker’s Division of Hindman’s Corps, giving the corps commander up to four divisions to use in this riposte, some 20,000 troops. Further, Bragg expected the main blow to land against the large Union force now securing Brown’s Ferry, to drive the Union bridgehead back into the river. With that, Bragg returned to his headquarters on Missionary Ridge.
The fundamental flaw in Bragg’s thinking, however, was once again logistics. How was Longstreet to move four divisions over the Wauhatchie Pike, in full view of the Union artillery, under fire, and deploy for an attack? The Confederates might be able to move a single division over during the course of a single night – but not an entire corps. And even if he could move that many troops quickly, how could Longstreet sustain a force that size in Lookout Valley once it got there?
Longstreet instead settled for the possible: He ordered Micah Jenkins to take the four brigades of Hood’s division – 5,000 men – over the pike once darkness fell on October 28th. Instead of attacking the estimated 10,000 Federals defending Brown’s Ferry Longstreet instructed Jenkins to instead assault the smaller, unfortified Union command at Wauhatchie Junction; with the goal of capturing the large wagon train accompanying Geary’s command.
It took Jenkins several hours to move his command into position. Two brigades, under Law, were sent to the right with orders to hold a hill overlooking the Brown’s Ferry Road; their mission to block any Union reinforcements that might be sent to help Geary. Jenkins assigned Law this command because he was the 2nd ranking brigadier, and because he already knew the terrain. A third brigade, Benning’s Georgians, was detailed to guard another hill just south of Law’s position, where Benning could defend the bridge over Lookout Creek – Jenkins’ only path of retreat.
This left only Jenkins’ own brigade of South Carolinians (currently commanded by Col. John Bratton) to make the main assault. The odds were even: Bratton carried about 1,700 men into action, roughly equal to Geary’s strength at Wauhatchie.
The battle was a confused affair, which was hardly surprising, given the conditions. It took Jenkins longer than expected to move and deploy his command, which at one point led Longstreet to actually cancel the whole operation – orders that reached Jenkins too late, after the fighting was joined. Bratton’s men achieved some initial success, but Geary’s Federals mounted a stalwart defense (one that cost Geary his son, who was serving as a lieutenant in an artillery battery) leaving Bratton’s initial effort to fall short of routing the Union command. Bratton was rallying for a second charge when word came to retreat instead.
Law, commanding his own and Robertson’s brigades on what would become known as Smith’s Hill (named for the Federal commander who assaulted and captured it) had his own night fight with the Union XI Corps, which was moving south towards Wauhatchie in response to hearing the fighting there. Law resisted an initial assault. A second Union effort broke part of his line atop the hill. Then Law ordered a retreat, having received word that Federals were working around his southern flank to interpose themselves between his line and the bridge over Lookout Creek. A third Union charge all but routed the rear-guard elements of Law’s brigade as they filed off the hill.
Jenkins would later blame Law for retreating too early; Law, in turn, insisted he retreated only after Bratton’s men withdrew. In his account of the affair, Longstreet charged Law’s men with “abandoning” their position to the enemy, which in turn caused Jenkins to break off his own action. In fact, Jenkins’ order instructing Bratton to fall back seems to have come before Law’s retreat, though Bratton’s South Carolinians did not precede Law’s people back across Lookout Creek.
The entire affair was disappointing: to Longstreet, who believed it was a forlorn hope; to Bragg, who believed that Longstreet flagrantly disobeyed his orders; to Jenkins, who’s first exercise of command was a failure; and to Law, who never believed the attack to be a good idea in the first place.
Recriminations a-plenty would follow.