Battle of Wauhatchie
In an effort to relieve Union forces besieged in Chattanooga, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant initiated the “Cracker Line Operation” on October 26, 1863. This operation required the opening of the road to Chattanooga from Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River with a simultaneous advance up Lookout Valley, securing the Kelley’s Ferry Road. Union Chief Engineer, Military Division of the Mississippi, Brig. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith, with Brig. Gen. John B. Turchin’s and Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s 1st and 2nd brigades, 3rd Division, IV Army Corps, was assigned the task of establishing the Brown’s Ferry bridgehead. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, with three divisions, marched from Bridgeport through Lookout Valley towards Brown’s Ferry from the south. At 3:00 am, on October 27, portions of Hazen’s brigade embarked upon pontoons and floated around Moccasin Bend to Brown’s Ferry. Turchin’s brigade took a position on Moccasin Bend across from Brown’s Ferry. Upon landing, Hazen secured the bridgehead and then positioned a pontoon bridge across the river, allowing Turchin to cross and take position on his right. Hooker, while his force passed through Lookout Valley on October 28, detached Brig. Gen. John W. Geary’s division at Wauhatchie Station, a stop on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, to protect the line of communications to the south as well as the road west to Kelley’s Ferry. Observing the Union movements on the 27th and 28th, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Gen. Braxton Bragg decided to mount a night attack on Wauhatchie Station. Although the attack was scheduled for 10:00 pm on the night of October 28, confusion delayed it till midnight. Surprised by the attack, Geary’s division, at Wauhatchie Station, formed into a V-shaped battle line. Hearing the din of battle, Hooker, at Brown’s Ferry, sent Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard with two XI Army Corps divisions to Wauhatchie Station as reinforcements. As more and more Union troops arrived, the Confederates fell back to Lookout Mountain. The Federals now had their window to the outside and could receive supplies, weapons, ammunition, and reinforcements via the Cracker Line. Relatively few night engagements occurred during the Civil War; Wauhatchie is one of the most significant. (NPS summary)
Night Fight at Wauhatchie
The autumn of 1863 found Union forces in southern Tennessee in a very difficult position. The post-Chickamauga retreat into Chattanooga left the commander, MG William Rosecrans, in an impossible political/military predicament. Nearly every entry into the city was covered by the Confederates making adequate logistical support for his army impossible. Unfortunately, abandonment of the city for a more viable base of operations was denied by his superiors. The state of Tennessee had been won and there was no inclination in Washington to give any of it back. Caught in this conundrum the disheartened Rosecrans became moribund and his army withered on the slim vine of his poor logistics. Stagnation, however, was not part of the plan in Washington either. After several unsuccessful attempts to motivate Rosecrans into action he was replaced by MG U. S. Grant.
Fresh from his Victory at Vicksburg, Grant was not content to remain idle. At the suggestion of his chief engineer, BG William F. Smith, he adopted a bold plan to open his communications and move forward against the enemy. The operation called for an amphibious assault across the river to seize a bridgehead just out of range of the Confederate artillery. Once established on the far shore a pontoon bridge would be thrown and troops would be sent across with the goal of linking with MG Joseph H ooker's column of XI and XII Corps troops marching up the Lookout Valley from Bridgeport.
All these moves were visible to the enemy on the mountain and were sure to be contested. Nevertheless, the plan was refined and implemented. The amphibious operation was a spectacular success and H ooker's move up the valley to support the main operation progressed nearly unopposed. In an effort to secure his own lines of communication H ooker made a move that would lead to one of the very few examples of night combat during the entire war at Wauhatchie, Tennessee.
Initially MG Joseph Hooker's movement to Tennessee was an emergency reaction to the need to reinforce Rosecrans in the immediate aftermath of Chickamauga. Portions of XI Corps and XII Corps were dispatched from the eastern theater by train with instructions to make no delay. MG Rosecrans fortified the demand for speed with a terse message to Hooker on 27 September;
"You will proceed from Louisville direct to Bridgeport without stopping at Nashville."
Despite the prodding, Hooker's move was anything but fast. Prior to their departure nearly all the units involved were forced to turn in their serviceable wagons and teams. Their orders included instructions to draw replacements at the Nashville deopt. When they arrived there, however, they found nothing but derelict wagons and broken down animals. The advance stalled there as the quartermasters tried to assemble a train from the available dregs. Hooker finally determined to push on with just his infantry troops while a train was assembled from what could be scounged. Additionally a wide dispersement of his troops to counter Confederate forays and unseasonably wet weather further delayed his arrival to Bridgeport. Once there he had to wait for the makeshift train of wagons that had been assembled from the dregs at Nashville to arrive.
In the interim MG Rosecrans had been ousted in favor of MG Grant. Hooker was called to Stevenson for a conference with the new commander.The meeting resulted in a bizarre clash of egos. While Grant and Howard hit it off immediately, Thomas remained aloof, and Hooker sent an aide to meet with Grant, claiming illness.Grant jumped at the opportunity to assert his authority and forced Hooker to visit him. Having sized up his commanders Grant issued no complete orders. H ooker departed the meeting and returned to Bridgeport. Grant sent orders to Hooker through Thomas on 24 October to continue his march to Brown's Ferry, not as reinforcements but as an intregal part of the new breakout plan.
Despite his reservations concerning the plan, H ooker reported crossing the pontoon bridge at Bridgeport on the 26th with the greater part of XI Corps, 2nd Division of XII Corps and a cavalry detachment consisting of one company of the 5th Tennessee and a part of a company from the 1st Alabama.The march followed the Wauhatchie wagon road that paralelled the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. The lead elements of the column reached Shellmound on the 26th and Whitesides on the 27th. On the 28th the march resumed with the division of BG John Geary at the rear. Geary's division had been whittled down to barely 1500 men by detachments to secure the line along the route of march. At 1630 Geary's weary men reached Wauhatchie and were ordered to stop and secure the town. Wauhatchie held an important road junction and abutted the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. It was a critical location to the maintenance of Hooker's lines of communication.
BG John Geary took his responsibility seriously although he felt he was operating under difficult circumstances. On the 25th he had reached Bridgeport with only one regiment and 2 sections of artillery because his command was stretched from "Tullahoma to Murfreesboro guarding the railroad." By the 27th he had gathered four regiments ( 78th NY, 149th NY, 29th PA, and 109th PA) of his division for the move forward. Late on the 27th he sent out orders for three days rations and 60 rounds of ammunition to be issued to all available men. The march began at 0500 and reached Shellmound at 1400 where they were joined by three more regiments (111th PA, 60th NY, and 137th NY).
Geary ordered "heavy fatigue details to aid in constructing a pontoon bridge across the river at Shellmound". The bridge was completed at 0100 on the 28th and the column moved on at 0500. At Whitesides Geary detached the 60th New York to guard an import pass into the area of operations. He was also well aware that his movements were being observed noting that; "active signalling was plainly discernible to the naked eye" was being conducted from the Confederate signal stations. Understanding that they had been seen and the possibility of an attack on his vulnerable position as a result Geary ordered his exhausted troops to "bivouac upon their arms, with cartridge boxes on." He also ordered his available artillery to "a knob about 30 yards to the left of the railroad."
Geary also selected Colonel William Rickards of the 29th Pennsylvania to act as Officer of the Day and ordered him to post his regiment as pickets. Rickards immediately posted his men secure the camp "to the best advantage" with additional instructions to construct "such defenses as would protect them from the enemy's shot." Companies E, K, and B were posted at the Junction of the road network under CPT Rickards (related?). CPT Stork and companies I and H were sent 3/4 of a mile out on the Kelly's Ferry Road. LT Cousault posted companies A and F between the main camp and Lookout Creek. Comapnies C and G took station 1/2 mile out on the Brown's Ferry Road. Company D continued the line between Stork and Rickards commands and a small reserve was established under CPT Millison. Millison was instructed to have the men prepared to react "on the least alarm." When information from local citizens that there was a bridge across the creek became available Rickards rushed men to the road from it. The picket line now formed "a continous line around our camp" and seemingly covered all approaches. Behind this defense the remainder of the division formed a semi-circular line facing north with the right flank anchored on the rail line.
As expected the Confederate leadership was watching the development of the Union plan. By October 25th reports from scouts had alerted Bragg to a possible move into the valley from Bridgeport. He ordered Longstreet to conduct a reconnaissance in that direction. In the evaporating command atmosphere that was the Army of Tennessee Longstreet chose to ignore the order. Colonel Oates, of the 15th Alabama, also noted the activity at the river and requested reinforcements. The request was ignored. Longstreet had formed his own opinion concerning the Union intentions in the valley and dismissed further warnings from Evander Law that a large Federal column (H ooker) was on the march up the valley. Oddly, Longstreet again chose to do nothing. Eventually the evidence of Union operations in the valley and around Brown's Ferry became so obvious that Bragg insisted that Longstreet take action against it. In a very contenious meeting on the 28th Bragg insisted that Longstreet attack the Federals. The order was tainted by their mutual dislike and mistrust and led to a serious misunderstanding about the number of troops to be used in the proposed attack. In a curious decision Longstreet dedicated only a single division (Jenkins') to the take on the two Federal Corps operating in the valley and around Brown's Ferry although Bragg reminded him that his entire Corps could be used. As he was planning his attack Longstreet noted the presence of the Union rear guard (Geary) at Wauhatchie and requested permission to conduct a night attack to cut the Federal lines of communication there. Bragg, pleased that Longstreet was finally doing something about the Union operations in his sector, agreed. Longstreet, however, sent only the one division forward. With decision to attack Geary he detached Jenkin's South Carolina Brigade (under the command of Colonel John Bratton), further weakening the Confederate response at Brown's Ferry, for the task.
The attack was planned for 2200 but the difficulty of movement down a narrow mountain path from their positions on the mountain delayed the approach of Bratton's men until slightly after midnight. Bratton wisely chose to avoid the bridge, which he must have considered covered, and forded the stream nearby thus avoiding early detection by the Union pickets. Only a brief skirmish around 2230 by the advanced pickets of the 141st New York and the 48th Alabama of the Brown's Ferry attack brigades threatened to reveal Bratton's move. Fortunately for Bratton and his men after a few moments of heightened activity at the Union camp the uproar quieted. Bratton continued his deployment in close proximity to the Federal lines undetected. With the nearest supporting Federal units about three miles away Bratton had every reason to anticipate success against his isolated foe.
Bratton's efforts to get into position continued for two hours after the appointed attack time. The nearly full moon was obscured by clouds and the darkness made it impossible, according to Geary, "to see a body of men only 100 yards distant." Bratton's skirmishers finally made contact with the Federal pickets about 0030 and the resulting fire drove them back into the main camp. The retreating pickets of companies C and G of the 29th Pennsylvania reformed at the battery in the rear of the Union line. The sudden eruption of fire and retreating men caused confusion in the Federal camp. Bratton reported that there was "...considerable commotion in their camp. Whether it was of preperation to receive or leave us I could not tell, but the hurrying hither and tither could be seen by the light of their camp fires, which they were then extinguishing." One thing was certain, despite all Geary had done to avoid surprise he was caught completely off guard. Writing many years later CPT George Collins of the 149th New York recorded that "the men were thoroughly surprised and unprepared for an enemy whose presence they could not divine." Bratton sensed the time was right to initiate the main attack. He sent three regiments (1st SC, 2nd SC and 5th SC) into the heart of the Union position. The Palmetto Sharpshooters were dispatched to the rail line to seek out the rignt flank of the enemy. Hampton's Legion formed a reserve and the 6th SC guarded the Brown's Ferry road to prevent the main body from being taken in the rear by any Union forces moving down from that direction.
The Federal commanders overcame the early confusion and assembled a line that included the 137th NY on the far left, the 111th PA and 109th PA formed the center, the 78th NY and and 149th NY turned a 90 degree corner at the railroad embankment to form the right. The four guns of Knap's battery lay badly exposed about 50 yards behind the main line. The infantry met the Confederate assault with volleys fired from a prone position. Knap's pieces joined in, firing at maximum depression over the "prostrate forms and within a few feet of our infantry line." With the engagement this close, limited visibility, and short fuses the inevitable happened. LT Pettit of Company B the 111th PA was decapitated by a round fired from the artillery. A fellow officer, LT Black of Company K, had both his legs destroyed by a short round. Nevertheless, the combined weight of fire from the four pieces and the infantry line stopped Bratton's attack on the center.
The inability to force the center of the Federal line caused Bratton to adopt new tactics. He recalled the 6th SC from duty on the Brown's Ferry Road to serve as a reserve and threw the Hampton Legion out to test the Union left.Combat in the center remained static as the Hampton Legion trudged off into the swampy area to the west. The devestating effect of the fire from the four artillery pieces singled them out for special attention. The word was passed down the Confederate line to target the gunners. Fire from the railroad embankment was particularly effective. With the flash of the rounds illuminating the scene for the Confederate marksmen the gunners were reduced at a terrifying rate. Eventually one gun had to be retired for want of crew to man it. It soon became apparent that action would have to be taken against this portion of the line to reduce the "very severe fire on us." A recommendation was made to move a gun across the rail line to enfilade the Confederate position. At first the chief of artillery MAJ John Reynolds was reluctant to make the effort fearing the gun would be captured by the Palmetto Sharpshooters but Colonel Rickards offered up the returned men from the 29th PA's picket force (C and G) that had been assembled there at the beginning of the engagement for the task. A gun was manhandled into position by the Pennsylvanians . The newly repositioned gunners exacted their revenge. "After two or three rounds we got the range and swept the enemy from the bank."To retard any further Confederate efforts to get into their rear Companies A and F of the 29th were deployed into the woods and the situation on the Federal right stabilized.
Meanwhile on the Union left the men of the Hampton Legion emerged from the swamp and found themselves in the Federal rear and amongst the wagon train. A few shots scattered the teamsters and guards and set some of the teams screaming off in every direction in a terrified attempt to get out of the way of the carnage. This "Charge of the Mule Brigade" has been widely overplayed and caused as much disruption to the Union attempts to counter the Confederate move as it did to the attackers. The most that can be said is that the momentary confusion created by these animals and the Confederate soldiers pausing to loot some of the wagons allowed just enough time for the Union troops to meet the attack from an unexpected direction. A sharp eyed adjutant, LT Mix, correctly evaluated the situation and refused two companies of the 137th NY (B and G) to meet the challenge. As the Confederates manuevered for position they were raked across their flank by the fire of these two companies. The movement evaporated under the barrage. The Union left was saved and the field slowly quieted as the Confederates regrouped and considered their options. The fierce two and a half hour struggle in the October darkness had exhausted the men on both sides and their ammunition supplies as well. The flanking attempts although defeated had used up nearly all the Federal ammunition. Colonel Ireland, leading the XII Corps contingent of Geary's column, reported that by "sending to the hospital and cutting the cartridge boxes from the dead and wounded they has a supply until the close of the action." At the conclusion of the action "there were not 200 cartridges in the regiment." BG Geary was aware of the growing ammunition crisis but wrote in his report that there was no thought of retreat. He was going to hold his ground, determined to "depend on the bayonet should our ammunition fail."
Across the field the Confederate commander, COL Bratton remained confident. Despite being rebuffed on his first two efforts he believed that "the position of things were entirely favorable to a grand charge." The 6th SC was still available and he brought them forward to reinforce his new effort on the Union right. His troops were arranged in a "wide spread V". The Palmetto Sharpshooters were reorganized on the left and with the 2nd SC and newly arrived 6th SC formed the left arm of the V. The 1st SC formed the base and the 5th SC and Hampton's Legion extended southwest to form the right. The combatants set their teeth for what was sure to be a desperate struggle to the end.
At Brown's Ferry the sound of the battle to the south alerted Hooker that his rear may be in trouble. MG Oliver Howard, commanding XI Corps, was ordered to double quick his nearest division to Geary's aid. MG Carl Shurz got his two divisions ready for the rescue mission. The division of BG Aldolphus von Steinwehr led to the way with the brigade of COL Orlando Smith (33rd Massachusetts,136th New York, and 73rd Ohio) out front. After a mile of double quicking down the Brown's Ferry Road they ran into Evander Law's pickets stationed at the base of a hill. All thoughts of the rescue mission stopped as the 73rd Ohio was scattered by the heavy volley from the trees. Smith had no choice but to turn and face the threat. He got the Ohians in line and put the 33rd Massachusetts on their left. The 136th New York remained on the road in reserve. Orders arrived for Smith to clear the hill. The two regiments (approximately 450 men) inched their way into the tress and started up the hill. The advance quickly got disoriented but the men pushed up the slope. As they neared the top the intertwined units began to call out to each other for identification purposes. Suddenly their was a challenge
"What regiment is that?"
The answer rang out.
Once they had identified themselves they received a tremendous volley from Law's main force at the crest of the hill. Nearly a quarter of the 33rd fell as a result. The volley fired at the Massachusetts men served as a warning and many of the 73rd Ohio fell to the ground expecting the same treatment. The volley passed over them, but they were ordered to push on and advanced into ever increasing fire. The momentarily staggered 33rd fell back to the bottom of the hill where they regrouped and were pushed forward again. Andrew Boies recalled the second trip up the hill this way in his journal of the war:
"...and at it they went charging with the bayonet, dealing each other blows over the head with the musket, slashing and cutting with swords...this was too much for them...and finally gave way...leaving the 33d in possession of the hill."
The bold effort cost the regiment 86 casualties from 238 that fought the fight. The 73rd Ohio, their partner in this affair lost a third of its strength. What they didn't know was that it could have been much worse. Law, reacting to a faulty intelligence report had decided to cede the position. The Confederates were in the act of realigning when the second assault came. The movement of troops had created gaps in the line that allowed the Federals to get in close. Had Law determined to fight for control of the hill its doubtful that the two Union regiments could have taken it at any cost. Law understood that his departure would leave Bratton uncovered from the north and that relief columns were headed to assist Geary. He issued a recall order.
As Bratton was about to begin his attack the messenger from Law arrived. There would be no final struggle just a retreat. The relatively unscathed 6th SC took up a position at the railroad and fired the last volleys to cover the retreat of the battered remnants of his other regiments. The Union relief troops from the north finally arrived hours after the battle had ended.
The short fight at Wauhatchie was costly for both sides. Geary suffered 216 casualties, including his son who died at the guns. Bratton paid the more expensive attackers butchers bill, losing 356 men. The fight at Smith's Hill nearly destroyed the 33rd Massachusetts and the 73rd Ohio. Hooker attempted to find a scapegoat for his poor deployment that left Geary so vulnerable. He accused MG Carl Schurz of failing to aid Geary in a timely fashion. Schurz got a Court of Inquiry and was exonerated. Longstreet's failure here led to the inevitable split with Bragg. He was sent off to Knoxville and Bragg, desperately short of troops, was glad to be rid of him.
- The War of Rebellion - A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Vol. XXXI Part 1
- The Shipwreck of Their Hopes - The Battles for Chattanooga, Peter Cozzens
- Autumn Of Glory - The Army of Tennessee 1862-1865, Thomas Lawrence Connelly
- Memoirs of the 149th Regiment of New York Volunteer Infantry, George K Collins, 1891
- Soldiers True - The Story of the One hundred and Eleventh Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, John K. Boyle. 1903 *Record of the Thirty-Third Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, from Aug. 1862 to Aug. 1865, Andrew J. Boies
- Of Mules and Men - The Night Fight at Wauhatchie Station, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 90 No.4, Oct 1989, John K. Stevens
- Journal-History of the Seventy-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Samuel H. Hurst