After the defeat at Chickamauga, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in desperation called a late night meeting at the White House on Sept. 23, 1863. Stanton noted that the Union Army of the Potomac had been idle after Gettysburg for almost three months and proposed that troops be moved by railroad to Chattanooga. After a lively debate, President Lincoln approved the move.
The Eleventh and Twelfth Corps, some 15,000 men under the command of General Joseph Hooker, were to be transported west. One railroad executive noted that the boxcars to be used carried 36 men, 34 comfortably. From Washington, the trains ran all the way to Bridgeport, Alabama, the end of the operable line to Chattanooga.
On Sept. 30, the first of Hooker’s men arrived at Bridgeport. Over the next two weeks, the men in Bridgeport worked on a pontoon bridge across the Tennessee River, improved the roads and refurbished a small steamer, the Chattanooga.
The new overall commander in the west, Ulysses S. Grant, arrived on Oct. 21 and met and told Hooker to be ready to move. Continuing on to Chattanooga, Grant approved a coordinated plan to send troops from Chattanooga to seize Brown’s Ferry while Hooker advanced to meet them in Lookout Valley.
On Oct. 27th, Hooker’s men crossed the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, marched past Shellmound, and then began to follow the tortuous road through Running Water gorge between the high bluffs of Sand and Raccoon Mountains.
On Oct. 28th, the men got their first glimpse of Lookout Mountain and Confederate signal flags waving on the crest. The men continued down Lookout Valley dodging occasional artillery shelling. Most of Hooker’s men camped at the Fryar house, or Brown’s Ferry Tavern. Geary’s Division, which had been bringing up the rear of the main column, camped near Wauhatchie Junction on a small knoll on the Rowden farm.
Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet sat on Sunset Rock and watched the Union troops advance and camp. Bragg realized starving the Union army into a surrender would not be possible if the Union troops held Lookout Valley. He ordered Longstreet to retake Lookout Valley.
The only road for Longstreet’s men ran over the nose of Lookout Mountain and was easily bombarded by the Union batteries on Moccasin Bend. Longstreet decided to advance at night, when the batteries could not see his men, and attempt to destroy or capture Geary’s rear guard at Wauhatchie while other troops waited along the road to Brown’s Ferry in the event Hooker’s main force came to the rescue.
Geary’s men, knowing their isolated position, slept in line of battle with their rifles ready. Shortly after midnight, shots were heard on the picket line. Then, one Union officer said: “[F]or three hours we were exposed to a terrible fire … the balls flew about our ears like hail in a hail storm.”
Hooker’s men were awakened by the heavy firing and immediately marched to save Geary. At Smith’s Hill, the road curved toward the slope and hugged its base. The federal column reached the base of the hill when, in ambush, the Confederate line fired from the top of the hill, throwing the relief column into confusion.
Two regiments were ordered to advance to clear the hill: “An indistinct line is seen ahead, just made out in the glimmering moonlight… One of our officers inquired, ‘Is that the 73d?’ ‘Yes,’ was the reply, ‘What regiment is that? Upon being answered ‘the 33d Massachusetts,’ they poured into us a terrible volley.”
Staggered, the Union troops fall back, but rallied by their officers, the men rushed again to the top. Into the rifle pits the men charged. A brief hand-to-hand encounter ensued. One Confederate soldier reported that although his regiment was not in the habit of running: “the [men] couldn’t resist the temptation. ... Speedy does not express the velocity with which they went.”
As the Confederates on Smith’s Hill retreated, word was sent to their comrades attacking at the Rowden Farm. With Geary almost surrounded and in desperate straits, the Confederates were forced to abandon the attack and retreat at 3 a.m.
The next day the steamer Chattanooga began to ferry supplies to Kelley’s Ferry, which were then transported by wagon to the starved soldiers in Chattanooga. The cracker line was open. The siege was over.
Ansley T. Moses is a local attorney with Miller & Martin and Board Member of the Friends of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit Chattanooga historicalassoc.org or telephone LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.