published Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Robbins: Union secured lifeline over Walden's Ridge

Mickey Robbins

Worried that Gen. Rosecrans was acting “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head,” after his defeat at Chickamauga, President Abraham Lincoln placed virtually all Union armies in the Western front under Ulysses Grant, who then instructed Gen. George Thomas “that he must hold Chattanooga at all hazards.”

On Oct. 22, Gen. Grant and his small party set forth from Bridgeport, Ala., over roads up Sequatchie Valley and over Walden’s Ridge that, he wrote, “were almost impassable from mud, knee-deep in places, and from wash-outs on the mountain sides.”

Incapacitated due to a riding accident in New Orleans weeks before, Grant had to be lifted into his saddle with his crutches strapped beside him and carried around wash-outs on the trek. His aide Gen. John Rawlins called the mountain road “the roughest and steepest of ascent and descent ever crossed by army wagons and mules” and said the region was “utterly barren offering no food for men or animals.” Mules were desperate for forage, and “it was not unusual to see trees as high as animals could reach, barked and eaten as food.”

Along the way, the party encountered the wreckage of wagons and the carcasses of thousands of mules. Rawlins added: “Union families, refugees from their homes. Mothers with little children in their arms ... exposed to the beatings of the storm, wet and shivering with cold. I have seen much of human misery consequent of this war, but never before in so distressing a form as this.”

With Confederate units occupying Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and most approaches to Chattanooga, the Union had been forced to use the difficult Walden’s Ridge route since early in October to fend off the siege of Chattanooga.

Supply wagons often had to be lightened — brine drained from barrels of salt pork and half the cargoes of forage and rations thrown away — so that some supplies could get through.

A wagon would go jolting up the mountainside with sometimes 16 mules in harness, one man with a whip assigned to each mule, while as many foot soldiers as could find room shoved the wagon box from behind or wrestled with the muddy spokes of the wheels.

As many as 50-80 wagons per day made the trip over Walden’s Ridge, but stoppages sometimes reduced the number to zero. The overworked mules that avoided starvation or being shot were exchanged at a rope corral on the James Conner farm near today’s Corral Road.

Grant’s party continued south on Anderson Pike, then followed it east for the descent at Rogers Gap, today’s “W” Road. Three weeks before, Union engineers had eliminated two-way traffic on the Gap road by clearing the Federal, or Military, road up Shoal Creek on the south side of the ridge, tracing some of today’s Highway 127. Those engineers were constantly widening and rebuilding roadbeds. A spider-webbed morass of mud had developed by the time Grant came over.

The General and his party started down Rogers Gap Road, which had just one steep hairpin curve, or “V”, at the top. Col. B.F. Scribner, 38th Indiana Regiment, described this precarious segment as “composed of logs, one end of which rests on the side of the mountain, the other end supported in a horizontal position by props, forming a sort of corduroy road.”

At one point near the summit, a stream of water ran down the mountain’s side through (small openings) of the logs. It was a rickety, insecure, makeshift of a road.” Several wagon drivers and mules plunged to their death over the side. Historians give different versions of where Grant’s horse fell on his injured leg, but the upper area of the road, or the “V” section, is a good candidate.

That evening, Oct. 23, Grant arrived at Gen. George Thomas’ headquarters, the Richardson House in the 300 block of Walnut Street. He had to be lifted from his saddle and was reported “cold, hungry and drenched.” Grant refused dry clothes. Concerned with the difficulties of the Anderson Pike/Rogers Gap route, Grant agreed to a surprise attack three days later that led to the seizing of Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River. The new supply route created across Lookout Valley, known as the “Cracker Line,” broke the Confederate stranglehold on Chattanooga. The Walden’s Ridge route was abandoned.

Frank (Mickey) Robbins is an investment adviser at Patten and Patten and a CAHA board member. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call Lavonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.

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