A Fight in the Dark – Wauhatchie and Breaking Open the Cracker Line

October 29, 1863 (Thursday)

Longstreet: Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Jenkins!
Longstreet: Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Jenkins!

Shortly after midnight, the firing began om Micah Jenkins’ front. James Longstreet, now a temporary corps commander in Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, had devised a night attack that was to capture an entire (albeit small) division of Yankees, whose bivouac was below them in Lookout Valley, nestled between Raccoon and Lookout Mountains. The main Federal body was five miles north, and to prevent any reinforcements from reaching the wayward Federal division, Longstreet dispatched Evander Law with two brigades, and posted them to the north, along the road.

James Longstreet moved with Jenkins’ brigade, under the immediate command of John Bratton. They arrived at the valley road, but found no enemy. It was strange how swiftly Longstreet gave up on trying to find the enemy camp. Almost as soon as they reached the road, he left, and General Jenkins’ was in command of the entire operation. The plan remained the same, except Col. Bratton was pushed south toward Wauhatchie.

After a slight skirmish, they were shortly in view of the fires in the enemy encampment. Bratton gave the command not to fire until they were within the camp itself. With a charge they swept up the Federal pickets, capturing some and sending the rest running toward their comrades. It was a rush through the darkness, and soon confusion would reign.

General John Geary’s small Federal division was encamped just north of Wauhatchie. They had been there since around 4pm the previous day. Though of the XII Corps, they had been attached to the XI Corps for Joe Hooker’s march from Bridgeport to Brown’s Ferry. Hooker’s object was to link up with William “Baldy” Smith’s troops who had forced a river crossing at the ferry now almost forty-eight hours previous. This he accomplished, but left Geary’s men to hold a junction connecting the valley road with the road to Kelley’s Ferry. This would be the new Union line of supply to besieged Chattanooga, and was dubbed the “Cracker Line.”

Jenkins: You mean attack?
Jenkins: You mean attack?

Shortly after midnight, Geary’s pickets came streaming in terror through his camp. A mass of Rebels were behind them, some firing, others screaming. Their weapons at the ready, Geary’s men fell into line with alacrity, as the artillery prepared to fire. There was as much order as there was panic, but soon the cannons sounded, killing with shrapnel some of their own, but biting the Rebels hard enough to ease them back.

Both Geary and the attacking Bratton paused. Neither were quite certain what number lay before them. From prisoners, Geary believed that it was General John Bell Hood’s entire division. Bratton, on the other hand, believed he held the advantage in a disparity of numbers. But this was not so.

Very approximate map. Ignore the smaller blue lines as they inconveniently express the Federal position several days after the battle.
Very approximate map. Ignore the smaller blue lines as they inconveniently express the Federal position several days after the battle.

To the north, the men of the XI Corps heard the firing, five miles distant. General O.O. Howard, commanding the corps, and Joe Hooker heard it as well. In the darkness, they feared that Longstreet’s entire Corps was about to attack. This would, they believe, throw them across the river, break the Cracker Line, and perhaps even force the Army of the Cumberland to abandon Chattanooga. Though that was the very plan Braxton Bragg had expected Longstreet to follow, what transpired was a only a vague shadow. But Hooker could not know this, and sent Carl Schurz’s Division south with elements of Adolph von Steinwehr’s Division.

Until this time, Evander Law’s two brigades had busied themselves in the construction of breastworks near enough to the road, but on a rise known as Smith’s Hill. Somewhat near Law’s brigades was that of Henry Benning. Originally, Benning occupied Tyndale Hill just south and adjacent to Smith’s Hill. From this position, they could easily support Law. This was about to become essential. Union General Schurz quickly figured that the Rebels were on Tyndale Hill, but paid little heed to Smith’s Hill and Law’s position. As they marched quickly south, eyes through the dark upon Tyndale, a deadly volley unleashed itself from Smith’s Hill, crashing bitterly into their flank.

Geary: Where the hell is Joe?
Geary: Where the hell is Joe?

To the south, Confederate Col. Bratton seemed not to be mistaken. He sent a couple of regiments around his far right, and almost easily they captured the wagon train previously guarded by Geary. On the other end of the line, Bratton’s Rebels managed to outflank Geary, whose own lines had been doubled back into an “L,” and began to play upon the artillery, killing even General Geary’s own son, who serviced one of the pieces.

But through the flashes and killing, two guns remained, and there were enough to hold back the Rebels. But might this be enough? The fight had stretched through two dark hours. Geary’s men were running low on ammunition, and could no longer draw upon the ammunition wagons, as they had been already captured. With little left to do, Col. William Rickards took it upon himself to throw the artillery forward, risking capture. But the booming so near to them demoralized the enemy. It was near this time that General Jenkins ordered Bratton to withdraw. Soon and with regret, he disengaged, pulling his troops east across Lookout Creek.

It was also near this time when Jenkins ordered Benning’s Brigade upon Tyndale Hill to abandon their position and move south to the railroad. This was, believed Jenkins, the only way to cover Bratton’s retreat. But Evander Law knew none of this. He was left ignorant to the result of Bratton’s battle, and still believed Benning to be on his immediate left.

Schurz: Joe's here and you can have him.
Schurz: Joe’s here and you can have him.

While some of Carl Schurz’s troops were caught by Law’s surprise upon their flank, others continued south toward the now vacated Tyndale Hill. They were immediately up and over it. Without a shot, they had turned Benning’s new right flank and cut off Law from his support. But as General Hooker arrived to take command, there was confusion. He wanted Schurz to throw forward two brigades to rescue Geary’s force that he had left so far detached. Due to the dark, the swamps, the roads, and the Confederates, however, these orders had proven difficult to follow in a timely fashion. This infuriated Hooker, who had little love for the men of the XI Corps. In a fury, he ordered them south to rescue Geary.

Meantime, he faced Evander Law. There was a charge, and perhaps by now the first slivers of light could be seen as a halo around Lookout Mountain or along the valley of the Tennessee. But this charge failed when one half became separated from the other, and Law’s troops opened upon both. They fell back, but not in any great confusion. At least now they knew where the Rebel lines were holding. Here they attacked, coming in a wave, and though they were only a regiment, they hit at just the right angle to break the Confederates, who fell back in disarray. Soon it could be seen how many Yankees were before them, and Law called for Smith’s Hill to be abandoned.

Hooker: We won the battle, and yet I still feel the need to blame somebody. Thank god the XI Corps is here!
Hooker: We won the battle, and yet I still feel the need to blame somebody. Thank god the XI Corps is here!

Law then learned that both Bratton and Benning had been pulled back across Lookout Creek. Law, on his own initiative, since it appeared that Jenkins had little interest in communication, pulled his troops back across. And now it was daylight.

Though each side lost roughly 400 men, the Cracker Line was open, and unless the Rebels launched a major attack, it would remain open, and the siege was already over. General Longstreet, who left before the battle had begun, feigned complete ignorance to Braxton Bragg, while blaming him for not throwing forward Lafayette McLaw’s Division (which was still very much under Longstreet’s own command). Longstreet also blamed Law and a brigade commander or two. Jenkins, however, survived unscathed.

Bragg was livid, but soon sank into a well of depression. Little more was accomplished this day while he contemplated his next move.1

  1. Sources: Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2, by Judith Lee Hallock; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes by Peter Cozzens; The Army of the Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. []
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A Fight in the Dark – Wauhatchie and Breaking Open the Cracker Line by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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