‘Almost Certain to Procure Us a Defeat’ – Hooker Dallies While Grant Prepares

October 25, 1863 (Sunday)

General Grant had arrived, and things were about to change. There was a new plan to break the already fairly flimsy Confederate siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. If successful, much needed supplies and troops could be fed into the city. The plan was originated by General William “Baldy” Smith, and approved of by both George Thomas, the Army of the Cumberland’s new commander, as well as Grant, himself.

Hooker: Well, maybe not tomorrow, either.
Hooker: Well, maybe not tomorrow, either.

Five miles downstream from Chattanooga was Brown’s Ferry. If held, it would open a line that would enable the Federals to bring supplies from the depot at Bridgeport (even though it would have to cross the river twice to do it). Brown’s Ferry and the road behind it were held by merely a brigade of Confederates under Evander Law from James Longstreet’s Corps.

The plan wasn’t exactly a simple one. While Baldy Smith and two brigades held the ferry, another brigade would float down the river on pontoon boats to build a bridge at the ferry site. Since even a small brigade of Rebels would make the construction a trial, General Joe Hooker, with the entire XI Corps and a division of the XII, newly arrived from the east, would cross the river at Bridgeport and march along the south bank to Rankin’s Ferry, shortly linking up with Baldy Smith’s troops at Brown’s Ferry. Any Rebel opposition would be overpowered and the so-called “Cracker Line” would be opened.

Since this was Smith’s plan, he was, of course on board. Joe Hooker, however, was another story. His path would take him around the southern end of Lookout Mountain. From there, he feared, Rebels of all shapes and sizes could swoop down from above. “It is a very hazardous operation,” said Hooker to Oliver Otis Howard, still in command of the XI Corps, “and almost certain to procure us a defeat.” Nevertheless, Hooker did his best to comply, though he hoped that Grant would give him a few extra days. His transportation was broken down, the roads were soup, and the railroad was out.

Here's a fine little approximate map.
Here’s a fine little approximate map.

Though Grant certainly saw this as a setback, he didn’t let Hooker’s problems bring him down. Grant had known Hooker from their West Point days and genuinely disliked him. Moreover, he saw little need to use Hooker’s men at all. Simply by holding Brown’s Ferry, Grant believed that the small contingent of Rebels would have to rejoin the main Confederate body besieging Chattanooga.

Grant’s shrugging off of Hooker’s tarrying vexed Baldy Smith. This was his plan, and his chance to prove himself after being ousted from the Army of the Potomac by Ambrose Burnside. He needed this plan to work, and felt the troops coming in from Bridgeport would all but ensure its success. Smith’s worry was for the men in the boats.

“Fifteen hundred men, under Brigadier-General [William] Hazen,” explained Smith in his official report, “were to embark in the boats and pass down the river a distance of about 9 miles, seven of which would be under the fire of the pickets of the enemy.”

This sounded like a fine recipe for a slaughter, but the river was swift and all the Rebels would know was that the Yankees were floating boats downstream. They would not be able to divine their ultimate purpose or destination. Should he instead cart the pontoons to Brown’s Ferry and place them across under the eyes of the enemy, word would quickly reach the main Confederate lines and reinforcements would be sent in. Even with Hooker’s added help, that might prove disastrous.

Tiny map showing Brown's Ferry.
Tiny map showing Brown’s Ferry.

All throughout this date, Hooker and Smith prepared their troops. Hooker sent out orders to Howard to ready his command to step off at 9am the following morning. Howard, however, was hardly ready. He had but one battery out of five that was in operation condition. “We will march to-morrow if we go without any,” replied an exacerbated Hooker. But by 5pm, Hooker had postponed the move. “It will not be possible to bring all the force together in season to march to-morrow,” he wrote to Howard. “Let everything be in readiness for an early start the following morning.” In response, Hooker’s role in the thrust was mostly forgotten.

Baldy Smith, on the other hand threw his men into action. Though most of the pontoon boats were on hand, ten more had to be built on the spot. Not only that, but 150 additional oars had to be hewn. Throughout the day, 100 men from an Ohio regiment became instant shipwrights. It would take this day and the next to complete the work.

The date of the attack was then set. In the pre-dawn of the 27th, Baldy Smith’s boats would be launched, while his other brigade marched overland to Brown’s Ferry. Somewhere downstream, Joe Hooker and 8,000 more infantrymen would probably be doing something.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p45-47, 77, 79, 92; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes by Peter Cozzens. []
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‘Almost Certain to Procure Us a Defeat’ – Hooker Dallies While Grant Prepares by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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