October 23, 1863 (Friday)
It had rained continuously for what seemed like weeks in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And this day saw no reprieve. General Grant had traveled by train throughout the West, had been ordered by Washington to command the new Military Division of the Mississippi, which encompassed three departments. Specifically, he was to take hold of the Army of the Cumberland, now mostly besieged by Confederates under Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga.
The previous morning found Grant and his staff at Bridgeport, forty or so miles downriver from his destination. From here, the tracks stopped and they would have to continue on horseback. This was a problem for Grant who had injured his leg in a fall while in New Orleans a few weeks back. Unable to mount his horse, he had to be helped on and off.
The ground over which they rode was a drenched wasteland. Though there had been no battle in the area, Walden’s Ridge was covered in the debris of a treacherous march.
“There had been much rain, and the roads were almost impassable from mud, knee-deep in places, and from wash-outs on the mountain sides,” wrote Grant in his memoirs. “I had been on crutches since the time of my fall in New Orleans, and had to be carried over places where it was not safe to cross on horseback. The roads were strewn with the debris of broken wagons and the carcasses of thousands of starved mules and horses.”
Grant’s aid, John Rawlins, deemed it “the roughest and steepest of ascent and descent ever crossed by army wagons and mules. Over washouts and gullies, Grant had to be lifted from his horse and carried over the obstacles. Once, his horse slipped, and he came crashing down, reinjuring his already wounded leg.
That night, they rested about halfway to Chattanooga, and apparently found the terrain at least slightly better on this date. Still, they managed to reach Chattanooga a little before dark. Grant immediately hobbled on crutches to General George Thomas’ headquarters. Thomas had been selected by Grant to lead the Army of the Cumberland. His choices, given to him by Washington, were either to retain William Rosecrans, whom he despised, or promote Thomas, whom he didn’t despise as much. Reluctantly, Grant picked Thomas.
He arrived cold and soaked on the doorstep. Thomas showed Grant to the fireplace, but offered him nothing to eat or even the chance to dry off. No fresh clothes were offered – not even socks. When Col. James Wilson, a member of Grant’s staff, arrived shortly after, he was appalled to see that Thomas did almost nothing to comfort Grant. Wilson took it upon himself to see that Thomas at least offered Grant the chance to change out of his wet clothes.
Finally Thomas acted, and Grant declined everything but the offer of food. With Grant now warming, he bade Thomas to brief him on the situation. Thomas said little before turning to General William “Baldy” Smith, who had arrived at headquarters shortly after Grant. Baldy Smith’s career in the war thus far had been impressive. He was on General McDowell’s staff at Bull Run, was a brigade commander during the Peninsula Campaign, led a division at Antietam, and a corps at Fredericksburg, the latter of which saw his demotion. During the Gettysburg Campaign, he was placed in command of militia forces in Pennsylvania. Now, however, he was the chief engineer of the Military Division of the Mississippi.
Smith had a plan ready for Grant’s approval. He wanted to seize Brown’s Ferry, a river crossing ten miles downstream of Chattanooga. He had discovered this place on the day Rosecrans learned of his dismissal, and found it almost by accident. He was being shown different points along the line, when he was brought to a spot held by an Ohio Artillery unit. For an hour he sat alone and in silence studying the ground on the opposite shore.
It wasn’t so much the crossing as it was the road beyond. It led through a gap in the hills closest to the river before becoming the only road through Lookout Valley (created by the Lookout River, which flowed between Lookout and Raccoon Mountains). This was significant because the way was mostly unguarded. Only a small and rather friendly contingent of Rebel pickets barred the way. If a force of infantry could be thrown across, the river could be held and supplies and food from Bridgeport could be easily gotten to Chattanooga. Smith (or maybe it was somebody else) called this “The Cracker Line,” since that was pretty much all the food they had.
As Smith spoke, pointing out roads and crossings on a large map of the area, Grant was impressed. “He [Smith] explained the situation of the two armies and the topography of the country so plainly that I could see it without an inspection,” recalled Grant in his memoirs. Anticipating Grant’s approval, Thomas saw to it that Smith got whatever he needed to go forward with the plan. Already, as Grant happily noted, Smith “had established a saw-mill on the banks of the river, by utilizing an old engine found in the neighborhood; and, by rafting logs from the north side of the river above, had got out the lumber and completed pontoons and roadway plank for a second bridge, one flying bridge being there already. He was also rapidly getting out the materials and constructing the boats for a third bridge. In addition to this he had far under way a steamer for plying between Chattanooga and Bridgeport whenever we might get possession of the river. This boat consisted of a scow, made of the plank sawed out at the mill, housed in, and a stern wheel attached which was propelled by a second engine taken from some shop or factory.”
Apparently Baldy Smith had found his calling. Grant loved the idea, but questioned if the army had enough ammunition to pull it off. As it turned out, there was enough for one day’s battle. However, there was more than enough at Bridgeport – if only a supply line could be opened to retrieve it. And so the plan to open the Cracker Line would only be successful by the opening of the Cracker Line. This was a monumental risk, but it was either this or abandon Chattanooga. Grant wasn’t about to do that.1
- Sources: Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth; The Shipwreck of their Hopes by Peter Cozzens; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. [↩]