October 28, 1863 (Wednesday)
There was not so much a dawn, but a lightening of gray mists, suffocating Lookout Mountain, the valley below, and the Tennessee River. The previous day’s debacle had nearly handed the Federals the keys to break the siege at Chattanooga. Well after dark – after Col. William Oates’ Confederates were stampeded by William “Baldy” Smith’s troops at Brown’s Ferry – Braxton Bragg, commanding the Rebel Army of Tennessee, described the stakes to corps commander James Longstreet.
“The loss of our position on the left is vital,” he wrote of Brown’s Ferry, establishing that it “involves the very existence of the enemy at Chattanooga.” Come the first gray light, Bragg had left his headquarters on Missionary Ridge, and rode to meet with Longstreet atop Lookout Mountain. Upon arriving, the general was nowhere to be seen. Not only was Longstreet missing, but the Yankees that Longstreet had insisted were coming from Bridgeport were not before him. And so he waited.
But the Federals coming from Bridgeport were indeed on their way. Under the command of Joe Hooker, they had stopped for a short night twenty miles west of Brown’s Ferry. Still dark, they rose, and began again the steady march following the railroad towards the Lookout Valley. With a turn to the north, and a march toward Wauhatchie, Lookout Mountain would loom high upon their right. With interpretation Hooker had agreed to follow orders, even though he believed there was nothing to keep Longstreet’s Corps from rushing down the side of the mountain, and crashing into his right flank. Such fears were understandable, but in this case, unfounded.
Still without Longstreet, Bragg could see below the failure of the previous day. A pontoon bridge had been laid across the Tennessee, and Baldy Smiths’ two brigades were well entrenched where once his own troops held. Bragg knew that Longstreet maintained the threat at Brown’s Ferry to be of little concern. His main focus was upon his rear, where he believed Hooker’s Yankees from Bridgeport were marching. Whatever was going on at the ferry was merely a diversion.
But from his viewpoint at Sunset Rock, Bragg could see nothing. No enemy troops were moving toward the rear, and nothing seemed to be moving below at Brown’s Ferry. Bragg had not ordered Longstreet to attack, but figured he probably would (and heavily suggested that it would be the best move). Things were nearing 10am, and were confusingly silent.
Finally, Longstreet made his appearance, and the intense conversation that followed was interrupted only by a courier telling them that a Federal column had appeared in the Lookout Valley below. Neither Longstreet nor Bragg believed him, as that was not where the Yankees were to have been. They were neither crossing at Brown’s Ferry nor marching upon their rear. They were in the valley below, seemingly out of nowhere. Bragg then ordered Longstreet to attack. Trusting his lieutenant to comply, he inexplicably left the scene to return to his own headquarters.
Joe Hooker’s column was divided into two parts. Leading was the XI Corps, under O.O. Howard, and following was John Geary’s Division from the XII Corps. Some sporadic skirmish fire opened upon them, as elements of Evander Law’s Confederate Brigade gave way to their coming. The hours slipped by without any further battle, though Hooker remained tense.
If an attack was to come from above, he thought, it would come now, as his troops turned north toward Wauhatchie. Hooker accompanied the XI Corps forward, and soon they met with their comrades under Baldy Smith. If they could hold this position, this road, the so-called Cracker Line would be open and the siege of Chattanooga broken.
As the afternoon gave way to evening, General Geary’s Division encamped. Now a scant 1,500-strong, they guarded supply wagons just north of Wauhatchie, three miles away from Hooker’s new headquarters at Brown’s Ferry. Skirmishers and pickets were deployed, but not Geary, Hooker or Howard attempted to establish a line of communication between the two forces.
If James Longstreet had ever actually dreamed of attacking Hooker’s troops, he quickly lost interest in any such enterprise the second Braxton Bragg left his side. As the entire XI Corps marched by, he did nothing but watch. But when the afternoon waned and below him he could see John Geary’s small and isolated bivouac, he devised a plan.
Bragg may have wanted Longstreet to throw in entire corps upon Brown’s Ferry, but Longstreet thought better. With Geary and the Federal wagons below, the target was too tempting. This would be understandable had James Longstreet been in command of a rogue band of cavalry. Instead, he led a corps of infantry, and rather than follow Bragg’s instructions, he went on a way of his own.
“There is another column and train just in sight,” wrote Longstreet to Bragg around 6pm. “I hope to be able to attack it in flank soon after dark.” A little while later, he wrote again, asking Bragg for reinforcements, telling him that General Micah Jenkins’ Brigade was to attack around 9 or 10pm. It wasn’t exactly what Bragg wanted to hear, but signed off on it as some action was better than no action. He reminded Longstreet that he was able to use his entire corps – three full divisions, all told. But Bragg did not order it, and Longstreet would make a night attack with only a brigade.
Jenkins was sent off on his own to organize the assault. Though his one brigade would lead it, an entire division – formerly John Bell Hood’s – would be involved. While Jenkins attacked Geary, Evander Law and the rest of the division would hold back any Federal reinforcements from reaching the battle. For his part, Law thought the very idea preposterous, telling Longstreet that “even if he gained a temporary success during the night, the light of the next morning would reveal his weakness, with a force of the enemy on both sides of him, each of which would be superior in numbers to his whole force.” Nevertheless, before midnight all was in motion.
General Geary had, at first, been wary. A detachment of Union Cavalry stumbled upon Law’s skirmishers, but as the fire was quickly snuffed, Geary and his men calmed. Some slept.
And through the dark, Jenkins’ boys crept forward, most believing they were on a ramble to capture a wayward wagon train. They had no idea that General Longstreet had sent a mere brigade to assail two full enemy corps. Shortly after midnight, the firing began.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. [↩]