Union Forces Prepare to Span the Tennessee River

August 28, 1863 (Friday)

William Lytle - general, poet, bridge builder.
William Lytle – general, poet, bridge builder.

The Union Army of the Cumberland stood still, folded into the heavy fog rising thick from the Tennessee River, which separated them from Braxton Bragg’s Confederates in and around Chattanooga. Upon their arrival, nearly two weeks past, they discovered that the crossings, especially the railroad trestle at Bridgeport, thirty-five miles downstream from their objective, were destroyed. To properly repair the bridge, two months would be required. General William Rosecrans, leading the Federal forces attempting to cross, did not have that kind of time.

All felt that once the Union army crossed the river, Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, its morale suspected to be low, would partially disintegrate. But crossing was the dilemma. The river had carved a deep and narrow gorge through the winding landscape. Simply throwing a pontoon bridge across as they might do in Virginia, was an impossibility. Fords were few, and ferries took their place.

At first, Rosecrans was hesitant to cross at all. By sending a third of his forces upriver from Chattanooga, and keeping the rest hidden behind impenetrable mountains downriver, Rosecrans successfully convinced Bragg of his plan to cross well below the city. For a time, he suspected that his ruse had failed, that Rebel forces were still tucked away behind the mountains south of Chattanooga. Following a quick expedition, however, he was satisfied that his trickery was effective, or at least Bragg did not suspect him.

With the way clear of enemy, but not clear of mountains, bad roads or the river, work began immediately. The mountains were scaled, the bad road repaired, and the crossings selected. It fell upon the two corps and six division commanders to figure it out for themselves. They were not left and abandoned by Rosecrans, of course. The bridge laying was highly specific to the each of the three crossings themselves required men on the ground to command them.

The lowermost crossing at Caperton’s Ferry, fifteen miles below Bridgeport, was handled by General Jefferson C. Davis, a division commander in John McCook’s XX Corps. There, three divisions would cross. Davis’ task of spanning the river was the quickest and simplest, as they had pontoon boats. For the other two crossings, the same could not be said.

Today's map showing the approximate location of stuff.
Today’s map showing the approximate location of stuff.

At what became known as the “middle crossing,” General Phillip Sheridan, also of McCook’s Corps, had to figure out what to do with the partially burned out railroad trestle. This, he left to General William Lytle, one of his brigade commanders. Lytle was more than fit for the work. The use of pontoons was out of the question. There were too few to span the river, and, as Lytle began, they had not yet arrived. Since the trestle was only partially destroyed, Lytle, along with his team of engineers, decided to temporarily patch it. He dispatched teams of ax-wielding soldiers into the forests to hew down as many trees as they could. Meanwhile, other companies were dispatched into the towns to tear apart barns and houses, securing their planks.

Their work was admirable, and though they were surprisingly quick at their task. There was no way they could have fixed the bridge completely, but they spanned the river far enough that when the too-few pontoons arrived, they could be easily laid and work complete.

Jefferson C. Davis would like you to not mix him up with that other guy.
Jefferson C. Davis would like you to not mix him up with that other guy.

The upper crossing, overseen by General Joseph Reynolds of George Thomas’ XIV Corps, had it only slightly easier. For him, there were no pontoons, nor was there a partially-standing trestle. Luck, however, was on his side. Soon after arriving on the banks of the Tennessee, he sent a small number of his men across to secure railroad town of Shellmound. There, they found at least eight flatboats. These would be perfect makeshift replacement pontoons. His fellow division commander, John Brannon, was not so fortunate. His men were reduced to foraging for cast off lumber or chopping down trees to complete their portion of the bridge.

But however it was accomplished – by skill, by luck, or by toil – by this date, the Federal bridges were so near to completion, that the following day (the 29th), Rosecrans would begin to cross. Apart from a volley fired by Confederate pickets before they scurried away, all of the crossings, which would last for several days, were uneventful (and thus fairly dull in recollection).

Jefferson C. Davis’ Division would be the first to cross, using their pontoons at Capterton’s Ferry. General Absalom Baird’s Division would be last, delayed until September 4th, by a small collapse of Lytle’s makeshift trestle.1

  1. Sources: This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Days of Glory by Larry Daniel; Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth. []
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Union Forces Prepare to Span the Tennessee River by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Union Forces Prepare to Span the Tennessee River

  1. Again, I really appreciate the hard work that you have been doing on this project.

    I don’t know how much work it would be, but it would be nice that when you are reporting on river crossings, if the information was given as to how wide the river is, and maybe the swiftness of the current.

    Living in Minneapolis, I know that visitors from the south are shocked as to how narrow the Mississippi is here, compared to it in Louisiana and Arkansas. Maybe 300 feet.

    1. It’s not so much a matter of more work, but simple lack of sources. In this case, the river was too deep to ford, which is clear by the fact that three different bridges had to be built. Also, it was swift, which was clear by the cliffs, bends, etc. Usually, unless troops are fording a river, there’s little mention of its current – and almost never a mention of its length.

      That said, when I find the info, I add it to the story for detail as well as color. After all, specificity is the soul of narrative.


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