‘Walk Right Up to the Foe’ – Rebels Fail to Hold Brown’s Ferry

October 27, 1863 (Tuesday)

By 3am the full moon had set, leaving the Tennessee River veiled in darkened fog. General William Hazen and his men had boarded over-crowded pontoon boats and were floating with the current to Brown’s Ferry. There, a bridge would be hastily built to cross even more Federal troops. Before the dawn, two brigades of infantry would storm the Southern-held shore.

Baldy Smith's troops floating down the Tennessee.
Baldy Smith’s troops floating down the Tennessee.

The Union Army of the Cumberland had been besieged in Chattanooga by Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Supplies were low and the roads on the Union-held side of the river were impassible. The only option was to open a route on the Confederate side. William “Baldy” Smith had devised it, and both army commander, George Thomas, and department commander, Ulysses Grant, approved it. Originally, Joe Hooker was to dive into the thick of things from Bridgeport, farther down the river. But after too many excuses, Grant cared little whether or not he made an appearance. Baldy Smith’s two brigades (along with a brigade of engineers) were to drive away the Rebel skirmishers and secure the road downriver and around Lookout Mountain to Kelley’s Ferry, opening the so-called Cracker Line.

Through the shroud, the point of Lookout Mountain directed Hazen and his boats to the Confederate banks. Their landing was in the gorge cut by Lookout Creek between its namesake eminence and Raccoon Mountain, rising directly west. Well before they landed, the Rebel pickets spotted them and fired.

From the boats, Hazen’s men fired into the gloom, accented only by the watchfires built by Rebel pickets. And soon they were ashore, spilling out and clamoring up the banks. The fighting, if it could be called such, lasted no more than ten minutes. As the Confederates fell back to their main camp, the Union troops began to build the pontoon bridge.

Col. William Oates had been placed in command of two Alabama regiments and told to guard Brown’s Ferry. He was the extreme left of the Union line. Oates was of Evander Law’s Brigade of Micah Jenkin’s Division within James Longstreet’s Corps. Jenkins had taken the place of the wounded John Bell Hood. Col. Oates had expected an attack, but could do little with the small number of troops at his disposal. Late the previous night, he sent a message to General Longstreet, but it went unnoticed, or at least unheeded.

A frantic courier roused Oates from his short slumber. When Col. Oates asked him how many Yankees were across the river, the courier, who had only seen the first detachment, replied, “Some seventy-five or one hundred.” This, thought Oates, was manageable.

“I had the long roll beaten,” wrote Oates after the war, “and gave orders for the men to leave their knapsacks in camp and their little tent flies standing.” A couple sick men were left to guard the camp as Col. Oates rode off to battle with his regiment.

Oates and his men marched through the gorge and nearly right into the enemy-held riflepits so recently held by his own. He halted his men and quietly they countermarched, taking up a position about 100 yards distant. He detailed two companies as skirmishers, sending them forward with instructions “to walk right up to the foe, and for every man to place the muzzle of his rifle against the body of a Yankee when he fired.”

Map of the Union landing and advance.
Map of the Union landing and advance.

Through the darkness and gloom they faded, and Col. Oates waited for the firing to begin. The Confederate skirmishers may have fired, or perhaps the Federals caught glimpses of their forms nearing their lines through the coming gray dawn. Either way, the Union troops, which, as a forward vanguard, numbered only 100 or so, took flight.

The Confederate skirmishers followed, as several Yankees surrendered. They were soon inside the enemy breastworks when they discovered the true force before them. From their right, a volley split the air. No matter how many companies Oates maneuvered into action, he was always outflanked. But at least they had cover.

A bullet pierced Oates’ jacket, and another felled his horse. On his feet, he rushed forward with his men, but was quickly shot through his left hip.

“It struck a blow as though a brick had been hurled against me, and hurt so badly that I started to curse as I fell, and said ‘God d-,'” Oats recalled, “when thinking it possible I was killed, and that it would not seem well for a man to die with an oath in his mouth, I cut it off at that d- and did not finish the sentence.”

Amid the confusion, Oates was borne to a small house and directed his second to save the artillery, which was booming only 100 yards away. Before the Yankees advanced and captured him, he was somehow able to mount a horse and ride south to the mouth of Lookout Creek, a mile or so upriver from Brown’s Ferry.

The rest of his men fell back, folding themselves into Lookout Mountain as the Federals established a force two brigades strong near the landing. Only the reports of a few Confederate guns marked the rest of the morning and afternoon. By 4:30pm, the pontoon bridge was completed.

Map of approximate positions.
Map of approximate positions.

Through the day, James Longstreet watched from high atop Lookout Mountain. To Braxton Bragg, army commander, he mused that the enemy was creating a diversion by sending a landing party to Brown’s Ferry. The true attack, he believed, would come from Bridgeport and fall upon the left flank and rear of the army, held by Longstreet’s own troops.

Longstreet, of course, had more than enough men at hand to launch some sort of counterattack. However, he believed that the Federal assault would soon come from an opposite direction. As if to justify this thought, a message arrived in the late afternoon telling of a large Federal force that had crossed the river at Bridgeport. To Longstreet, his prophecy was about to be fulfilled.

Braxton Bragg, on the other hand, did not believe for a second that the Federals were about to nip at their rear. But he ordered Longstreet only to stop the enemy’s “designs.” Longstreet did not take that to mean that he was to attack Brown’s Ferry, and sent a brigade south, hoping to slow the coming Bridgeport Federals. Later, a furious Bragg directly ordered Longstreet to launch a counterattack upon the ferry at dawn.

Meanwhile, Joe Hooker with more than a corps of infantry, was marching ever closer from Bridgeport. His troops had turned away from the river at Rankin’s Ferry, and arrived at Whiteside by dark. They were ten miles or so from uniting with Baldy Smith’s men at Brown’s Ferry.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p78, 221, 225; The War Between the Union and the Confederacy by William Oats; 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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‘Walk Right Up to the Foe’ – Rebels Fail to Hold Brown’s Ferry by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “‘Walk Right Up to the Foe’ – Rebels Fail to Hold Brown’s Ferry

  1. A nicely written account. Minor historical note: Col. Oates appears to be the same man who commanded the assaults against Little Round Top, defeated by Chamberlain and the 20th Maine.

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