- Historic Sites
This Hallowed Ground
AN EXCERPT FROM A NEW BOOK WHICH TELLS HOW THE CIVIL WAR CAME TO ITS TERRIBLE, HAUNTING CONCLUSION
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
The soldiers’ confidence that somebody was going to come to the rescue was not misplaced. Washington reacted to the news from Tennessee with almost feverish vigor. Two army corps were detached from the Army of the Potomac, sent west by train and river boat, and hurried down across Kentucky and central Tennessee to Bridgeport; in command was Joe Hooker, recalled from semiretirement for a job which looked as if it would call for a headlong fighter. Most of the Army of the Tennessee, with Sherman in command, was ordered east from the Mississippi, and it was marching along the line of the Memphis and Charleston, repairing damaged track as it came. And U. S. Grant, still nursing a leg he had injured in a fall from the saddle at New Orleans, was ordered north posthaste. He met Secretary of War Stanton at Indianapolis and was given command of all Federal operations between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, except for Banks’ enclave in Louisiana; from Indianapolis he went straight to Chattanooga, pausing just long enough to send a telegram on ahead announcing that Rosecrans was relieved from command and that Thomas now would lead the Army of the Cumberland.
Just before he reached Chattanooga Grant met Rosecrans on his way north and the two had a talk. Rosecrans had laid plans for relieving the pressure, and the plans were good; looking back afterward, Grant mused that the only thing he could not understand was why these plans had not been put into operation. When he finally reached the beleaguered town, after a miserable ride across the barren mountains north of the river—a very hard ride for a man with a damaged leg, who could hardly stick in the saddle and who could walk only with crutches—he found that things were being done. Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland was a General William F. Smith, universally known as Baldy, and Baldy Smith was an operator. He had put together a sawmill at Bridgeport, the motive power a steam engine rifled from some local machine shop, and he was sawing out a large number of planks; and with these planks he was building a river steamer, which would be powered by still another steam engine taken from some other local factory, and before long he would be able to move supplies up the river. Meanwhile he had discovered a route by which, with the aid of a few combat troops, a new supply line into Chattanooga could be opened. Grant quickly saw that his own job was not so much to devise new plans as to put drive and energy into the execution of plans already made.
Chattanooga lies on the south bank of the Tennessee, and along its water front the river flows straight west. Just below the city the river cuts sharply to the south, runs down to the foot of Lookout Mountain, and then makes a i8o-degree turn and comes back north for several miles, turning west at last to curve around the northern end of Raccoon Mountain and continue past Bridgeport. As it makes the Lookout Mountain turn it encloses a long finger of hilly land no more than a mile wide, and along the base of this finger, in 1863, there was a little country road which started opposite Chattanooga and came out on the north-and-south stretch of the river at a place called Brown’s Ferry. This road was hardly more than two miles long, and it bypassed the Lookout Mountain bottleneck completely. If the river could be crossed at Brown’s Ferry, another passable road led across Raccoon Mountain to Bridgeport, no more than twenty miles away. Here, potentially, was a fine supply route, the only trouble being that the Confederates who held Lookout Mountain had troops in the valley between Lookout and Raccoon Mountains and so made the Brown’s Ferry-Bridgeport road unusable.
These troops could be handled, because Bragg had not put enough of them in the valley to hold the place against a real attack. Hooker was in Bridgeport with 12,000 tough soldiers from the Army of the Potomac, and Thomas was in Chattanooga with a great many equally tough characters from the Army of the Cumberland; and one night, not long after Grant had arrived, Hooker sent men east over Raccoon Mountain while a brigade of Cumberlands got into flatboats and drifted quietly down the Tennessee, and between them these troops seized Brown’s Ferry and drove the Confederates out of the valley between Raccoon and Lookout Mountains. The Confederates still held Lookout, but that no longer mattered. A pontoon bridge was laid at Brown’s Ferry and the Federals finally had an adequate, unobstructed road leading in and out of Chattanooga.
Hooker had brought plenty of horses and wagons, and now his trains came creaking along the new route with rations and forage for the Army of the Cumberland. The soldiers lined the roads and cheered, dubbed the new route “the cracker line,” and spoke admiringly of the ramshackle little steamboat Baldy Smith had built, which helped mightily by carrying bacon and hardtack upstream from Bridgeport to a point within easy reach of Brown’s Ferry. The danger of starvation was gone forever. Grant had a breathing space in which to devise a plan for driving the Confederates out of their mountain strongholds.
The breathing space was not comfortable, because Washington was nervous and impatient. Burnside was in Knoxville, and from all the Administration could find out his men there were in as bad a fix as Thomas’ men had been in before Grant’s arrival. It was believed that if Grant did not smash Bragg very quickly Burnside’s little army would be lost, en bloc, and Grant was getting almost daily messages—from Halleek, from Stanton, and from Lincoln himself—urging him to move fast.
Then, in a misguided moment, Bragg detached Longstreet and sent him off with 15,000 veterans to take Knoxville and capture Burnside’s army.