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The Miracle On Missionary Ridge
The Union stood in danger of losing an entire army at Chattanooga. Then U. S. Grant arrived, and directed the most dramatic battle of the Civil War
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
The Confederates here, in short, could be had, and Baldy Smith knew how to take them. He outlined his plan: stealthily, and by dead of night, float a brigade of troops in pontoon boats down the river from Chattanooga, gambling everything on the belief that they could slip around Moccasin Bend before the Confederates caught on, and have these men go ashore opposite Brown’s Ferry and seize the eastern end of the valley that cut across the mountain to Kelley’s Ferry. Meanwhile, march another brigade across Moccasin Point by the road the generals themselves had just used, and while the brigade that had floated downstream was making the Raccoon Mountain beachhead secure, let this brigade, using the flatboats that had brought the first brigade downstream, build a pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry, and as soon as it was done go over the river and lend a hand with the job of driving all hostile parties away from the Kelley’s Ferry road. All of this, said Smith, could be started in darkness and completed by a short time after daylight.
Over in the Bridgeport area there was General Joe Hooker, down from the Army of the Potomac, who had two army corps that were not now being used. Let him be ordered to march toward Chattanooga along the line of the railroad and its accompanying highway. This would bring him out at a place called Wauhatchie, on the eastern slope of Raccoon Mountain approximately four miles south of Brown’s Ferry. Once he did this the Confederates on Lookout Mountain could not interfere with the traffic between Bridgeport and Brown’s Ferry without fighting against odds under most unfavorable conditions.
Thus General Smith’s plan: simple, brilliant, promising a quick solution for the army’s worst single problem. General Thomas had already approved it, and preliminary activities were even now under way; all that these generals wanted was final approval from General Grant—that, and the assurance that the project had top priority and would get overriding directives in case of need. The approval and the assurance were quickly given, and Thomas and Smith hurried off to get the operation into high gear.
While the plan to break the siege received its finishing touches, Grant was dealing with a new crisis. A report from General in Chief Henry W. Halleck in Washington warned him that a corps from Lee’s army in Virginia was moving down into East Tennessee, posing a threat to both the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga and the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Ambrose Burnside, in the Knoxville area. It turned out later that the report was false, but Grant had to take it at face value and consider the damage a mobile force of 25,000 Confederates might accomplish in this part of the country. The only force available to him to counter this threat was Sherman’s, toiling slowly eastward from Memphis, repairing the Memphis & Charleston Railroad as it came. Grant ordered Sherman to forget railroad building and advance at full speed; Burnside was alerted to the danger. Grant was not to be distraded from the main issue, however: driving Bragg away from Chattanooga and opening the heart of the southland to a Federal invasion. And to that goal the Brown’s Ferry plan was vital.
This operation went off like clockwork in the early hours of October 27. The water-borne brigade, under Brigadier General William B. Hazen, floated down the Tennessee, slipped undetected past the Confederate pickets in the darkness, and seized a bridgehead at the ferry; reinforced by a second brigade that crossed the river on the swiftly constructed pontoon bridge, the Federals cleared the road across Raccoon Mountain to Kelley’s Ferry. The next day Joe Hooker came up from Bridgeport in force to clinch the gains.
“General Thomas’ plan for securing the river and south side road hence to Bridgeport has proven eminently successful,” Grant telegraphed Halleck on the evening of October 28. “The question of supplies may now be regarded as settled. If the Rebels give us one week more time I think all danger of losing territory now held by us will have passed away, and preparations may commence for offensive operations.”
As far as the soldiers were concerned the new supply route was “the cracker line” because it brought boxes of the basic army ration, hardtack; and Grant got most of the credit for opening it simply because it happened a few days after his arrival. In his messages to the War Department, Grant was scrupulous to give the credit to Thomas and Smith, making it clear that the plan had been “set on foot before my arrival”; but he had automatically become a miracle worker when he captured Vicksburg and by now any good thing that happened in his jurisdiction was certain to be ascribed to him. Besides, a new atmosphere had unquestionably come in with him. General O. O. Howard, one of Hooker’s corps commanders, spoke of it, later that fall, in a letter to a friend in the Senate: “This department was completely ‘out of joint’ when we first arrived. A most complete & perfect want of system prevailed, from Louisville to Chattanooga. I can now feel the difference. … I cannot be too thankful for the policy that placed these three Depts. under Grant.”
This was all very well, and after a long period in which he never seemed to get much recognition for what he had done, Grant may have found it pleasant to get a little too much; and yet, even though opening this cracker line was one of the decisive events of the whole Chattanooga campaign—it meant, in effect, that Bragg had gone over from the offensive to the defensive, although Bragg did not yet realize it—Grant still had problems.