150 Years Ago This Week: Rare night battle at Wauhatchie

October 1863

In an effort to supply the besieged Army of the Cumberland in the environs of Chattanooga, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant and Maj. Gen. George Thomas conducted a personal inspection for a proposed supply line between Chattanooga and the railroad at Stevenson, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 24. Once approved, the so-called “cracker line” would keep Gen. Thomas’ troops fed by a more direct route than the extremely long and rugged mountain trail north of the Tennessee River.

Farther to the west, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee, replacing Gen. Grant. In Arkansas, Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke attacked the Federal garrison at Pine Bluff the next day and demanded the surrender of Col. Powell Clayton. The demand was refused and Gen. Marmaduke led an ineffectual attack against the town square fortified with cotton bales from a nearby warehouse. At nightfall, Gen. Marmaduke withdrew his troops and left Pine Bluff in the hands of the Federals.

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 27, 1,500 Union troops drifted silently down the Tennessee River in pontoon boats to Brown’s Ferry, where they established a bridge across the river. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and his troops (having been sent from Maj. Gen. George Meade’s army in Virginia) crossed the new bridge after deflecting some token Confederate resistance, and entered Chattanooga. The “cracker line” was now open to supply Gen. Thomas’ army.

In the east, in Charleston Harbor, S.C., Union land and naval forces began another bombardment of Fort Sumter, now more of a symbol of Southern resistance than a military objective. More than 600 shots were fired at the crumbling fortification in the center of the harbor.

Well after dark on the night of Oct. 28, Gen. Braxton Bragg, having failed to prevent the establishment of the Union pontoon supply bridge across the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry, ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his First Corps (troops from Gen. Lee’s army in Virginia) to attack the isolated Federal division of Brig. Gen. John Geary at Wauhatchie, in the Lookout Valley near Chattanooga. The fighting was extremely vicious and confused, owing to the inability of the opposing troops to see each other in the dark.

Despite the intense drive with superior numbers, Gen. Longstreet’s men failed to break the “cracker line” and Gen. Longstreet called off the attack at 4 a.m. Oct. 29. Union losses were reported as 420 killed, wounded and missing; Confederate casualties numbered 408. The “cracker line” was not to be threatened by the Southerners again. Wauhatchie proved to be one of the most significant of the rare night battles of the war.

The month of October 1863 closed with three days of continued Federal bombardments of Fort Sumter in Charleston. Almost 3,000 rounds pounded the rubble of Fort Sumter, inflicting 33 casualties. At the end of October, the Confederate flag still flew, despite being replaced a number of times. The tremendous fire against Fort Sumter made service there a nightmare, and the bombardments would continue unabated into the first week of November.

Writing from Atlanta, President Davis approved a request of Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest to detach from service with Gen. Bragg’s army and operate against Union troops in north Mississippi and west Tennessee. The Confederate president also wrote to a number of generals regarding the military situation in the west.

Throughout the warring sections of the former Union, the last days of October witnessed fighting between opposing troops occurred in the Indian Territory (now Okla.), Opelousas, La.; Catlett’s Station, Va.; Salyersville, Ky.; New Berne, N.C.; Yazoo City, Miss.; Barton’s Station, Ala; Warsaw and Ozark, Ark; Leiper’s Ferry, Tenn.; Arkadelphia, Ark.

From New Orleans, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks got a Federal expedition underway toward the Rio Grande and the coast of Texas, hoping to establish a Union presence in Texas despite his failures at Sabine Pass and on the Teche.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.