Night Fight at Wauhatchie Part 2

by Dan O'Connell on May 20, 2012 · 0 comments

Geary Deploys

BG John Geary took his responsibility seriously although he felt he was operating under difficult circumstances. On the 25th he had reached Bridgeport with only one regiment and 2 sections of artillery because his command was stretched from “Tullahoma to Murfreesboro guarding the railroad.” By the 27th he had gathered four regiments ( 78th NY, 149th NY, 29th PA, and 109th PA) of his division for the move forward. Late on the 27th he sent out orders for three days rations and 60 rounds of ammunition to be issued to all available men. The march began at 0500 and reached Shellmound at 1400 where they were joined by three more regiments (111th PA, 60th NY, and 137th NY).

Geary ordered “heavy fatigue details to aid in constructing a pontoon bridge across the river at Shellmound”. The bridge was completed at 0100 on the 28th and the column moved on at 0500. At Whitesides Geary detached the 60th New York to guard an import pass into the area of operations. He was also well aware that his movements were being observed noting that;

“active signaling plainly discernible to the naked eye”

was being conducted from the Confederate signal stations. Understanding that they had been seen and the possibility of an attack on his vulnerable position as a result Geary ordered his exhausted troops to “bivouac upon their arms, with cartridge boxes on.” He also ordered his available artillery to “a knob about 30 yards to the left of the railroad.”

Geary also selected Colonel William Rickards of the 29th Pennsylvania to act as Officer of the Day and ordered him to post his regiment as pickets. Rickards immediately posted his men secure the camp “to the best advantage” with additional instructions to construct “such defenses as would protect them from the enemy’s shot.” Companies E, K, and B were posted at the Junction of the road network under CPT Rickards (related?). CPT Stork and companies I and H were sent 3/4 of a mile out on the Kelly’s Ferry Road. LT Cousault posted companies A and F between the main camp and Lookout Creek. Companies C and G took station 1/2 mile out on the Brown’s Ferry Road. Company D continued the line between Stork and Rickards commands and a small reserve was established under CPT Millison. Millison was instructed to have the men prepared to react “on the least alarm.” When information from local citizens that there was a bridge across the creek became available Rickards rushed men to the road from it. The picket line now formed “a continuous line around our camp” and seemingly covered all approaches. Behind this defense the remainder of the division formed a semi-circular line facing north with the right flank anchored on the rail line.

Confederate Reaction

As expected the Confederate leadership was watching the development of the Union plan. By October 25th reports from scouts had alerted Bragg to a possible move into the valley from Bridgeport. He ordered Longstreet to conduct a reconnaissance in that direction. In the evaporating command atmosphere that was the Army of Tennessee Longstreet chose to ignore the order. Colonel Oates, of the 15th Alabama, also noted the activity at the river and requested reinforcements. The request was ignored. Longstreet had formed his own opinion concerning the Union intentions in the valley and dismissed further warnings from Evander Law that a large Federal column (H ooker) was on the march up the valley. Oddly, Longstreet again chose to do nothing.

Eventually the evidence of Union operations in the valley and around Brown’s Ferry became so obvious that Bragg insisted that Longstreet take action against it. In a very contentious meeting on the 28th Bragg insisted that Longstreet attack the Federals. The order was tainted by their mutual dislike and mistrust and led to a serious misunderstanding about the number of troops to be used in the proposed attack. In a curious decision Longstreet dedicated only a single division (Jenkins’) to the take on the two Federal Corps operating in the valley and around Brown’s Ferry although Bragg reminded him that his entire Corps could be used.

As he was planning his attack Longstreet noted the presence of the Union rear guard (Geary) at Wauhatchie and requested permission to conduct a night attack to cut the Federal lines of communication there. Bragg, pleased that Longstreet was finally doing something about the Union operations in his sector, agreed. Longstreet, however, sent only the one division forward. With decision to attack Geary he detached Jenkin’s South Carolina Brigade (under the command of Colonel John Bratton), further weakening the Confederate response at Brown’s Ferry, for the task.

The attack was planned for 2200 but the difficulty of movement down a narrow mountain path from their positions on the mountain delayed the approach of Bratton’s men until slightly after midnight. Bratton wisely chose to avoid the bridge, which he must have considered covered, and forded the stream nearby thus avoiding early detection by the Union pickets. Only a brief skirmish around 2230 by the advanced pickets of the 141st New York and the 48th Alabama of the Brown’s Ferry attack brigades threatened to reveal Bratton’s move. Fortunately for Bratton and his men after a few moments of heightened activity at the Union camp the uproar quieted. Bratton continued his deployment in close proximity to the Federal lines undetected. With the nearest supporting Federal units about three miles away Bratton had every reason to anticipate success against his isolated foe.

Wauhatchie (Campaign Series)
Camp Pope Publishing

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