Night Fight at Wauhatchie Conclusion

by Dan O'Connell on May 24, 2012 · 0 comments

The Relief Column

At Brown’s Ferry the sound of the battle to the south alerted Hooker that his rear may be in trouble. MG Oliver Howard, commanding XI Corps, was ordered to double quick his nearest division to Geary’s aid. MG Carl Shurz got his two divisions ready for the rescue mission. The division of BG Aldolphus von Steinwehr led to the way with the brigade of COL Orlando Smith (33rd Massachusetts, 136th New York, and 73rd Ohio) out front. After a mile of double quicking down the Brown’s Ferry Road they ran into Evander Law’s pickets stationed at the base of a hill. All thoughts of the rescue mission stopped as the 73rd Ohio was scattered by the heavy volley from the trees. Smith had no choice but to turn and face the threat. He got the Ohioans in line and put the 33rd Massachusetts on their left. The 136th New York remained on the road in reserve. Orders arrived for Smith to clear the hill. The two regiments (approximately 450 men) inched their way into the tress and started up the hill. The advance quickly got disoriented but the men pushed up the slope. As they neared the top the intertwined units began to call out to each other for identification purposes. Suddenly there was a challenge

“What regiment is that?”

The answer rang out.

“Thirty-third Massachusetts.”

Once they had identified themselves they received a tremendous volley from Law’s main force at the crest of the hill. Nearly a quarter of the 33rd fell as a result. The volley fired at the Massachusetts men served as a warning and many of the 73rd Ohio fell to the ground expecting the same treatment. The volley passed over them, but they were ordered to push on and advanced into ever increasing fire. The momentarily staggered 33rd fell back to the bottom of the hill where they regrouped and were pushed forward again. Andrew Boies recalled the second trip up the hill this way in his journal of the war:

“…and at it they went charging with the bayonet, dealing each other blows over the head with the musket, slashing and cutting with swords…this was too much for them…and finally gave way…leaving the 33d in possession of the hill.”

The bold effort cost the regiment 86 casualties from 238 that fought the fight. The 73rd Ohio, their partner in this affair lost a third of its strength. What they didn’t know was that it could have been much worse. Law, reacting to a faulty intelligence report had decided to cede the position. The Confederates were in the act of realigning when the second assault came. The movement of troops had created gaps in the line that allowed the Federals to get in close. Had Law determined to fight for control of the hill its doubtful that the two Union regiments could have taken it at any cost. Law understood that his departure would leave Bratton uncovered from the north and that relief columns were headed to assist Geary. He issued a recall order.

Camp Pope Publishing

As Bratton was about to begin his attack the messenger from Law arrived. There would be no final struggle just a retreat. The relatively unscathed 6th SC took up a position at the railroad and fired the last volleys to cover the retreat of the battered remnants of his other regiments. The Union relief troops from the north finally arrived hours after the battle had ended.

Conclusion and Assessment

Given the technology of the day night engagements were frowned upon. Difficulties with command and control in the darkness usually precluded such operations. Nevertheless, given the opportunity Colonel Bratton conducted a credible effort. He stealth fully avoided detection, maneuvered into close proximity of the enemy, achieved surprise, and inflicted serious damage to the enemy. His ability to remain in control of the operation despite the limitations speaks highly for the design of the attack, his ability to impart that design to his subordinate commanders, their execution of the plan, and the discipline of their troops. Had the attack been properly sized and supported it may have created an excellent opportunity for the Confederates to pin Hooker between them and the river. In Viet Nam terminology this might have become a “Hammer and Anvil” operation. The river helping to form the anvil and Longstreet’s corps providing the hammer. Trapped between the river and the Confederates and only a single means of escape (the pontoon bridge) or reinforcement the Union forces could have been in serious trouble. Unfortunately, Longstreet had not dedicated his entire force to the plan and the chance to contain the Union breakout went by the board.

The short fight at Wauhatchie was costly for both sides. Geary suffered 216 casualties, including his son who died at the guns. Bratton paid the more expensive attackers butchers bill, losing 356 men. The fight at Smith’s Hill nearly destroyed the 33rd Massachusetts and the 73rd Ohio.

Hooker attempted to find a scapegoat for his poor deployment that left Geary so vulnerable. He accused MG Carl Schurz of failing to aid Geary in a timely fashion. Schurz got a Court of Inquiry and was exonerated. Longstreet’s failure here led to the inevitable split with Bragg. He was sent off to Knoxville and Bragg, desperately short of troops, was glad to be rid of him.

Wauhatchie (Campaign Series)
Camp Pope Publishing

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