Night Fight at Wauhatchie Part 1


The autumn of 1863 found Union forces in southern Tennessee in a very difficult position. The post-Chickamauga retreat into Chattanooga left the commander, MG William Rosecrans, in an impossible political/military predicament. Nearly every entry into the city was covered by the Confederates making adequate logistical support for his army impossible. Unfortunately, abandonment of the city for a more viable base of operations was denied by his superiors. The state of Tennessee had been won and there was no inclination in Washington to give any of it back. Caught in this conundrum the disheartened Rosecrans became moribund and his army withered on the slim vine of his poor logistics. Stagnation, however, was not part of the plan in Washington either. After several unsuccessful attempts to motivate Rosecrans into action he was replaced by MG U. S. Grant.

Fresh from his Victory at Vicksburg, Grant was not content to remain idle. At the suggestion of his chief engineer, BG William F. Smith, he adopted a bold plan to open his communications and move forward against the enemy. The operation called for an amphibious assault across the river to seize a bridgehead just out of range of the Confederate artillery. Once established on the far shore a pontoon bridge would be thrown and troops would be sent across with the goal of linking with MG Joseph Hooker’s column of XI and XII Corps troops marching up the Lookout Valley from Bridgeport.

All these moves were visible to the enemy on the mountain and were sure to be contested. Nevertheless, the plan was refined and implemented. The amphibious operation was a spectacular success and H ooker’s move up the valley to support the main operation progressed nearly unopposed. In an effort to secure his own lines of communication Hooker made a move that would lead to one of the very few examples of night combat during the entire war at Wauhatchie, Tennessee.

Hooker’s Move Initially MG Joseph Hooker’s movement to Tennessee was an emergency reaction to the need to reinforce Rosecrans in the immediate aftermath of Chickamauga. Portions of XI Corps and XII Corps were dispatched from the eastern theater by train with instructions to make no delay. MG Rosecrans fortified the demand for speed with a terse message to Hooker on 27 September;

“You will proceed from Louisville direct to Bridgeport without stopping at Nashville.”

Despite the prodding, Hooker’s move was anything but fast. Prior to their departure nearly all the units involved were forced to turn in their serviceable wagons and teams. Their orders included instructions to draw replacements at the Nashville depot. When they arrived there, however, they found nothing but derelict wagons and broken down animals. The advance stalled there as the quartermasters tried to assemble a train from the available dregs. Hooker finally determined to push on with just his infantry troops while a train was assembled from what could be scrounged. Additionally a wide dispersement of his troops to counter Confederate forays and unseasonably wet weather further delayed his arrival to Bridgeport. Once there he had to wait for the makeshift train of wagons that had been assembled from the dregs at Nashville to arrive.

In the interim MG Rosecrans had been ousted in favor of MG Grant. Hooker was called to Stevenson for a conference with the new commander. The meeting resulted in a bizarre clash of egos. While Grant and Howard hit it off immediately, Thomas remained aloof, and Hooker sent an aide to meet with Grant, claiming illness. Grant jumped at the opportunity to assert his authority and forced Hooker to visit him. Having sized up his commanders Grant issued no complete orders. Hooker departed the meeting and returned to Bridgeport. Grant sent orders to Hooker through Thomas on 24 October to continue his march to Brown’s Ferry, not as reinforcements but as an integral part of the new breakout plan.

Despite his reservations concerning the plan, Hooker reported crossing the pontoon bridge at Bridgeport on the 26th with the greater part of XI Corps, 2nd Division of XII Corps and a cavalry detachment consisting of one company of the 5th Tennessee and a part of a company from the 1st Alabama. The march followed the Wauhatchie wagon road that paralleled the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. The lead elements of the column reached Shellmound on the 26th and Whitesides on the 27th. On the 28th the march resumed with the division of BG John Geary at the rear. Geary’s division had been whittled down to barely 1500 men by detachments to secure the line along the route of march. At 1630 Geary’s weary men reached Wauhatchie and were ordered to stop and secure the town. Wauhatchie held an important road junction and abutted the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. It was a critical location to the maintenance of Hooker’s lines of communication.

Wauhatchie (Campaign Series)






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