One of the largest night battles of the American Civil War, the Battle of Wauhatchie took place on October 28 – 29, 1863, in Hamilton and Marion counties, Tennessee, and in Dade County, Georgia.
Prelude to the Battle
Rosecrans Moves Toward Chattanooga
On December 26, 1862, Major General William S. Rosecrans led the Union Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville, Tennessee with orders to capture Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga was an important railroad junction that connected the upper Confederacy with the Deep South. Between Rosecrans and Chattanooga was Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg and his Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Bragg Abandons Chattanooga
The two armies clashed in a series of battles over the next nine months and the Rebels consistently retreated south. On September 9, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga and led the Army of Tennessee through the mountains into northern Georgia. Although Rosecrans achieved his objective of capturing Chattanooga, he decided to pursue Bragg’s army into Georgia.
Battle of Chickamauga
Stung by the criticism he received for abandoning Chattanooga, Bragg counterattacked at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). The victorious Confederates drove the Federals back toward Chattanooga, forcing them to occupy the defensive works previously constructed by the Rebels. Bragg seized the high ground overlooking Chattanooga (Lookout Mountain, Seminary Ridge, and Raccoon Mountain) and laid siege to the city.
Federals Reinforce Chattanooga
Reacting to the Army of the Cumberland’s dire situation, Northern authorities sent 20,000 soldiers under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker, as well as 16,000 men that Major General William T. Sherman led, to help lift the siege. Officials placed Major General Ulysses S. Grant in command of all Union soldiers in the vicinity of Chattanooga and also replaced Rosecrans with Major General George Thomas as the commander of the Army of the Cumberland.
Smith’s Plan to Open Supply Lines
As reinforcements began to arrive in late October 1863, Grant launched an operation to ease the Army of the Cumberland’s supply problems. Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith had proposed a plan to create a new supply line earlier, but Rosecrans had failed to act on his subordinate’s recommendation. Smith’s plan required seizing the road connecting Chattanooga to the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry.
When Grant arrived in Chattanooga he adopted the plan and placed Smith in charge of taking control of the river at Brown’s Ferry. Under the cover of darkness, two brigades under Smith’s command floated past Confederate lookouts on the river and easily established a beachhead at Brown’s Ferry early on the morning of October 27.
Hooker Moves through Lookout Valley
Meanwhile, Hooker marched three divisions from Bridgeport, Alabama through Lookout Valley towards Brown’s Ferry from the southwest. As Hooker passed through Lookout Valley on October 28, he detached Brigadier General John W. Geary’s division at Wauhatchie Station, a stop on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad.
Rebels Attack at Wauhatchie Station
From their position on Lookout Mountain, Bragg and Lieutenant General James Longstreet observed the Union movements on October 27th and 28th. Noting that Geary’s isolated division was guarding a large train of supplies, which the Rebels desperately needed, they launched a night attack against Geary on October 29. At around midnight, General Micah Jenkins’s brigade of South Carolinians surprised Geary’s men who quickly formed into a V-shaped battle line and managed to hold their position.
Federal Reinforcements Force Confederate Retreat
Upon hearing the sounds of fighting, Hooker dispatched two divisions of the 9th Corps, commanded by Major General Carl Schurz, to assist Geary. As the federal reinforcements began arriving, Jenkins halted the attack and returned to Lookout Mountain.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Wauhatchie was a relatively minor engagement in terms of casualties. The Union lost an estimated 420 soldiers (killed, wounded and captured/missing) compared to 408 for the Confederacy. The battle was significant, however, because it enabled Grant to establish a much-needed supply line (known as the Cracker Line) to provision his starving army at Chattanooga. Once supplies began flowing, the Federals broke Bragg’s siege and drove the Rebel army south into Georgia, paving the way for Major General William T. Sherman’s successful Atlanta Campaign.