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Bridging the Tennessee River. (Past in Review).

On 27 October 1863, Brigadier General William "Baldy" Smith (see photo), Chief of Staff and chief engineer for the western army, emplaced a pontoon bridge across the Tennessee River. This bridge was the key link in creating a supply line--"the cracker line," as it was the first time the garrison at Chattanooga was able to receive a steady supply of rations--for the Union army at Chattanooga. This action allowed the Union army to reestablish its combat strength, take the offensive, and rout the Confederates from their positions, leaving Chattanooga in the hands of the Union and the Confederate army weakened from a terrible loss.

On 20 September 1863, General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Union forces in the West, received what would be for him a career-ending defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. Confederate forces led by General Braxton Bragg routed the Union army when Lieutenant General James Longstreet attacked with his Corps through a gap in the Union line. Longstreet enveloped the Union line and rolled up its defense. General Rosecrans and his army were forced to retreat to Chattanooga, hoping to establish a hasty defense to stop what he was sure would be a quickly pursuing Confederate army. (1) General Bragg did not pursue the fight into the city but decided to surround Chattanooga and simply starve the Union out. Bragg had a viable plan, considering that the Confederate army controlled all the high ground surrounding the city to the south and east, and the Tennessee River served to block the Union forces in from the north and west (see map).

Suffering from a recent defeat and the knowledge that he had caused it, General Rosecrans lost confidence in his ability. He quickly relegated himself and his men to an eventual defeat when the Confederates decided to attack. However, weeks went by and the Confederates showed no signs of attacking.

Rosecrans continued to improve the defense, but General Bragg's plan to starve the Union army out was starting to take effect. Surrounded on all sides by either the Confederate army or unforgiving natural obstacles, the Union army was receiving barely enough resupply to keep from starving. Supply wagons dispatched to support the Union army were subject to Confederate cavalry raids, and a treacherous route through the mountains served to destroy more of the supply wagons than did the Confederate cavalry.

The situation was desperate for the Union army at Chattanooga. The wire dispatches Rosecrans sent to Washington sounded like those of an already defeated commander; thus, President Lincoln wired General Grant and informed him either to retain Rosecrans or replace him as he saw fit. Grant immediately wired Rosecrans that he was to relinquish command to General Thomas and that he (Grant) would be arriving soon to take overall command of the situation in Chattanooga. This city was considered the gateway to the South and of extreme strategic importance to both armies.

General Grant arrived at Chattanooga on 23 October 1863 to find the Union army in a desperate situation. (2) It was secure in its fortifications within the city but, with no means of effective resupply, the army would soon starve and be virtually incapable of defending against a Confederate assault. Grant's first objective was to open an effective supply line. Brigadier General Smith offered a plan to achieve that objective. His plan called for establishing two pontoon bridges across the Tennessee River: the first would be uncomplicated; it would be positioned directly behind the city, terrain the Union controlled. The second bridge would be much more difficult, because to connect the Union to the west and its resupply, it would have to seize and bridge the area at Brown's Ferry--an area controlled by the Confederates (see map).

The Union assault of Brown's Ferry began early on the morning of 27 October. (3) Smith's plan was simple and courageous and required the element of absolute surprise. Brigadier Generals John B. Turchin and William B. Hazen were assigned the infantry mission; Major John Mendenhall, commander of three batteries of artillery, was to support the infantry assault. A portion of Hazen's brigade was the main effort; the success or failure of the mission would rest largely upon its shoulders. Hazen's after-action report effectively stated the goal and method he intended to use to achieve the objectives Smith had given him:

"We were to organize into fifty squads of one officer and twenty-four men each, to embark on pontoon boats at Chattanooga and float down the river...a distance, by the bends of the river, of nine miles, and land upon its left bank, then occupied by the enemy, making thereafter immediate dispositions for holding it, while the remaining portions of my brigade and another one should be speedily sent over the river in the same boats to reinforce me; the movement was to be made just before daylight..." (4)

The other brigade Hazen referred to was Turchin's. His brigade was to move along a hidden road through Moccasin Point, take up a position directly across from Brown's Ferry, remain hidden from enemy pickets in the wood line, and wait for the assault of Hazen's brigade. Pontoon boats used by Hazen to negotiate the river would be launched to pick up Turchin's men and ferry them across to exploit the penetration of the Union line caused by Hazen's brigade. Mendenhall's artillery took up a position overlooking Brown's Ferry to support the withdrawal of the Union force should it become overwhelmed and find it necessary to retreat to the near shore of the Tennessee. (5)

Brigadier General Smith's plan called for a swift assault, focusing on the element of surprise to help the Union achieve victory. To achieve the element of surprise at the assault point, Brigadier General Brown decided to launch the boats well above the assault point, some nine miles by river. Smith took a tactical risk in this area stating,

"It was deemed better to take this risk than to launch the boats near the ferry because they would move more rapidly than intelligence could be taken by the infantry pickets and, in addition, though the enemy might be alarmed, he would not know where the landing was to be attempted and therefore could not concentrate with certainty against us." (6)

Because the success of the mission depended largely on the element of surprise, only Grant, Smith, the brigade commanders, and the engineer officers in charge of the pontoon flotilla and the actual laying of the bridge knew the plan. The soldiers who executed the plan only knew that they were attacking the confederates and the mission was dangerous. But if the mission was successful, it would spell supplies and relief for the Union army within Chattanooga.

On 26 October at 2200 hours, Hazen's brigade marshaled at the launch site, and the soldiers were given the details of their mission. The brigade broke into fifty 25-man squads, loaded the pontoon boats, and prepared to launch the miniflotilla. The pontoons were launched at 0300 on 27 October, their movement screened by a mist that hung over the river. The soldiers were ordered to lay down in the boats. The only person exposed above the gunwales of the pontoon was the boatswain--an engineer soldier with the job of guiding the pontoon down the river. Absolutely no talking was allowed during movement. (7)

The flotilla moved silently down the river using only the current for volition. The flotilla's movement was as near to perfect as Smith could have hoped for. The boats hugged the tree-fringed banks of the river opposite the enemy. Confederate pickets spotted the boats but perceived no danger because they didn't see any men; thus, they didn't raise an alarm, assuming that the boats were merely a pontoon bridge that had been destroyed, a common site throughout the war. Only two incidents marred the boat movement: a soldier was reportedly knocked out of the boat by a tree limb but was recovered, and another soldier apparently fell out of the boat and drowned. By 0430, Turchin's soldiers were in position across from Brown's Ferry, awaiting the arrival of Hazen's men (see map, page 45). They built fires to guide the flotilla to the proper landing site and waited for the time when they would cross the river and reinforce Hazen's brigade. (8)

As the Union forces came ashore at Brown's Ferry, they surprisingly met little resistance. The only Confederate troops occupying the actual ferry site were a thin picket line that was easily routed. Behind the pickets and in a position to reinforce them, the Confederates had less than a regiment of soldiers. Had Smith's plan been executed two days earlier, an entire Confederate brigade commanded by Brigadier General Law would have met him. As it was, Hazen's brigade closed arms with the Fifteenth and Fourth Alabama of Longstreet's Corps, not nearly enough combat power to repel the Union's massed assault. Upon seizing the foothold for the farside bridgehead, the boats were sent to ferry Turchin's brigade across while Hazen's soldiers began etching out a defensive line. Colonel Oates, commander of the Fifteenth Alabama, immediately launched a counterattack against the intruding Union brigade, with the following orders, "Every man is to walk forward at one-pace intervals on a lateral line and fire only upon plac ing the muzzle of their weapon against the body of a Yankee soldier." (9) Though gallant, the Confederate counterattack was quickly repelled, and the Union pushed farther inland from the ferry head.

By this time, Brigadier General Turchin's brigade was quickly moving across the river. With each unit that came to the farside, the Union defensive line was pushed out farther. Brigadier General Smith ordered an abatis placed around the perimeter of the Union bridgehead to establish a hasty defensive position and provide cover from Confederate muskets. Colonel Oates continued to attempt counterattacks throughout the morning until he was wounded. Later that day, Brigadier General Law arrived with three more regiments and a regiment of the Texas Brigade to find Oates in a nearby farm house, recovering from a wound.

Oates informed Law that he had arrived too late to make a difference. The Union had managed to cross a sizeable force and had gained a very tenable position. Law went forward to a vantage point from which he could oversee the Union position. With one look, he turned around, returned to Colonel Gates, and remarked that Gates was quite correct in his assessment. By that time, 1630 hours, the Union had seized the bridgehead and emplaced the pontoon bridge (see map, page 45), thus creating the Union's cracker line. This one small action was the beginning of the end for the Confederates at Chattanooga. (10)

Establishing the cracker line enabled the Union to effectively resupply its garrison in Chattanooga--not only with food and ammunition but also with troops. Opening this supply line coincided with two other events. First, Longstreet's Corps departed from the Confederate perimeter to attack Major General Burnside's Union force at Knoxville. Second, Major General Sherman's army arrived to reinforce Grant at Chattanooga. The result was a reinforced Union army and a weakened Confederate force. The ability to resupply the Union force at Chattanooga hinged completely on Brigadier General Smith opening the cracker line. Establishing the bridge across the Tennessee River was arguably the decisive point of the battle of Chattanooga for the Union army.

Brigadier General Smith expertly employed the principles of a river crossing to emplace a pontoon bridge across the Tennessee River and establish a supply route for the Union forces at Chattanooga.

Advance to the river, phase one, requires a unit to seize the terrain on the nearside of the river, including road networks and favorable crossing sites. Smith moved Turchin's brigade to the nearside of Brown's Ferry, a site that obviously had a trafficable road network and a preconditioned crossing site. This move ensured that Hazen's assault force would have a reserve and that the assault force would not arrive at Brown's Ferry to find the Confederates already occupying the nearshore and, thus, become flanked.

Assault across the river, phase two, is designed to place combat power rapidly on the far shore to eliminate the enemy's ability to place direct fire on the crossing site and secure terrain for attack positions. Smith executed this phase perhaps better than any other portion of the operation. Using the principle of surprise, he massed a large force on the far shore rapidly and with little resistance by the Confederate army. Brigadier General Smith made it impossible for the Confederates to place direct fire on the bridge site, which allowed him to cross Turchin's brigade.

Advance from the exit bank, phase three, is intended to extend the initial foothold created by the assault force. Once Turchin's brigade crossed, Smith pushed the bridgehead line out farther--known today as seizure of an intermediate objective. The intent is to prevent direct fire from being placed on the bridge site and to deny observation of indirect fire. By pushing his lines out farther into the enemy-controlled area of the bridgehead, Smith negated the enemy's ability to see the river-crossing site. This allowed Smith to begin emplacing the pontoon bridge and prepare for the crossing of even larger units to secure the foothold created by the initial assault.

Secure the bridgehead, the final phase, is designed to create a position secure from enemy counterattack and large enough to accommodate follow-on forces as they cross the bridge. When Smith ordered the felling of an abatis and established his initial defensive perimeter, he effectively repelled at least four counterattacks by Colonel Gates and his Alabama brigades. When Brigadier General Law and Confederate reinforcements arrived, Smith's position was immovable by the available Confederate forces; by 1630 hours, the bridge was emplaced. Smith's two brigades now held a very tenable position, and the Union supply line to Chattanooga was open.


(1.) James Lee McDonough, Chattanooga-Death Grip on the Confederacy, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997, p8.

(2.) Ibid, p. 54.

(3.) Ibid, p. 76.

(4.) United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 31, Part II Reports: Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Harrisburg: Historical Times Inc., 1985.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) McDonough, p. 79.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) United States War Department.

(10.) McDonough.

Works Cited:

Department of the Army, The Bridge Equipage of the United States Army With Directions for the Construction of Military Bridges, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870.

Downey, Fairfax. Storming of the Gateway: Chattanooga, 1863. New York. 1963.

Hay, Thomas R. "The Battle of Chattanooga." Georgia Historical Quarterly June 1924.

Longacre, Edward J. "A Perfect Ishmaelite: General 'Baldy' Smith." Civil War Times illustrated, December 1976.

MacDonald, John. Great Barnes of the Civil War New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.

Tucker, Glenn. "The Battle of Chickamauga." Civil War Times Illustrated, August 1971.

Captain Place currently commands A Company, 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (AASLT), Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
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Author:Place, Darman
Publication:Engineer: The Professional Bulletin for Army Engineers
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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