One of the most exciting little affairs during the Civil War was the capture of Brown's Ferry, about three miles west of Chattanooga, at daylight on the morning of October 27, 1863, by Hazen's brigade 3d Division, 4th Corps.
Although the rapid movements day and night, of General Rosecrans' army during the Chattanooga campaign resulted in the capture of that city, yet the enemy (Bragg's old army together with Breckenridge's division from Knoxville and Longstreet's corps from Virginia) took possession of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain and the valley between, as well as the mountains and valleys on the south side of the Tennssee River almost to Bridgeport (26 miles), Rosecrans' nearest depot of supplies.
The possession of these hills and valleys not only cut Rosecrans off from the most direct road to Bridgeport, but it also gave Bragg control of the next best route to that point - along the north side of the river at the base of Walden's Ridge. The result was that Rosecrans' supplies had to be hauled by wagon over a circuitous route, 60 miles long, crossing Walden's Ridge. That road was in such a wretched condition, as well as being subject to raids by the enemy's cavalry, that it was utterly impossible to supply the army. Rations were so scarce that it was no uncommon thing to see soldiers raking about where horses and mules were fed, looking for the undigested kernels, of corn dropped by the animals. One Sunday my regiment happened to pass an artillery camp just as a load of corn was being unloaded. The soldiers made a break for the corn; the artillery men drew their sabers to defend their horses' feed and the men loaded their guns. A compromise was made on one ear to each man.
In the meantime General Hooker, with portions of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps, had been transferred from Virginia to Tennessee and lay along the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, the head of column at Bridgeport. It would not do to add these forces to the suffering troops at Chattanooga until the direct route was opened between these two points. With that object in view, General Rosecrans inaugurated a movement looking to the capture and occupation of Brown's Ferry - about nine miles from Chattanooga by river and three miles by wagon road - there to open communication with General Hooker's force advancing from Bridgeport, on the south side of the river, by way of Whitesides, Wauhatchie, and Lookout Valley. General Rosecrans was relieved a few days before the date set for the movement, but upon General Grants arrival his plans were laid before the latter by General Thomas and they were adopted by Grant.
The expedition consisted of fifty pontoon boats, each carrying 24 men and an officer besides a working crew of 4 men, and two flatboats, each carrying 50 men properly officered and a working crew, about 1,300 in all, and all commanded by General W. B. Hazen, whose brigade furnished the fighting force. The order organizing the various squads for the several boats was issued by General Hazen on, the 25th, two days before the day set for the movement and was in part as follows:
"The regimental commanders of this brigade will at once organize parties of picked men as specified below, each squad to be in charge of an officer selected especially for efficiency and bravery. * * * Men on picket can be used if they are known to be effective. * * *"
The men carried nothing with them but their guns and ammunition. Bayonets, tin cup, and everything else calculated to make a noise or encumber the men were left in camp. I saw a picture of this expedition in an illustrated paper a few weeks after, in which the soldiers were represented wearing overcoats and knapsacks, each musket topped with a bayonet half as long as the gun, and the officer in the center of the boat bearing a flag.
The Tennessee River, about 300 yards wide, after passing Chattanooga, makes a sharp bend to the south, bearing a little east, until it strikes the base of Lookout Mountain, where it makes an abrupt bend to the west, bearing a little north. After flowing in that direction a few miles, it makes another abrupt bend to the north, bearing a little east, until it reaches a point a little north of Brown's Ferry. The latter, although less than three miles west of Chattanooga by land, is nine miles by the liver, the last seven miles being picketed, by the enemy on the south or left-hand side. This eccentric course of the river almost forms a perfect human foot and is known as "Moccasin Bend."
About one o'clock of the morning of October 27th, the 125 men selected from my regiment were aroused from their sleep and marched to the river, where 50 of them were placed in the flatboat which led the column, 25 in the next flatboat with 25 men from dome other regiment, and the remaining 50 men in the last two pontoons, giving the right and left of the column to the 23d Kentucky. General Hazen was in the fourth boat.
About three o'clock the boats started following the large flatboat, my squad being, in the last or fifty-second boat. So far as I know, the only instructions imparted to the commanders of the several squads was that at the proper time we would receive orders from, the right-hand side of the river, and that we should keep as close to the right-hand side of the river, and in the shadow of the timber along the bank, as possible. I was also informed that the nature of the expedition was such that each squad might have to act independently of the others, in a great degree, until other orders were received.
The moon went down just before we started and although a light fog fell, we were able to distinguish the preceding boat. As we were crossing the river to pass through the opening made for us in the pontoon bridge that reached from Chattanooga to the north side one of my boys remarked: "This reminds me of a picture I once saw of Washington crossing the Alps." His mixed history caused a general laugh, which was quickly suppressed by a voice from the boat ahead, in a kind of a stage whisper: "Shut up, you d----d fooIs! do you think this is a regatta?" Scarcely a mile was passed when we heard a splash ahead which told us that someone was overboard, and soon a man who had been swept overboard by a projecting limb was picked up. Silently we floated, using the oars only sufficient to get steerage way. Just before reaching Lookout Mountain we discovered the Enemy's pickets, in groups of two or three, so utterly unconscious of our proximity that they appeared to be chatting with each other. At one post two pickets, made visible by the faint flicker of a fire, sat facing each other, astride of a log, and one, with lips puckered, was evidently teaching the other to whistle a tune, an occasional note of which we could hear. We soon passed another group who, from their actions, had evidently heard something, as they were intently listening and looking toward us. Thus the time passed when suddenly the sharp crack of a rifle was heard away ahead, then another. My first thought was that the leading boat had been discovered and by the time the fifty-second boat reached that point the enemy would have a whole brigade lined up shooting at us. The noise ahead indicated that speed was the thing now and our oarsmen bent to their work. In a few minutes a voice from the right bank, scarcely loud enough for us to hear, called out: "Pull across the river, go up the ridge, picket your front, and fortify." (Each squad had been furnished two axes for that purpose.) Quickly turning the boat in that direction, we soon reached the shore, which proved to be a steep hill about 200 feet high and very difficult to climb, at least where we landed. As soon as the boat was empty, the men in charge shoved out and pulled for the other shore. "What does that mean?" asked one of the boys as we slowly toiled upward. "That means," answered another, "fight and be d----d to you." The fact was, although we did not know it then, that the balance of the brigade (under the command of Colonel Langdon, of the 1st Ohio) and Turchin's brigade had marched across the neck of land and were waiting at the ferry to be feeried over to our support.
Upon gaining the summit we discovered that the top of the ridge varied from two to six feet in width, and by laying down on the river side it made as good a breastwork as we wanted. By this time the musketry fire, about a half-mile on our right, which proved to be at the gap in the ridge leading to the ferry, was very heavy. Daylight was beginning to light up the tops of the hills, but it was still dark in the valley and Raccoon Mountain, about a mile across the valley, had the appearance of being surrounded by water. So far as I could see or hear, there, was no enemy in our front. I at once deployed six men along the top of the ridge to the left and six more at the foot of the hill in the valley. After waiting a few minutes, the firing on the right indicated an increase in the enemy's forces (although the echo from Raccoon Mountain probably made it sound heavier than it really was) admonished me of the danger to our forces at the ferry, upon the success of whom the safety of all the others depended. The squads on my immediate right, like my own, had nothing in their front apparently (although there might be some of the enemy in the valley, it was too foggy down there to see), and were standing idle, waiting for something to turn up. We had performed all that we had been ordered to do, but remembering the admonition, that "each squad might have to act independently of the others," I concluded to make a demonstration in my front, hoping that by doing so I might be able to draw the partial attention of the enemy from our forces at the ferry; so I moved my six men at the base of the hill out into the valley, passing a small farmhouse, until we reached a road which afterward proved to lead from the ferry to Lookout Mountain, and I judged we were one-third, or nearly so, from the ferry, between these two points. As yet we had met none of the enemy, and although we could see nothing to shoot at, I directed the men to fire their muskets at intervals, as if skirmishing. This "monkey business" did not continue long. Then the report of the artillery in the vicinity of the ferry reached us, and before many minutes we could hear the enemy coming toward us from the right. Fearing we might be cut off from the hill, the rapidity with which we got back to and partly up the hill-side would be excruciatingly funny to an impartial observer. Calling the boys from the hill-top, I deployed the entire squad as skirmishers and again advanced. The boats having, abandoned us to our fate, as we supposed, the boys were pretty determined, and we soon struck a fairly strong skirmish-line of the enemy and started them going back until we again passed the small house, after which our "Johnny" friends made a dash and sent us whirling back almost to the hill. Then the musketry fire began along the hill-top and again we were able to advance until within sight of the small house, from which we saw a wounded man carried, but we could advance no farther, the enemy was too much for us, and again we were compelled to retire and did not stop until we reached the hill-top, although the enemy did not follow us very far. By this time it was light in the valley and we could see the valley road occupied by a moving column of the enemy's infantry and two, pieces of artillery, going to our left, in the direction of Lookout Mountain, at a fast walk, with flankers out, until they disappeared in the woods, a half-mile or more away, where they halted long enough to fire a few shells at us and then resumed their march. The firing had ceased along our line and we could see the boats carrying troops from the north side of the river to the ferry, from which they were being, moved up on the hill, strengthening our line.
About this time General Hazen came along and informed us that we had "knocked the cover off the cracker-box and plenty to eat was in sight if we would hold the ground eye had gained." The enemy made no effort to regain the position, and later in the day, General Hazen issued a circular congratulating the troops on, their success, and as a recognition of their gallantry he ordered two ears of corn issued to each soldier and two ears to each officer on his personal requisition. (Hazen was methodical if be was anything.) Two ears of corn as a reward of bravery may seem like a joke to you companions, as you sit around this well-filled table tonight, but I assure you that on the occasion referred to, had the option of a medal of honor or two ears of corn been given the troops, very few would have accepted the medal.
Late the next day General Hooker's forces, arrived in the valley and camped between us and Lookout Mountain and a steamboat passed up on the way to Chattanooga loaded with hard bread, bacon, and coffee. When the troops near the river saw the steamboat and realized the fact that "the cracker line" flowed unvexed to Chattanooga, they broke forth in wild and vociferous cheers, which started some of us to inquiring the cause. One soldier rushed to the river and inquired of another: "Has Grant come?" "Grant be d----d!" said the other; "a boat-load of rations has come."
Up to the time we retired to the top of the hill I firmly believed that our "monkey business" in the valley had contributed towards the retreat of the enemy, but when I saw the large number of troops being ferried over (Turchin's brigade had also joined us), I concluded that our efforts, while well meant, were of no consequence. A few months ago, however, I came into possession of the official report of General Law, who commanded the brigade to which the troops on the side of the enemy at Brown's Ferry belonged. In that report General Law gives the reasons for their retreat. He says:
"The section of howitzers commanded by Lieutenant Brown opened upon it [our force at the ferry], throwing it into confusion and compelling it to temporarily retire. The enemy was evidently astonished at the presence of the artillery and its fire was very effective. When a second advance in additional force was made, and upon information that the enemy was crossing at another point above them [towards Lookout Mountain], the two regiments, 4th and 15th Alabama, which had now succeeded in collecting its pickets, with the artillery, retired towards Lookout Mountain."
Since reading the above, I am now inclined to think the "monkey business" was at least a partial success.
Another incident and I will close. During the afternoon of the 27th some of my squad visited the little farmhouse in the valley and there learned from the family that the wounded soldier we saw carried out was a general. As the enemy's forces engaged were commanded by a colonel, there being no general officer present, and the official records show that Colonel W. C. Oates, of the 15th Alabama, one of the regiments engaged, was wounded at that fight, resulting in the loss of an arm, another query suggests itself namely, Was Colonel Oates the wounded man we saw carried out of the small farm-house during the skirmishing?
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Kansas Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Morgan, W.A. 1906. WAR TALKS IN KANSAS. A Series of Papers Read before the Kansas Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Published by the Commandery. Press of the Franklin Hudson Publishing Company, Kansas City, Kansas. pp 342-350.
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