Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Forgotten Battles of the Civil War: The Battle of Wauhatchie, October 28-29 1863

I wanted to make my blog unique from other blogs by talking about unusual and unique things that make it so interesting to me. One element that I am adding to my blog is "The Forgotten Battles of the Civil War". With this feature I will explore an unknown or forgotten battle and provide the importance of the battle within the larger scale of the war. The Battle of Wauhatchie is unique for several distinct reasons. First, it was one of the rare night battles of the war. Battles during that time period were usually fought during the day because it was easier to see the enemy and achieve victory. Secondly, the battle was one of the events that caused dissention and enforced the discord amongst James Longstreet's First Corps. Also, the battle involved Confederate General Evander M. Law and that makes it partiually appealing to me. Finally, the battle has recieved scant attention and when i've read histories of it I always walk away confused about it. So here goes.

Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee began a siege of Chattanooga after their smasing victory at Chickamuaga in September 1863. After recieving reinforcements and a new commander named U.S. Grant the Federal forces looked to establish a supply line for their troops. Grant felt that the Union army could easily whip Bragg's forces after establishing an opening for military and food supplies. The new Union commander ordered what would be later known as "The Cracker Line Operation" in an effort to break the siege on October 26, 1863.
The Federal objective was the opening of the Kelley's Ferry road which led to Chattanooga from Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River. Also a simultaneous advance up Lookout Valley would secure the opportunity for Grant's army to begin attacking the Confederate siege lines. Federal forces under Brigader General William Smith and Brigader General William Hazen were ordered to establish a beachhead at Brown's Ferry. Meanwhile, three divisions under General Joseph Hooker would through Lookout Valley towards Brown's Ferry. At 3:00 am, on October 27, portions of Hazen’s brigade embarked upon pontoons and floated around Moccasin Bend to Brown’s Ferry. Confederate forces assigned to protect this vital area were easily pushed back and the Federals were victorious in establishing their beachhead.

In order to protect his communcations, Hooker detached Brig. Gen. John W. Geary’s division at Wauhatchie Station on October 28th. After observing these Federal movements, Confederate commanders James Longstreet and Braxton Bragg decided to make a night assault against Union forces. Their assualt was scheduled for 10 p.m on October 28 but confusion delayed their assualt until after midnight. Longstreet put two of his best brigaders in charge of his attack. Brigader General Micah Jenkins was placed in overall command of the movement and his suborniate was Brigader General Evander M. Law. Both men had been rivals for command of one of Longstreets best fighting positions and this conflict would play a role in the battle to come.
Jenkins placed Law's brigade on high ground just east of Kelly's Ferry road. Meanwhile, Confederate troops under John Bratton were ordered to attack Geary. The Federal forces were taken completly by surprise which was made worse by the heavy and confused fighting that followed. Bratton's attacks were beaten off and hearing the sounds of battle, Hooker, at Brown's Ferry, sent General Oliver O. Howard with two XI Army Corps to Wauhatchie to help. These troops ran head long into Evander Law's forces guarding the rear or Bratton's attack force. Law's men inflicted heavy casualites on the boys in blue and even beat back several attacks by a much stronger force. But Law was easily flanked by the Federals and he withdrew from his defensive positions before recieving the order to withdraw. This order would come to haunt General Law for years to come. The causalities for both sides stood at 828. (US 420; CS 408)
After the battle, the commanders on both sides wrote accounts about their troops movements but many of them contridict each other. The Battle of Wauhatchie was a night fight and many of the commanders were confused with what happened to them in the dim of battle. Some Union accounts even state that they were attacked by Longstreet's entire corps which was untrue. Perhaps the biggest myth of the battle was perpetuated by the overall Federal commander. After the war, U.S. Grant wrote an account of how he broke the Confederate siege. He stated that some Federal mules were frightened by the sounds of battle and charged into Law's lines. The Confederates retreated because they thought that caverly was attacking them. In reality, Law's command had already begun to withdraw before the "charge of the mules" took place.
The story didn't end there. A court of inquiry was called to investigate if Hooker and his fellow commanders were "inefficent" during this short campaign. All men were easily cleared of the charges and since the battle was a Union victory they had nothing to worry about. With an open supply line the Union army moved to defeat Bragg and end the siege. By the end of November, after fierce fighting on nearby Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Braggs forces were forced to retreat. The Battle of Chattanaga was another Union victory and it paved the way for Grant's promotion and move east to face off against Robert E. Lee.

For the Confederates, the transition after the Battles at Wauhatchie and Chattannoga didn't go so well. Longstreet attributed the Confederate failure to "a strong feeling of jealousy among the brigader generals". He pushed for charges against Law but these charges were later dropped. I'll save the Jenkins versus Law issue for another blog. However the ramifications for this battle were far reaching because Braxton Bragg would be removed from command after his failed Chattonnoga campaign. This would clear the path for Union General William T. Sherman to begin his march to take Atlanta.

Freeman, Douglas S., Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (3 volumes), Scribners, 1946.
U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Volumes, Index and Atlas., Washington D.C. 1880-1901.


Gerry said...

Hi Mike,

I live six blocks from Chickamauga
National Battlefield. and it's a great walk to go through the site of the Battle of Wauhatchie.

At the moment, my hero is Micah Jenkins and my villan is Evander Law.

I need all the references on biographies of Law. He and Jenkins go back to days at the Citadel and Kings Mountain Military Schcol.

Jenkins was mortally wounded at the Wilderness in the "friendly fire" that wounded Longstreet on May 6, 1864.

There was a lot to the animosity between Law and Jenkins. Law continued for decades after the way - trying to clear Law's reputation, getting back at Jenkins, what ever really was at the base of all that discord.

You are not alone. Although the fun is in the "Hunt", glad to have a fellow explorer along for the ride.

Mike said...

I am with you on your love for this aspect of Civil War history. However, we are on opposite ends of the spectrum because I am a Law fan but I do not dislike Jenkins. In fact I find their battle...interesting. However, if your looking for primary sources on Law there isn't any. There are two books on his brigade that you can purchase and if you do the research that I have you will find that no offical papers exist. You will come across papers at the the University of North Carolina. These papers were owned by Law and they are not his personal papers. It sucks but thats life. Until personal papers come up any research on Law will be hard.