Union General William F. “Baldy” Smith was born in St. Albans.
After the defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland retreated rapidly and took refuge in Chattanooga on the Tennessee River. The Confederate Army of Tennessee followed.
As the Federals took refuge inside Chattanooga’s defenses, they left one brigade around Lookout Mountain. This height overlooked the rail, road and water routes into Chattanooga. In an unpredicted move, Rosecrans withdrew the brigade and Bragg took immediate possession. The Confederates set up artillery and sharpshooters, which closed off access to the town.
In one swift move, Chattanooga became besieged.
The Northerners resorted to a secondary route that stretched 60 miles over a narrow, steep, rocky path. Before the blockade, the trip from the Bridgeport supply depot took an hour. Now, dependent on conditions, it took eight to 20 days.
A union officer declared the route as “the muddiest and the roughest and steepest of ascent and descent ever crossed by army wagons and mules.” The brutal conditions took its toll on the mules.
Supplies grew scarce in Chattanooga. Men scrounged for any food even “following behind the wagon trains which had just arrived picking out of the mud the crumbs of bread, coffee, rice, etc., which were wasted from the boxes and sacks by the rattling of the wagons over the stones.”
The soldiers grew so hungry they actually shouted out “Cracker,” in desperate demand for hardtack and wished fervently for a better and more efficient “Cracker Line.”
The besieged Federals squeezed into an area on one square mile and one sergeant referred to it as “starvation camp.”
Bragg believed the Army of the Cumberland’s “destruction was only a question of time.”
As the situation worsened inside Chattanooga, Rosecrans failed in managing the situation. President Lincoln referred to the beleaguered army commander as “stunned and confused, like a duck hit on the head.” Rosecrans’ inabilities led to his being replaced by General George Thomas. The dependable “Rock of Chickamauga,” when ordered to hold Chattanooga “at all hazards,” telegraphed back “We will hold the town ’till we starve.”
Twenty-seven miles outside of Chattanooga, stood the 20,000 men of the XI and XII Corps, transferred from the Army of the Potomac. Ulysses S. Grant commanded the entirety, but could do little until a supply line reopened to the besieged town.
Enter onto to the scene Vermonter William F. “Baldy” Smith, a one-time division commander with the Army of the Potomac, but now the new chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland.
Smith examined the topography between Chattanooga and Bridgeport. He observed the Tennessee River made two hairpin turns that created long, narrow peninsulas that roads bisected to connect Brown’s and Kelley’s Ferries. Use of the roads would create only an 8-mile wagon ride to carry supplies for the starving army. Best of all, Confederate cannon could not reach the roads.
The only obstacle was that Confederates held Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee’s south bank. It needed to be captured.
Smith rapidly devised a daring plan that Grant endorsed. Using an abandoned sawmill and wood stripped from a house, Smith directed the construction of 50 pontoon boats and two flatboats.
In the early hours of Oct. 27, 1863, 1,050 men under another Vermont native, General William B. Hazen, climbed into the boats and started to drift down the river towards Brown’s Ferry. Meanwhile, 3,500 more Federals marched to the north bank ferry landing to support Hazen.
Floating with the current, Hazen’s men avoided detection from Confederate sentries posted along the riverbank. When Hazen spotted Brown’s Ferry, he ordered oars taken out and men quickly rowed to shore. In a brief fight, the Northerners overwhelmed the Confederate defenders and the reinforcements soon crossed on the same boats to hold the ground.
By 4:30 p.m., Smith and his engineers had completed a pontoon bridge over the Tennessee.
Part one was a success.
Meanwhile, men of the XI and Xii Corps marched east from Bridgeport to complete the maneuver. The Confederates decided to attack an isolated XII Corps division under General John Geary guarding the wagon trains at Wauhatchie in a daring night assault. Though surprised by the rare night move, the Federals held with their rifles at the “explosion of the enemy’s muskets.”
Geary successfully repelled the Southern advance alone, as Federal reinforcement failed to reach his position before the Confederates withdrew. Geary suffered a great personal loss in the battle. His son, artillery Lieutenant Edward Geary, 18, fell by his guns.
A new, more efficient supply route had opened due to the creativity of Smith.
When the first steamboat towing two flatboats reached Kelley’s Ferry, a large cheer resounded through the air. One bewildered soldier, questioned if Grant had appeared. “Grant be damned!” a nearby soldier responded. “A boatload of rations has come!”
And so opened the long anticipated Cracker Line. The Chattanooga siege had lifted with little time to spare as “but four boxes of hard bread left in the commissary warehouse.”
The events around Chattanooga had not ended; Bragg still occupied the heights above the town.
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.
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