A minor battle during the siege of Chattanooga (American Civil War). After defeat at Chickamauga (19-20 September), a Union army had become besieged in Chattanooga. Part of the Federal response was to put U. S. Grant in charge of the war in the west. His first priority was to raise the siege of Chattanooga and rescue the Army of the Cumberland. His first problem was the long diversion through the mountains north of the Tennessee River that all supplies had to follow. Accordingly, soon after reaching Chattanooga he approved a plan that had been developed by General W. F. Smith for opening a new supply route to the nearest railroad in Federal control at Bridgeport. This new route cut through a pass in Racoon Mountain, reaching Lookout Valley close to Wauhatchie, and then ran north to Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee, where a pontoon bridge took the supplies on to the north bank of the Tennessee, firmly in Union hands. This new supply line was promptly dubbed the ‘cracker line’ to celebrate the improved rations coming along the line.
At the time the cracker line was opened, James Longstreet was in command of the forces on Lookout Mountain. On 27 October he had written to Bragg’s headquarters querying an order to occupy the mountain. At that point there was no Confederate infantry on the mountain, but Longstreet was going to send one brigade there the next day. Events now began to overtake him. On the same day he was writing to Bragg, a force of Union soldiers landed at Brown’s Ferry, just north of Lookout Valley. Longstreet’s attention was still much further south, where he expected them main Union force to appear. Instead, Hooker emerged from Racoon Mountain close to Wauhatchie, in the northern end of Lookout Valley. While the main force moved north to Brown’s Ferry, Geary’s division (of three brigades) remained at Wauhatchie to secure the line.
Longstreet’s response was to send Jenkins’ Division to occupy some hills on the west side of Lookout Creek late on 28 October. His intention was for them to guard the road, and capture any Federal stragglers. In his report, written on 29 October, Longstreet said that he had left Jenkins at 1.00 p.m., expecting nothing to happen, but one and half hours later he received a letter from Jenkins announcing that one of his brigades was attacking the Federal 12th corps!
Longstreet appears to have been unaware that Geary’s division (part of the 12th corps) had been left behind at Wauhatchie. Jenkins’ own brigade, now commanded by Colonel John Bratton, launched a night attack on Geary’s camp. The surprise attack convinced Geary that he was under attack by a much larger force, and he sent a call for help to Hooker at Brown’s Ferry. Accordingly, Hooker ordered General O. Howard to march the three miles back to Wauhatchie to help Geary.
Howard’s men now ran into the rest of Jenkins’ Division on the hills to the left of his road. Heavy fighting followed as Howard’s men attempted to clear these hills. However, by now Bratton had discovered just how big a force he was attacking, and Jenkins had decided to pull back. This was achieved fairly easily in the dark of the night.
Bratton’s command had suffered 31 killed 286 wounded and 39 missing, by far the highest number of casualties amongst the units engaged on the Confederate side. Federal losses were around 420 killed and wounded. This almost accidental battle was the only Confederate attempt to disrupt the ‘cracker line’. The Confederate lines were pulled back to Lookout Creek, where they remained until 24 November (battle of Lookout Mountain). Longstreet himself was soon dispatched to Knoxville in an attempt to recapture the town, and missed the rest of the Chattanooga campaign.
The engagement at Wauhatchie provides a great example of the sort of confusion that can arise from the Confederate habit of retaining the first name given to any unit. At Wauhatchie we find Hood’s Division. Hood had been badly wounded at Chickamauga, and his division was now commanded by General Jenkins, while Jenkins’ own brigade was by then commanded by Colonel Bratton.