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Battle of Wauhatchie
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
October 28, 1863
October 29, 1863
Battle of Wauhatchie

In a rare nighttime assault, James Longstreet [CS] battles John Geary [US] just west of Lookout Mountain
  Battles for Chattanooga
  James Longstreet

Battle of Wauhatchie

Other Names: Charge of the Mule Brigade

James Longstreet walked to Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain about 9:30am on the morning of October 28, 1863 with his commander, Braxton Bragg, head of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg, who had earlier berated Longstreet for his failure to counter-attacked when Joe Hooker took Lookout Valley during the opening of the Cracker Line stood there dumbstruck. He watched as 10,000 Yankees poured into the valley from Stevenson, Alabama and another 10,000 climbed up the road from Kelley's Ford. As Bragg left he told Longstreet to attack and promised support.

Longstreet was not happy about Bragg's orders until he spotted a wagon train heading for the starving Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. It stopped almost directly beneath the Confederate position on Lookout Mountain. His poorly-fed men could use the lightly guarded rations. Longstreet, however, had a serious morale problem with his commanders.

The three division commanders under Longstreet, Micah Jenkins, Evander Law and Lafayette McLaws were all having problems, as was Longstreet himself. The petulant corps commander seemed disinterested in attacking the overwhelming Union force in the valley below. Jenkins was unhappy about moving west (he had been in the Army of Northern Virginia. Law was unhappy because Jenkins had been attached to Longstreet's command. Jenkins outranked Law by date of service, and Longstreet did not push a promotion through for his longtime division commander. Law was also unhappy because Longstreet ignored his warning about trying to hold Lookout Valley with a single brigade. McLaws was still unhappy about being passed over for corps commander following the death of Stonewall Jackson.

Bragg verbally told Longstreet that an order would go out to John Breckinridge to send his closest division to support the Confederate attack. In all, Longstreet could hit Union Brigadier General John Geary with nearly four times Geary's manpower.

John Geary was in command of the Union division camped at Wauhatchie. Geary served under Winfield Scott during the Mexican American War but became known to the United States as the pro-Freesoil territorial governor of Kansas. As he approach Wauhatchie he realized all the problems inherent with such a position, but had to stop because of nightfall and congestion further north on Brown's Ferry Road.

As evening fell, Geary called his officer-of-the-day, Colonel William Rickards, and ordered him to question locals about Rebel activity on Lookout Mountain. Rickards found out some of Longstreet's men had visited that day, and a footbridge over Lookout Creek could give them access to Brown's Ferry Road, the main road from Wauhatchie to the Tennessee River. Rather than destroy the bridge, Geary decided to post a picket.

Jenkins decided to have a brigade attack Geary's camp while three others, atop Smith's Hill north along Brown's Ferry Road, to block the expected Union response. When Jenkins asked Law what he felt the chances of the plan succeeding, Law responded "None." Jenkins chose his old brigade, now under John Bratton, to attack Geary. He assigned Law's old brigade, now under Colonel James Sheffield and (Jerome) Robertson's Brigade to Smith's Hill and the Georgia Brigade, under General Henry Benning, to Law's left flank, where he could be called on by Bratton if needed.

Upon seeing Smith's Hill, Law felt the gap between the hill and Lookout Mountain was too great. He ordered Robertson to guard his flank from this gap and set off to find Jenkins, hoping to convince his commanding officer to call off the plan. About 10:30 pm the 141st New York regiment stumbled onto to Law's vanguard, a line of skirmishers near Smith's Hill. The battle sound had Geary organizing support, but the sound quickly died, so Geary decided no support was needed.

At this point Longstreet met his commanders near the bottom of Lookout Mountain only to discover that Lafayette McLaws was not present. He felt it should have been apparent to Jenkins that without McLaws the battle would not proceed, but Jenkins returned to Wauhatchie and followed orders, pushing Bratton ahead almost blindly about 11:30 pm on October 27. The first Union soldiers Bratton ran into were the pickets posted by Col. Rickard near the footbridge over Lookout Creek.

Rickard's pickets were pushed towards a slightly larger force deployed to secure Brown's Ferry Road. Geary knew this was much more serious than the brief spurt of rifles that occurred at 10:30 and being deployment of his remaining forces. Soon the roar of Union artillery filled the air, sending a message not only to Bratton's Confederates but also to Oliver O. Howard, a couple of miles closer to Brown's Ferry. As Confederates responded to Geary's artillery men began falling on both sides. General George Sears Greene was among the early casualties, so seriously wounded that it would be a year-and-a-half before he reentered active service. Another casualty was Lieutenant Edward Geary, son of John Geary.

Howard began organizing a counterattack when a messenger from Joe Hooker brought orders to push two divisions into the battle occurring to the south. Carl Schurz and Adolf von Steinwehr were Howard's choices for the operation (they were closest to the action). Hooker, though, called Schurz to his headquarters to reiterate the orders Howard had given him. As a result, Steinwehr was first to leave, around 1:30am, nearly an hour-and-a-half after Bratton's first contact with the main body of Geary's force.

In the lead of Steinwehr's division was the Second Brigade under Colonel Orland Smith. As he passed a tall hill where Law had taken up his position, the Confederates hit his left flank, driving his men into an open field to the right. Smith reorganized his men and began to advance up the 200 foot tall hill. With visibility limited they unknowingly walked to within 20 feet of the Confederate line when Law's men opened fire, sending Smith's Yankees reeling. At the time other Yankees were passing the hill and soon, Hooker, Steinwehr and others were organizing something, but nobody was sure exactly what. Howard, however, pushed forward to his original objective at the head of two companies.

John Bratton thought he has a good position, forming an open V to attack Geary's obverse line. Some of Bratton's men crossed Kelley's Ferry Road and struck the lightly guarded wagon train that was the original object of the attack. Rebels quickly drove off the Federal soldiers, but the commotion stampeded some mules giving the battle a somewhat derogatory nickname, "Charge of the Mule Brigade." The mules delayed the Rebels from forming a line and a federal counterattack drove the Confederates off. After reforming a line, Bratton prepared to attack when he received a written order from Micah Jenkins to break off the engagement. Bratton immediately began to withdraw.

Orland Smith still wanted to take the hill that had cost him so many men. Ordering a regiment up the hill in a frontal assault, he also ordered a second regiment to flank Law's men. As the Yankees began hitting the Rebel line Law received two reports -- the first had a large body of federals moving towards Laws while the second had Bratton withdrawing (which he was). Law decided to withdraw his men, ending the engagement. The only problem was nobody mentioned it to the 4th Texas Regiment, now alone at the top of the hill. The battled the oncoming Yankee alone, until their position was untenable. They turned, almost as one, and stumbled down the back of the hill. By 4:00am all Law's men were safely on the Lookout Mountain side of Lookout Creek.

Because of the fighting that occurred on this hill, the Federal troops called it Smith's Hill after the battle, a name that has stuck to this day.

Links appearing on this page:

Army of Northern Virginia
Army of Tennessee
Army of the Cumberland
Braxton Bragg
Cracker Line
James Longstreet
Joe Hooker
John Breckinridge
Mexican American War
October 28
October, 1863
Stonewall Jackson
Winfield Scott

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles

Battle of Wauhatchie was last changed on - November 21, 2007
Battle of Wauhatchie was added on - November 8, 2007

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