American Civil War: Battle of Wauhatchie

John Geary
Major General John W. Geary. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

fBattle of Wauhatchie - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Wauhatchie was fought October 28-29, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). 

Armies & Commanders:



Battle of Wauhatchie - Background:

Following the defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, the Army of the Cumberland retreated north to Chattanooga. There Major General William S. Rosecrans and his command were besieged by General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. With the situation deteriorating, the Union XI and XII Corps were detached from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and sent west under the leadership of Major General Joseph Hooker. In addition, Major General Ulysses S. Grant received orders to come east from Vicksburg with part of his army and assume command over all Union troops around Chattanooga. Overseeing the newly-created Military Division of the Mississippi, Grant relieved Rosecrans and replaced him with Major General George H. Thomas

Battle of Wauhatchie - Cracker Line:

Assessing the situation, Grant implemented a plan devised by Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith for reopening a supply line to Chattanooga. Dubbed the "Cracker Line", this called for Union supply boats to land cargo at Kelley's Ferry on the Tennessee River. It would then move east to Wauhatchie Station and up Lookout Valley to Brown's Ferry. From there goods would re-cross the river and move over Moccasin Point to Chattanooga. To secure this route, Smith would establish a bridgehead at Brown's Ferry while Hooker moved overland from Bridgeport to the west (Map). 

Though Bragg was unaware of the Union plan, he directed Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose men held the Confederate left, to occupy Lookout Valley. This directive was ignored by Longstreet whose men remained on Lookout Mountain to the east. Before dawn on October 27, Smith successfully secured Brown's Ferry with two brigades led by Brigadier Generals William B. Hazen and John B. Turchin. Alerted to their arrival, Colonel William B. Oates of the 15th Alabama attempted a counterattack but was unable to dislodge the Union troops. Advancing with three divisions from his command, Hooker reached Lookout Valley on October 28. Their arrival surprised Bragg and Longstreet who were having a conference on Lookout Mountain.  

Battle of Wauhatchie - The Confederate Plan:

Reaching Wauhatchie Station on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, Hooker detached Brigadier General John W. Geary's division and proceeded north to encamp at Brown's Ferry. Due to a shortage of rolling stock, Geary's division had been reduced by a brigade and was only supported by the four guns of Knap's Battery (Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery). Recognizing the threat posed by Union forces in the valley, Bragg directed Longstreet to attack. After assessing the Hooker's deployments, Longstreet determined to move against Geary's isolated force at Wauhatchie. To accomplish this, he ordered Brigadier General Micah Jenkins' division to strike after dark.      

Moving out, Jenkins sent the brigades of Brigadier Generals Evander Law and Jerome Robertson to occupy high ground south of Brown's Ferry. This force was tasked with preventing Hooker from marching south to aid Geary. To the south, Brigadier General Henry Benning's brigade of Georgians was directed to hold a bridge over Lookout Creek and act as a reserve force. For the assault against the Union position at Wauhatchie, Jenkins assigned Colonel John Bratton's brigade of South Carolinians. At Wauhatchie, Geary, concerned about being isolated, posted Knap's Battery on a small knoll and ordered his men to sleep with their weapons at hand. The 29th Pennsylvania from Colonel George Cobham's brigade provided pickets for the entire division.

Battle of Wauhatchie - First Contact:

Around 10:30 PM, the lead elements of Bratton's brigade engaged the Union pickets. Approaching Wauhatchie, Bratton ordered the Palmetto Sharpshooters to move east of the railroad embankment in an attempt to flank Geary's line. The 2nd, 1st, and 5th South Carolinas extended the Confederate line west of the tracks. These movements took time in the darkness and it was not until 12:30 AM that Bratton commenced his assault. Slowing the enemy, the pickets from the 29th Pennsylvania bought Geary time to form his lines. While the 149th and 78th New Yorks from Brigadier General George S. Greene's brigade took a position along the railroad embankment facing east, Cobham's remaining two regiments, the 111th and 109th Pennsylvanias, extended the line west from the tracks (Map).  

Battle of Wauhatchie - Fighting in the Dark:

Attacking, the 2nd South Carolina quickly sustained heavy losses from both the Union infantry and Knap's Battery. Hampered by the darkness, both sides were often reduced firing at the muzzle flashes of the enemy. Finding some success on the right, Bratton attempted to slip the 5th South Carolina around Geary's flank. This movement was blocked by the arrival of Colonel David Ireland's 137th New York. While pushing this regiment forward, Greene fell wounded when a bullet shattered his jaw. As a result, Ireland assumed command of the brigade. Seeking to press his attack against the Union center, Bratton slid the battered 2nd South Carolina to the left and threw forward the 6th South Carolina. 

In addition, Colonel Martin Gary's Hampton Legion was ordered to the far Confederate right. This caused the 137th New York to refuse its left to prevent being flanked. Support for the New Yorkers soon arrived as the 29th Pennsylvania, having re-formed from picket duty, took a position on their left. As the infantry adjusted to each Confederate thrust, Knap's Battery took heavy casualties. As the battle progressed both battery commander Captain Charles Atwell and Lieutenant Edward Geary, the general's eldest son, fell dead. Hearing the fighting to the south, Hooker mobilized the XI Corps divisions of Brigadier Generals Adolph von Steinwehr and Carl Schurz. Moving out, Colonel Orland Smith's brigade from von Steinwehr's division soon came under fire from Law. 

Veering east, Smith began a series of assaults on Law and Robertson. Drawing in Union troops, this engagement saw the Confederates hold their position on the heights. Having repulsed Smith several times, Law received erroneous intelligence and ordered both brigades to withdraw. As they departed, Smith's men attacked again and overran their position. At Wauhatchie, Geary's men were running low on ammunition as Bratton prepared another assault. Before this moved forward, Bratton received word that Law had withdrawn and that Union reinforcements were approaching. Unable to maintain his position in these circumstances, he repositioned the 6th South Carolina and Palmetto Sharpshooters to cover his withdraw and began retreating from the field.

Battle of Wauhatchie - Aftermath:      

In the fighting at the Battle of Wauhatchie, Union forces sustained 78 killed, 327 wounded, and 15 missing while Confederate losses numbered 34 killed, 305 wounded, and 69 missing. One of the few Civil War battles fought entirely at night, the engagement saw the Confederates fail to close the Cracker Line to Chattanooga. Over the coming days, supplies began to flow to the Army of the Cumberland. Following the battle, a rumor circulated that Union mules had been stampeded during the battle leading the enemy to believe that they were being attacked by cavalry and ultimately their causing their retreat. Though a stampede may have occurred, it was not the cause of the Confederate withdrawal. Over the next month, Union strength grew and in late November Grant commenced the Battle of Chattanooga which drove Bragg from the area.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Wauhatchie." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Wauhatchie. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Wauhatchie." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).