After the loss at Chickamauga in September of 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga, and there they found themselves besieged. The Confederate forces held the heights on the opposite bank of the twisting Tennessee River, cutting off nearly all communications and preventing supplies from getting through in any reasonable amount. For the next month, mules and horses starved to death, and men went hungry, while the Federal commander Maj. General William Rosecrans fretted over the situation and feared to act. Eventually, President Lincoln decided that a command change was necessary, and ordered Maj. General Ulysses Grant to take command of all western forces. Grant in turn replaced Rosecrans with the "Rock of Chickamauga", Maj. General George Thomas. Between them, Grant and Thomas devised a means of breaking the siege with a series of bold maneuvers and combined actions. This operation would open a corridor to the army in Chattanooga, reconnecting it with it's supply lines. A key portion of the operation was to be a surprise amphibious assault to be conducted by a brigade of men floating downriver in pontoon boats. General Hazen, former Colonel of the 41st Ohio, was picked to lead this assault, and he brought along the 41st Ohio as he did in nearly every operation he lead during the war.
Early in the A.M. hours of October 27, 1863, the men of the 41st and the other men involved pushed their boats into the river near Chattanooga, and floated downstream to a place called Brown's Ferry. There, they disembarked, and rushed up the riverbank, surprising the Confederate pickets and driving them back. Because the Confederate forces were thinly stretched in this area, there was little initial resistance, and the Federal forces gained a foothold on the riverbank. At this point, the Confederate reserves of around 150 men were rushed forward, to try to eliminate the Federal beachhead. A brisk fight ensued, but as the Union brigade continued to land, the small Confederate force was overwhelmed and forced to retire. After consolidating on the riverbank, the Union force moved inland to a hill which was above Brown's Ferry. There more fighting occurred, and the men came under fire from Confederate artillery, but again, the superior numbers on the Union side overcame the Confederate forces, and the hill was taken. Hazen and his men then fortified the hill to guard the river, as the engineers began to convert the pontoon boats into a bridge across the Tennessee River.
This brief synopsis of the battle doesn't do justice to the daring acts of the men involved, so it seems appropriate to turn to the words of a man who was actually there; Major Albert Hart, surgeon of the 41st O.V.I. The following is a letter he wrote to his sons on the day of the assault, as the events were still fresh in his mind.
MY DEAR BOYS: -
I write you from the river-bank, with my hospital knapsack my writing-desk. But this morning is the fastest in military matters which I have ever known since I have been in the army, and I must sketch it to you just as it is before me....
About five o'clock yesterday afternoon I received an order from Brigade Headquarters, that "One surgeon or assistant surgeon will accompany each regiment in the march to-night." It was dark when 175 men out of our regiment, who on some pretence had been previously detailed, and ordered to have cartridge-boxes filled up to sixty rounds, were ordered to be ready to go on a march without blankets. No intimation was given as to the nature of the service. As the night wore on, it became known that a boat expedition was on foot.
I was called up at 1 o'clock A.M., and found a detail from each regiment in our brigade waiting to march. It was 2 o'clock A.M. when we got down to the river. Here a flotilla of fifty pontoon boats awaited us, and slowly we go on board. The boats were twenty-five to thirty feet long, and about seven feet wide, but shallow. On board of each twenty-five men embarked, with five rowers and a steersman to each boat.
It is a moonlight night, but fortunately cloudy, and we gladly see the fog, which hangs over the river, thicken, and the dark shadow of the forest, skirting the right or north bank of the river, widening and throwing it friendly protection out to shield us even partially from observation. We are 1500 strong, bold, resolute, daring men, with enough electric fire among officers and men to kindle enthusiasm for any required deed of danger or daring. But night attacks are notoriously uncertain, and ours is no exception. I think it all over in quiet reflection as we float down, and make up my mind that some of us are pretty sure to sink in the waters of the Tennessee before the expedition is over.
It is understood that after we have descended two miles, or two and a half, the rebels hold the south side of the river with their pickets, and that we are liable to be fired upon at any point below that. Perfect silence is enjoined. I sit beside one of our captains, facing the south bank, and waiting for the first gun from the enemy. After two miles our oarsmen ceased rowing, and we floated still and silent down the rapid stream.
One of the boats near me struck a snag on the shore, a man is caught by the collar of his blouse, lifted out of the boat and dropped into the river. From the boat comes a sharp cry for help. We push for the spot, but the man has already reached the shore. "Go along with your old boat; I'm not half drowned yet." A quiet "All right," and again with muffled stroke we move on.
General Hazen is in the van, directing in barely intelligible voice, and calling out clear and low, "Close up! Close up!" For the boats are straggling as they move at different speed, and when we make our landing our boats should be together, that we may not be beaten in detail. My head drops down upon my arm; I find room between the legs of the oarsmen, drop upon the bottom of the boat, and sleep sweetly and soundly. We have floated miles while I slept. We have descended nine miles by the river in just two hours. This is the sharp rattle of musketry as we turn toward the left bank. I fully awaken only after several shots are fired from the shore, to find the balls whizzing over and around, and striking the water close to our boat. "Push for the shore! Push for the shore!" The oarsmen pull heavily at the oars. Our boats have dropped a little below our intended landing, but we reach the bank and leap ashore as we may. The company in our boat is formed instantly, and rushes up along the bank to reach our proper position. Day is just beginning to break, but objects are confused at a short distance.
We are at Brown's Ferry. A few feet above the water there is a narrow bench of level ground 100 to 150 feet wide, above which towers a hill ascending at an angle of forty-five degrees. At this landing a ravine terminates, which cuts through the ridge I have described, and a road comes down along it to the water's edge. On each side of this road is the high hill. In going back along this road 500 yards, you come out upon the broad valley beyond. Stopping to dress a wounded man I get behind the regiment. I had not gone up more than two hundred yards, when I came upon a squad of sixty men of the 23d Kentucky holding the road, and although ten minutes had hardly elapsed since the landing, they were already cutting down trees to build a breastwork. I had only ascended a little distance when a fierce fight began at the point I had just left. I could not see it in the gloom, but I could hear the short, shrill yells of the rebs, so different from the cheer which our men use. Crack upon crack came the musketry. I could hear our men falling rapidly back; the rebels had got upon the opposite hill, and as our men retreated, the rebel shots crossed the road and came thick and fast around us. Our men threw out skirmishers to the right along the precipitous side of the hill to the right of the ravine, and the whole force pressed forward with furious cheers, and moved up over the rocks, and up the almost perpendicular hill down which the revels in the same order were advancing a moment before. No man could guess what force the rebels had, or how soon we might run upon a line of battle which would sweep us down the hill like chaff. But officers, who had been made fully aware of the ground to be gone over, pressed on at the best speed they could make, and in a few minutes more they reached the top of the ridge on this hill. Meanwhile our detachment of 600 men with which I had landed had moved up the precipitous path and reached the top of the hill on the left. The perpendicular ascent was not less than 300 feet. Great boulders, rocks, rubbish, and underbrush were in their way. Along this ridge, or razor-back, a few feet wide, our men were posted when I reached them. Of course, our regiment with Colonel Wiley is in the advance; the 6th and 24th O.V.I. and 5th Kentucky follow. The top is scarcely two yards wide, and in front again descends rapidly, but it is not so steep as on the river side. Our skirmishers form and push down the hill through the trees and underbrush. The rebels form rapidly, and, probably imagining our force to be small, make a furious effort to take back from us the ground we have gained. Our skirmishers fall back for a moment, but soon drive back the enemy, who, as the daylight advances, are to be plainly seen in the broad valley below, and can be heard giving orders for a rapid retreat. The day is won. But to secure ourselves in our position, our men throw up quickly a breastwork of small trees hastily cut down, loose stones, and earth scratched up with their tin plates.
As soon as the position was secured, another act began. As I sat fronting the ferry, a crowd of men appeared on the opposite shore. At half-past 8 A.M. a pontoon bridge, made with the boats which carried us down, started from the bank. As it was pushed into the river, straight as an arrow, I thought how savage Indians of the olden time, watching its progress from the shore, would have thought it some wondrous animal, pushing itself across the water, and bearing upon its broad back a thousand strange and unknown men, coming to drive them from their hunting-grounds. At 4 P.M., I crossed the river upon this bridge, capable of ferrying over a great army. And over it, a day or two later, Hooker coming up from Bridgeport with the Eleventh and Twelfth Army Corps, would reestablish our "cracker line," and bring hope and relief to our starving army in Chattanooga.
A letter from Major Albert G. Hart, as printed in his paper "The Surgeon and Hospital In the Civil War", Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts. Vol. XIII. 1902
A summary of the battles of Wauhatchie & Brown's Ferry, from the AmericanCivilWar.com web site
Report from Brig. General E. McIver Law, commander of the Confederate forces at Brown's Ferry
Report from Brig. General William Hazen, commander of the Union forces at Brown's Ferry
The story of the USS Chattanooga, a part of the thin Union supply line during Oct. 1863.
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Date last updated 03/12/99