Grant at Chattanooga; Confederate Cavalry Raids; Bristoe Campaign: October 1863
150 Years Ago in the Civil War
After being defeated at Chickamauga in September, Major General William Rosecrans withdrew the Army of the Cumberland to Chattanooga. The Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg occupied Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga, and began siege operations. Rosecrans’ only supply line was a 60 mile circuitous route that went around the mountains from Bridgeport, Alabama. This route was tenuous at best, and subject to cavalry attacks and washouts in rainy weather. Food was in short supply in the besieged city as October began, but help was already on the way as reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac arrived in the Bridgeport area on October 3rd.
The thoroughly demoralized Rosecrans was unable to take any meaningful action to lift the siege, and the Lincoln Administration considered relieving him. On October 16th, the Military Division of the Mississippi was created by combining three departments, and Major General Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to command of the new division. He was given the option to keep Rosecrans in command of the Army of the Cumberland or to replace him. Grant opted to replace Rosecrans with Major General George H. Thomas. Grant then proceeded to Chattanooga and arrived on October 23rd.
With supplies running out, Major General William F. Smith, Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland, devised a plan to drive out Confederates in the area and construct a shorter supply route from Bridgeport via Kelley’s and Brown’s ferries on the Tennessee River. On October 26th, the military operation got underway, and supplies began arriving in Chattanooga via the road and river on October 30th on this new supply line that was named “The Cracker Line”. Bragg’s siege operations were essentially over, and with more reinforcements on the way, Grant began planning offensive operations.
In Virginia, Robert E. Lee took note of the departure of the Federal 11th and 12th Corps to Tennessee, took his army across the Rapidan River and moved north along the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. Major General George Meade withdrew the Federal army to the north, protecting his flank. There was fighting at Auburn on the 13th and 14th, at Bristoe Station on the 14th, and Buckland Mills on October 19th, but the Bristoe Campaign as it was called, was largely one of maneuver and smaller scale fighting. After another fight at Rappahannock Station on November 7th, Lee again crossed the Rapidan River and prepared to go into winter quarters.
Confederate cavalry units were busy during the month. North of Chattanooga, Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps destroyed a large Union supply train of hundreds of wagons on October 2nd. Wheeler continued his operations against Federal supply lines in Tennessee and northern Alabama throughout the first half of October.
Farther west, Colonel Jo Shelby and his cavalrymen left Arkadelphia, Arkansas on September 22nd on the longest cavalry expedition of the war by either side. He entered Missouri on October 4th and raided as far north as the Missouri River, destroying railroad equipment, telegraph lines, bridges, and supply depots. Shelby was stopped by a much larger Union force at Arrow Rock on the Missouri River on October 13th. Shelby’s cavalrymen turned back south after the engagement at Arrow Rock, eventually making it back to Washington, Arkansas on November 3rd when the 1500 mile long raid concluded. As a reward for his success, Shelby was promoted to brigadier general six weeks later.
An infamous raid occurred in the southeast corner of Kansas. This one was conducted not by a regular Confederate cavalry unit, but by an irregular force under the command of William Quantrill, who had brutally destroyed much of Lawrence, Kansas back in August. The Federals had established a small outpost at Baxter Springs, and on October 6th, Quantrill’s men attacked the outpost as well as an approaching wagon train under the command of Major General James G. Blunt. The outpost defenders were able to keep the raiders at bay, but the men in the wagon train including a brigade band, didn’t fare as well. Many of them were killed (despite attempting to surrender) and their bodies mutilated and burned in what was called the Baxter Springs Massacre. Blunt, who was the commander of the District of the Frontier, escaped but was relieved of his command. His career wasn’t over however, and he returned to action in 1864.
As October drew to a close, supplies were pouring into the Union camps in Chattanooga. Tennessee would see significant fighting in November, and Abraham Lincoln would deliver one of the most famous speeches in American history at the dedication of a cemetery in Pennsylvania.