After the Confederates won the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863, Union generals anticipated an attack in Chattanooga. Those not working to build up fortifications waited in lines of battle to ward off an attack.
Another major battle didn’t come though some fighting erupted as the two armies met again. Southern soldiers took up positions on Missionary Ridge, which rose to about six hundred feet and formed a wall on the east side of Chattanooga. On the west side of the valley stood the impressive Lookout Mountain. Union General Rosecrans withdrew his troops from this mountain on September twenty-fourth.
The Confederate Army immediately occupied the dominant mountain that rose over two thousand feet above sea level. The southerners placed sharpshooters and artillery along the Tennessee River valley.
This blocked the flow of supplies to the Union Army in Chattanooga and placed them under siege.
Union soldiers waited anxiously for a truce to retrieve the wounded from Chickamauga and bury the dead. Confederate General Bragg allowed Union General Rosecrans to send ambulances and hospital supplies to the thousands of Northern wounded. These ambulance wagons crossed into Confederate lines where southern soldiers took over, picked up the wounded, and returned them as paroled prisoners of war.
Those who stood guard on the picket lines of both sides agreed not to fire on each other. This truce brought about socializing between the soldiers of both lines. They began trading coffee and tobacco or swapping newspapers. Soldiers crossed picket lines to play cards together, building tentative friendships that couldn’t last.
Union supplies dwindled. Soldiers received half-rations of food. They built fortifications and worked harder than normal, but no one received sufficient food. This affected the animals. Mules and horses, so important in moving artillery and supply wagons, started dying by the dozens.
When the food was cut to quarter-rations, many wondered if they would all starve to death in Tennessee. Men lost too much weight to be healthy.
In mid-October, leaders in Washington combined the Departments of the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland into the Military Division of the Mississippi and chose General Ulysses S. Grant to command it. Rosecrans was relieved of his command. Maybe Grant could unlock the siege and open supply lines.
After Union troops captured Brown’s Ferry, a supply route to provide food opened. The soldiers called it the “Cracker Line” for the hard squares of bread known as hard tack, a staple in their diet. A few days later, jubilant soldiers drew full rations. Only after stomachs were satisfied did some realize their dire circumstances. Before the shipment arrived, only four boxes of hard tack remained in the commissary warehouses.
Only then did they realize how close to starving the Union Army had come.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Korn, Jerry. The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge, Time-Life Books, 1985.
Sword, Wiley. Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Woodworth, Steven E. Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, University of Nebraska Press, 1998.