Opening the Cracker Line- Battle of Wauhatchie with Alfred E. Lee

This week is a sneak preview of my upcoming book entitled Alfred E. Lee's Civil War due out January 29, 2018 through Columbian Arsenal Press.

Capt. Alfred E. Lee, Co. E, 82nd O.V.I.

Alfred Emory Lee was a 23 year old graduate student (and budding attorney) at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio when he chose to help recruit for Company I of the 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Lee was elected first lieutenant and saw action with his regiment at McDowell, Cross Keys, the Virginia campaign (Cedar Mountain and Freeman's Ford), and Second Bull Run before being promoted to captain and transferred to Company E in the fall of 1862. The 82nd Ohio was attached a divisional provost guard for the 3rd Division (Schurz) XI Corps during the Chancellorsville campaign and took part in resisting Jackson's flank attack on May 2nd (Lee's account of that action is phenomenal and is in the upcoming book). After Chancellorsville, the 82nd Ohio was placed in Wladimir Krzyzanowski's brigade of the 3rd Division XI Corps and took very heavy casualties on the first day of Gettysburg. Captain Lee was wounded badly in the hip on the retreat, was captured by the Confederates, and witnessed the death of his close friend Adjutant Stowel L. Burnham that night.

Lee was initially reported among the killed and returned to Delaware amid great surprise about two weeks after the battle and set about recruiting his health. In late September 1863, amid rumblings that a portion of the eastern army was moving into action, Lee traveled back east to rejoin his regiment but Army doctors determined that he was not yet fit for duty and sent him to the general hospital at Annapolis, Maryland. Lee chafed at being in the hospital while his regiment was on the move, and secured his release after a two week stay and went west to catch up with the regiment which was now camped near Bridgeport, Alabama.
Headquarters flag of Gen. O.O. Howard, XI Corps

Following the defeat of the Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga, it was determined to send two corps from the Army of the Potomac (the XI and XII) to the western theater to reinforce Rosecrans' beleaguered army holed up in Chattanooga. Rosecrans' men were in a real fix as the Confederate Army under Braxton Bragg had Chattanooga under a state of siege- supplies came in at a trickle over a very tenuous supply line and the first order of business was to reopen a more secure supply line from Bridgeport to Chattanooga along the Tennessee River. The job of "opening the cracker line" was the soldiers referred to it fell to some of the newly arrived troops from the XI Corps, including the 82nd Ohio.

Lee's account below describes his regiment's role in this vital operation and also describes the resulting Battle of Wauhatchie. Longstreet's troops struck Geary's Division hard at Wauhatchie station, and Schurz's division of the XI Corps was sent out on a march in the middle of the night to relieve them. The 82nd Ohio was part of the First Brigade under Brigadier General G. Hector Tyndale (see my blog post from June regarding Tyndale's experiences at the Battle of Antietam). The First Brigade consisted of the 101st Illinois, 45th and 143rd New York, and 61st and 82nd Ohio regiments.

A few days after the Battle of Wauhatchie, General Tyndale was inspecting the brigade lines at night and met Captain Lee for the first time. Tyndale was impressed with Lee, and was perhaps doubly impressed when he saw that Lee was hobbling around from his gunshot wound at Gettysburg yet was in the field doing duty. Tyndale had sustained a bad head wound at Antietam that still gave him great trouble, and no doubt appreciated Lee's evident devotion to duty that kept him in the field through the pain. Upon his return to headquarters, Tyndale promoted Lee to a position as assistant adjutant general on his staff, and Lee would serve for the remainder of the war in that capacity.

Brigadier General G. Hector Tyndale
First Bde., Third Division, XI Corps

Headquarters, 82nd Ohio Vols., Lookout Valley, Tennessee

November 12, 1863

On the morning of the 27th of October, the 11th Corps followed by Geary’s division of the 12th Corps, commenced its march up the left bank of the Tennessee towards Chattanooga. Thus was inaugurated as the sequel has proved one of the boldest, most successful and important movements of the war. The brave Army of the Cumberland was starving. New communications must be opened for it, or within five days’ time it must be brought to the painful necessity of a disastrous retreat. Upon the veterans of the Potomac devolved the vast responsibility of seizing by one bold sudden stroke the mountain bulwarks that range along the south bank of the Tennessee River, of making that beautiful stream a highway for Union navigation and or rendering Chattanooga the eagle’s nest- the impregnable stronghold of freedom.

The first day’s march was accomplished without special incident and we encamped at night among the mountain defiles, resting our weary limbs beside a swift little stream denominated Running Water. Next morning we had slung knapsacks and were again pursuing our march before old Sol had bestowed his morning kiss upon the gray, angry brow of Lookout Mountain. Signs of the desolation of war began to present themselves in deserted homes, burned railroad bridges and weedy untilled fields. From straggling citizens we learned that a small Rebel force had picketed the road the night before and had leisurely retired before the advance guard, yet there were no emphatic signs of resistance until 10 A.M. when we began to hear the ominous thunder of artillery far in the advance. Some incredulous ones said it was accidental thumping on a drum but more practiced and veteran ears detected its real meaning as easily as the schooled hunter interprets the distant rumbling made by a galloping herd of bison.

The Rebels were shelling our passing columns from Point Lookout. This towering mountain spur is the abrupt termination of the Lookout range, and it lifts its rocky crest 2,400 feet above sea level, directly in front of Chattanooga. Near the top it is permeated by a large stratum of rock 50 feet in thickness, the faces of which are perpendicular thus rendering a direct assault next to impossible. Upon the very pinnacle of this crag the Rebels have managed to plant a battery of light guns. The road along which we were compelled to pass led us under the fire of this battery for about one mile. There was no chance of replying and our nerve and grit was fairly tested by the merciless nuggets of iron that came shrieking down upon us like howling demons.

Major General Joseph Hooker. Relieved on the cusp of the Battle of Gettysburg, Hooker was chosen to lead the XI and XII Corps west and was determined to redeem his reputation in his new assignment. He started off on the wrong foot with General Grant, and had a frosty relationship with Gen. Sherman once Sherman took command of the Military Division of the Mississippi in early 1864. After being passed over for command of the Army of the Tennessee in the wake of Gen. McPherson's death, Hooker asked to be relieved of command, which Sherman was only too happy to oblige. Regardless, Hooker had gained Captain Lee's respect and Lee viewed Hooker as his beau ideal of a soldier.

We marched at quick time and most of the men kept their places well though the jagged pieces of exploded shells tore up the ground and rattled among trees, houses, and fences like iron hail. But why should the heroes of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville shrink at this? Had they not faced a hundred times worse on dozens of immortal fields? Rapidly but firmly moved the column almost entirely unshaken, though now and then a blood-bespattered artillery horse or a ragged indentation in the soil pointed out the danger they were passing.

Very few casualties occurred in passing this Rebel blockade. Emerging from the thick woods that skirted the road into the open fields we saw standing upon the summits of a series of heights on our right, groups of darkly clad men whom we knew to be soldiers but were they Rebels? No, for there in the clear air of the evening was the glorious old flag of the Union waving us welcome. Then came such volleys of shouts as made the welkin ring and the mountains echo. Shouts such as we heard come only from the throats of freemen. Then the bands struck up "Hail Columbia" and other airs that must have brought sad reminiscences to many a Rebel heart. The Army of the Potomac had greeted the Army of the Cumberland. There are episodes in the life of a soldier which are worth a century’s enjoyment of luxurious pleasure. Such was the one I have just described.

Encampment of Tyndale's Bde. at Wauhatchie

We now encamped for the night but just as our minds were beginning to soothe tired nature with fancy pictures of home and dreamland, we were aroused by heavy and continuous volleys of musketry in the direction from which we had come. Longstreet’s Rebels were trying to pounce upon our trains and intercept Geary. Our men fell shivering into line for the night was bitter cold and the moon shone too brightly and the stars twinkled too merrily for such a scene. Tyndale’s brigade of the Third Division, 11th Corps was ordered to the front on the double quick. The enemy had occupied a series of precipitous wooden heights on our left and we were completely ambushed by the dark shadows of the timber. They saw our columns passing in the moonlight and fired on us. The bullets rattled, whizzed, and spattered in their old familiar way, some going too high, some too low, and others here and there striking a soldier.   

Arriving at the base of the wooded heights, two companies of the 82nd, by the personal direction of General Hooker, were ordered to reconnoiter them. Deploying as skirmishers, we began to advance cautiously. We could hear the rebels far above us and expected warm work. But they fled hastily before us, not even firing until at a safe distance. Our skirmishers advanced to the crest of the mountain, the Rebels giving way before us, scampering through the bushes like frightened rabbits. We remained in our position until daybreak, looking down on rebel camps and listening to Rebel conversations and commands. While these things were going on in Schurz’s division, Von Steinwehr’s men had made several successive assaults upon another height on our left and after repeated and most brilliant charges had carried it. In this gallant affair I regret to say that Captain Buchwalter, one of the most brave and patriotic hearts that beat, ceased to beat upon the field of the Wauhatchie; he was mortally wounded but his life’s sun has set in the immortal glory which will forever crown the death of those who in this war have given up their lives to sustain the cause of justice and republican freedom. 
Major General Carl Schurz led the Third Division, XI Corps
through the Chattanooga and Knoxville campaigns. After the war,
General Schurz was editor of the Detroit Daily Post and offered
Captain Lee a position on the editorial staff.

Von Steinwehr had no sooner won these fresh laurels for his brave division when General Geary’s men put to rout greatly superior numbers and established his communication with us. Our victory was thus complete, the communication opened, Chattanooga saved, and the battle scarred and much-abused soldiers of the Peninsula, of Chancellorsville, of Cross Keys, and Fredericksburg were vindicated upon a western field. Such was the Battle of the Wauhatchie, and while I do not desire to indulge in self-praise or make individual distinction, let me say that the scandalous and foolish tongues those who sit by their firesides, planning campaigns and criticizing generals and who have no more idea of the real vastness of this war or the proper method of conducting a campaign than an insect has of the motions of the spheres; these twaddlers I say cannot so falsify history as to cheat the brave men of the 11th and 12th Corps, particularly in the former, of the laurels they have gained in redeeming Chattanooga, any more than they can deprive them of those more hardly won on the bloody fields of the Old Dominion.
Tyndale's men charged up the hill which was later called "Tyndale's Hill" which the brigade under Col. Orland Smith had a tough engagement pushing Longstreet's men off what became known as Smith's Hill.

We are now strongly entrenched and have no doubt as to our ability to maintain our position. Our picket lines are in close proximity to those of the Rebels and conversation passes freely between the insurgents and our soldiers. Deserters come in by scores. Mutual agreements are made with our pickets by which they can enter our lines. A few nights since, over 30 came inside the 11th and 12th Corps lines with seven of whom I conversely immediately afterward. They were intelligent and freely gave all the information they could. They belonged to the 46th Alabama, almost all of whom they represented as ready to desert. They had even gone so far as to construct a raft to ferry themselves over Lookout Creek but were deprived of an opportunity to escape. They said Bragg’s men are living on one-fourth rations of corn bread and are greatly disaffected. This morning one waded across Lookout Creek in broad daylight and in full view of the Rebel pickets. While his pantaloons were still wet, he told me his comrades did not fire on him because they wanted to follow him. He said that many of the commissioned officers were actively engaged in trying to persuade their companies and regiments to disband and go home. Such is a deserter’s story and I give it for what it is worth.

This photograph of Whitesides Valley will give a good idea of the topography that the XI Corps marched through on the way to Wauhatchie. Sparsely populated, thickly wooded, and abounding in mystery, this region of Tennessee played an important role in the Chattanooga campaign.



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