Crossing the Tennessee: The Army of the Cumberland Invades Georgia

General William S. Rosecrans, depicted as seated atop Boney on the left bank while pointing with his sword, observes the troops of McCook's 20th Army Corps crossing the pontoon bridge at Caperton's Ferry near Stevenson, Alabama in August 1863. The Army of the Cumberland crossed the Tennessee River at four points downstream from Chattanooga at the end of August and early September: Caperton's Ferry, Bridgeport, Shellmound, and Battle Creek. "The crossing of the Tennessee was a great feat," recalled Charles Belknap of the 21st Michigan Infantry. "Bragg's failure to resist in the vicinity of these crossings was due in part to the fact that even after he knew the heads of the columns were across the river, he still inclined to look at their movements as a feint." General Thomas L. Crittenden's force had demonstrated against Chattanooga from the north bank of the Tennessee since August 18th and had convinced Bragg that Rosecrans was going to cross upstream of Chattanooga with the bulk of his army. 

By mid-August 1863, the Army of the Cumberland had been resting in its camps across southern Tennessee for roughly six weeks after the conclusion of the Tullahoma campaign getting the railroad repaired to support the next offensive to take the city of Chattanooga. While the wires from Washington buzzed with impatient messages from General Halleck and Secretary of War Stanton urging General Rosecrans to get a move on, the Ohioan would not be rushed. Ahead lay the toughest logistics challenge of his career: how to get his 60,000-man army safely across the Tennessee River and through the northern Georgia mountains so that it could strike Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.

Rosecrans had been pondering this problem for months. One approach was to drive straight on the town from the north, or to cross further upstream and threaten Bragg’s railroad communications at Dalton, Georgia. The disadvantage of this method was that it would force the army to march eastwards across the Cumberland Mountains and far away from the army’s railroad lines. Rosy favored a less direct approach, crossing the Tennessee downstream from Chattanooga with two of his three corps while using one corps to demonstrate against Chattanooga to hold Bragg in place.

“It was necessary to cross the Cumberland Mountains with subsistence, ammunition, a limited amount of forage, and a bridge train, then to cross the army over the Tennessee River, after that over Sand or Raccoon Mountain into Lookout Valley and from there to cross Lookout Mountain and finally the lesser ridges,” Charles Belknap of the 21st Michigan wrote. “This involved carrying enough ammunition for two great battles and one month’s subsistence.” This approach would keep the Federal army closer to its own railroads with relatively secure flanks while also simultaneously threatening Bragg’s own railroad lines such that he would be forced to abandon Chattanooga or risk being cut off.

The first hurdle was daunting enough: the broad and swift flowing Tennessee River, swollen by the recent rains, “presented in itself the most serious natural obstacle which the Union army had encountered since it left the Ohio River,” remembered Belknap. “It was 2,700 feet wide at Bridgeport and 1,254 feet at Caperton’s Ferry.” 

The night of August 28th a detachment of cavalry marched to Cross Island two miles south of Caperton's Ferry to quietly cross and capture the Confederate pickets on the south bank of the river which is where our correspondents will pick up the story. 

Modern map showing the location of Caperton's Ferry southeast of Stevenson, Alabama. 

A newspaper correspondent writing under the pen name “Quill” for the Louisville Daily Journal accompanied Colonel Hans C. Heg’s brigade of Jefferson Davis’ division when it crossed the Tennessee at Caperton’s Ferry and left the following account of the operation.

As morning broke on the 29th, the boats for the pontoon were landed and the brigade of Colonel Heg of General Davis’ division was in readiness to attempt the crossing. The enemy’s pickets were plainly visible and were watching every movement with an earnestness that induced the belief that a battery had been planted to command the ferry and that we would meet with determined opposition.

The brigade was disposed in the boats, 25 men with four oarsmen occupying each, every man with his arms and accoutrements. The current was somewhat swifter there than above. The sun had passed over the mountains and as the miniature fleet pushed out from shore, the scene defied in brilliancy the pencil of the accomplished artist. The burnished guns, in readiness for use, caught and flashed back the sun’s rays and the oars of over a hundred stout rowers traced the course of the freighted barks on the surface of the smooth stream. Apprehension grew more painful as the boats in turn quitted the Union shore.

The Rebel pickets tarried in full view to witness the crossing before attempting their escape. Our cavalry had forded the river some distance below with a view of apprehending the Rebel pickets; and one who apparently had been chained by the beautiful spectacle on the river was brought back. He says that they knew from the rattle of wagons and the noise attending the handling of the planks that we would attempt to bridge the river on that morning. The pickets along the whole line were ordered to offer no resistance, but to report at as early an hour as possible the throwing over of our first troops.

Not a gun was fired by either side. No sooner had the shore opposite been touched than the work of connecting the boats and completing the bridge began. I never saw men work with more heart or more cheerfully. No man complained of his comrade for it was evident that every man appreciated the importance of the work and the full value of his labor. A very short time elapsed and a supply train was moving over followed by Colonel Carlin’s and Post’s brigades.

 

Colonel Hans Christian Heg's brigade consisted of the 25th Illinois, 35th Illinois, 8th Kansas, and 15th Wisconsin regiments along with the 8th Wisconsin Battery. Heg and his 15th Wisconsin regiment had fought in Colonel William P. Carlin's brigade at Stones River but was transferred to William Woodruff's old brigade afterwards, which elevated Heg to brigade command. Colonel Heg would be killed less than three weeks later at Chickamauga. 

Lewis Day of the 101st Ohio was there as part of Colonel William P. Carlin's brigade and relayed the following in his regimental history.

If the mountains from Winchester had presented a scene of surpassing beauty, the river stretched out before us now was equally charming and radically difference, entirely out of harmony with the war-like mission in which we were engaged. Reveille sounded at 2 o’clock the next morning and a march of 18 miles brought us to camp near Stevenson. The river was carefully reconnoitered for the best crossing places and these were soon determined: Shellmound, Bridgeport, Caperton’s, and Bellefonte, Caperton’s and Bridgeport being the principal crossings. To our division fell the duty of laying the pontoon across the Tennessee at Caperton’s near Stevenson.

As soon as the pontoon train could be brought up, we took position on the north or right bank of the river, sending a couple of regiments across to protect that end of the bridge when laid. A small cavalry force on the opposite bank showed some signs of interference and were promptly shelled, whereupon they left us in our glory. The 21st and 38th Illinois of our brigade were the first to pass over after the bridge was finished, followed by the artillery of two brigades. Our own regiment and the artillery of another brigade remained over Sunday on the north bank. From the moment the bridge was completed on Saturday evening until the Monday night following, troops and trains and artillery were constantly passing over the bridge. The column seemed to be unbroken.

 

“Thoughtful men realized the peril of putting such a river in their rear with such mountains in front while the measured tread of infantry, the rattle, shout, and crack of the whip as the heavily laden wagons bounced from the banks on to the narrow pontoon causeways, the heavier jar and crash as the huge artillery vehicles rumbled over the planks must be heard to be appreciated.” ~ Chaplain L.G. Bennett, 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

 

Colonel Philip Sidney Post led one of the first brigades across the pontoon bridge at Caperton's Ferry. Post's brigade consisted of his own 59th Illinois, along with the 74th and 75th Illinois regiments, the 22nd Indiana, and the 5th Wisconsin Battery. 

David Lathrop’s 59th Illinois, part of Colonel P. Sidney Post’s brigade of Davis’ division, recalled his experiences of crossing the Tennessee at Caperton’s Ferry:

The 30th of August was a beautiful day and while awaiting the opportunity to cross, the boys amused themselves bathing in the river. The river here was three-quarters of a mile wide and many of the men swam from one shore to the other apparently without difficulty. It was very amusing to stand on the bank and witness the feats of agility performed by these aquatic actors.

Just below the bridge was the only place where the mules could be taken to water, and here the hundreds of mules and horses belonging to the trains were being brought. Each driver brought six mules, fastened together, so that by riding one, the others could be led without difficulty. On coming to the water, there was such a crowd of them that a great deal of trouble was required to get them without becoming considerably entangled. Swearing is a universal practice among the mule drivers and not it was remarkable. It seemed as though each one tried to do more of it than anyone else could. The writer had noticed that not one had left the water without leaving many cruses resting on the souls of his poor mules.

The steep and rough mountain roads of northern Georgia are readily apparent in this depiction of Rosecrans' army crossing into Lookout Valley in September 1863. 

A week later, a cannoneer from the 2nd Minnesota Battery wrote home while camped in Lookout Valley immensely pleased with how neatly the operation had gone. “We started for this place on the 30th of August, crossing the Tennessee River at Caperton’s Ferry without resistance on a fine pontoon bridge of 59 boats. Headquarters was established at the house of Hugh Caperlin at the foot of Raccoon Mountain, the division encamping for the night on the bottom lands between the foot of the mountain and the river. The next day was occupied in moving troops, artillery, and trains up the mountain. On September 1st, we established headquarters on the top of the mountains in a small valley dividing the two ridges, Raccoon and Sand Mountain. The next day the whole division crossed and descended Sand Mountain encamping here at Caperton’s Gap, a distance of 16 miles. Two companies of the 1st East Tennessee under Lieutenant Colonel Brownlow, the Parson’s son, escorted us over and the delicate manner in which they hunted out bushwhackers and gobbled up guerillas was a caution and an example.

Many may view our situation with alarm, but we do not. With unbounded confidence in the capacity of our leader and from the fact that our left flank is covered by Burnside’s column and our right protected by the Tennessee River, the strength of our center, and our own invincibility, we have no fears for our ultimate success. Look out for stirring news from this quarter. The whole army is making a tremendous flanking movement.

 Sources:

Letter from “Quill,” Louisville Daily Journal (Kentucky), September 18, 1863, pg. 1

Belknap, Charles E. History of the Michigan Organizations at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge. Lansing: Robert Smith Printing Co., 1897

Day, Lewis W. Story of the One Hundred and First Ohio Infantry. Cleveland: The W.M. Bayne Printing Co., 1894, pg. 143

Letter from “Dixie,” 2nd Minnesota Battery, St. Cloud Democrat (Minnesota), October 1, 1863, pg. 2

Lathrop, Dr. David. History of the Fifty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteers. Indianapolis: Hall & Hutchinson, 1865, pgs. 214-215


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