published Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Collins: Wheeler’s Raid: The Confederacy’s missed opportunity

By Lewis Collins

On October 2, 1863, Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry destroyed a Union supply train on the side of Walden’s Ridge near the present site of Taft Highway from Chattanooga into Dunlap. Wheeler’s Raid could have led to a decisive victory for the Confederates in the Civil War’s western theatre.

Wheeler had destroyed the last Union supply line into the strategically significant city of Chattanooga. Union Gen. William Rosecrans’ army had suffered a nearly catastrophic defeat at Chickamauga two weeks earlier and was in increasingly dire shape. Suffering under the siege of Chattanooga, Rosecrans’ soldiers would eventually be reduced to quarter rations, “four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork” every three days – the equivalent of a small portion of bread and a couple forkfuls of pork each day. But the Confederates were ultimately unable to maintain the supply blockade and the siege, and the opportunity was lost.

After Chickamauga, the beleaguered Rosecrans withdrew to Chattanooga, with the Confederate army under Gen. Braxton Bragg occupying the high ground surrounding the city. With this advantage, the Confederates gained control of the incoming roads and railroads along the Tennessee River. Rosecrans had relied on these roads to bring supplies from Bridgeport, including a road on the north bank of the river that Confederate artillery on Raccoon Mountain had rendered useless.

Bragg was thus progressing on his goal to starve the Federals into submission. Now that the most reliable supply lines had been cut, Bragg turned his attention to nearby Union supply depots to the north and west, and the last remaining Union supply line into Chattanooga, a cumbersome 60-mile route from Bridgeport through the Sequatchie Valley and over Walden’s Ridge. Bragg gave the orders to his experienced and respected cavalry leaders, Gen. Wheeler and Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, to carry out this mission.

Bragg had previously reassigned Forrest’s command to Wheeler, and the relationship between the two generals was becoming increasingly strained. Forrest had proclaimed earlier in the year that he would “be in his coffin” before fighting again under Wheeler. In spite of the friction, the combined forces (following their meeting at Cottonport, Tenn., on Sept. 30) numbered 4,000 cavalrymen and six pieces of artillery.

Wheeler proceeded to split his force, with one division eventually destroying a Federal supply depot in McMinville, and other supply stations and railroad bridges along the road to Murfreesboro and Nashville.

Leading “1,500 of his best men,” Wheeler advanced and broke through Federal cavalry near Decatur, Tenn. He then moved across Walden’s Ridge via Poe Road (near the present site of Highway 111 across Walden’s Ridge) toward Anderson’s Pike, where he camped at Henson’s Gap. Heavy rains had begun to fall in late September, and with Anderson’s Pike as the only open supply road into Chattanooga, the heavy use by Union wagon trains and the rain caused mud “as deep as the horses’ chests.”

Early in the morning of Oct. 2, Wheeler moved south down the Sequatchie Valley. After capturing a small train of 32 wagons south of Dunlap, he overtook the main body of the thinly guarded 10-mile long wagon train that stretched from the top of Walden’s Ridge into the valley, and that was loaded with ordinance and food.

Under orders to “kill the mules and burn the wagons,” Wheeler’s men hit the side of the train and proceeded to pillage for eight hours, with estimates of the capture or destruction of up to 700 wagons and more than 1,000 mules. As the raid was ending, Wheeler repulsed an attack by Union cavalry on his rear guard and fled toward McMinnville.

During the raid, Wheeler’s men reportedly found ample supplies of whiskey. Some believe that this contributed to a number of losses in Wheeler’s forces over the week following the raid, as Union cavalry aggressively pursued the Confederates and recaptured some of the mules and wagons. One commentator proclaimed that Wheeler’s “once proud command was all but wrecked.”

Following the Confederacy’s success with Wheeler’s Raid and with the siege of Chattanooga continuing, many historians believe that the Confederates could have forced the surrender of the vulnerable Union army in Chattanooga, or destroyed it by starvation. But it was not to be, as President Lincoln and his staff moved quickly to remove General Rosecrans and send Ulysses Grant to Chattanooga, and the tide in the campaign quickly began to turn.

Lewis Collins is a native of Walden’s Ridge (Signal Mountain), and now resides outside Boston, Mass. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call Lavonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.

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