Chattanooga History Column: Confederate dilemma after Chickamauga

Chattanooga History Column: Confederate dilemma after Chickamauga

September 24th, 2017 by Dr. R. Smith Murray in Opinion Columns
After the war, E.P. Alexander became a well-known author, writing many magazine articles and a book, "Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative" (1907).

After the war, E.P. Alexander became a well-known...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

By the time Lt. Col. E.P. Alexander, Gen. James Longstreet's artillerist, arrived in Chattanooga, the battle of Chickamauga was already over. The Confederates had won, but faced a dilemma. What to do next?

The Confederate's commanding general, Gen. Braxton Bragg, considered moving out with a campaign into middle Tennessee. This was ruled out because of a lack of pontoons to cross the Tennessee River and the scarcity of wagons for logistical support. If this option wasn't feasible, then what could be done to push Gen. William S. Rosecrans and his Union army out of Chattanooga?

The possession of Chattanooga was, after all, the tactical and strategic goal of both the North and the South.

Additional alternatives would involve Alexander in a prominent role. A frontal attack on the heavily fortified Union army inside Chattanooga was proposed. Accordingly, Alexander set up his artillery to support the assault. However, the attack never came. Bragg felt that such an attack would result in a bloody repulse. He was probably right.

Once the attack plan was eliminated, Bragg's last option was to lay siege to Chattanooga and try to starve Rosecrans and the Union Army out of the city. Even so, Bragg assigned Alexander with the task of shelling the Yankees to force them out of Chattanooga. Alexander was extremely dubious about this undertaking. Long-range shelling, he felt, might annoy the Yankees but couldn't do enough damage to make them move out. Alexander was right, and after a bit this scheme was abandoned.

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Starving Rosecrans and the Union army out of Chattanooga was now the only ongoing plan, but it did have a few things in its favor. The Confederates controlled Lookout Valley and Haley's Trace along the Tennessee River at the base of Walden's Ridge. This forced the Union supply base in Bridgeport, Ala., to route its supply wagons north up Sequatchie Valley and then across Walden's Ridge to reach Chattanooga. This was a long and circuitous journey. To add to the Union supply problem, the Confederate cavalry in Wheeler's Raid had ambushed and destroyed a huge Union supply train moving north in Sequatchie Valley during the first week of October.

Still the Confederates tried to think of what else could be done. Longstreet and Alexander concocted a plan. Why not capture the Union supply base in Bridgeport, Ala.? If the Confederates controlled Bridgeport, Union supplies would be so limited that they would have to either abandon Chattanooga or to move out in sufficient force to retake Bridgeport. Either way, during that movement, the Union army would be vulnerable to attack.

On Oct. 10-12, Alexander embarked on a three-day reconnaissance to access the situation in Bridgeport. His journey took him south down the spine of Lookout Mountain. After dropping off Lookout Mountain, he spent the night in Trenton. The next day he crossed Sand Mountain and arrived at the south bank of the Tennessee River. All of Alexander's observations were made from the south bank. Bridgeport and the supply railroad lay across the river on the north bank.

Everything that Alexander saw made him think that the capture of Bridgeport was feasible. A Union block house with about 100 soldiers was on the south shore. Alexander felt it could easily be overrun. His approach wouldn't be seen by the Yankees since a three-mile long island blocked the view from the north shore.

In addition, a pontoon bridge stretched across the island. The pontoons on the south side could be captured without detection. Under the cover of darkness those pontoons could be floated below Bridgeport and used to transport Confederate troops to the north shore and then to capture Bridgeport. With Confederates in control of this key supply station, the Union army would have to move out of Bridgeport to reestablish its line of supply.

This scheme seemed promising. But unfortunately Gen.l Joe Hooker's Union army group had been arriving in the Stevenson-Bridgeport area since the first of October. Alexander's notes make no mention of this. In view of the frequently poor scouting of the Confederate cavalry, he may have been unaware of Hooker's presence or the size of the Union force on the other side of the river.

At any rate, upon Alexander's return, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had come to Bragg's headquarters on Missionary Ridge amid complaints over Bragg's competency. Supported by Davis, Bragg and his discontented generals continued to debate options. The Bridgeport operation was never pursued.

Dr. Smith Murray is a retired urologist. For more information visit: www.chattahistoricalassoc.org


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