Elliott: Feinting and fighting at Running Water Creek and Johnson's Crook

Elliott: Feinting and fighting at Running Water Creek and Johnson's Crook

January 14th, 2018 by Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

Looking down the Valley of Running-Water Creek from near Whiteside's, Tenn., Nashville & Chattanooga R.R. bridge on the left

Photo by Library of Congress

On Sept. 22, 1863, two days after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman while at Vicksburg, Miss., received orders from Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to dispatch the first of what became four divisions of reinforcements to the beleaguered Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga. Sherman was directed to move eastward from Memphis and repair the railroads as he advanced. As things worsened at Chattanooga, he was told to suspend the repair work and "hurry eastward with all possible dispatch to Bridgeport."

The Federals planned to break the stalemate at Chattanooga by attacking the Confederate right on Missionary Ridge. But intelligence sources indicated that Gen. Braxton Bragg expected an attack on his left flank, which at that point in time was anchored on Lookout Mountain. After all, a Federal column had advanced in September across Lookout Mountain from the vicinity of Trenton, Ga., through Stephen's (frequently misspelled "Stevens") Gap, and barely escaped a Rebel trap at McLemore's Cove.

Sherman's advance took his troops from a bridge of boats at Bridgeport, Ala., across the Tennessee line to Shellmound and through Whiteside into Chattanooga. The Federals had anticipated the need for a rail link from Stevenson, Ala., into Chattanooga, and rebuilt the imposing bridge over Running Water Creek in Marion County.

In the words of St. John Richardson Liddell, one of his brigadiers, Bragg was "well advised" of Sherman's approach. Lookout Mountain was held by Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson's Confederate division. As a result of Bragg's reorganization of his army in mid-November, the Tennessee brigade of Brig. Gen. John C. Brown, was newly posted to Stevenson's command and guarded the passes from Johnson's Crook, near Trenton, north along the western face of Lookout. Bragg ordered Liddell (whose memoirs were published some years ago by the late historian Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr.) to move north to destroy the Running Water Creek bridge to hinder Sherman's advance. Liddell assumed command of Brown's Brigade and Brig. Gen. Alfred Cumming's Alabama brigade, and was preparing to move when Sherman's advance elements appeared near the bridge. Bragg believed the aggressive Liddell was planning on attacking a far superior force, and suspended the attack. The frustrated Liddell remonstrated that he had more sense than for which Bragg gave him credit.

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Brown's Rebels resumed their watch on the Lookout Mountain passes. His infantry covered the interval from the point above Chattanooga to the Nickajack trail (roughly today's Burkhalter Gap Road), and his cavalry covered the road up Johnson's Crook. Sherman's lead division was commanded by his brother-in-law, Brig. Gen. Hugh Ewing. To create a diversion to take advantage of Bragg's sensitivity to his left, Ewing was ordered to march south up the valley to Trenton, to make the Confederates believe that the Federals "were going to turn Bragg's left by pretty much the same road [Union Gen. William] Rosecrans had followed." On Nov. 19, 1863, Ewing sent troops up the mountain to cover the lower parts of the trails in the vicinity, and actually sent a small force up Johnson's Crook to the top, where it camped there that night. Ewing reported that "we have spread out boldly, and made an impression with little risk."

Confederate corps commander Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee and division commander Stevenson joined Brown on the mountain the morning of Nov. 21. Brown's Tennesseans spent the night before deployed in line of battle in the rain. Sherman's diversion worked perfectly, as Bragg reinforced not only the top of Lookout but sent a brigade down to watch McLemore's Cove.

Ewing wound down the demonstration the next day, and his division soon marched north to join Sherman's army, which was in the "hideout" area in what is now Red Bank. Sherman advanced across the Tennessee River near the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek on Nov. 24. The Confederates lost Lookout Mountain that same day. Stevenson's Division joined the Confederate defense on the north end of Missionary Ridge on Nov. 25, where they would face Ewing's federals once again and then help defeat their attack at the Battle of Tunnel Hill in Georgia. But a breakthrough elsewhere resulted in an overall Federal victory.

Sam D. Elliott, a member of Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon PLLC, is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and the Chattanooga Bar Association. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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