Gaston: Opening the Cracker Line

Gaston: Opening the Cracker Line

October 30th, 2016 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns

This sketch shows the steamboat built to transport supplies to Union soldiers in Chattanooga during the Civil War.

This sketch shows the steamboat built to transport...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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On Sept. 20, 1863, Union forces were defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga and retreated north to Chattanooga. For more than a month they were surrounded and bottled up by Confederate troops in Lookout Valley and on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.

They would have starved had it not been for deliveries of food and supplies via pack mules and wagons across Walden's Ridge.

Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler led a spectacular raid on a train of 300 to 400 wagons coming up from the Sequatchie Valley. Exploding ammunition could be heard for miles, and the burning wagons looked like a fiery snake going up the side of the mountain.

Communications with Federal forces in Jasper, Tenn., and Bridgeport, Ala., also were disrupted. Until they managed to set up a field telegraph system, the Union Signal Corps fire-flashed messages from Cameron Hill to Signal Point.

There mounted couriers relayed the messages across the mountain to Bob White's place, the James C. Conner toll house, Col. Joe Anderson's place and the "Fur Top," where they were fire-flashed to Union troops in the Sequatchie Valley. Elsie Conner Adams explained in "Pioneers of Walden's Ridge" that the Federal soldiers used a two-room frame house on the James C. Conner place as their headquarters.

The loaded supply wagons went to Chattanooga by way of Anderson Pike, and empty ones returned by the Old Government Road that followed Shoal Creek up the mountain and across what is now Signal Mountain golf course.

Adams reported that these covered wagons were hitched two abreast to four and sometimes six mules. Each wagon could hold 20 bags of oats, each containing four bushels, and 20 bags or 40 bushels of corn.

The trains of several wagons made one trip a day until the opening of the "Cracker Line." With winter coming on, clearly a new solution had to be found to supply an army of 40,000 to 50,000 men and several thousand animals.

Help was on the way. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in late October and cleared Lookout Valley by capturing Brown's Ferry in the Battle of Wauhatchie. He repulsed Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's counterattack the following day, opening the Tennessee River to traffic from Union forces serving under Gen. William Rosecrans in Bridgeport. While Rosecrans was securing and rebuilding the railroad from Bridgeport to Chattanooga, he authorized construction of some small flat-bottomed steamers that could transport supplies to Kelly's Ferry or Williams Island at Chattanooga.

When Quartermaster William G. Le Duc arrived in Bridgeport, he found Capt. Edwards, quartermaster from Detroit, already preparing to build a steamboat to haul supplies to Chattanooga until the railroad could be completed.

Le Duc was put in charge of the project, and work proceeded day and night. The boiler deck was put on as they were loading the boat, which they named the USS Chattanooga. On Oct. 29, she transported two barges of 24,000 rations to Rankin's Ferry and returned to Bridgeport.

Le Duc loaded two more barges during the night and set out at 4 a.m. Oct. 30 for the 45-mile trip to Kelly's Ferry. The weather was stormy, and a driving rain set in as night fell. Le Duc had selected a soldier with experience on the Ohio River to pilot the boat and another who had worked on Lake Erie to serve as lookout in the pitch-black night.

As they neared Chattanooga, they saw lights on the north and south shores. When a sentry on one shore yelled out to them in a Southern accent, they quickly veered over to the opposite shore, where they were relieved to find Union troops commanded by Col. Stokes, who told them Kelly's Ferry was right around the bend. They tied the steamboat and barges to shore and unloaded 40,000 rations and 39,000 pounds of forage.

Five miles away, Gen. Joseph Hooker's forces were down to half-a-breakfast ration, and in Chattanooga "four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork made three days' ration," and only four boxes of hard bread remained in the commissary on the morning of Oct. 30.

"About midnight I started an orderly to report to Gen. Hooker the safe arrival of the rations," Le Duc recalled.

"The orderly returned about sunrise, and reported that the news went through the camps faster than his horse, and the soldiers were jubilant, and cheering, 'The Cracker Line is open. Full rations, boys! Three cheers for the Cracker Line,' as if we had won another victory; and we had."

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and former Chattanoogan. For more, visit

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