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Comments on General Grant's

I. By William Farrar Smith, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.

On the 3d of October, 1863, having reported to General Rosecrans at Chattanooga, I was assigned the duty of chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland, and it devolved on me as a part of my duty, first, to lay out and construct the fortifications so as to enable a comparatively

Umbrella Rock, point of Lookout Mountain.

small force to hold the place, and, secondly, to look out for the communications by which the army was supplied. In the performance of that duty I was actively engaged in building boats and material for bridges, and was studying earnestly to find some way of restoring our short line of communications lost by the giving up of Lookout Mountain and Valley. I found a most excellent company of volunteers styled “Michigan Engineers and mechanics,” commanded by Captain Perrin V. Fox. Before my arrival they had set up a saw-mill, and were engaged in making boats and flooring, etc., for military bridges. In pursuance of the paramount necessity of finding some way of shortening our distance to the railroad at Bridgeport, on the 19th of October I started to make a personal examination of the north side of the Tennessee River below Chattanooga. The object was to find some point on the south side, the holding of which would secure to us the river from Bridgeport through the Raccoon Mountain, and the short road in the valley from there to Chattanooga. On returning unsuccessful in my search, to within about five miles of Chattanooga, I saw before me on a bluff, washed by the river, an earth-work in which was posted a field-battery commanding a road through a break in the hills on the opposite side, where had formerly been established a ferry, known as Brown's Ferry. The place struck me as worthy of examination, and learning from the commanding officer of the battery that there was a tacit agreement that the pickets should not fire on each other, I left my horse in the battery and went down to the water's edge. There I spent an hour, studying the character of the hills, the roadway through the gorge, and marking and estimating the distances to the fires of the picket reserves of the enemy. I then rode back to headquarters, to find that during my absence General Rosecrans had been relieved from duty there and General George H. Thomas put in command of the army.

The next morning, October 20th, General Thomas asked me what length of bridge material I had not in use, and directed me to throw another bridge across the river at Chattanooga. I asked him not to give the order till he had heard my report of my examination of the day before and had looked into a plan I had to propose for opening the river to our steamboats, of which there were two then partly disabled, but which had not been repaired by me lest they should eventually serve the purpose of the enemy. After a discussion which I think was finished in two days, and by the 22d of October, he gave his approval to the plan, and I went to work at once, he giving the necessary orders for the cooperating movements from Bridgeport, which were a vital part of the operations. After that there was but one discussion between General Thomas and myself, which was as to the relative time at which Hooker's column was to move from Bridgeport. That took place after the arrival of General Grant at Chattanooga, all others having been concluded before General Grant made his appearance.

When Grant had been but about twelve hours in Chattanooga, and before he had even started on his trip to Brown's Ferry, Mr. Dana had sketched to the Secretary of War the substance of the whole movement.1 That General Thomas had, after General Grant's arrival, to put before him the plan which he had determined upon, and that General Grant's approval was necessary, and that it was proper for him to go to Brown's Ferry at once to see the position before he gave his approval to it, cannot be gainsaid, but there is not the slightest reason for doubting that Thomas would have made the same move with the same men and with the same results, had General Grant been in Louisville, from which place he had telegraphed the order putting Thomas in command of the Army of the Cumberland. General Grant does not overstate the importance of this movement to the army. It gave at once to the army food and clothing, with forage for the animals which were yet alive, and last, but not least, ammunition, of which General Grant says the Union army had “not enough for a day's fighting.” From being an army in a condition in which it could not retreat, it became an army which, so soon as it was reinforced by the troops with Sherman, assumed the offensive, and under the leadership of General Grant helped to win the battle of Missionary Ridge, inflicting a mortal blow upon the army under Bragg. General Thomas was, a man who observed strictly the proprieties and courtesies of military life; and had the plan “for opening the route to Bridgeport,” and the orders necessary for its execution, emanated from General Grant, Thomas would hardly have noticed the subject in the following words:

“To Brigadier-General W. F. Smith, chief engineer, should be accorded great praise for the ingenuity which conceived, and the ability which executed, the movement at Brown's Ferry. The preparations were all made in secrecy, as was also the boat expedition which passed under the overhanging cliffs of Lookout, so much so that when the bridge was thrown at Brown's [715] Ferry, on the morning of the 27th, the surprise was as great to the army within Chattanooga as it was to the army besieging it from without.” [From the report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.]

With some hesitation I will give a copy of a letter from General Grant to the Secretary of War, which, though speaking of me in possibly much too high terms, is yet important in this connection from its date. It was written two weeks after the opening of the river, and two weeks before the battle of Missionary Ridge. It could hardly have been written from General Grant's previous knowledge of me, for he says he “had no recollection of having met me, after my [his] graduation, in 1843, up to this time,”--the night of his arrival at Chattanooga,--October 23d, 1863. It could not have been written because I had shown zeal in. establishing a saw-mill, making a steamboat or any amount of bridge material, nor yet because I had commanded two brigades in a surprise attack at Brown's Ferry. No other movement than the successful opening of the river had been made from the time of General Grant's arrival to the date of this letter. Was it possible that it rose from any other reason than that General Grant, appreciating fully the great and prompt change in the condition of the army, arising from the opening of the river, had perhaps over-estimated the ability of the one who within his own knowledge had planned the movement? Circumstances afterward occurred to change the relations between General Grant and myself, to which it is not necessary to refer, and his opinion of me may and probably did afterward undergo a change, but at the time at which the letter was written there was some striking reason which produced it:

headquarters, military division of the Miss. Chattanooga, Tennessee, November 12th, 1863.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

Sir: I would respectfully recommend that Brigadier-General William F. Smith be placed first on the list for promotion to the rank of major-general. He is possessed of one of the clearest military heads in the army — is very practical and industrious — no man in the service is better qualified than he for our largest commands.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U. S. Grant, (Official) Major-General. Signed, Geo. K. Leet, Assistant Adjutant-General.

Not only is it due to the truth of history that this evidence of General Grant's military appreciation of the movement on Brown's Ferry should appear, but it also establishes his generosity of character in giving credit where he felt it to be due.

At some future time I may have an opportunity of doing justice to the memory of General George H. Thomas, whose comparatively early death was so great a loss to the country. The civil war developed no higher character than his, viewed in all its aspects, either as soldier or civilian. There are no clouds on it to mar the brightness of his glory.

General Grant's narrative [see p. 679] is in text and inference so unjust to the memory of the late Major-General George H. Thomas that it is proper to make a statement of facts taken in the main from official papers.

In November, 1863, Mr. Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, was at Chattanooga. Under date of November 5th, 11 A. M., he telegraphed to Mr. Stanton:

. . . Grant and Thomas considering plan proposed by W. F. Smith to advance our pickets on the left to Citico Creek, about a mile in front of the position they have occupied from the first, and to threaten the seizure of the north-west extremity of Missionary Ridge. This, taken in connection with our present demonstration in Lookout Valley, will compel them to concentrate and come back from Burnside to fight here.

It is perhaps well to explain here that at that time no plan for future operations had been discussed. On the supposition that Sherman's forces would be united with those of Thomas in front of Chattanooga, more space than we occupied was necessary for the proper encampments and probable developments for a battle. This made a move to the front at that time for the acquisition of more ground a proper one under all circumstances. It will be seen that in the plan proposed by me, as chief engineer, only a threat to seize the north-west end of Missionary Ridge was intended, and with the idea that such a feint might force the recall of Longstreet. I think I may safely state that I did not propose at that time, in view of the condition of the Army of the Cumberland, to suggest anything that would bring on a general battle unless under the guns of our forts at Chattanooga. The next telegram to Secretary Stanton referring to this move is dated November 7th at 10 A. M., and states:

Before receiving this information [report of a rebel deserter] Grant had ordered Thomas to execute the movement on Citico Creek which I reported on the 5th as proposed by Smith. Thomas, who rather preferred an attempt on Lookout Mountain, desired to postpone the operation until Sherman should come up, but Grant has decided that for the sake of Burnside the attack must be made at once, and I presume the advance on Citico will take place to-morrow evening, and that on Missionary Ridge immediately afterward. If successful, this operation will divide Bragg's forces in Chattanooga valley from those in the valley of the Chickamauga, and will compel him either to retreat, leaving the railroad communication of Cheatham and Longstreet exposed, or else fight a battle with his diminished forces.

From General Grant's order of November 7th the following extract is made:

. . I deem the best movement to attract the enemy to be an attack on the north end of Missionary Ridge with all the force you can bring to bear against it, and, when that is carried, to threaten, and even attack if possible, the enemy's line of communication between Dalton and Cleveland. . . . The movement should not be made one moment later than to-morrow morning.

It will be seen from this order that the plan proposed by me had been entirely changed, for while I had proposed only to threaten the seizure of the north-west end of Missionary Ridge, General Grant proposed “to attack the enemy” by carrying the ridge, and then “to threaten, and even attack if possible,” the lines of communication; that is, to bring on a general engagement. When it is remembered that eighteen days after this Sherman with six perfectly appointed divisions failed to carry this same point of Missionary Ridge, at a time when Thomas with four divisions [716] stood threatening Bragg's center, and Hooker with nearly three divisions was driving in Bragg's left flank (Bragg having no more strength than on the 7th), it will not be a matter of surprise that the order staggered Thomas. After the order had been issued I sought a conversation with General Grant for the purpose of inducing a modification, and began by asking General Grant what was the plan proposed by General Thomas for carrying out the order. To this General Grant replied, “When I have sufficient confidence in a general to leave him in command of an army, I have enough confidence in him to leave his plans to himself.” This answer seemed to cut off all discussion, and nothing more was said on the subject.

Shortly after that General Thomas sent for me, and under the impression that the order related to my plan, referred to in Mr. Dana's dispatch of November 5th, said, “If I attempt to carry out the order I have received, my army will be terribly beaten. You must go and get the order revoked.” Without replying to this I asked General Thomas to go up the river with me, and we set out directly, going to a hill opposite the mouth of the South Chickamauga Creek, where we spent an hour or more. We looked carefully over the ground on which Thomas would have to operate, noted the extreme of Bragg's camp-fires on Missionary Ridge, and then, becoming convinced that Thomas with his force could not outflank Bragg's right Without endangering our connection with Chattanooga, on our return I went directly to General Grant, and reported to him that after a careful reconnoissance of the ground I was of the decided opinion that no movement could be made in that direction until the arrival of Sherman's forces. That very evening the order for Thomas to move was countermanded, and no further effort to aid Burnside was attempted till the Army of the Tennessee had joined the army at Chattanooga. On the 8th of November, at 11 A. M., Mr. Dana sent to the Secretary of War the following dispatch:

Reconnoissance of Citico Creek and head of Missionary Ridge made yesterday by Thomas, Smith, and Brannan from the heights opposite on the north of the Tennessee proved Smith's plan for attack impracticable. The creek and country are wrongly laid down on our maps, and no operation for the seizure of Missionary Ridge can be undertaken with the force which Thomas can now command for the purpose. That force cannot by any effort be made to exceed eighteen thousand men.

General Grant in his official report says:

Directions were given for a movement against Missionary Ridge, with a view to carrying it, . . . . of which I informed Burnside on the 7th of November by telegraph. After a thorough reconnoissance of the ground, however, it was deemed utterly impracticable to make the move until Sherman could get up, because of the inadequacy of our forces and the condition of the animals then at Chattanooga.

The writer of an article entitled “General Grant,” in “The century” for May, 1885, says of Chattanooga: “Few battles in any war have ever been fought so strictly according to the plan. This battle was fought as nearly according to the plan laid down in advance as any recorded in the schools.”

Holding at the time the position of chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland under General Thomas, and being at the same time chief engineer of the Military Division of the Mississippi under General Grant, it was absolutely necessary that I should know the plan to be able to direct the engineering operations. Let me compare the original plan as “laid down in advance” with a sketch of the battle as fought.

The original plan of the battle of Chattanooga was to turn Bragg's right flank on Missionary Ridge, thereby throwing his army away from its base and natural line of retreat. This, the first thing to be done, was confided to Sherman, and the plan was not adopted till after Sherman had carefully examined the situation and asserted that he could do the work assigned to him. Thomas was to hold the center and right of our front, to cooperate with Sherman, and attack when the proper time arrived.

The preliminary movements were simple. Sherman was to effect a lodgment on the left bank of the Tennessee River, just below the mouth of the South Chickamauga Creek. This was to be done by landing a brigade of troops from the boats, which were to be used in the bridge to be thrown at that point across the Tennessee for the crossing of Sherman's army. One division of Sherman's army was to march up the Lookout Valley, on the extreme right of our operations, and threaten a pass in Lookout Mountain, ostensibly to turn Bragg's left flank. The march was to be made in daylight, in sight of the enemy, and after dark the division was to retrace its steps, cross the Tennessee at Brown's Ferry, and join the main body of Sherman's force, which was to be massed during the night preceding the intended attack at the point where the bridge was to be laid. Hooker with his small force was to hold Lookout Valley and threaten Lookout Mountain at the point where it strikes the Tennessee. This general plan was filled in with all necessary details, embracing all the initial movements of the whole force under Grant. At the very outset began the changes in this plan. The division which made the threat against Bragg's left flank on returning found the bridge at Brown's Ferry impassable; and as it could not join Sherman, it was turned over to Hooker, who was ordered, with his command thus strengthened, to assault the works on his front on Lookout Mountain. This was a most decided change from the plan “laid down in advance.”

On the evening of the first day the results could be summed up as follows: Sherman had crossed the Tennessee River at the point selected, but had not turned Bragg's right flank. Thomas had drawn out the Army of the Cumberland facing Missionary Ridge, had connected with Sherman, but had had no fighting other than skirmishing varied by some artillery practice. Hooker had carried Lookout Mountain after a fight which has been celebrated in song as “the battle above the clouds.” This victory of Hooker's compelled Bragg to withdraw his troops from the Chattanooga Valley, and retreat or concentrate for a battle on [717] Missionary Ridge. On the morning of the second day Hooker was ordered by Thomas to march for and carry the Rossville Gap in Missionary Ridge, and as soon as that was done to send an aide or courier to him, in order that he might then make the assault of the “Ridge” with the Army of the Cumberland. Sherman with severe fighting continued his efforts to reach the crest of Missionary Ridge. As the day wore on, and no news came from Hooker, Thomas grew anxious, but could give no order to assault the works on his front till one at least of the enemy's flanks had been turned.

Finally, in the afternoon, General Grant sent orders directly to the division commanders of the Army of the Cumberland to move forward and carry the rifle-pits in their front at the base of Missionary Ridge. This was very easily done, and after capturing the rifle-pits the soldiers, seeing that they could not remain there under the fire from the crest of the ridge, and having no intention of giving up any ground won by them, demanded to be led up the hill to storm the works on the crest, which was successfully done, and Bragg's headquarters were in their possession just before the sun went down on the second day of the battle. This assault was, of course, the crisis of the whole battle, and the successful carrying of Missionary Ridge was doubtless due in a measure to the position of Sherman and the threatening movement of Hooker.

The battle was then ended and nothing left but a retreat by one and a pursuit by the other opposing general. A condensed statement of the history of the original plan and the battle of Chattanooga as fought is this: The original plan contemplated the turning of Bragg's right flank, which was not done. The secondary plan of Thomas looked toward following up the success of Hooker at Lookout Mountain by turning the left flank of Bragg, and then an attack by Thomas along his entire front. The Rossville Gap was not carried in time to be of more than secondary importance in the battle.

The assault on the center before either flank was turned was never seriously contemplated, and was made without plan, without orders, and as above stated.

Ii. By Henry M. Cist, Brevet Brigadier-General, U. S. V.

General Smith very clearly shows that the plan for the movement was originated some time prior to General Grant's arrival at Chattanooga, and that the only part of the plan Grant was concerned in was the approval he gave to it, on it being submitted to him by General Thomas and General Smith. The necessary orders for the execution of the plan and the approval of the movement, however, had been given even prior to the date at which General Thomas assumed command of the Army of the Cumberland, which was the 20th of October, 8 63.

After the battle of Chickamauga and the return of the troops to Chattanooga, the first aim of General Rosecrans was to secure his command behind earth-works and fortifications on the front, sufficiently strong to enable the army successfully to resist any attack that might be made upon it in that quarter. This being accomplished, the next important demand was that of rations and supplies for the troops. In the execution of all of this General Rosecrans was ably seconded by the very efficient services of his chief engineer, General Smith; any plan of the latter, however, could only be carried into execution upon the approval of the commanding general.

The general plan for the fortifications, and also for the relief of the army with supplies, were those of the officer in command of the army. The preliminaries and details of these plans were, of course, intrusted to the chief executive officer of his staff in that branch of his service — his chief engineer. In the execution of his general plan, General Rosecrans, prior to the date of the order relieving him, had selected William's Island as a depot of supplies. He had also contracted for the rebuilding of the railroad bridge across the Tennessee and over Running Water, and had ordered the construction of four steamboats, for the use of his army on the river. He had also directed that a sufficient number of pontoons should be built, by which he could throw a bridge across the Tennessee below the mouth of Lookout Creek, on which to march and take possession of Lookout Valley.

One of the last subjects of conference between Generals Rosecrans and Thomas after midnight of October 19th, 1863, and after Rosecrans's order relinquishing the command had been written and signed, grew out of the request of General Thomas to Rosecrans, “Now, General, I want you to be kind enough to describe the exact plan for the taking of Lookout Valley as you proposed it.” General Rosecrans went over it again, explaining how it was his purpose to cross the river and where; how he intended to occupy Lookout Valley, and to secure the use of the road on the south side of the river — the plan as afterward matured and carried out.

When General Smith was assigned to duty the plan for the fortifications had been fully considered, and that for the relief of the troops in regard to rations was well under way. Under General Rosecrans's orders General Smith gave his attention to the details of both plans, and brought his skill to bear upon the best method to accomplish the desired results. When General Thomas assumed command of the Army of the Cumberland, General Smith was retained as chief engineer, and Thomas continued the preparations for the plan afterward so successfully carried out in the “Brown's Ferry movement,” under the supervision of the chief engineer as to the details. As General Smith says, “Thomas would have made the same move with the same men, and with the same results, had General Grant been in Louisville.”

General Smith says that General Thomas is entitled to the credit of the successful consummation [718] of these plans. Certainly he is as against the claim of General Grant. But as to Rosecrans, let us see what General Thomas himself says. In his report, dated November 7th, 1863, of “The battle of Wauhatchie,” he says:

Preliminary steps had already been taken to execute this vitally important movement before the command of the department devolved on me. The bridge which it was necessary to throw across the river at Brown's Ferry to gain possession of the northern end of Lookout Valley and open communication with Bridgeport by road and river was nearly completed.

If all this had been accomplished by General Rosecrans, the plan must have been under his consideration with his approval for some weeks prior to his removal.

On November 4th, 1863, in the report of the part taken by the troops under him of the movement that actually opened up the road to Brown's Ferry and Kelley's Ferry, General Smith says:

On the 19th of October I was instructed by General Rosecrans to reconnoiter the river in the vicinity of William's Island with a view of making the island a, cover for a steamboat landing and store-houses, etc.

I do not wish to appear as detracting from the honor that belongs to General Smith, who executed the plan, to General Thomas, who ordered the execution, to General Grant, who approved the plan, but I think the truth of history calls for a repetition of the statement as made by General Thomas that he took up the work where his predecessor in command left it, and that he carried out the plan of General Rosecrans in the final movement.

Iii. Postscript by General W. F. Smith.

General Rosecrans never said anything to me about a bridge into Lookout Valley, or a movement by Hooker's command from Bridgeport, although 1 was his chief engineer and troops under my command were making boats for bridges. Mr. Dana telegraphed to Mr. Stanton early in October that Rosecrans would throw a bridge from Moccasin Point into Lookout Valley. A bridge from Moccasin Point could not have been thrown, for the nose of Lookout Mountain was strongly held by the enemy, and if the bridge had been thrown it could not have been maintained, as it would have been under close fire of artillery.

Mr. Dana also telegraphed to Mr. Stanton that Rosecrans had ordered Hooker to concentrate his troops with a view to moving his force through the Raccoon Mountain into Lookout Valley. If that could have been done the operations at Brown's Ferry were useless, as it would have been only necessary to throw a bridge after the arrival of Hooker's troops in that Valley. With Bragg's force, the passes in the Raccoon Mountain could have been held so as to make it impossible for Hooker to get through them.

Shortly after my arrival at Chattanooga I told General Rosecrans that he could not supply his army over the mountain roads as soon as the fall rains began. He said I was mistaken, that he was getting double the number of rations that he used. I never said anything more on the subject. Seeing that we were daily falling behind, even after the troops had been put on half rations, I tried to hurry on the defenses, and was all the time trying to work out some plan for shortening the line of supplies. It seemed to me that, by holding the country between Bridgeport and the Raccoon Mountain and the nose of Raccoon Mountain where it struck the Tennessee River, we might use William's Island as a depot of supplies, the transportation from Bridgeport being by water. Determined to go and see if such a plan were practicable, I went to General Rosecrans on the evening of the 18th of October and said, “General, I wish to go down the river to-morrow to see if we cannot hold the river as far as William's Island, and use that for a depot.” General Rosecrans said, “Go, by all means, and I will go with you.” We started at an early hour the next morning, but after crossing the river General Rosecrans stopped to go through the hospital and I pushed on and made the examination entirely alone. When I reached camp General Rosecrans had been relieved; he left that night, I think, and I did not say a word to him about what I had discovered and what I had to propose. It is impossible that Rosecrans could have developed any plan for opening the river to General Thomas which was satisfactory to Thomas, for any plan would have required a bridge to be thrown below Chattanooga, and General Thomas directed me, when I went to report to him the next day, to throw a bridge at the town. That would have left nothing for another bridge, and it took time to prepare boats and bridge materials.

General Rosecrans could not have informed his generals, with whom he was on confidential terms, of any such plan, for when Thomas explained my plan to them they opposed it strongly, and it took two or three interviews to get General Thomas to adopt the plan. Finally it was carried out exactly as I had suggested it. General Thomas was a very careful man about his statements and was very particular in his use of words. In his order he was careful to give me credit for planning as well as executing, and if he had had any such plan given to him by General Rosecrans he would certainly have not committed the injustice of giving me the credit for the plan.

General Cist's quotation from my report refers only to the William's Island project, which I gave up as soon as I saw the ground, and that may have been an idea of General Rosecrans, but he certainly had never taken any steps to find out if it were practicable, which I found it was not. I never heard of Brown's Ferry till I saw it. I did not report on it to Rosecrans, and I do not believe that Rosecrans had matured any scheme for shortening the line of communications. If he had, why did he not execute it; for at the time he was relieved the Army of the Cumberland could not have remained a week at Chattanooga, under the then existing lines for obtaining supplies. [719]

Military bridge over the Tennessee River at Chattanooga, Suilt in October, 1868. from a photograph.

1 Telegrams of Dana to Stanton, October 23d and 24th, 10 A. M.

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