Civil War – The Charge of the Mule Brigade

Submitted by C.J. Johnson


During the four years of the War Between the States, there were rare nighttime battles. In October 1863, in Marion and Hamilton Counties, Tennessee and Dade County, Georgia, perhaps the best known overnight battle occurred in a valley illuminated by moonlight. The action was supposed to begin at 10 p.m., but didn’t start until midnight. Better known as the Battle of Wauhatchie Station or Brown’s Ferry, this engagement ensued as the Rebels attempted to prevent Federal supplies from reaching Chattanooga.

Following the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in north Georgia in mid-September, Confederates set up their positions on the eastside of Chattanooga along Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, while Union troops retreated into Chattanooga. With the Rebels to the east and with control of the Tennessee River, Union supplies going into the city had to cross the mountains to the west. The route was subject to Rebel attack and was a difficult trip as well.

The National Park Service describes the battle. “In an effort to relieve Union forces besieged in Chattanooga, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant initiated the “Cracker Line Operation” on October 26. This operation required the opening of the road to Chattanooga from Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River with a simultaneous advance up Lookout Valley, securing the Kelley’s Ferry Road.

Union Chief Engineer, Military Division of the Mississippi, Brig. Gen. William F.  “Baldy” Smith, with Brig. Gen. John B. Turchin’s and Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s…brigades…, was assigned the task of establishing the Brown’s Ferry bridgehead. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker…marched from Bridgeport through Lookout Valley towards Brown’s Ferry from the south. At 3:00 am, on October 27, portions of Hazen’s brigade embarked upon pontoons and floated around Moccasin Bend to Brown’s Ferry. Turchin’s brigade took a position on Moccasin Bend across from Brown’s Ferry.

Upon landing, Hazen secured the bridgehead and then positioned a pontoon bridge across the river, allowing Turchin to cross and take position on his right. Hooker, while his force passed through Lookout Valley on October 28, detached Brig. Gen. John W. Geary’s division at Wauhatchie Station, a stop on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, to protect the line of communications to the south as well as the road west to Kelley’s Ferry.

Observing the Union movements on the 27th and 28th, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Gen. Braxton Bragg decided to mount a night attack on Wauhatchie Station…. Surprised by the attack, Geary’s division, at Wauhatchie Station, formed into a V-shaped battle line.

Hearing the din of battle, Hooker…sent Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard with two XI Army Corps divisions to Wauhatchie Station as reinforcements. As more…Union troops arrived, the Confederates fell back to Lookout Mountain.  The Federals now had their window to the outside and could receive supplies, weapons, ammunition, and reinforcements via the Cracker Line.”

The Georgia Blue and Gray Trail explains the reference to the Mule Brigade. During the battle, Confederate commander “John Bratton thought he has a good position, forming an open V to attack Geary’s obverse line. Some of Bratton’s men crossed Kelley’s Ferry Road and struck the lightly guarded [Union] wagon train that was the original object of the attack. Rebels quickly drove off the Federal soldiers, but the commotion stampeded some mules giving the battle a somewhat derogatory nickname, ‘Charge of the Mule Brigade.’ The mules delayed the Rebels from forming a line and a federal counterattack drove the Confederates off.”