The hardtack pictured right, courtesy G. H. Bent (site) who made hardtack crackers during the Civil War and still makes them today
Ample supplies in Bridgeport, Alabama were waiting to move to the Union troops trapped in Chattanooga, Tennessee after the battle of Chickamauga, but the torturous 60-mile journey made it impossible to bring anything but the most essential items, and at that time the most essential item was food. When General William S. Rosecrans was relieved of command of the city October 16, 1863] he had begun to plan a retreat.
On October 22 General Ulysses S. Grant began a 2-day journey over the supply route between Bridgeport and Chattanooga. His description, written more than 20 years after his journey, is riveting:
There had been much rain and the roads were almost impassable from mud knee-deep in places, and from washouts on the mountain-sides. I had been on crutches since the time of my fall in New Orleans and had to be carried over places where it was not safe to cross on horseback. The roads were strewn with the debris of broken wagons and the carcasses of thousands of starved mules and horses.
Ulysses S. Grant He approved "Baldy" Smith's plan to resupply besieged Chattanooga
Grant arrived in Chattanooga late on October_23, 1863 and after hearing a report from General "Baldy" Smith, Chief Engineer, Grant rode out with him to inspect a proposed route for a new supply line, cutting the distance of the old route in half. Smith's idea involved a bold amphibious assault on Browns Ferry combined with the advance of some 15,000 troops in Bridgeport under the command of Henry Slocum and Oliver O. Howard.
On October_27, 1863 a beachhead was established on the south side of the Tennessee west of Chattanooga. Smith's engineers then spanned the river. They begin building the bridge about 6:00am; it was in use at noon, although the engineers continued working on the structure until sunset. At about 4:00pm on October 28th, General Howard reached the beachhead at Brown's Ferry. The Cracker Line was open.
The plan was a brilliant success, with both Grant and George Henry Thomas, now commanding the Army of the Cumberland, giving Smith full credit for the idea. On October_29, 1863 the first supplies along the Cracker Line reached Chattanooga. At first, the line transported mostly vegetables and small rations, but the shorter days and cold nights required other supplies such as blankets and firewood. Medicine was also coming into Chattanooga in large quantities.
The outlook from inside the besieged city of Chattanooga changed for the enlisted men. The somber attitude that had prevailed for the previous five weeks was gone overnight, although the men would not receive full rations for a week.
Two riverboats, the Paint Rock and the Chattanooga, kept the Cracker Line going along a water route between Bridgeport and Kelly's Ferry, about twenty miles east of Bridgeport on the Tennessee River. Negotiating the river past Kelly's Ferry to Brown's Ferry was difficult, although it was used sometimes. The current was strong because the river narrowed in the gorge formed by Raccoon Mountain and Walden's Ridge, and recent heavy rains had increased the volume of water.
From Kelly's Ferry supplies made it to Chattanooga by a land route that ran from Kelly's Ferry, over a low pass (Cummings Gap) in Raccoon Mountain, through the north end of Lookout Valley and across the bridge at Brown's Ferry. Other routes supplimented this combined land-water route.
Only once ample supplies were coming to Chattanooga did Grant authorize the transport of additional munitions. He had been deeply concerned since his arrival about the situation, estimating at one point that the city only contained enough ammunition for a day's battle. By the middle of November, 1863, the men had enough ammunition to begin an offensive.
Troop movements to take the mountains surrounding Chattanooga from the Rebels began on November 21, 1863. The following day, as Union soldiers from the city moved into Lookout Valley in preparation for the "Battle Above the Clouds," "Baldy" Smith's bridge collapsed having been in constant use for almost a month. The "Cracker Line" was history.