Sunday, May 2, 2021

USS Chattanooga: Steamboat opened 'Cracker Line' to feed hungry Union troops. Students think they may have found its wreckage

USS Chattanooga reportedly was made with parts from other vessels
On either side of dark area are wood framing and planks. Sonar image
provided by UTC may show part of paddlewheel (circular area on top right) 
An anthropology professor and his students believe they may have found the wreckage of a steamboat that was a crucial part of the
Union’s “Cracker Line,” which provided supplies and food to famished troops near Chattanooga, Tenn., in fall 1863.

Morgan Smith, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and his students used sonar to scour the bottom of the Tennessee River near downtown, according to a press release from the school.

The team believe images it captured are of the USS Chattanooga, a homemade craft celebrated for its relief of Federal troops who were about to go on the offensive against Confederate forces that had vanquished them weeks earlier at Chickamauga

“It had a big role in American history and it is unrecorded as far as archaeological sites go,” Smith told students as they set out in a pontoon boat in mid-April. Smith believes a circular shape noted in the sonar may be part of the USS Chattanooga’s paddlewheel, according to the release.

UTC says the next step is to compare the sonar imagery with archival data to get an idea of the length and width of the boat. Construction techniques used during the Civil War will be examined to see if the wreck matches.

Officials say the boat sat on the northern side of the river after the war, across from what is now the Tennessee Aquarium and Riverfront. Eventually, it fell apart and sank.

Smith likens the Chattanooga to a "Frankenstein" -- made from parts scavenged from other ships, according to UTC.

When Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in October 1863, he quickly determined the Army of the Cumberland, which was besieged by the enemy, needed a new supply route.

His forces seized Brown’s Ferry at Moccasin Point, a spot that could be reached by Federal supply boats, which brought food, uniforms and reinforcements. The USS Chattanooga is said to be the first steamboat built by the Federals on the upper Tennessee River, at Bridgeport. It was put together in less than a month.

Assistant quartermaster William Le Duc, who commanded the improvised and flat-bottom USS Chattanooga, later wrote about a successful run down the river in late October:

USS Chattanooga (Wikipedia)
“And in due time we tied the steamboat and barges safely to shore, with 40,000 rations and 39,000 pounds of forage, within five miles of General Hooker's men, who had half a breakfast ration left in haversacks; and within eight or ten miles of Chattanooga, where four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork made a three days' ration. In Chattanooga there were but four boxes of hard bread left in the commissary warehouses on the morning of the 30th [October].

"About midnight I started an orderly to report to General Hooker the safe arrival of the rations. 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 open. Full rations, boys! Three cheers for the Cracker line," as if we had won another victory; and we had.”

A 2014 post in Emerging Civil War by author Frank Varney challenges what he calls the myth of the Cracker Line. He argues descriptions of starving Union troops were exaggerated and that it was in Grant’s interest to depict conditions under deposed Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans as being particularly bad.

Professor Morgan Smith (right) with students on the site (UTC)

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