WHAT HAPPENED AT JOHNSON’S CROOK DURING THE CIVIL WAR
(A paper prepared for and delivered to the Dade County Historical Society by John C. Wilson, historian and journalist, at the home of James A. Mackay, October 14, 1990.)
When the Civil War spotlight began to shift near Chattanooga, Tenn., in the late summer of 1863, the few citizens who remained in Johnson’s Crook of Lookout Mountain figured they would be sheltered from the coming storm. But 40,000 Union soldiers would trudge up the mountain pass here, and at least two skirmishes between Union and Confederate soldiers would break out in the isolated Dade County, GA., community.
General Braxton Bragg had been concentrating his large army at Chattanooga, but Union General William Rosecrans was headed south from Middle Tennessee with three army corps. General George Thomas had 20,000 soldiers in the Fourteenth Army Corps. General Alexander McD. McCook had 11, 000 in the Twentieth, and General Thomas Crittenden had 12,000 at Rosecrans’ disposal.
Rosecrans chose to split up his forces, hoping to strike Bragg at his front, center and rear. But to do so required moving many thousand soldiers with all their wagons, ammunition and other baggage across several steep mountains, including lofty Lookout with its few usable passes. Crittenden was to head straight for Chattanooga, while Thomas was to strike for Trenton, and on across Lookout by way of Johnson’s crook. McCook was to cross the mountain further south at Winston’s Gap near Valley Head, Ala., and proceed on to Alpine and Summerville, Ga.
The Union actually had only scanty information about the roads at Lookout Mountain. They knew that traffic could go up Winston’s Gap to the vicinity of the Little River on top of the mountain and on down to Alpine near Menlo, Ga. And they were aware that you could go up the rough wagon road at Johnson’s crook and come out at Stevens Gap, going down there into the upper reaches of McLemore’s Cove. They knew little about the condition of the roads running up and down the top of the mountain.
Rosecrans in one report said, “Chattanooga commands the southern entrance into East Tennessee, the most valuable if not the chief sources of supplies for coal for the manufactories and machine shops of the Southern states, and is one of the great gateways through the mountains of the champagne counties of Georgia and Alabama.”
He described Lookout Mountain as “a vast palisade of rocks rising 2,400 feet above the level of the sea, in abrupt, rocky cliffs, from a steep wooded base. Its eastern sides are no less precipitous. Its top varies from one to six or seven miles in breadth, is heavily timbered, sparsely settled, and poorly watered. It terminates abruptly upon the Tennessee, two miles below Chattanooga, and the only practicable wagon roads across it are one over the nose of the mountain, one at Johnson’s Crook, twenty-six miles distant, and one at Winston’s Gap, forty-two miles distant from Chattanooga.
“It is evident from this description of the topography that to reach Chattanooga, or to penetrate the country south of it, on the railroad, by crossing the Tennessee River below Chattanooga was a difficult task. It was necessary to cross the Cumberland Mountains, with subsistence, ammunition, at least a limited supply of forage, and a bridge train.”
Charles R. Dana, the opinionated scribe who sent regular Army reports back to the authorities in Washington, wrote, “This region is composed of long mountains with few practicable passes. It is about 30 miles from the head of Lookout Mountain to the first gap, for instance. The roads are worse than those over any other mountains in the country; not impassable, but very destructive to wagons. The valleys are narrow, irregular, and bare of corn and cattle.”
The troops under Thomas and McCook made a crossing of the Tennessee River near Bridgeport, Ala., and began threading their way across Sand Mountain in early September. By Sept. 4, Thomas’ division under James Negley had reached Brown’s Spring in Dade County at the foot of Sand Mountain. Another of Thomas’ divisions was in camp at Trenton. There were several iron works in operation then in Dade County, and the Union soldiers quickly took control of them. Some of Negley’s soldiers secured stores that were found at the Macon Iron Works. At the Empire State Iron and Coal Works they saw where a furnace with a capacity of about twenty tons had recently been erected to manufacture iron under an $8 million contract with the Confederate government. It had been planned to build five more furnaces here, but the sudden arrival of the bluecoats cut short that project. The large amount of machinery, tools, stationery and other supplies at the Empire site was removed to the Union camp. Some salt and tobacco were also captured at one of the iron works.
At Payne’s Mill, the Federal soldiers found some bushels of wheat. They set the mill to work and ground it into flour. One mill on Lookout Creek was filled with wheat, corn and rye. It was all ground into grain along with the grain that could be found by scouring the countryside. The product was turned over to the passing soldiers. Also, cattle that was fit for beef was taken for use by the Union soldiers. It was the policy to leave each Dade County family enough grain and cattle for their support, however. Some soldiers from Pennsylvania reached Warren’s Mill on Lookout Creek and cut down this saw mill. It was quickly changed into a bridge “over which the whole of General Thomas’ corps safely crossed with all its artillery and transport.”
As the Union troops were threading their way over Sand Mountain and descending into Lookout Valley, a Confederate officer from Dade County had decided to make a quick visit to his home plantation. Colonel James Cooper Nisbet had been stationed with the other Confederates in the vicinity of Chickamauga when he gained permission to venture to his “Cloverdale” plantation near Johnson’s Crook at Rising Fawn. Colonel Nisbet had come up from lower Georgia in 1858 and established his fine stock farm. But he had marched away with a Georgia regiment at the very start of hostilities. He and another soldier from Dade County, Elisha Majors, on this occasion rode up Lookout Mountain on horseback on the Nickajack Trace. They made their way down to Trenton, and looked up to see Yankee cavalry descending Sand Mountain. A shell from the Union artillery came shrieking over them. They rode back up Lookout, and the next day went down into Lookout Valley by the Johnson’s Crook route. Majors stopped off for a visit with Squire Alexander Hanna at Rising Fawn, but colonel Nisbet proceeded on to Cloverdale. He found that sSheridan’s army had already passed through the farm destroying all the fencing and taking the crops and stock. A Dr. McGuffey had been left in charge of Cloverdale with the agreement that he would receive the farm output during the war years. Colonel Nisbet was met by a number of black family slaves, including the patriarch “Uncle Daniel.” They rejoiced in seeing the plantation owner who had been absent from Cloverdale for two and a half years. Uncle Daniel reported that all the Negroes were still on the property except for Emma, a mulatto housemaid, who had been lured away by Sheridan’s troops. Emma ended up in a Chattanooga brothel, known as “Mahogany Hall,” where she died. Uncle Daniel reported he had hid the family silver and the meat from the smokehouse in a deep holler on the side of Fox Mountain. Colonel Nisbet rode on over to the home of his kinsman, George Hazlehurst, where he sat down to a dinner of chicken and all the fixings. He was eating this fine meal when Uncle Daniel appeared and said the road was “blue with Yankees.” Colonel Nisbet instructed Uncle Daniel to sit by the window and raise his arm if any Union soldiers approached the house. The Confederate was able to finish his home-cooked meal in peace. That same afternoon colonel Nisbet rode back up Lookout Mountain and resumed his place in the Confederate ranks.
Negley’s Division under General Thomas began reaching Johnson’s Crook at the base of Lookout Mountain on Sept. 6. That same day, some of Negley’s men from the 18th Ohio began checking out the road up the mountain. They “met the enemy’s pickets and dispersed them.” This first “Battle of Johnson’s Crook” occurred halfway up the mountain. About half a dozen shots were exchanged. One Union soldier was severely wounded in the leg.
The Federal soldiers were soon able to push on to the top of Lookout Mountain, and work was begun in improving the road to handle the long lines of soldiers and heavy military equipment. Negley reported that the road was “very rough and dangerous to transportation. The trains ascended slowly.” Colonel William Sirwell of the 78th Pennsylvania Infantry deployed his men “in groups up the steep mountainside to repair the road and assist the artillery and wagons in the difficult and tedious ascent.” This work of bolstering the primitive road took all day of the 8th and until the forenoon of the 9th. But Colonel Sirwell reported that the men “worked cheerfully, and with such care that no accident of any kind occurred.” He was able to report later in the day on Sept. 9 that “all our transportation was on the mountain and on the way down into the famous Chattanooga Valley.” Some of the Union soldiers, after reaching the top of Johnson’s Crook, advanced down the top of Lookout Mountain and arrived near Summertown in time to look down and see Bragg’s army retreating from Chattanooga.
The soldiers in Thomas’ corps had camped in the vicinity of Hurricane and Lookout creeks and near Trenton while awaiting their turns to go over the mountain at Johnson’s Crook. One regiment was left behind to guard the vicinity of Payne’s Mill, while another regiment remained at Cureton’s Mill.
McCook, from his camp near Winston’s Gap, on Sept. 4 reported that the road up Lookout here was “not quite so bad as the one up Raccoon Mountain (Sand Mountain), nor is it so long in ascent.” He said the road forked at the top of the mountain, with the road on the left going toward Chattanooga and the right fork in the direction of Alpine, Summerville and Rome. He reported, “The pass over the mountain from here to Rome is represented as the best, though the forage is not good.” McCook said water could be had at the Little River and there was a small mill on the mountaintop.
General Phillip Sheridan, who was under McCook’s command at this time, camped several miles up the valley from McCook. Sheridan had 4,300 men under him. He was located at Mrs. Gardner’s on the road from Trenton to Winston’s Gap, where there was good water and some forage. Sheridan earlier had camped at Cloverdale and also at Stevens Mill, which was twelve miles from Winston’s Gap.
McCook’s men, accompanied by much of Rosecrans’ cavalry, began to ascend at Winston’s Gap, while the Confederates were pulling back off the mountain. As they left, the Rebels cut down as many trees as possible to try to obstruct the mountain road. McCook got the order to proceed post haste after Crittenden learned on Sept 9 that Bragg was giving up Chattanooga without a fight. No one knew exactly where Bragg was going, but Rosecrans wanted McCook to cut off his retreat near Summerville. Some of the Federal soldiers advanced to Alpine and on toward Summerville, where there were several skirmishes with outlying Confederates.
It was on a march from Alpine toward LaFayette that Private Bernard Bourassa “stopped to attend to calls of nature.” But he “was not seen or heard from after.”
Finally it became clear to the Federal command that Bragg was not in a full-scale retreat, but was massing his troops near Chickamauga, Ga. Bragg knew that Rosecrans’ three corps were widely separated, and he hoped to array his full army against one of the three Union wings. He almost succeeded in striking against the splintered army, but Rosecrans began an urgent call for his three corps to reunite and clash head-on with the Confederates in the vicinity of Chickamauga. McCook was in camp at Alpine when an order arrived at midnight telling him to pull back and join Thomas. General Thomas, who issued the retreat order to McCook, expected him to climb the mountain again at Alpine, go down on top of Lookout to Stevens Gap, and descend there. However, McCook was told that the road on top of Lookout was so bad that it would be better to go all the way back down at Winston’s Gap, advance through the valley to Johnson’s Crook, reclimb the mountain, and go down at Stevens Gap.
McCook knew it was nine miles further and involved going over a steep mountain and then climbing back over it again. But he said the longer and harder march could be carried out in nine hours less time than trying to navigate the road on top of the mountain. He wrote to Thomas on Sept. 13, “I have but one route to pursue, and that is to descend Lookout Mountain at Winston’s and march down Lookout Valley until I can join you. From all the information I can gain of the road from here to Dougherty’s Gap, and the bad road from Dougherty’s Gap over the spur to Stevens Gap, the route by Lookout Valley will be by far the most expeditious one for me to take, and I will march accordingly.” McCook added, “Myself and troops have done and will do everything that mortal men an do.”
General Thomas had first sent a message to McCook that he agreed the Lookout Valley route was the only practicable one. But General Rosecrans and other top commanders were dismayed that McCook was taking this long, exhausting route. On Sept. 14 at 1:30 p.m., the future president James A. Garfield told McCook by messenger that “the general commanding regrets that you are moving back through Winston’s Gap, which will keep you for some time where your command can give no support to the balance of the army. He directs you to turn back at once to the head of McLemore’s Cove, where you can operate with infantry at least, or can move toward LaFayette, in which direction you will most probably be needed. All our maps and evidence show that the route is practicable from here to Dougherty’s.
But McCook, fearing that McLemore’s Cove contained a heavy concentration of Confederates, was adamant about going back down and back up Lookout Mountain. He replied to headquarters, “there is no evidence or map in my possession that would lead me to believe that the road from Dougherty’s to Stevens Gap is a good one, but from the evidence I have I believe it to be a very bad one.” McCook, who had already started his troops down Lookout on the Dade County side, added, “I will be pained to take my troops over the route again. They certainly would feel as if I were trifling with them.”
However, one Federal unit under General W. H. Lytle did try the Dougherty’s Gap Road at about the time McCook was sticking to the long route. Lytle, who would soon be killed at Chickamauga, reported to headquarters that he made it successfully to Dougherty’s Gap by 5 p.m. on the 14th. He started to march forward on the mountaintop road to Stevens Gap that night, but decided to wait until daybreak on the 15th. Stevens Gap was reached by Lytle and his men by 11 a.m. General Lytle reported, “The road (Dougherty’s Gap Road) from the falls of Little River is a very good one.”
Sheridan’s troops were already in the vicinity of Johnson’s Crook and they were ordered up on the 15th to “come as far as you can tonight.” The remainder of McCook’s troops were just behind them in a desperate and exhausting forced march. The entire trek by McCook’s corps took five days – from the 13th until the 17th. On the morning of Sept. 17, General McCook reported that he was near Stevens Gap. He said Sheridan had arrived the previous night and General Jeff Davis would be down in an hour, with General Richard Johnson close behind him. The final wing of McCook’s forces trekked down off Lookout Mountain later that day after a march of twenty-five miles in one day.
D. H. Hill, a Confederate general, wrote after the war that McCook “became cautious after hearing that Bragg was not making the hot and hasty retreat that Rosecrans had supposed. He ordered his wagon train back to the top of Lookout Mountain. At Alpine on the 13th he received the midnight order to hurry to join Thomas. Then began the race of life and death, the crossing back over Lookout Mountain, the rapid, exhausting march north through Lookout Valley, and the junction at last at Stevens Gap on the 17th. The contemporary accounts represent McCook’s march as one of fatigue and suffering. McCook’s famous march was estimated at fifty-seven miles.”
In mid-September of 1863, secluded Johnson’s Crook had suddenly been invaded by 40,000 Union soldiers on their way to fight in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
As a postscript, there is a second “Battle of Johnson’s Crook” on record. This occurred in early February of 1865 just a short time before the surrender at Appomattox. A year and a half after Chickamauga, Confederate troops still were able to range in the vicinity of Dade County, Ga. On the night of Feb 10, Witherspoon’s Company of the 21st Georgia Regiment was camped at Johnson’s Crook. Little did these sleeping soldiers know that colonel Felix Prince Salm, of the 68th New York Volunteers, had asked permission of his superiors to make a night raid against them. Colonel Salm and his soldiers went from Bridgeport, Ala., across Sand Mountain and swooped down on the Georgia soldiers shortly after midnight.
Colonel Salm gave this report: “I surprised Witherspoon’s Company in Johnson’s Crook. The surprise was complete. I attacked at 2 a.m. Three of the enemy were killed and five were wounded. Witherspoon’s Company is entirely broken up by this blow. We captured their captain and fifteen men, including Witherspoon’s brother. We took thirty stand of arms and twenty-three horses. There is no loss on my part.”
This somewhat cowardly night attack in the waning days of the war brought down the curtain on the significant part played by Johnson’s Crook in the long War Between the States.