Bayonets And Belt Buckles: McDonald Farm

  • Friday, March 15, 2024
  • Mason Eslinger

McDonald Farm has time and time again harbored historic events. In light of the current efforts to preserve McDonald Farm, what better time than now to spread awareness of its historic value. With a nagging urge to scream the stories that echo throughout Sale Creek from the ridgelines into Chattanooga. Today is the day that I succumb, starting with the day its corn rows filled with anticipation, as the noise of empty canteens clattered against bayonets and belt buckles.

    With the Federal Army’s tails tucked in a full retreat following the devastating defeat at Chickamauga. Confederate General Braxton Bragg failed to seize the opportunity to pursue the Army of the Cumberland into the Tennessee River Valley. Allowing General Rosecrans to immediately assume command of the Chattanooga fortifications, previously made by Bragg. The southern forces then get intelligence that the boys in blue only had enough rations to stretch a week. So instead of making a ballsy charge into the weakened federal forces, Bragg chose to enact the siege of Chattanooga, taking up positions along the outskirts of the city (Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, Missionary Ridge). Against the recommendations of fellow commanders such as James Longstreet, who saw an opportunity to rid the volunteer state of its federal chokehold by eliminating the Army of the Cumberland before reinforcements arrived.

   Bragg wasn’t one for such maneuvers, but recognized the need to sever the Union’s trickle of supplies coming through Walden’s Ridge. The plan was to send Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler with the combined forces of his bitter rival Nathan Bedford Forrest across the Tennessee river to hinder communications and ultimately halt the federal operations of Sequatchie Valley.

   On Sept. 30, 1863, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, along with his subordinates Col. John Scott, Col. George Hodge, Brig. Gen. Davison, and 4,000 God fearing men crossed the Tennessee River, bound for Walden’s Ridge.  

   Two days later, the butternut brigade traveled into Sequatchie Valley within a few miles of McDonald Farm along one of the Graysville/Dayton Mountain roads.

    By this time the Federal Army had learned of General Wheeler’s river crossing and immediately gave orders to increase patrols and send reinforcements to Andersons Crossroads, in the event of an engagement involving the Union supply chain. Shortly after, Brigadier George Crook, along with Col. Edward McCook were in pursuit.

    At this time, conditions in Chattanooga couldn’t be much worse. The supply trickle mainly consisted of provisions, even though they needed much more. If you had any food at all, it was the equivalent of one quarter ration. Diseases were ravaging the army, having nothing to eat, nothing to cover up with, and boots that looked more like sandals; it took a toll on one’s immune system. To add to Rosecrans skeleton soldiers, it was estimated that the army didn’t have enough munitions to fight for more than three days. So the imminent threat of Wheeler's Cavalry proved to be rather high on the list of things to worry about.

   At 3 a.m. on Oct. 3, Wheeler and his Cavalry depart from the crest of Walden’s Ridge for the six-mile ride into battle. Lighting the dark valley floor with their .36 caliber colts, a rude awakening for any Billy Yank. The raid was a success, signaled by the crippling sounds of exploding munition wagons, a firework display that marked the beginning of darker days for Chattanooga.

   The destruction of their only supply chain sparked a fire underneath the command of the Army of the Cumberland. Holding on to Chattanooga was starting to look like a lost cause to many, including General Rosecrans. While he investigated evacuation plans, others were searching for alternatives. With plenty of supply less wagons to go around, a plan was devised, a twist on the scorched-earth strategy that involved much less... scorching.

   The idea was to wring northern Hamilton County of all its resources, eyes were now set upon the northern river valley. Soldiers who had previously encountered the lush crops of Sale Creek farmers like the McDonald Clan, were now calling on their memory to serve as a compass for their empty stomachs.

   Alexander Jones, who was leasing 40 acres from James McDonald, recalled the day Col. Robert Minty added his name to the list of high-ranking federal soldiers that saw Sale Creek to be a fit home. In a claim to the US government in 1872, Mr. Jones told the tale of when his livelihood was ripped away from him. Col. Minty came upon McDonald Farm, as he did to many Sale Creek homesteads. Awoken by the clamoring of men, Alexander came to see his livestock slaughtered and skeletons (resembling Union Soldiers) throwing his bounty of corn, hay, and oats into wagons. This uprooted the Jones household, as he owed Mr. McDonald one third of his corn as rent. According to Alexander, “Col. Minty’s command were encamped on the place in which I lived.”  The soldiers left the landscape bare, nothing but one sheep to tie the family over. As Minty settled in, detachments from many brigades flooded into Sale Creek. Laying claim to everything the land had to offer. Leaving McDonald Farm with little, and Sale Creek with less. The community was now as starved as Chattanooga.

   Just as Rosecrans was gearing toward an evacuation order, supplies arrived. Not from a train, not from D.C, but from Sale Creek. From the labor of the McDonald Clan and its community, names such as Gray, Coulter, Elsea, Jones, Patterson, and Spivey. All saviors of the Federal position in Chattanooga. These supplies gave D.C time to replace the deluded General Rosecrans with someone more capable. Preventing the Confederate capture of one of the largest rail hubs in the south.

    A testimony from James E. Johnson of the 5th Tenn Infantry to Mr. Elsea, regarding the seizure of his livelihood on McDonald Farm. First week of October 1863.

“The federal army at Chattanooga depended on the north side of the river for supplies and I understood that Rosecrans was compelled to evacuate Chattanooga but for the supplies we attained.”

    A testimony from Lewis Coleman of the 3rd Tenn Infantry to the estate of Mr. Gray, regarding the seizure of his property down the road from McDonald Farm.

“The regiment to which I belonged to, arrived in Chattanooga just after the Battle of Chickamauga, and I knew that the army was in _____ a ________ condition. The rebels had cut off our supplies. The rebels occupied Lookout Mountain and communications were cut off with the Army. For several days we had scarcely anything to eat, I heard officers in Chattanooga frequently remark that if it had not been for the Tennessee River Valley, Chattanooga would have had to been evacuated, but that the supplies from the north side of the river (Sale Creek) spared Chattanooga from evacuation.”

    There are countless stories like this that permeate the property. Little events with large influence scattered throughout history. We can all take something from these stories, let them resonate with aspects of our lives. After all, this is American heritage, this is Tennessee heritage, this is your heritage.

Mason Montague Eslinger

McDonald Family descendant

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