Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Battle for Chattanooga: Grant Takes Command

By Capt. William Carraway
State Public Affairs Officer

Setting the stage

Following the September 1863 debacle of Chickamauga, the Union Army had retreated to the entrenchments of Chattanooga. Confederate General Braxton Bragg besieged Chattanooga with the intent of starving the federal army into submission.

With the Tennessee River forming a natural boundary to the north of Chattanooga, Bragg established the left flank of his siege line on Lookout Mountain just south of a bend in the river known as Moccasin Point. He also stationed troops at Brown’s Ferry near Moccasin Point to guard against possible river crossings. A ridgeline known as Missionary Ridge ran east, then northeast from Lookout Mountain and provided a natural stronghold for Bragg to establish his siege lines overlooking the vital rail hub and supply depot of Chattanooga. Bragg and his 45,000 men set in on the high ground for a long wait.

Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust (
Rattled by his defeat at Chickamauga, Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans seemed to lose the ability to act decisively. He was, in the words of Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.” President Lincoln did not wait for Rosecrans to act. He ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (who had commanded the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville) to march with two corps of 15,000 men. Also ordered to move to Chattanooga’s relief were the 20,000 men under Maj. Gen. Willliam Tecumseh Sherman. As a final measure, Lincoln ordered Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant to move to Chattanooga and personally take command of the army.
When he arrived in late October, Grant found an army demoralized and immobilized from the effects of the siege. The army had lost so many horses and mules to starvation that artillery and supply movement was seriously degraded.

Grant breaks out

On October 26, Union forces assaulted Brown’s Ferry just northwest of Lookout Mountain. This action compelled Bragg to react. He ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to move to Brown’s Ferry. When Longstreet failed to respond, Bragg ordered him to attack Hooker’s concentrating forces near Wauhatchie. The October 28th battle of Wauhatchie took place entirely at night but is also notable for the poor performance of both Longstreet and Hooker. After a night of blundering by both sides, the Union held Brown’s Ferry and Wauhatchie and had opened a supply line to the beleaguered city.    
With supplies now flowing into Chattanooga, Bragg had to reevaluate his strategy. Siege was no longer an option. Instead, on November 3, 1863, Bragg dispatched Longstreet and his 12,000 men north to Knoxville to contend with Union Maj. Gen Ambrose Burnside and his army’s control of the railroad in hopes of establishing a new supply line from Virginia.

Consequential decisions

As Bragg was depleting his forces Grant continued to strengthen his. By mid November, Sherman’s forces were arriving by a circuitous northern route. Bragg concluded erroneously that Sherman was moving in opposition of Longstreet at Knoxville and further depleted his forces by sending the divisions of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne and Maj. Gen Simon Bolivar Buckner to support Longstreet. Grant interpreted the move to indicate that Bragg was intent on retreating and concentrating at Knoxville. To counter this supposed retreat, Grant ordered Maj. Gen George Thomas to conduct probing attacks along Confederate positions on Missionary Ridge east of Chattanooga.

Orchard Knob, November 23, 1863

Thomas, in typical cautious fashion, organized a reconnaissance force of 25,000 men with the intent of moving in against Confederate picket posts located on a prominence called Orchard Knob. Thomas believed that if threatened, Bragg would deploy his forces in line of battle, thus revealing his relative strength. Confederates watching from Missionary Ridge and Orchard Knob initially thought they were witnessing a grand parade, so well dressed were the Union lines. Their perception was swiftly corrected as the Union forces swept forward across the Western Atlantic Railroad taking Orchard Knob at bayonet point and driving the pickets from their post.

Bragg reacts

Heretofore, Bragg had been convinced that a Union attack would fall against his left flank anchored on Lookout Mountain. Instead, Thomas had established a staging area directly opposite Bragg’s headquarters in the center of his Missionary Ridge line. Sherman meanwhile was concentrating on his right. Bragg immediately recalled Cleburne and his crack division and positioned them on his right flank near Tunnel Hill. Bragg also pulled troops from Lookout Mountain in order to bolster his Missionary Ridge Line. Included among these latter troops were the Georgia regiments of Brig Gen. John Jackson’s Brigade which was placed near the center opposite Orchard Knob.
Lookout Mountain November 24, 1863
Unbeknownst to Bragg, Grant had no intention of striking the fortified Missionary Ridge position head on. Instead, on the morning of November 24, he launched Hooker’s men against Lookout Mountain. A heavy morning fog prevented Confederate pickets from detecting the onrushing Union forces until they were upon them. For several hours Union and Confederate muskets blazed and flashed like lighting in what would come to be called The Battle Above the Clouds. Pushed back by the combined force of four divisions, the Confederate lines rallied on the crest and fighting gradually slowed. By midnight the remaining Confederates withdrew to the Missionary Ridge lines. Lookout Mountain was in Union hands. In two days, Grant had achieved two victories. On the morrow he would achieve a stunning third victory.

Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863

By the morning of November 25, Hooker’s forces were in position to threaten Bragg from the South. Sherman meanwhile had positioned his forces to threaten Missionary Ridge from the North. Thomas’s forces, still in position near Orchard Knob opposed the center of Missionary Ridge.
Grant’s plan was to assault along Bragg’s entire line. While Hooker pressed on the left and Thomas demonstrated to his front, Sherman would strike Bragg’s right as the decisive effort. Initially prospects seemed to go against the Union battle plan as Hooker’s attacks to the south were delayed by terrain and Sherman’s assaults made little headway against Cleburne’s Division.

Missionary Ridge, Orchard Knob, and Tunnel Hill. 
Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust (
Looking to break the stalemate, Grant ordered Thomas to move against the Confederate center, but only so far as the enemy’s rifle pits. In his haste, Grant had issued verbal rather than written orders. While some of Thomas’ commanders received orders to halt at the rifle pits, others received no such order. Regardless, 24,000 Union Soldiers had begun their advance without a defined end state. That end state became clear when the Soldiers, having driven the defenders from their rifle pits were raked by artillery from the crest of Missionary Ridge. To stay in position or move to the rear meant exposing themselves to direct plunging fire. The clearest way to eliminate the threat was to close the distance until those cannons could no longer depress to bring effective fire upon them. What followed was one of the most spectacular, most unexpected charges of the war. Without stopping, Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland passed the rifle pits, and began charging up the 600 foot ridgeline. Furious and helpless, Grant remarked to Thomas that someone would pay dearly if this charge failed.

Confederates watched in awe at the sea of blue approaching from below. Some Confederates were unable to fire because of their fleeing comrades. Many units could not even see the approaching federals due to the steepness of the terrain. Thus, many were taken by surprise when Union troops began to crest the ridge. The Georgians of Jackson’s Brigade were struck by the division of Brig. Gen. Absalom Baird, a former mathematics professor at West Point. Swiftly, more than 4,200 Confederates were captured along with nearly 50 pieces of artillery. Only Cleburne’s portion of the line held. Like Thomas’s stand at Chickamauga, Cleburne’s stubborn defense granted Bragg’s fleeing army precious time.


Chattanooga was an even more complete victory for the Union than Chickamauga had been for the Confederacy. Although the Union army had suffered nearly 6,000 casualties it had inflicted perhaps 7,000 on the smaller Confederate army. More importantly, the Union now had complete control over Tennessee and a base from which to launch operations into the Deep South.
Broken and in retreat, the Confederate Army was streaming south with the Union army close at its heels. Bragg, in a fit of desperation, ordered a single Confederate division to stand as rear guard against the full might of the onrushing Union Army. The division of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne was ordered to stand against a force five times its size.

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