December 1, 2013

Civil War anniversary: The Confederacy’s Chattanooga catastrophe

By John Hutcheson Dalton Civil War 150th Commission

— Although the Civil War would not finally end until the spring of 1865, a strong argument can be made that its outcome was sealed during three days of fighting around Chattanooga in late November, 1863.

Without the Northern victories there on Nov. 23-25, a Federal sweep to Atlanta and then across Georgia to Savannah could not even have been envisioned, much less executed.

Moreover, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s accomplishments at Chattanooga led directly to his promotion as commander of all Union armies and to a grand design to conclude the war by waging simultaneous campaigns the following year, one to Atlanta and the other to Richmond.    

Grant arrived in Chattanooga on Oct. 23 with instructions from President Lincoln to break the Confederate siege. He found 45,000 men under George Thomas, surrounded by Braxton Bragg’s nearly 70,000 Confederates encamped on Lookout Mountain and along the length of Missionary Ridge. Thomas’ army was on starvation rations — four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork every three days.

On the positive side, however, reinforcements were already present or on the way. Joseph Hooker had arrived from Virginia with 15,000 men at the end of September and William T. Sherman was coming from Mississippi with another 20,000.  

On Oct. 27 troops under Hooker and W.F. Smith opened a favorable supply route into Chattanooga, which Federal soldiers named the “Cracker Line.” Meanwhile, Grant benefitted from Bragg’s decision to send nearly a quarter of his forces — 15,000 men under James Longstreet — to the Knoxville area, partly to open more direct communications with Virginia but also to rid himself of several generals with whom he was feuding.

Sherman reached Chattanooga on Nov. 14 but it took another week for most of his army to arrive. In the meantime, the Union generals developed a plan to assault Bragg along a broad front. Sherman was to attack the Confederate right at the northern end of Missionary Ridge, threatening Bragg’s railroad supply routes. Simultaneously, Thomas would move on the Confederate center along Missionary Ridge, while Hooker would attack Bragg’s left on Lookout Mountain and continue to Rossville to block a Southern retreat in that direction.

Changes, adjustments, and unforeseen situations affected the plan almost immediately. First, Grant decided against an immediate move on Lookout Mountain, preferring instead to strengthen Sherman’s offensive. Then, on Nov. 23, Union observers noticed Confederate columns marching away from Missionary Ridge — Bragg had in fact decided to send another 11,000 men to Knoxville, incorrectly assuming that Sherman was about to head that way.

Accurately assessing what Bragg was doing, Grant ordered a probe of the Confederate center, specifying that direct engagement was to be avoided. At 1:30 p.m., 14,000 bluecoats left their trenches on the east side of Chattanooga and moved toward their objective 2,000 yards away, a small hill 100 feet high called Orchard Knob. Its 600 Confederate defenders only managed to fire a single volley before being overrun in what became the first episode in the battle for Chattanooga. Rather than withdrawing as they originally planned, Grant and Thomas decided to hold the position, making Orchard Knob their headquarters for the remainder of the Chattanooga campaign.     

In reaction to this sudden threat, Bragg recalled all units within a day’s march and began reinforcing his left, opposite Sherman’s forces. He also reduced his strength at Lookout Mountain and — at last — fortified the top of Missionary Ridge. His deployments along the ridge were flawed however, half the available men went into rifle pits at its base, while the others were placed along the crest, from which their downward firing lines were sometimes obscured.

Grant made changes as well. Bolstered by the continuing growth of Sherman’s force but also concerned about a stranded Union division in Lookout Valley, he reversed his earlier decision not to attack Lookout Mountain. On Nov. 24 Hooker’s three corps, some 12,000 men, were ordered to move against the mountain from the west, although Grant instructed him to “take the point only if his demonstration should develop its practicability.”

“Fightin’ Joe” Hooker, however, would only settle for complete victory. Part of his force stalled along Lookout Creek, but one of his corps pushed through a lightly defended space between the Tennessee River and the mountain and swept an outnumbered Confederate brigade around its northern end, allowing Hooker’s other troops to advance. During the late morning and early afternoon, as fog and mist swirled around the mountain and Union artillery fired from positions on Moccasin Point, chaotic fighting raged on the lower slopes and around the Cravens house on the eastern side. By noon the Confederates were in disorderly retreat, and a counterattack around 1 p.m. failed. Bragg ordered a withdrawal at 2:30, and this “Battle Above the Clouds” became Hooker’s finest hour.

At Missionary Ridge, the events of the next day, Nov. 25, provided a sensational climax to the campaign. Grant ordered Sherman to envelop the heavily fortified northern end of the Ridge, where his 16,000-man strike force faced 13,000 Confederates. Hooker was to make further demonstrations east of Lookout Mountain and thus divert the Southern right, while Thomas attacked in the center or moved to support Sherman as circumstances required.

Sherman was ordered to attack at dawn, but he delayed and deployed only part of his force, waiting for the Confederates to make the first move. Though greatly outnumbered, the Southerners, led by Gen. Patrick Cleburne, resisted stiffly and by late afternoon had inflicted nearly 2,000 casualties on the Yankees. On the Union right, Hooker was slowed by having to cross Chattanooga Creek, where retreating Confederates had burned the single bridge the night before. Anxious from the lack of progress on both ends of his line, at 3:30 p.m. Grant ordered Thomas to advance on the rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge.

Over the next hour, garbled and conflicting orders were misunderstood or even ignored by various Union commanders, leaving their troops confused about whether to halt at the rifle pits or to push higher up — when asked where to stop by one officer, a brigadier general replied, “I don’t know, at hell, I expect.”

Still stinging from their defeat at Chickamauga and now under fire from above, many of the 23,000 men who moved out when the signal gun fired at 3:40 p.m. charged forward on their own accord, overrunning the 9,000 defenders in the rifle pits and moving steadily toward the crest, where 14,400 Confederates awaited. But Bragg’s faulty disposition of his artillery handicapped its usefulness, and without adequate infantry reserves his entrenchments had no depth — once the front line was pierced, the gap could only be plugged by weakening another sector.

Grant fumed as he saw his orders to stop at the rifle pits apparently disregarded, and an equally astonished Thomas, whose relations with Grant were already chilly, feared for his career if the assault failed. He need not have worried. The first breach in the Southern line came around 5 p.m. Union attackers wheeled to the north and south, easily rolling up the Confederate positions as their defenders fled or surrendered. To the south, Hooker captured Rossville Gap and began moving north along the spine of Missionary Ridge. By 6 p.m. Bragg’s defenses were wrecked, with only Cleburne’s command remaining in good order and capable of serving as a rearguard.

Stunned and disconsolate, the remnants of Bragg’s Army of Tennessee withdrew to Chickamauga Station (now the site of Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport), and on Nov. 26 they began a retreat into Georgia. During the night of Nov. 27-28, 12,000 men from Hooker’s corps attacked and were held off for five hours at Ringgold Gap by Cleburne’s 4,100 troops, enabling the Confederate artillery, baggage train and stragglers to pass safely into Dalton.

The three engagements comprising the Chattanooga campaign included some of the war’s most remarkable episodes. In each instance, the outcome depended as much on the unplanned initiatives of Union soldiers in the army’s lower ranks as it did on the tactical and strategic considerations of their commanders — combined, of course, with the blunders and miscalculations of the Confederate high command.

In the light of what followed, the drama of their actions was epic indeed.

This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton Civil War 150th Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to www.dalton If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or