The Battle of Chattanooga – The War in the West

The City of Chattanooga

Chattanooga was a town that was stationed on a railroad junction next to the Tennessee River in a plain located in the Cumberland Mountains. The city housed two thousand residents and likely would have been of little significance had it not been for the battle that would take place there, immortalizing this railroad town in the pantheon of history.

Located to the east of Chattanooga, two miles to be exact, sat Missionary Ridge. This ridge extended from Chickamauga Creek for fifteen miles to Georgia. To the south of the city was Lookout Mountain. This was a ridge that ran from Chattanooga to Georgia for 85-miles. The highest point of Lookout Mountain protruded from the earth 1,800 feet into the sky. Situated opposite Chattanooga, across the Tennessee, was a ridge named Walden’s Ridge.

The Army of the Cumberland

The Army of the Cumberland, prior to Chattanooga, had suffered very severe casualties at the Battle of Chickamauga. Despite this, the Union soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland were in high spirits. There were roughly 35,000 Union soldiers stationed at Chattanooga under General William S. Rosecrans. Rosecrans was toying with the idea of retreating, however, the powers that be in Washington, namely President Abraham Lincoln, ordered the Northern general to hold the city. The president also informed Rosecrans he would reinforce him at Chattanooga.

Washington also ordered General William T. Sherman, general of the Army of the Tennessee, to take 20,000 men north from Vicksburg to Chattanooga. General Burnside, who had formerly commanded the Army of the Potomac, was also ordered by the war department to reinforce Rosecrans. However, Burnside would not comply. As a result, on September 20, 1863, Union soldiers under Major General Oliver O. Howard, the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and Major General Henry W. Slocum, XII Corps, under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker (another former commander of the Army of the Potomac) headed west to Chattanooga. Their journey would take just nine days.

Bragg’s Army

Following his smashing victory at Chickamauga, Confederate General Braxton Bragg began to move his army into place surrounding Rosecrans’ men in Chattanooga on September 23. The Confederates positioned themselves on the high ground of Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain and the valley of the Chattanooga Creek that was situated between the opposing armies.

A Confederate Corps under General James Longstreet of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was also stationed with Bragg for the time being. Bragg ordered Longstreet to the left of the Confederate line. The goal of this move was to prevent the Union army from accessing Lookout Mountain, Bragg also stationed a corps under John C. Breckenridge on Missionary Ridge. A corps under Leonidas Polk was stationed on the Confederate right to cut the city off from the north. The only access the Northern soldiers had to Chattanooga was from the Tennessee River onto Walden’s Ridge.

Braxton Bragg then relieved several senior officers of command. In response to this, senior officers, twelve to be exact, sent the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, a petition to remove Bragg from command. Davis traveled to Chattanooga to deal with the discontent growing there among his rebel sons. Davis decided to keep Bragg in command and make some changes in the subordinate commanders.

Hill was relieved of command and Buckner was moved from corps command to division command. General Hardee superseded Polk and brought a brigade to Chattanooga from Mississippi. Davis talked with Polk and Polk decided to transfer to Mississippi. Once Davis departed, Bragg promoted Breckenridge and Hardee to corps command. Longstreet continued to command his force from the east.

Union Supply Issues

While stationed in the city of Chattanooga, Rosecrans faced another issue: supply shortages. With the Confederates surrounding the Union position, it was difficult to get supplies to the Union troops. The primary resupply depot for the Union was stationed at Bridgeport, Tennessee. Bridgeport was situated on the Tennessee River which Bragg controlled. Brag and his Confederates also controlled the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.

On the second of October, Rosecrans ordered that soldiers’ rations be cut by a third. This order was issued despite the fact that many Union regiments had already only been issuing half rations. These rations consisted of rancid meat and hardtack. In addition to these diminishing rations, Confederate General Wheeler also led a raid that day and burned more than four hundred Federal wagons. This only served to make the situation more dire for the Union soldiers in Chattanooga.

Grant Takes Command

The Union army also went about changing command as their Confederate counterparts had done. McCook and Crittenden were relieved of their commands and the XX and XXI Corps were combined to create a new IV Corps. This corps was to be led by General Granger. Then, in the middle of October, following his smashing success at Vicksburg, the Ohio-born Ulysses S. Grant was promoted and given command of the Department of the Mississippi. This gave Grant command of the land from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Grant then headed to Chattanooga and immediately relieved Rosecrans of command. Rosecrans was replaced with General George Thomas, the rock of Chickamauga. Thomas now commanded the Army of the Cumberland and General Palmer took command of the XIV Corps. Grant now had to deal with the issue of the depleted Union soldiers at Chattanooga. Grant met with Thomas and Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith. Smith was the chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland and he devised a plan to break the Confederate siege.

The Cracker Line

Smith suggested creating a route from Chattanooga on a road that ran west of the city, across Moccasin bend to Brown’s Ferry which rested on the Tennessee River. Parallel to Brown’s Ferry was Racoon Mountain. A road passed through Cummings Gap and proceeded to Kelly’s Ferry. Here, a pontoon bridge was stationed which gave passage to the west side of the river and led to a Union supply depot at Bridgeport.

The plan was to push the rebels back from Brown’s Ferry and establish a pontoon bridge there. Next, the Union soldiers would have to secure Cumming’s Gap and this would allow supplies to be brought in. On the night of October 26-27, Brigadier General William B. Haznen’s brigade moved down the Tennessee and captured Brown’s Ferry. The Confederates tried a counterattack but failed.

Hooker then brought the XI Corps and divisions of the XII Corps under Brigadier General John W. Geary from Bridgeport and captured Raccoon Mountain and Lookout Valley. These successful moves by the Union force under Grant opened what became known as the “cracker line” and supplies began to pour in.

Brag Devises a New Plan

In response to this, Bragg ordered Longstreet and his corps, along with Wheeler and his cavalry, to attack Knoxville and attempt to move Burnside’s Army of the Ohio from the eastern portion of Tennessee. While Longstreet protested, he was overruled and his move began on November 5.

Grant’s Plan

With Longstreet on the move, Grant devised a plan to attack Bragg. Grant’s plan was three fold 1) to have Sherman move up the river and cross near Chickamauga Creek and attack the right flank of the Confederate army 2) to have Thomas demonstrate at the center of the Confederate line and 3) to have Hooker attack the left flank of the Confederate line at Lookout Mountain and advance on to Missionary Ridge. This movement began on the 23 of November.

Problems for the Rebels

With Longsteet and Wheeler headed to face Burnside in Knoxville, the Confederate force was outnumbered. However, they did have a very solid defensive position, or so it appeared. Bragg placed Major General Carter Stevenson in command of Lookout Mountain’s defenses. However, the defenses here seemed better than they were as they were poorly positioned so as to cover the Union approach.

In addition to this, Bragg, on November 22, sent Cleburne and Buckner’s divisions to Knoxville, thus further depleting Breckinridge and the Confederate men in Chattanooga. In response to these moves, Grant and Thomas ordered General Wood, along with Sheridan’s division and the XI Corps under Howard, to take Orchard Knob. The 20,000 Federal soldiers quickly defeated the 600 Confederates holding Orchard Knob.

In response, Bragg had Cleburne and Buckner return to reinforce the rebel lines.

Lookout Mountain

The next day, November 24, Grant ordered Hooker to “take the point only if his demonstration should develop its practicability.” Hooker ordered his men to assault Lookout Mountain “marching down the valley and sweeping every rebel from it.”

Hooker’s three divisions attacked. General Geary, on the right side of the attack, moved across Lookout Creek with little resistance from the rebels. His men than ran into Brigadier General Edward C. Walthall’s brigade. Geary and his men continued to move along the base of the mountain and pushed Walthall and his men back to the Cravens house. This gave the other two divisions of Hooker’s the ability to cross Lookout Creek.

On top of the mountain, Brigadier General John C. Brown and his brigade could not aid in the fighting below. John C. Moore’s (B.G.) brigade was brought forward to support Walthall and the fighting intensified. With Moore’s brigade not enough, Stevenson then sent Edmund Pettus’ (B.G.) brigade in. Then, a fog covered the mountain which resulted in the battle being named the “Battle Above the Clouds.” The fighting continued during the afternoon. However, it soon occurred to Bragg that the holding of Lookout Mountain was untenable and he ordered Stevenson and his men to retreat behind Chattanooga Creek that night.

That same day Sherman had moved across the Tennessee River and taken control of what he believed to be the northern end of Missionary Ridge. However, he really captured a completely different hill. Realizing this, Sherman saw Confederates in his front and planned for an attack on Tunnel Hill the next day, his original target.

The next morning, having decided to hold the position, Bragg moved Stevenson’s men to the right end of the Confederate line to support Clerbune against Sherman.

Missionary Ridge

The next day Sherman began his attack early in the morning. Sherman’s men struggled against Cleburne’s men on Tunnel Hill. To help relieve pressure on Sherman, Grant had Hooker attack the left flank of the rebels at Missionary Ridge.Hooker’s movement was delayed, however, by the crossing of the Chattanooga Creek and cost the Union about three hours. Confederates under Col. James T. Holtzclaw tried to hold Roseville Gap before the Federals could grab it but were beaten to the punch by Osterhaus’ men. This allowed Hooker to move north up the rebel left flank and attack.

Grant, frustrated by Sherman and Hooker’s attacks, ordered Thomas to attack the rifle pits in front of Missionary Ridge. Thoma moved 23,000 forward. The Union men quickly captured their objective. However, they did not want to stop there because they were left exposed to the Confederate fire. Choosing not to be cannon fodder to the Confederate guns, the Union soldiers continued their assault up the ridge. Grant was furious when he saw the blue wave continuing to advance and stated, “Somebody will suffer if they don’t stay there.”

Grant’s fears, however, were unfounded. The Federals swept the Confederates right off the ridge and easily captured the heights. The middle of Bragg’s line was destroyed and they were forced to retreat “in a panic I had never before witnessed” as Bragg himself stated. Grant wrote about the moment, “The retreat of the enemy along most of his line was precipitate, and the panic was so great that Bragg and his officers lost all control over their men.” The majority of the rebels fled to West Chickamauga Creek and the railroad that laid beyond the creek.

The Retreat

Grant had Hooker attempt to follow the retreating Confederates. However, they stopped after they encountered stiff resistance from Cleburne’s rebels.

The Aftermath

The Union casualties at the Battle of Chattanooga were 5,824. The Confederate casualties were 6,667. Bragg placed the blame for the defeat on Breckinridge and accused him of being drunk during the battle. Bragg also sent his resignation to President Jefferson Davis which was accepted. General Hardee was given temporary command of the rebels until Joseph E. Johnston was given command of the Army of Tennessee.


Morris, A. N. (2016). The Civil War in the West, 1863 / by Andrew N. Morris. Center of Military History, United States Army.

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