Chattanooga: The Battles of Lookout Mountain & Missionary Ridge


The Battle of Lookout Mountain, also known as the Battle Above the Clouds, set the stage for the Battle of Missionary Ridge, one of the Union’s greatest victories in the war. Grant’s victory exemplifies his strategic brilliance and his corps commanders (Sherman, Thomas, Hooker). Indeed, this was not only the greatest leadership of any army in the Civil War, but perhaps the most powerful army of the 19th century. The victory would have made Wellington and Napoleon proud. Missionary Ridge was the turning point of the Civil War because once the mountains of northwest Georgia no longer stood in the way, the way to Atlanta and to ultimate victory was clear.


After the defeat at Chickamauga, General Braxton Bragg began a siege of the Union army holding Chattanooga. Rosecrans was replaced by Thomas, and reinforced by Sherman’s army of 20,000. For nearly two months, the Confederates, commanded by General Braxton Bragg, pinned the Union army inside Chattanooga to attempt a siege. They were not able to surround the city, though, and occupied Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge to the south and east of the city instead. In late October, arriving to take command, Union General Ulysses S. Grant immediately planned an offensive. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was brought in to command and within one month was ready to lift the siege of Chattanooga. First he established a supply line and then he took control of the river called the Cracker Line.

Lookout Mountain

On November 23, 1863, Grant began to attack the center of the Confederate line using Thomas and Sherman’s troops. Lookout Mountain lay on the Union’s far right, where General Joseph Hooker commanded the wing. Ordered to create a diversion, Hooker instead advanced toward the fog-covered peak.  What was intended by Grant to be a mere demonstration carried what was thought to be an impregnable mountain. 

Grant sent General Thomas to probe the center of the Confederate line. This simple plan turned into a complete victory when the Union captured Orchard Knob and the Rebels retreated higher up Missionary Ridge.  A reconnaissance in force by  Thomas overran the Confederate position on Orchard Knob, and gave Bragg deep concerns about the strength of the center of his line along Missionary Ridge. In shoring up this portion of the Confederate position, Bragg moved Gen. William H. T. Walker’s division from the base of Lookout Mountain, leaving Gen. Carter Stevenson just two brigades to hold the plateau near the Cravens House.

Hooker did not plan to attack the entire mountain because he believed the steep terrain and shelter in the rocks would be difficult to overcome. The fog masked the Union advance, however, and Hooker’s men climbed relatively easily. 

The Confederates overestimated the advantages offered by the mountain. Bragg left just 1,200 Rebels to oppose 12,000 Union men. Artillery proved of little use, as the hill was so steep that the attackers could not even be seen until they appeared near the summit. Bragg did not send reinforcements because the Union attacks against the Confederate center were more threatening than the movement around Lookout Mountain. The Confederates abandoned the mountain by late afternoon. By 2:00PM, the “Battle Among the Clouds” was over. That night Bragg decided to withdraw from Lookout Mountain to reinforce Missionary Ridge. 

Missionary Ridge

The next day, Union forces launched a devastating attack against Missionary Ridge and successfully broke the Confederate lines around Chattanooga.

The attack took place in three parts. On the Union left, General Sherman attacked troops under General Cleburne at Tunnel Hill, an extension of Missionary Ridge. In difficult fighting, Cleburne managed to hold the hill. On the other end of the Union lines, Hooker was advancing slowly from Lookout Mountain, and his force had little impact on the ensuing battle. It was at the center that the Union achieved its greatest success. The soldiers on both sides received confusing orders. Some Union troops thought they were only supposed to take the rifle pits at the base of the ridge, while others understood that they were to advance to the top. Some of the Confederates heard that they were to hold the pits, while others thought they were to retreat to the top of Missionary Ridge.

Bragg’s deployments were flawed.  His line was on the crest and should have been below it on the “military” crest, so that the line of fire could be directed downhill. There were also conflicting orders as to whether the men in the rifle pits at the base of the  mountain were supposed to hold their ground or fight a holding action. When the union army reached the rifle pits, they came under fire, which caused them to charge uphill even without orders to get out of the line of fire, and Bragg had no lines along the way. Bragg also had no tactical reserve; his line had no one behind them in case of a breach. So once the line was cracked by Wood’s brigade, reinforcements had to come from the flanks, opening up more gaps.

Grant saw that Sherman’s men were being pinned down at the base of the hill by artillery fire. He suggested to Thomas to advance to relieve pressure on Sherman, but it is said that Thomas demurred waiting for Hooker to advance on his flank first. Grant then ordered General Granger, Thomas’s corps commander, to advance. His lead division was led by General August Willich. His men were also initially pinned down and being slaughtered. Willich ordered them forward, to get out of the line of fire, although many men were already doing that. The lines behind them, seeing Willich advancing, supposedly also asked to move forward and Brig Gen Thomas Wood, a classmate of Grant, ordered them forward as well. Grant was surprised when he saw the Union troops advancing to the top of the ridge. He asked first Thomas then Granger who had given the orders. Neither general claimed responsibility, but Granger replied, “When those fellows get started, all hell can’t stop them.” Granger then sent a courier to Wood allowing him permission to take the ridge top, if he thought it possible.


The attack on the Confederate center turned into a major Union victory. After the center collapsed, the Confederate troops retreated on November 26 and Bragg pulled his troops away from Chattanooga. He resigned shortly thereafter, having lost the confidence of his army. 

Grant had saved Chattanooga, defeated an army in fabulous defensive positions, and opened up the entire South to invasion.  Sherman resumed the attack in the spring to advance on Atlanta after Grant was promoted to general in chief of all Federal forces. If Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the beginning of the end, then Missionary Ridge was the dagger. There was no realistic chance of coming back after this point.

The Union suffered an estimated 5,800 casualties during the Battle of Chattanooga, while the Confederates’ casualties numbered around 6,600. Rarely does the attacking force have fewer casualties than the defending force, and remember, this was attacking a major mountain defense. When next you see Grant described as a butcher, please recall this “little battle” that changed the war.


  • Cozzens, Peter, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga, pages 270, 276, & 282-283; 
  • Grant’s Personal Memoirs, Chapter 44.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Powered by

Up ↑