American Civil War: Battle of Chattanooga

Fighting at Chattanooga
Battle of Chattanooga. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Battle of Chattanooga was fought November 23-25, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and saw Union forces relieve the city and drive away the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Following its defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga (Sept. 18-20, 1863), the Union Army of the Cumberland, led by Major General William S. Rosecrans, retreated back to its base at Chattanooga. Reaching the safety of the town, they quickly erected defenses before General Braxton Bragg's pursuing Army of Tennessee arrived.

Moving towards Chattanooga, Bragg assessed his options for dealing with the beaten enemy. Unwilling to incur the heavy losses associated with assaulting a well-fortified enemy, he considered moving across the Tennessee River. This move would force Rosecrans to abandon the city or risk being cut off from his lines of retreat north. Though ideal, Bragg was forced to dismiss this option as his army was short on ammunition and lacked sufficient pontoons to mount a major river crossing. As a result of these issues, and upon learning that Rosecrans' troops were short on rations, he instead elected to lay siege to the city and moved his men into commanding positions atop Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. 

Opening the "Cracker Line"

Across the lines, a psychologically shattered Rosecrans struggled with the day-to-day issues of his command and showed no willingness to take decisive action. With the situation deteriorating, President Abraham Lincoln created the Military Division of the Mississippi and placed Major General Ulysses S. Grant in command of all Union armies in the West. Moving quickly, Grant relieved Rosecrans, replacing him with Major General George H. Thomas. While en route to Chattanooga, Grant received word that Rosecrans was preparing to abandon the city. Sending word ahead that it was to be held at call costs, he received a reply from Thomas stating, "We will hold the town till we starve."

Arriving, Grant endorsed a plan by the Army of the Cumberland's chief engineer, Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith, to open a supply line to Chattanooga. After launching a successful amphibious landing at Brown's Landing on October 27, west of the city, Smith was able open a supply route known as the "Cracker Line." This ran from Kelley's Ferry to Wauhatchie Station, then turned north up the Lookout Valley to Brown's Ferry. Supplies could then be moved across Moccasin Point to Chattanooga.

Wauhatchie

On the night of October 28/29, Bragg ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet to sever the "Cracker Line." Attacking at Wauhatchie, the Confederate general engaged Brigadier General John W. Geary's division. In one of the few Civil War battles fought entirely at night, Longstreet's men were repulsed. With a way into Chattanooga open, Grant began reinforcing the Union position by sending Major General Joseph Hooker with the XI and XII Corps and then an additional four divisions under Major General William T. Sherman. While Union forces were growing, Bragg reduced his army by sending Longstreet's corps to Knoxville to attack a Union force under Major General Ambrose Burnside.

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederacy

  • General Braxton Bragg
  • Lieutenant General William Hardee
  • 44,010 men

The Battle Above the Clouds

Having consolidated his position, Grant began offensive operations on November 23, by ordering Thomas to advance from the city and take a string of hills near the foot of Missionary Ridge. The next day, Hooker was ordered to take Lookout Mountain. Crossing the Tennessee River, Hooker's men found that the Confederates had failed to defend a defile between the river and mountain. Attacking through this opening, Hooker's men succeeded in pushing the Confederates off the mountain. As the fighting ended around 3:00 PM, a fog descended on the mountain, earning the battle the name "The Battle Above the Clouds" (Map).

To the north of the city, Grant ordered Sherman to attack the north end of Missionary Ridge. Moving across the river, Sherman took what he believed was the north end of the ridge, but was actually Billy Goat Hill. His advance was stopped by Confederates under Major General Patrick Cleburne at Tunnel Hill. Believing a frontal assault on Missionary Ridge to be suicidal, Grant planned to envelop Bragg's line with Hooker attacking the south and Sherman from the north. To defend his position, Bragg had ordered three lines of rifle pits dug on the face of Missionary Ridge, with artillery on the crest.

Missionary Ridge

Moving out the next day, both attacks met with little success as Sherman's men were unable to break Cleburne's line and Hooker was delayed by burned bridges over Chattanooga Creek. As reports of slow progress arrived, Grant began to believe that Bragg was weakening his center to reinforce his flanks. To test this, he ordered Thomas to have his men advance and take the first line of Confederate rifle pits on Missionary Ridge. Attacking, the Army of the Cumberland, which for weeks had endured taunts about the defeat at Chickamauga, succeeded in driving the Confederates from their position.

Halting as ordered, the Army of the Cumberland soon found itself taking heavy fire from the other two lines of rifle pits above. Without orders, the men began advancing up the hill to continue the battle. Though initially furious at what he perceived to be a disregard for his orders, Grant moved to have the attack supported. On the ridge, Thomas' men advanced steadily, aided by the fact that Bragg's engineers had mistakenly placed the artillery on the actual crest of the ridge, rather than the military crest. This error prevented the guns from being brought to bear on the attackers. In one of the war's most dramatic events, the Union soldiers surged up the hill, broke Bragg's center, and put the Army of Tennessee to rout.

Aftermath

The victory at Chattanooga cost Grant 753 killed, 4,722 wounded, and 349 missing. Bragg's casualties were listed as 361 killed, 2,160 wounded, and 4,146 captured and missing. The Battle of Chattanooga opened the door for the invasion of the Deep South and the capture of Atlanta in 1864. In addition, the battle decimated the Army of Tennessee and forced Confederate President Jefferson Davis to relieve Bragg and replace him General Joseph E. Johnston. Following the battle, Bragg's men retreated south to Dalton, GA. Hooker was dispatched to pursue the broken army, but was defeated by Cleburne at the Battle of Ringgold Gap on November 27, 1863. The Battle of Chattanooga was the last time Grant fought in the West as he moved East to deal with Confederate General Robert E. Lee the following spring.

The Battle of Chattanooga is sometimes known as the Third Battle of Chattanooga in reference to the engagements fought in the area June 1862 and August 1863.