The Battles for Chattanooga
As historians, reenactors and tourists from all over converged on Chattanooga this fall for the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Tennessee, McCallie Magazine commemorates these historical events that transpired in our own backyard. What follows is a summary of the Battle of Missionary Ridge, intended to provide a sense of the historical significance of the location of McCallie School.
In 1863, 150 years ago, the population of Chattanooga was 2,500. As it does today however, Chattanooga served as a gateway to Atlanta and the Deep South, as well as to Knoxville, Nashville and points North, East and West. It was a major railway hub in the Railroad Age; thus it held immense importance to both the Confederate and Union armies during the U.S. Civil War.
The Battles for Chattanooga – Lookout Mountain (Nov. 24) and Missionary Ridge (Nov. 25) – proved to be a turning point in the War, allowing the Union access into Georgia, Gen. William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and eventually, victory for the North.
Two months earlier, the South realized perhaps its greatest victory in the War Between the States. The Battle of Chickamauga (Sept. 19-20, 1863) was the bloodiest two-day battle in the conflict. While the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) produced more casualties in sheer numbers, the loss of life at Chickamauga to both sides, comparatively speaking, was more devastating.
“No battle of the war, relative to time and numbers, was more bloody (sic) than Chickamauga,” says historian and professor James Lee McDonough in his book “Chattanooga – A Death Grip on the Confederacy.”
By most historians’ accounts, the two months’ time between Chickamauga and the next two battles was critical in terms of preparation for what was to come. Many historians also agree that Chattanooga was both won and lost by tactical blunders from the respective leaders of the two sides.
Following the Battle of Chickamauga, the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, under Gen. William Rosecrans, fell back to the city and made camp. Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the Rebel forces, moved to occupy Lookout Mountain and relocated a considerable number of troops onto Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, east of the city and northeast of Chickamauga, successfully blocking supply lines. Riding high after the Confederacy’s victory at Chickamauga, Gen. Bragg seemed content to rest on his laurels on the ridge overlooking the city. Gen. Rosecrans, who was soon replaced by Gen. George Thomas, began to devise a series of defenses and means to receive supplies.
The Rebels controlled the railroads and the Tennessee River in and out of the city, and Gen. Bragg’s plan was to starve the Union soldiers while keeping them in sight in the valley.
“The Union won this battle despite its generals; the Confederates lost because of its generals.” -historian Brooks D. Simpson
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of western Union forces, was promoted to lead commander of the Union army by
With supplies slowly replenished and soldiers refueled, Gen. Grant and his leadership staff strategized to pressure the South from Missionary Ridge to gain a stronghold on the city. On the other side, Gen. Bragg was confident that the geography and the terrain of the Ridge gave his troops a distinct advantage, and he reportedly did not order the building of barriers on or near the Ridge until the morning of Nov. 23.President Lincoln and made his way to the area. In late October, he ordered a successful raid on Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River west of the city which opened up supply lines for the Northern troops.
“While his opponent Bragg was content to react to Grant’s moves, Grant was a commander who sought to manage rather than be managed by events,” says historian Wiley Sword in his article “Hell in the Heavens” from the Fall 2013 issue of Hallowed Ground magazine, published by the Civil War Trust.
Gen. Grant’s plan for the Federals was to capture the north end of the Ridge and send other troops around Lookout Mountain and across the valley to capture the south end of the Ridge. On Nov. 5, upon learning of some Grey troop movement to help the Southern cause in Knoxville, Gen. Grant sent Gen. Thomas to attack the northern tip of the Ridge in hopes the Rebel divisions would return to Chattanooga. The attack never occu
Enter Gen. William T. Sherman and his men. The two generals, Grant and Sherman, were on the same page strategically and had mutual respect for one another. Bad roads and uncooperative weather delayed Gen. Sherman’s arrival to Chattanooga, thus stalling Gen. Grant’s plan on the north side of the Ridge in mid-month.rred, as Gen. Thomas did not follow orders.
Gen. Grant grew impatient. Thinking that Gen. Bragg had plans to leave the area before Gen. Sherman’s entire unit arrived, he ordered nearly 25,000 soldiers across the valley on Nov. 23 where they overtook a small knoll called Orchard Knob and the Rebels’ first line of defense near the foot of the Ridge. The next day, Lookout Mountain was captured by Union forces.
At first glance from atop the Ridge on Nov. 23, Gen. Bragg thought he was witnessing Union drills and formations. He could see the legions marching in the valley below. Soon he realized Orchard Knob had been captured, and the proximity of the enemy forced him to revise his plan. He ordered new breastworks, bunkers and trenches built. Historians note that these barricades were built on the topographical crest of the Ridge as opposed to the military crest, a strategic no-no. Positioning troops on the military crest of the slope of a hill or ridge allows for maximum observation and direct line of fire all the way to the base.
On Nov. 24, Gen. Sherman crossed the Tennessee River and ascended what he thought was the northern tip of Missionary Ridge. It was in fact an adjacent hill that sat on its own. Gen. Cleburne’s orders from Gen. Bragg were to defend the northern end of the Ridge. The numbers indicated an unfair fight: 30,000 men for Sherman, 4,000 under Cleburne.
The Battle of Missionary Ridge began at daybreak Nov. 25. Despite the discrepancy in troops, Gen. Cleburne fought off Gen. Sherman several times. Realizing his mistake in geography and not knowing how many Rebel troops Gen. Cleburne had at his ready, Gen. Sherman became apprehensive and eventually pulled back from the Ridge. Gen. Grant’s next move was to order Gen. Hooker, leader of the North’s victory at Lookout Mountain, to attack the southern end of the Ridge. But a burned bridge delayed those plans.
After two blunders, Gen. Grant sent Gen. Thomas Wood’s and Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s divisions to attack the Confederate rifle line at the base of the Ridge at what is now Dodds Avenue, the main thoroughfare at the entrance to McCallie. The strategy was to put pressure on the center of the Ridge.
The Confederates were not without their missteps. Lt. Gen. William Hardee ordered rifle units at the base to retreat at sight of the Union men. He also mounted all his artillery at the crest. With the enemy retreating and unfriendly fire falling from above, Union soldiers continued forward, following the Rebels up the slopes and climbing for safety over what is now the McCallie campus. Viewing the action from Orchard Knob, Gen. Grant wondered who had ordered the charge.
Despite the miscommunication, Union divisions overtook the Rebels at the crest of the midsection of the Ridge, commandeering artillery and forcing the Greys to scramble over the opposite slope. This was the beginning of the end for the Southerners on Missionary Ridge.
“In the spreading panic and terror, what was once thought to be an impregnable Confederate line atop Misionary Ridge was swiftly destroyed,” says Mr. Sword in “Hell in the Heavens.”
With Chattanooga in the hands of the Federals, the doorway was opened for the Union’s move South and soon, an end to the War in April 1865, some 16 months after Missionary Ridge.
As historians note, the Battles for Chattanooga were not without tactical errors on both sides.
“The Union won this battle despite its generals,” said historian Brooks D. Simpson at the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Symposium. “The Confederates lost because of its generals.”
“Despite the high stakes, the story of the Chattanooga Campaign and the incredible attack at Missionary Ridge has remained over the years as one of the most overlooked and misunderstood of all Civil War events,” Mr. Sword says in his article. “Many consider Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge simply a part of the natural chain of events guided by that military mastermind, U.S. Grant; the reality was anything but.”
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