Civil War Series

The Battles for Chattanooga



The autumn of 1863 was a season of shattered hopes. In the North, the fall of Vicksburg and the turning back of Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in July had raised expectations of an end to hostilities before Christmas. When Major General William Starke Rosecrans maneuvered General Braxton Bragg out of Tennessee that same month, victory seemed near on all fronts. But the Army of the Potomac failed to follow up its triumph at Gettysburg and Ulysses S. Grant saw his army at Vicksburg carved up to support peripheral operations. Then in September, Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland came to grief along the banks of Chickamauga Creek, twelve miles southeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In some of the bitterest fighting of the war, Bragg shattered the Union center and sent half the Federal army reeling toward Chattanooga in chaos. Only a stubborn stand by Major General George Thomas with the remainder of the army averted catastrophe. As it was, Rosecrans retired into the inner defenses of Chattanooga, too dazed to do more than await the inevitable Confederate attack.

But it never came. As Chickamauga brought a halt to the grand Federal offensives of 1863, so too did it represent a squandering of the South's last chance to turn the tide of the war in the West. Bragg had no inclination to storm Chattanooga, and the first Confederate troops did not appear on the outskirts of the city until two days after Chickamauga. Bragg was on the attack, but the object of his offensive was his own generals. At the very time his attention should have been given over to preventing the demoralized Federal army from consolidating its defenses around Chattanooga, Bragg expended his energy rousting out his detractors within the Army of Tennessee. Disgusted with Bragg's repeated failings in battle and repelled by his acerbic temperament, on October 4 twelve of his most senior generals submitted a petition to President Jefferson Davis, calling for Bragg's removal from command. Among the signatories were Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet, who had come from Virginia with his corps to take part in the Battle of Chickamauga, Daniel Harvey Hill, and Simon B. Buckner.

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Davis traveled at once to the army. He listened to the complaints of Bragg's factious subordinates and to the commanding general's rebuttals. In the end, Davis sustained Bragg, who turned the tables on the conspirators. He relieved Hill and Buckner, then reshuffled the units of their corps and that of Leonidas Polk, who had been suspended from command immediately after Chickamauga, so as to dig out the roots of the opposition.

The reconfigured army consisted of three corps. Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge commanded a corps consisting of three divisions, led by Alexander P. Stewart, William Bate, and J. Patton Anderson.

Longstreet kept his corps, less one division on loan from the Army of Tennessee that Bragg broke up, and a second that he transferred to Polk's old corps. The two remaining divisions, which Longstreet had brought with him from Virginia, were led by Brigadier General Micah Jenkins and Major General Lafayette McLaws. Between Bragg and Longstreet there could be no reconciliation. When his effort to unseat Bragg failed, Longstreet sulked. Bragg continued to hold him in high regard as a commander and entrusted him with key assignments early in the campaign, unaware that Longstreet had no inclination to obey orders.

Polk's former corps went to Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, then in Mississippi. Hardee had little to do after the fall of Vicksburg and, despite his distaste for Bragg, he was glad to return to the army.

The men in ranks shared their generals' low opinion of Bragg. "Everyone here curses Bragg," a young Tennessee lieutenant wrote home. Only Bragg's removal, he went on, would put the troops in good spirits. The dismembering of divisions and brigades eroded morale further. Desertions climbed at an alarming rate: 2,149 for the months of September and October alone.

. . .there was little chance of Rosecrans recovering his strength. Chickamauga had wrecked him. His strategic thinking was fuzzy, and he lacked the strength to sustain a coherent effort to relieve his beleaguered army.

More than just bad generalship drove the Rebels to desert. Rations were short and shelter scarce, hardships the men could more readily have endured had they felt Bragg had some strategy in mind beyond waiting for the Federals to starve first. But, a Virginian bemoaned in early October, "Bragg is so much afraid of doing something which would look like taking advantage of an enemy that he does nothing. He would not strike Rosecrans another blow until he has recovered his strength and announces himself ready. Our great victory of [Chickamauga] has been turned to ashes."

But there was little chance of Rosecrans recovering his strength. Chickamauga had wrecked him. His strategic thinking was fuzzy, and he lacked the strength to sustain a coherent effort to relieve his beleaguered army.

Certainly the task before Rosecrans was daunting enough to give any commander pause. Few cities were both so vulnerable to siege or offered topographical features so favorable to the defense as Chattanooga. Natural obstacles of imposing grandeur encircled it. If protected, they might keep a besieging army at bay indefinitely, but Rosecrans had lost them to Bragg without firing a shot in their defense, so the Federals found themselves ensnared between a wide river and a series of long ridges and craggy bluffs.


Chattanooga lay in a bend of the Tennessee River, which turned abruptly to the south just beyond the city, continuing in that direction for two miles before butting up against Lookout Mountain. A half-mile beyond the base of Lookout Mountain, the river veered nearly due north. It flowed north for two miles before forking at Williams Island. These two major changes of the river's course after Chattanooga—first to the south, then back to the north—created a long, narrow peninsula opposite Lookout Mountain that was called Moccasin Point.

From many miles northeast of Chattanooga to the southern tip of Williams Island, the Tennessee River held steady at a width of three to five hundred yards, its current gentle and waters placid. Where the two branches reunited north of the island, the river turned narrow and rapid. After thirteen miles of dizzying twists and foaming water, the river calmed and widened near Kelley's Ferry, which lay six miles west of the northern tip of Lookout Mountain. From Kelley's Ferry, the Tennessee was easily navigable all the way to the Federal supply depot at Bridgeport, Alabama, twenty-two miles away.

The ground east of Chattanooga was nearly as formidable a barrier as the river. Two miles beyond the town, rising from a broad and partly cleared valley to a height of nearly five hundred feet, loomed Missionary Ridge.


Missionary Ridge grew out of the southern bank of South Chickamauga Creek, which emptied into the Tennessee River two and a half miles northeast of the city. Bisected by wagon roads, broken by ravines, dotted with huge outcroppings, and tangled with fallen timber, Missionary Ridge ran south by slightly southeast for nearly fifteen miles. Hard to ascend along its entire length, its slopes were particularly precipitous along the eight-mile stretch from South Chickamauga Creek to Rossville, Georgia, where a narrow gap sliced through the ridge.

Missionary Ridge was separated from its more spectacular sister elevation to the west, Lookout Mountain, by the four-mile-wide Chattanooga Creek, which flowed north, then curved west to empty into the Tennessee River at the base of Lookout.

Lookout Mountain was not a single mountain in the commonly understood sense but a long, towering ridge that extended southward from the Tennessee river eighty-five miles. Lookout Mountain narrowed as it neared the river, coming to a point two hundred yards wide and eighteen hundred feet above the Tennessee.

From the riverbank, the mountain first rose at a forty-five-degree angle. About two-thirds of the way between the river and the summit, the slope rose sharply, then changed grade and became relatively level before terminating in a ledge, or "bench," between 150 and 300 feet wide, which extended for several miles around both sides of the mountain.

From the bench, the grade again became steep. Five hundred feet of timber and outcrops brought one to the "palisades," which a war correspondent described as "a ridge of dark, cold, gray rocks, bare even of moss, which rise to the height of fifty or sixty feet."

West of Lookout Mountain loomed Sand Mountain. A long valley of varying width and names divided Sand from Lookout Mountain. Of similar length, Sand Mountain was cut by the mile-wide Running Water Creek Valley five miles south of the Tennessee River. The mountain resumed north of the valley, and this final stretch was called Raccoon Mountain. It lay two miles west of Lookout Mountain. Near the river, the plain separating the two ranges was known as Lookout Valley. A narrow stream called Lookout Creek ran along the western side of Lookout Mountain and emptied into the Tennessee north of the point of the mountain. On either side of the valley, a chain of foothills rubbed against the two mountains.

Of course, this mosaic of natural obstacles rendered lines of supply and communications into Chattanooga from the north and west extremely vulnerable. Confederate depredations and Bragg's tightening noose around Chattanooga forced Rosecrans to use the longest and most indirect route, an excruciating course through the mountains nearly sixty miles in length, to bring supplies from Bridgeport, Alabama, into the city.


As September drew to a close, heavy rains began to fall. Roads were beaten to paste, and in the mountains, long stretches were washed away. The Confederates made common cause with nature. On October 1, Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry descended on an eight-hundred-wagon train rumbling over Walden's Ridge, burning the wagons and shooting the mules.

Wheeler's raid was "the funeral pyre of Rosecrans in top command." Three Federal divisions were left without supplies, and the ammunition reserves of the entire army were rendered dangerously low. By mid-October, the Army of the Cumberland was on the brink of starvation.

An unparalleled opportunity had been presented to Bragg, but he was too absorbed in his internecine struggles to fashion a coherent plan for compelling the Federals to abandon Chattanooga. Bragg's actions against the Federal army at Chattanooga during October were little better than a series of poorly thought out, makeshift measures conceived during the odd moments between battles with his generals.


His troop dispositions offered little possibility of anything more. A direct assault was out of the question. Bragg had a mere forty-six thousand infantrymen stretched out along a seven-mile front that ran from the foot of Lookout Mountain to Missionary Ridge and then northward along the base of the ridge to a point a half-mile south of the Chattanooga and Cleveland Railroad. Bragg lacked even the troops needed to extend the line to the Tennessee River, which was the only way truly to hem in the Federals. Instead, Bragg shook out a thin picket line up the riverbank as far as the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek to guard against crossings beyond his right flank. Longstreet's corps held the line from the base of Lookout Mountain to the west bank of Chattanooga Creek; Breckinridge occupied the center from the east bank to the Bird's Mill road across Missionary Ridge, and Polk's old corps—temporarily commanded by Benjamin Franklin Cheatham—completed the line along the foot of the ridge. Tucked behind a chain of earthen redoubts and rifle pits, the Federals were a mile or more beyond the attenuated Rebel main line in most places. Their lines, by contrast, were neatly compact. Extending from bank to bank of the Tennessee, they formed a half-circle around Chattanooga three miles long. Opposing pickets were often less than two hundred yards apart, placed so as to give ample warning of an advance by either side.

Not that anyone was about to move. Rosecrans had neither the will nor the horses needed to move his army. And Bragg spent his time sulking about headquarters reading, with little interest, ciphered messages warning of the approach of five Yankee divisions under Major General William T. Sherman from Mississippi.

Victory at Vicksburg had been barren for Major General Ulysses S. Grant. After the city's fall in July 1862, General in Chief Henry Halleck began carving up Grant's army to enable Union forces west of the Mississippi to "clean up a little in the weaker Trans-Mississippi Department before undertaking anything ambitious against the stronger half of the Confederacy." Only the defeat of the Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga and its retreat to Chattanooga saved Grant from being shunted aside by Halleck, who was always jealous of Grant's successes. On September 29, six days after Halleck ordered Grant to send William T. Sherman to Chattanooga, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directed Grant to go to Chattanooga himself as commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, an enormous field command that was to be composed of three departments: the Department of the Ohio, then under Major General Ambrose Burnside; the Department of the Cumberland, under Rosecrans; and Grant's own Department of the Tennessee. In effect, all the territory from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and including much of the state of Arkansas was to be unified under one commander. Grant was given the option of retaining or dismissing Rosecrans; he chose to replace Rosecrans with his senior corps commander, Major General George H. Thomas.

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