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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

After christening the new year with a hard-fought victory at Stones River, the Federal war effort in Middle Tennessee stalled during the first several months of 1863. The Union Army of the Cumberland—60,000 strong under Major General William S. Rosecrans—remained in winter quarters well through the spring thaw, while Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee (roughly 43,000 troops) strengthened their defenses along the Duck River. The War Department, impatient with Rosecrans’ inaction, urged the commander to move against Bragg as Major General Ulysses S. Grant prepared his Vicksburg Campaign. Though initially disinclined, Rosecrans contrived a brilliant tactical operation known as the Tullahoma Campaign. Between June 23 and July 4, 1863, the Army of the Cumberland performed a precise sequence of feints and flanking maneuvers around the Confederate right, disrupting Bragg’s communication and supply lines to the southeast. One particularly destructive raid by Colonel John T. Wilder’s mounted infantry in Decherd compelled Bragg to evacuate his Tullahoma headquarters and withdraw his bewildered army towards Chattanooga—a burgeoning transportation center that serviced four major railroads and ferryboat traffic along the navigable Tennessee River. For the Confederacy, losing Chattanooga would ruin wartime logistics and simultaneously endanger its industrial heartland to Federal invasion.



The rugged wilderness surrounding Chattanooga complicated the Union army’s overland offensive. Dense underbrush and mountainous terrain confined military operations to narrow wagon roads insufficient for large-scale military maneuvers and supply trains. Faced with these obstacles, Rosecrans devised a three-pronged approach: Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps would aggressively mobilize towards the embattled city while two other columns—the XIV and XX Corps respectively commanded by Major Generals George H. Thomas and Alexander McCook—flanked southwest into northeast Alabama.


Between August 16 and September 8, Federal forces trekked across the formidable Cumberland Plateau. Concurrent with (albeit independent of) Rosecrans’ advance, Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Union Army of the Ohio campaigned against Knoxville, Tennessee, capturing the city on September 3. The fall of Knoxville and Crittenden’s rapid approach convinced Bragg that an attack was imminent from the north. The Confederate commander arranged his forces east of Chattanooga, leaving the lower Tennessee River crossings practically unguarded. Consequently, Rosecrans traversed the Tennessee unopposed, which exposed the weakened Confederate rear to attack. Realizing he had once again been outmaneuvered, Bragg was compelled to evacuate Chattanooga without a fight. Crittenden’s corps took possession of the city on September 9, 1863.


Chattanooga’s capitulation seemed demoralizing for the Confederate war effort, but Bragg saw a chance at retaliation. The three columns of Rosecrans’ army were separated across a forty-mile front—their ranks overextended for mutual support across the hostile landscape. If Bragg could concentrate his forces and separately engage the isolated Union contingents, he could destroy the Army of the Cumberland. But first, the Confederates had to garner numerical superiority. From his encampment in Lafayette, Georgia, Bragg recalled Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s 8,000-man corps from Knoxville and requested all available support from peripheral Confederate commands. General Joseph E. Johnston dispatched 9,000 men from his Department of the West—two divisions commanded by Major Generals John C. Breckinridge and W.H.T. Walker. Two additional brigades under Generals John Gregg and Evader McNair followed, adding 2,500 more rebels to Bragg’s army. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, transferred Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps (approximately 15,000 troops) to Bragg’s Army of Tennessee—these reinforcements traveled nearly eight hundred miles in two weeks along Southern railways. By mid-September, the Confederate army numbered over 65,000 men.


Bragg dispatched “deserters” to Union lines, spreading rumors that the Confederates were hopelessly demoralized and retreating further into Georgia. An overconfident Rosecrans hastily organized an aggressive pursuit. He ordered McCook’s cavalry to break the Confederate supply line in Resaca, Crittenden to maintain possession of Chattanooga, and Thomas’s corps to advance towards Lafayette. Major General James Negley’s division—Thomas's advance guard numbering 4,600 men—was ordered to cross McLemore’s Cove and secure Dug Gap. Negley’s maneuver into McLemore’s Cove would leave his squadron vulnerable and isolated within the natural bottleneck. A timely attack from the northeast would all but ensure the division’s destruction.



On the evening of September 9, Bragg mobilized Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s command towards Davis’s Crossroads, approaching Negley’s left flank. He also directed Lieutenant General D.H. Hill to reinforce Hindman’s assault from the east at Dug Gap with Major General Patrick Cleburne’s division; however, insubordination and hesitancy undermined Bragg’s meticulous plan. Hill outright neglected his assignment with dubious reasoning—Cleburne was sick and he had insufficient time to properly execute the maneuver. Both explanations were later disproven. When Hindman (whose men were positioned three miles from Negley) learned of Hill’s absence, he became overly cautious and refused to progress any further. An infuriated Bragg dispatched Buckner’s Corps to support Hindman that evening. Despite outnumbering the Federals three-to-one, Confederate field leadership decided that Bragg’s plan was impractical. The arrival of Absalom Baird’s division on September 11 allowed Negley’s men to safely withdraw.


The Confederates lost the element of surprise at Davis’s Crossroads. Rosecrans—fully aware of the grave situation his divided army faced—immediately ordered his columns to reunite. He directed General Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps to Chattanooga while the XXI and XIV Corps maneuvered twelve miles south towards Lee and Gordon’s Mills. By September 17, all three Federal contingents were within supporting distance of each other. Bragg made little effort to disrupt this Union consolidation. Instead, the rebel commander drafted an ambitious battle plan to cross Chickamauga Creek, scatter the Federals back into the mountains, and reoccupy Chattanooga.


The Battle of Chickamauga: September 19 – 20, 1863


The Confederate Army of Tennessee approached Chickamauga Creek during the early morning hours of September 18. Around 7:30 am, Bragg’s advance guard—five infantry brigades under General Bushrod Johnson and supporting cavalry from General Nathan Bedford Forrest—began skirmishing at Reed’s Bridge against three Union infantry regiments commanded by Colonel Robert Minty. Although outnumbered by nearly eight times their strength, Minty’s 3,000-man command successfully repelled several Confederate crossing attempts until mid-afternoon. This delaying action provided Rosecrans precious time to extend his battlelines north and protect direct routes of retreat toward Chattanooga. Both armies maneuvered along the banks of Chickamauga Creek throughout the night, neither knowing where the other was positioned. The heavily timbered area—overgrown with vegetative brambles and cedar thickets—prevented efficient movement and reconnoitering operations. Many officers had difficulty keeping in touch with their own commands.


SEPTEMBER 19


“Men were lying where they fell, shot in every conceivable part of the body. Some with their entrails torn

out and still hanging to them and piled up on the ground beside them, and they still alive. Some with their

jaw torn off, and hanging by a fragment of skin to their cheeks, with their tongues lolling from their mouth,

and they trying to talk.”

– Sam Watkins, 1st Tennessee Infantry, CSA


The Battle of Chickamauga opened on the morning of September 19, when soldiers from General Thomas’s XIV Corps engaged Forrest’s dismounted Confederate cavalry near Jay’s Mill. Both Rosecrans and Bragg stubbornly fed brigades into the fray as the crescendo of battle intensified. By mid-afternoon, the general engagement sprawled across a four-mile front.


Around 3 pm, at the southern end of the battlefield, Confederate forces achieved a momentary breakthrough in the Union line. Colonel George P. Buell—commanding General Thomas Wood’s Union brigade—was attacked by Brigadier General Evander Law’s division north of the Viniard House. Buell’s retreat imperiled Union possession of the strategic Lafayette Road, but the timely arrival of Northern reinforcements (namely Colonel John T. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade”) quickly reestablished control.



At 6 pm, Bragg directed Cleburne’s division to support the Confederate right flank—comprehensively commanded by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk—which had seen only sporadic action since late morning. As the Georgia sun set, Cleburne ambushed Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson’s regiments guarding Alexander Bridge Road. The unanticipated nature of Cleburne’s attack and low visibility propagated chaos through the Union ranks. Federal reinforcements from Baird’s division rushed to support the front, but were mistakenly subjected to friendly fire. The tide of battle abated shortly after 9 pm with Cleburne’s Confederates in possession of the battleground. Baird and Johnson’s troops retreated to General Thomas’s new fortified defensive line along Lafayette Road.


With the day’s hostilities discontinued, little progress could be appreciated on either side. Bragg had failed to crush the Union army and Rosecrans remained in possession of Chattanooga. However, the prospects of victory substantially improved for the Confederacy when the entirety of Longstreet’s Corps arrived late that evening. Bragg reorganized his command into two wings—Longstreet leading the left and Polk on the right—and prepared to execute his endgame attack. Rosecrans anticipated Bragg’s intent and quietly shifted troops towards his vulnerable left flank, although the Army of the Cumberland was now outnumbered by nearly eight thousand men.


SEPTEMBER 20


“Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run…It was wholesale panic.”


– U.S. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana


Bragg planned to strike at dawn. Polk would attack first, driving the Union line south where Longstreet would roll up Rosecrans’ right flank. D.H. Hill’s corps was tasked to spearhead the initial assault, but Polk made a lackadaisical effort to deliver Hill his orders. Hill was ultimately informed around 6 am. With such little preparation time, Hill issued his men breakfast rations and petitioned to delay the attack. Bragg reluctantly agreed.


The Confederate right finally lurched forward around 9:30 am. By then, the Federals had strengthened their lines with wooden breastworks, diminishing Bragg’s opportunity for success. Major General John C. Breckenridge’s division was the first to strike the Union fortifications, producing costly results. Additional rebel units joined as the action spread southward, but the Union line held firm against their piecemeal attacks. The ill-advised series of calamitous Confederate charges ended around noon. Upon witnessing his army’s futile effort, Bragg remarked, “[W]e have lost the opportunity of crushing Rosecrans and retaking Chattanooga…I am not responsible for it and will not bear it.”


While Rosecrans successfully bolstered his left flank, one of his staff officers mistakenly reported that Brigadier General John M. Brannan’s division had withdrawn from the line, creating a gap in the right-center that exposed Major General Joseph J. Reynold’s division to attack. Without any further reconnaissance, a mentally exhausted Rosecrans ordered General Thomas Wood to “close up on Reynolds as fast as possible and support him.” However, no such hole existed, and this impulsive adjustment actually created a quarter-mile opening with Wood’s redeployment.


Purely by coincidence, at 11:10 am, Longstreet amassed five Confederate battalions and struck precisely where the hole developed. The attack surprised the Federal divisions, many of whom were in motion and unprepared to fight. The Union center and right crumbled in disorder, sweeping away corps commanders Crittenden and McCook. Rosecrans, himself, proceeded to evacuate the battlefield for Chattanooga, where he sought to reassemble the shattered remnants of his once-triumphant army. The premature departure of Union leadership placed Major General George H. Thomas in field command of the Cumberland’s residual forces.



General Thomas posted his XIV Corps upon Horseshoe Ridge and rallied remnants of the Federal army to resist Longstreet’s pursuit. Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer’s brigade and Gordon Granger’s Reserves were the first to arrive, establishing makeshift breastworks on Snodgrass Hill. Additional reinforcements filtered in until 25,000 Union soldiers occupied Thomas’s final line of defense. For five hours, the Southerners hammered away, but the determined Federals furiously resisted each blow.


When Rosecrans’s chief-of-staff (and future President) James A. Garfield arrived with orders to retreat, Thomas stubbornly refused. An impressed Garfield dispatched a message to Union command, stating Thomas was “standing like a rock.” The Union army continued its resilient defense against Longstreet until nightfall. Under cover of darkness, the Federals withdrew to Chattanooga in relatively good order; however, Baird’s division, acting as Thomas’s rear guard, was subjected to considerable Confederate harassment. With little coordination and depleted ammunition, three of Baird’s regiments—the 22nd Michigan, 89th Ohio, and 21st Ohio—were forced to surrender. While the victorious Confederates held the field, Thomas’s successful defense prevented the fall of Chattanooga and annihilation of the Army of the Cumberland. General Thomas’s valor earned him the nickname “the Rock of Chickamauga”.


Chickamauga—the “River of Death” according to Cherokee translation—had earned its nickname. Almost 124,000 men engaged in this battle, resulting in more than 34,000 casualties—the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Western Theater. Only Gettysburg witnessed more bloodshed during the entire American Civil War. The Confederates suffered 18,454 casualties (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, and 1,468 missing) while the Union lost 16,170 men (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, and 4,757 missing). Both armies lost roughly 28% of their available force. Four brigade commanders were killed on each side, including Confederate General Benjamin Helm, President Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law. Union corps commanders McCook and Crittenden were court-martialed for their poor performances on the battlefield (the latter also faced allegations of drunkenness on duty) and subsequently relieved of their positions.


Though a resounding Confederate victory, the Battle of Chickamauga was incomplete. The Union army had been driven from the battlefield but not destroyed. Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest urged an aggressive pursuit of the enemy, but Bragg deferred, sensing no urgency. The Army of Tennessee camped for the night, replenishing their supplied and reorganizing order, unaware that the Union army had slipped from their grasp.


The Battles for Chattanooga: November 23 – 25, 1863


The Confederate army shattered Rosecrans’ command at Chickamauga; however, Bragg failed to capitalize on the rout. Instead, he expended his energy against “detractors” within the Army of Tennessee immediately after the battle—a fatal hesitancy that enabled Union leadership to consolidate defensive positions around Chattanooga. Bragg regularly projected his acerbic temperament onto subordinate officers and rarely took accountability for his army’s failures. Unsurprisingly, these behaviors effected endemic dissatisfaction and insubordination among Confederate ranks. General Longstreet, who witnessed Bragg’s conduct at Chickamauga, remarked, “I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander.” On October 4, President Jefferson Davis visited the Army of Tennessee and received complaints from twelve senior generals chastising Bragg’s ineffective leadership. Ultimately, Davis sustained Bragg, who retaliated against his conspirators. Generals Hill, Polk, and Buckner were consequently removed from field command.



The Confederates besieged Chattanooga, hoping to starve out its Northern occupiers. Rebel artillery positioned atop Lookout Mountain—an 85-mile-long ridge that culminated at a sharp point 1,800 feet above Chattanooga—domineered access to the Tennessee River while Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry routinely raided vulnerable Union supply trains. With no incoming provisions, forty thousand Federal soldiers were placed on a starvation diet—limited to a quarter ration per day. Famine killed tens of thousands of horses and mules. Chattanooga’s remaining citizens, clamped between the jaws of combat, were subjected to martial law, property confiscation and destruction, and the constant threat of bombardment.


As the situation in Chattanooga grew increasingly dire, Washington war officials frantically organized relief efforts. In the immediate hours after Chickamauga, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered Major General Joseph Hooker to lead the XI and XII Corps—20,000 men from the Army of the Potomac—to Chattanooga. Even before the sanguineous engagement, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had instructed Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman to reinforce Rosecrans from their encampments in Vicksburg, Mississippi; however, these orders were not received until two days after Chickamauga.


On October 17, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Grant to head the newly established Military Division of the Mississippi, which effectively conferred authority over all Union forces west of the Appalachians. In the days that followed, Grant learned that Rosecrans—unnerved from his army’s predicament—was planning to withdraw from Chattanooga, thereby surrendering the strategic city to Bragg. Exercising his newfound authority, Grant relieved Rosecrans of command on October 19 and replaced him with General George H. Thomas. When ordered to hold Chattanooga, Thomas dutifully replied, “we will hold the town till we starve.”


When Grant reached Chattanooga on October 23, Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith—Chief Engineer for the Army of the Cumberland—presented a daring proposal to secure lasting provisions for the city’s beleaguered Union forces. This plan of necessity tasked General William B. Hazen’s 1,500-man brigade to float down the Tennessee River on pontoons towards Brown’s Ferry during the night of October 26-27, while a second brigade under General John B. Turchin marched across Moccasin Point to support the amphibious landings. By seizing Brown’s Ferry, Union riverboats could connect with Hooker’s approaching force at Bridgeport, Alabama, thereby establishing a reliable supply route (“The Cracker Line”) through Lookout Valley. Grant enthusiastically submitted his approval.


On October 27, around 3 am, Hazen’s brigade silently floated down the Tennessee River, stealthily passing by unsuspecting Confederate sentries on Lookout Mountain. Upon landing at Brown’s Ferry, Union troops scattered sparse rebel pickets before erecting more sophisticated fortifications. The 15th Alabama Infantry launched a counterattack around 5 am, but were decisively repulsed. News of the action passed to General Longstreet, who presumptuously dismissed its importance—Longstreet was under the unconfirmed impression that Brown’s Ferry was a feint for a larger Federal maneuver south of Lookout Mountain. When Bragg inevitably learned of the Union operation, he ordered Longstreet to retake Brown’s Ferry, but Longstreet again demurred, oblivious to its tactical significance.


The following morning, Hooker’s column appeared in Lookout Valley, much to the astonishment of Confederate field leadership. Longstreet, now acutely cognizant of his dismissive miscalculations, hurriedly mobilized his men against the developing Union maneuver. He devised a plan for a nighttime assault—a relatively rare occurrence during the Civil War—in which General Micah Jenkins’s South Carolina Brigade (1,800 men actively commanded by Colonel John Bratton) would attack Brigadier General John W. Geary’s isolated division at Wauhatchie Station. The brigades of Generals Evander Law and Jerome Robertson would position themselves on the high ground overlooking Brown’s Ferry to prevent the XI Corps from reinforcing Hooker’s rear guard.


While Longstreet’s scheme was scheduled for 10:00 pm, logistical confusion delayed the operation until midnight. The sudden Confederate attack took Geary’s men completely by surprise. Nonetheless, competent Union officers quickly reestablished order and fiercely defended their bivouac. Upon hearing the sounds of battle, Hooker dispatched Major General Oliver O. Howard and two XI Corps divisions to support Geary; however, Hooker’s orders of march were vague and Howard’s troops wound up engaging Law and Robertson’s brigades. The outnumbered Confederates repulsed several vigorous Union assaults against their naturally defensible hilltop positions. At Wauhatchie, Bratton received an erroneous dispatch from Jenkins containing details of an approaching Union column—Howard’s XI Corps currently engaged at Brown’s Ferry—and recommendations to retreat. The South Carolinian obliged and withdrew his men back up Lookout Mountain.



Though the Battle of Wauhatchie was a relatively small engagement, the night fight had significant ramifications for the military situation around Chattanooga. The Confederates were unable to dislodge Geary from Brown’s Ferry, thereby yielding Lookout Valley to the Union. This opened the wagon roads and Tennessee River to supply depots in Bridgeport, thus easing the supply crisis in Chattanooga. With provisions and reinforcements flowing through the “Cracker Line,” the Confederate siege was rendered ineffectual.


On the evening of November 15, General Sherman arrived in Chattanooga. He met with Grant’s council of war and discussed strategies to break the Confederate siege. It was decided that Sherman’s troops would march north of Chattanooga, feigning towards Knoxville then attacking Bragg’s right flank on Missionary Ridge. Thomas’s men would simultaneously mobilize against the Confederate center while Hooker assaulted the rebel left flank on Lookout Mountain, blocking Bragg’s route of retreat at Rossville Gap. Grant tentatively approved the plan but reassigned Hooker’s role to merely maintain possession of Lookout Valley. The mass of his attack rested with Sherman.


While the Federals schemed in early November, Bragg rearranged his defenses: Lieutenant General William J. Hardee controlled the Confederate right flank at Tunnel Hill, Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Corps centered itself along Missionary Ridge, and General Carter Stevenson protected Lookout Mountain. Bragg assumed Sherman’s intent was Knoxville, though without adequate cavalry, the Confederate commander had little utility to confirm his suspicions. He ordered Longstreet to march against Burnside’s Army of the Ohio in East Tennessee, taking with him the divisions of Major Generals Lafayette McLaws and John B. Hood, Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry brigades, and the artillery battalions of Colonel E. Porter Alexander—approximately 15,000 men in total. Longstreet’s redeployment removed nearly half of the available manpower from Missionary Ridge. With only 16,000 troops remaining along a five mile front, the Confederates ranks were stretched thin. This limited manpower was further exasperated on November 22, when Bragg ordered Major Generals Patrick Cleburne and Simon Buckner to withdraw their divisions (totaling 11,000 men) and support Longstreet’s campaign in Knoxville.


NOVEMBER 23: ORCHARD KNOB


On November 23, 1863, General Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland emerged from Fort Wood and assembled parade-like formations directly east of Chattanooga: Brigadier General Absalom Baird manned the left, Thomas Wood’s division possessed the center, and Major General Philip Sheridan held the right. Confederate sentries stationed on Orchard Knob—a topographic prominence midway between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge—anxiously observed the Union lines materialize across their front.


Around 1:30 pm, a Union bugler sounded the command “forward, double-quick.” Approximately 14,000 Federal soldiers began marching towards Orchard Knob. The 634 rebel defenders provided futile resistance against the blue wave, offering few exchanges of gunfire before scurrying up Missionary Ridge. Shortly before 3:00 pm, General Wood galloped to the summit of Orchard Knob and signaled to General Thomas: “I have taken the first line of enemy entrenchments.” Thomas responded, “Hold on; don’t come back; you have got too much; intrench [sic] your position.” Orchard Knob later became General Grant’s forward observation post for his planned attack against Missionary Ridge.


Bragg was alarmed by the sight of so many Yankees positioned at his front and again made major revisions to his defensive arrangements. Having previously regarded the primary Union objective as Knoxville, Bragg now suspected an imminent assault against Missionary Ridge. He immediately recalled Cleburne and Buckner’s divisions, who were less than a day’s march away in Cleveland, Tennessee. Bragg also withdrew Major General W.H.T. Walker’s division from his left flank to the southern end of Tunnel Hill. In the center, Breckenridge ordered his men to fortify the crest of Missionary Ridge, a practical task that Bragg had somehow neglected for weeks.


NOVEMBER 24: THE BATTLE OF LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN


Expecting Sherman to eradicate Bragg from Missionary Ridge, Grant authorized Hooker to move simultaneously against the Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain. Hooker utilized three division for the operation, respectively commanded by Generals John Geary, Charles Cruft, and Peter J. Osterhaus. Hooker was intent to “sweep every rebel from [Lookout Mountain]” and left little to chance. During the night of November 23, he arranged nine batteries to pulverize the rebel pickets at dawn.


Hooker’s command mobilized from Wauhatchie Station on the morning of November 24, concealed by fog and forest as they approached their imposing objective. The terrain that confronted Hooker was craggy, steep, and quite arboraceous. Union skirmishers stumbled along for nearly an hour before encountering General Edward Walthall’s Confederate defenses one mile southeast of Point Lookout. Sulfurous gun smoke mixed with the stagnant, misty air, blanketing the battlefield in an opaque haze. Rebel troops fired blindly into the fog and resorted to rolling boulders and live artillery shells downslope to break the Union advance. Unfortunately, Walthall’s line was stretched too thin to offer prolonged resistance. His inferior ranks were quickly driven back past John Cravens’ mountainside homestead.


By 11:30 am, Hooker’s forces maintained possession of Cravens Farm, but their pursuit of Walthall came to an abrupt halt when they encountered entrenched Confederate reserves just above the property. Though outnumbered four-to-one, the rebels threw back several impulsive Federal charges from behind their earthworks. However, the Confederates positions were eventually outflanked, forcing their defenders to retreat further up the mountain.



Bragg was irate with Stevenson’s failure to hold Lookout Mountain. Although no Union troops had managed to scale Lookout’s summit, Bragg considered the battle a loss. He ordered Stevenson to conduct an overnight withdrawal and reassemble his force at Missionary Ridge. Hooker’s infantry seized the abandoned precipice the following morning. The much-romanticized “Battle Above the Clouds” ended in Union triumph.


While Hooker’s men assaulted Lookout Mountain, Sherman mobilized his army across the Tennessee River opposite the far right Confederate flank, sparsely defended by cavalry and infantry patrols. Bragg, blindsided by Sherman’s sudden arrival, desperately recalled Cleburne’s division to defend this sector.


Sherman’s command advanced towards Missionary Ridge throughout the day, but found the topography quite difficult to negotiate. After driving off some Confederate sentries, the Union army captured what was believed to be Missionary Ridge; however, due to poor maps and negligent surveillance, Sherman’s men actually controlled Billy Goat Hill—a separate range opposite of Tunnel Hill, their true objective, now entrenched with Cleburne’s Confederates. With nightfall rapidly approaching, Sherman ordered his men to bivouac and prepare for an assault the following morning.


NOVEMBER 25: MISSIONARY RIDGE


“If we can’t hold such a line as this against those blasted Federals, where is the line or position between

here and the coast of Georgia that we can hold?”

– Lieutenant Robert M. Collins, 15th Texas Cavalry


Having lost the element of surprise, Grant ordered Sherman to resume his offensive the following day. Despite Hooker’s success on Lookout Mountain, Grant envisioned no serious role for the Army of the Potomac. At best, they were to divert Bragg’s attention by assaulting the southern end of Missionary Ridge near Rossville Gap. Likewise, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland would array against the center of Bragg’s line, offering Sherman assistance as needed.


As dawn broke on November 25, Grant observed Sherman’s position with ill-concealed impatience. The Union Army of the Tennessee confronted Cleburne’s well-entrenched rebel division, yet despite having overwhelming numerical superiority—16,000 Federals against 4,000 Confederates—Sherman exercised uncharacteristic caution, launching a series of tepid, piecemeal assaults that failed to bear. Cleburne’s strong defensive fieldworks, accentuated by natural obstacles, limited Sherman’s maneuverability and allowed the Confederates to hold their positions against the superior attacking force.


Grant watched in dismay as Sherman floundered at Tunnel Hill. Meanwhile, Hooker was in trouble; not with the enemy, rather logistics. General Stevenson’s men—who withdrew from Lookout Mountain the night previous—had burned bridges and obstructed roads leading to Rossville. Hooker lost three hours of precious maneuvering time fording creeks and clearing debris. The Army of the Potomac did not reach its objective until late afternoon.


Dumfounded by the day’s languishing operation, Grant obstinately ordered Major General Thomas to advance Wood and Sheridan’s divisions (approximately 24,000 officers and men) against the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge—merely to relieve pressure from Sherman’s troops. The rebel fortifications looked menacing enough. Sixteen thousand Confederates arrayed along a three mile front, defending seemingly impregnable heights with ample artillery. However, despite their appearance, the Confederate position was horribly improvised. Bragg, overly dependent on the natural defensibility of Missionary Ridge, had arranged his upper entrenchments along its topographic crest, which was too far back to provide clear lines of fire for his artillery. The ridgeline’s indurations and ravines provided ample protection for the attacking Federals. Additionally, Bragg possessed no reserve corps. Every man was committed, either to the ground-level trenches or breastworks atop Missionary Ridge.



At 3:40 pm, six signal cannon erupted from Orchard Knob, announcing Thomas’s forward movement across the lowlands of Chattanooga Valley. Lieutenant General Hardee, having anticipated such a demonstration, instructed those manning the rifle pits to deliver a single volley upon the enemy’s approach, then retire up the slopes of Missionary Ridge, skirmishing as they climbed. However, the planned Confederate withdrawal was poorly executed. Some rebels in the lower trenches fled before the Yankees even advanced. While many units obliged Hardee’s command—firing one volley then retreating—others fought until they were overrun. The hard-charging Union army easily overwhelmed the lower entrenchments and fired into the backs of Southern sentries attempting to escape upslope.


The Cumberland’s quick and exhilarating conquest in the rifle pits left Thomas’s men believing that the rebels were fleeing in terror. Yet, as they halted to reorganize, blasts of canister and case shot rained down on their position. Trapped beneath the enemy’s guns, Union soldiers realized that the only way to avoid complete annihilation was to continue their advance up the ridge. The Federals instinctively charged, inciting chaos amongst Confederate defenders. Friendly stragglers disrupted fields of fire. Many rebels discharged their weapons haphazardly, purposely overshooting to avoid hitting their own men. Most of Bragg’s batteries could not depress their cannon tubes low enough to engage the enemy as they advanced up the convoluted contours of Missionary Ridge.


Less than thirty minutes after the impulsive onslaught, the lead Union brigades of William Hazen and August Willich scrambled over the crest of Missionary Ridge, scattering the ranks of Colonel William F. Tucker’s Mississippi Brigade. Nearby Confederate units met similar fates in a consequential domino effect. Captured artillery were turned on the remaining rebels, sending them reeling in disorder toward Chickamauga Creek. Only Cleburne and Hardee held the far right flank intact, enabling the floodtide of Confederates to reorganize at Chickamauga Station before continuing their retreat toward Dalton, Georgia.


With Missionary Ridge succumbing to Union pressure, General Breckinridge dispatched Colonel James T. Holtzclaw to secure his retreat route at Rossville Gap, located on the extreme Confederate left flank. When the Southern contingent reached their objective, they encountered the full strength of Hooker’s command. Hooker quickly organized a three-pronged attack that enveloped Holtzclaw, forcing his entire brigade to surrender. Lieutenant J. Cabell Breckenridge—the general’s son and aide-de-camp—was one of nearly seven hundred rebels captured in the action.


Bragg’s army was in full retreat following the Battle of Missionary Ridge, and Grant was determined to take full advantage of this auspicious opportunity. With General Thomas reorganizing his exhausted command, responsibility for the pursuit fell to General Hooker. The Army of the Potomac encountered Bragg’s rearguard (Cleburne’s division) at the Battle of Ringgold Gap on November 27. Though outnumbered by eight thousand men, Cleburne stemmed the Union tide for five hours from his formidable position on Taylor’s Ridge, inflicting heavy casualties in the process. Around noon, Cleburne performed an orderly withdrawal after receiving word that the Confederate army had safely evacuated to Dalton. Cleburne’s action at Ringgold Gap saved the Army of Tennessee from complete destruction and dissuaded any further Union action.


The Battles for Chattanooga resulted in a resounding Union victory. Between November 23 – 27, Union casualties totaled 5,824 (753 killed, 4,722 wounded, and 349 missing) while the Confederate army incurred 6,667 losses (361 killed, 2,160 wounded, and 4,146 captured/missing). General Braxton Bragg, discouraged by he Army of Tennessee's repeated failures, resigned from active field duty on December 1. He was succeeded by General Joseph E. Johnston four weeks later. Contrary to Bragg’s situation, Grant’s impressive victory at Chattanooga directly effectuated his promotion to Lieutenant General in March 1864. Likewise, Sherman succeeded Grant as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Chattanooga—the “Gateway to the Deep South”—would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war and served as the launching point for Sherman's Atlanta Campaign the following May.


Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park


“The survivors of the Army of the Cumberland should awake to great pride in this notable field of

Chickamauga. Why should it not, as well as eastern fields, be marked by monuments, and its lines

accurately preserved for history? Both sides might well unite in preserving the field where both, in a

military sense, won such renown.”

– General Henry Van Ness Boynton, 1888


As the immediate postwar years progressed, commemorative sentiments proliferated throughout the North and South. Contact between ex-Confederates and Union veterans increased—their mutual bitterness acquiescing to the bonds of wartime camaraderie. Eventually, formal Blue and Gray reunions became commonplace, brimming with the spirit of reconciliation and remembrance. This emphasis of mutual experience and surging patriotism (heightened by the recent American Centennial of 1876) augmented the movement to establish national battlefield parks.



In June 1888, two veteran Union officers, Henry Van Ness Boynton—former Lieutenant Colonel of the 35th Ohio Infantry and Medal of Honor recipient at Missionary Ridge—and Ferdinand Van Derveer, spearheaded attempts to conserve Chickamauga battlefield. They proposed a plan to protect the landscape’s remaining wartime features, restoring its battle-era appearance, and adorn the field of honor with placards and monuments. Boynton wrote, “The project is based upon the belief that the time has fully come when the participants in the great battles of our civil war can, while retaining and freely expressing their own views of all questions connected with the war, still study its notable battles purely as military movements.” This was the first plan to create a Civil War park recognizing both Union and Confederate participation.


Boynton presented this idea to the Society of the Army of the Cumberland, a Union veterans group, who enthusiastically embraced the concept of battlefield preservation. In February 1889, the Society formed a park commission consisting of Union and Confederate veterans that met in Washington D.C. Retired General William S. Rosecrans, President of the Society, appointed Boynton, Absalom Baird, Russell A. Alger, Charles F. Manderson, and Henry M. Cist to the committee. The delegatory commission subsequently established the Chickamauga Memorial Association and organized a grand reunion barbecue in Crawfish Springs, Georgia, the following year. There, to a crowd of twelve thousand Union and Confederate veterans, the committee formally announced its effort to preserve and memorialize Chickamauga Battlefield as a “shrine for patriotic devotion for the future generation of American youth.”


By the late 1800s, Civil War veterans were at the apex of political power. Inspired by fervent patriotism and desire for reconciliation, Congress expediently approved legislation to preserve the greater Chattanooga battlefields. On August 19, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison officially designated Chickamauga and Chattanooga the first National Military Park in America. Its establishment fostered “the purpose of preserving and suitably marking for historical and professional military study the fields of some of the most remarkable maneuvers and most brilliant fighting in the war of the rebellion.” Secretary of War Redfield Proctor appointed Joseph S. Fullerton, Alexander P. Stewart, and Sanford Kellogg as Park Commissioners—each a veteran of Chickamauga and/or Chattanooga. Boynton was appointed historian and worked closely with the commission.


The park’s founders envisioned an area where visitors could walk the roads and fields of battle while paying their respects to soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. To achieve this ambitious end, the commission called upon various veteran groups to reconstruct the history of battle and locate troop positions for accurate placard placement. However, an immediate challenge presented itself. After thirty years, Chickamauga had been obscured by overgrown vegetation and destructive farming practices, which led to disagreements over the preciseness of battle-era events. The Association committed itself to restoring roads, buildings, fences, and other landmarks to their wartime appearances while removing more recent alterations. Workers cleared woods and fields to provide visitors with unobstructed views and opportunities to follow the progress of battle. By time of the park’s dedication September 18 – 20, 1895 (the 32nd anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga), the Park Commission had preserved nearly 6,000 acres of land. Over 40,000 people attended the nationally observed dedication ceremonies overseen by Vice President Adlai Stevenson.


Civil War veterans took up the cause of memorializing the men and military units that fought at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. The park commission also invited state governments and private donors to fund, design, locate, and construct monuments. Between 1893 and 1910, over 1,400 commemorative features were erected—each standing as a silent sentinel to courage and determination.



In 1896, the park commission purchased the Cravens House—a reconstructed battle-era homestead that played a crucial role during the Battle of Lookout Mountain. Battlefield preservationists also sought after Point Park at Lookout’s northern edge; however, local landowners delayed its acquisition by asking high prices and establishing private tourism enterprises, including an incline railway and overlook hotel. In 1898, New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs and Chattanoogan attorney Alexander W. Chambliss submitted legal motions for the federal government to acquire Point Park via eminent domain. The courts approved their request in April 1899, much to the chagrin of Lookout’s elite.


In 1896, Congress passed legislation that permitted national military parks to be utilized as training grounds for United States troops. Between April and September 1898, the Army established Camp Thomas on Chickamauga Battlefield, which hosted more than 72,000 soldiers preparing for the Spanish-American War. While being processed and drilled, these troops bivouacked and dug trenches around the battlefield, destroying much of the historic terrain. Some soldiers used Civil War monuments for target practice, while others razed the forests for firewood. Volunteer regiments left behind open latrines and mountains of rubbish, creating rather unsanitary conditions. During Chickamauga’s brief occupation, 425 men died of typhoid and other diseases. In addition to troop accommodations, the Army stabled over 15,000 mules and horses on the former battlefield, which further polluted the landscape. Park damage totaled more than $25,000, requiring extensive repairs to roads, historical markers, and other landscape features.


The U.S. Army eventually established a permanent military installation (Fort Oglethorpe) along the park’s northern boundary in 1904, although Chickamauga Battlefield was regularly exploited for training maneuvers, camping, cavalry transportation, and timber resources. The unregulated militarization of Chickamauga continued until 1933, when the battlefield was transferred to the National Park Service. Although the Park Administration limited military activity, Chickamauga maintained a Provost Marshal General’s School and Women’s Army Corps training center through World War II. Peacetime preservation efforts subsequently razed all noncontributing structures and topographical alterations from the preservation’s landholdings. Today, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park covers more than 9,000 acres across the mountainous wilderness and urbanized sprawls of Tennessee and Georgia.


THE CHICKAMAUGA BATTLEFIELD TOUR


Chickamauga Battlefield offers a self-guided audio tour that features eight stops over a seven-mile driving route. Beginning at Park Headquarters, visitors may peruse through several museum exhibits and view the Fuller Gun Collection, containing some of the rarest armaments manufactured in America. The first stop on the Battlefield Tour is “Breckinridge’s Assault,” located a few hundred yards south of the Visitor Center. Here, on September 20, 1863, Confederate troops under General Daniel Adams crashed into General John Beatty’s brigade, opening the second day of hostilities. The Florida Monument, which stands across the street from the parking area, marks the approximate location of General Marcellus Augustus Stovall’s brigade, who reinforced Adams’s advance.


Bearing left at the Kentucky Monument, continue down Alexander Bridge Road to Tour Stop #2, The Battle Line, which features some of the park’s oldest monuments. This area marked the northern end of the Union front and saw some of the heaviest fighting on September 20. General Benjamin Helm—President Lincoln’s brother-in-law whose brigade spearheaded the Confederate charge in this sector—was mortally wounded during the action.


The towering Georgia Monument marks the third tour stop, Poe Field, where Rosecrans’ costly mistake transpired. As Breckinridge pummeled the Union left, Generals John Brannan and Joseph Reynolds—whose troops manned this section of the Federal line—were flooded with requests for reinforcements. Both generals recognized the necessity for supplemental support, but deferred final approval to Rosecrans, since provisional assistance would require withdrawing men from the frontlines. The Union commander, having been awake for nearly 48 straight hours, misunderstood the inquiry. He was under the impression that Brannan had already mobilized his men, thereby disconnecting his center. He misguidedly directed General Thomas Wood’s division to plug the nonexistent gap—a maneuver that actually created a quarter-mile opening along his frontline. Longstreet’s infantry exploited this oversight in the fields surrounding Brotherton Cabin, Stop #4 on the Battlefield Tour.



The fifth tour stop is Viniard Field, where Colonel John T. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade”—mounted infantry armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles—repulsed General John B. Hood’s Confederate division from Lafayette Road on September 20. Today, the Wilder Monument (Stop #6) marks the location where the famed Union battalion arrayed their defense. This 85-foot limestone tower—privately funded by Wilder’s veterans—was completed in 1903 and offers tourists panoramic battlefield views from its observation deck.


Stop Number Seven is located midway down Glenn-Kelly Road. This large, open field witnessed a chaotic clash between the brigades of Union General William Haines Lytle and Confederate General Zachariah C. Deas during the “Rout of the Union Right.” Lytle was killed in the contest—his command swept from the battlefield shortly after. During the Spanish-American War, this area functioned as Camp Thomas. The final Chickamauga Battlefield tour stop is Snodgrass Hill, where General Thomas commanded the Union army’s valiant last-ditch defense, saving the Army of the Cumberland from complete collapse.


POINT PARK


Point Park overlooks the city of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain Battlefield, offering some of the region’s most exquisite views—well worth the $10 entry fee. A paved walkway meanders around the mountaintop, passing by Confederate artillery positions, scenic observatories, and the New York Peace Memorial (c. 1910)—Point Park’s largest monument epitomizing national reconciliation. A stately entrance gate (resembling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers insignia) stands guard over the historic summit.


Adventurous visitors may explore Lookout’s mountainside trail network that connects Point Park to other significant landmarks. The Cravens House—the crux of Lookout Mountain Battlefield—is located 1.5 miles away from the summit. Although the original structure was destroyed during the “Battle Above the Clouds,” the current homestead was reconstructed in 1866. The earthen remains of Confederate rifle pits can be observed 0.4 miles west of the Cravens House.


Sunset Rock—where General James Longstreet directed his troops during the Battle of Wauhatchie—is positioned 0.7 miles southwest of Point Park, revealing remarkable views of Lookout Valley. During the Federal occupation of Chattanooga, Union soldiers regularly ascended Lookout Mountain and posed for pictures at this spot, including General Ulysses S. Grant.


MISSIONARY RIDGE AND CHATTANOOGA NATIONAL CEMETERY


Although extensively developed for residential use during the early 20th century, Missionary Ridge maintains several reservations that preserve key locations from its November 1863 battle. The informal “Historic Missionary Ridge” Driving Tour begins in Rossville, Georgia, and follows Crest Road for eight miles before terminating in Chattanooga’s Glass Farms neighborhood. Each reservation contains artillery pieces, monuments, and placards describing significant events.


Chattanooga National Cemetery is located along South Holtzclaw Avenue near the city center. It was established by General George Thomas on Christmas Day, 1863, per General Order No. 296 and officially recognized as a national cemetery by the War Department in 1867. Today, the cemetery inters over fifty thousand veterans and family members—12,900 of whom served in the Civil War.


The Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga are essential to understanding the Civil War’s Western Theater—their implications tantamount to the “Death Knell of the Confederacy.” On one hand, Bragg’s triumph at Chickamauga reinvigorated Confederate nationalism during a time of crisis (i.e. the recent defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg); however, the victory was incomplete. Subsequent infighting, challenged leadership, and tactical mismanagement negated all advantages the Confederacy possessed. The escalating dysfunction culminated in a series of decisive defeats that not only cost Bragg his command, but opened the Deep South to Federal invasion.



Visit the National Park Service for more information about Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park


Read the following literary resources for greater historical context:

  1. Cozzens, Peter. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

  2. Hanson, Jill K., and Robert W. Blythe. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park: Historic Resource Study. Cultural Resources Stewardship, Southeast Regional Office, National Park Service, 1999.

  3. Mingus, Scott L., and Joseph L. Owen. Unceasing Fury: Texans at the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863. Savas Beatie, 2022.

  4. Spruill, Matt. Guide to the Battle of Chickamauga: Revised and Expanded. University Press of Kansas, 2018.

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