Forward to Chattanooga
The Siege of Chattanooga
Raising the Siege
Campaign during the American Civil War that secured Union control of eastern and central Tennessee and paved the way for Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and the march to the sea in 1864. It also played a part in the rise of U.S. Grant to overall command of the Union armies.
Chattanooga and Chickamauga Interactive Map
The first half of 1862 had seen the Confederacy thrown out of western Tennessee. After victory at Shiloh (6-7 April 1862) and the fall of the Confederate strongpoint of Corinth (25 May), a strong Union army under Don Carlos Buell had been sent towards eastern Tennessee, with the aim of capturing Chattanooga. Buell had moved so slowly that Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee had been able to prepare and launch an invasion of eastern Kentucky.
Bragg was confident that his invasion would force Buell to abandon his move towards Chattanooga. He had expected to receive support and recruits from what he believed to be a strongly pro-Confederate population. He had found some sympathy, but no recruits. At Perryville (8 October 1862) he held his own against part of a strong Union army, but when he realised how many Union soldiers were concentrating against him he pulled back to Murfreesboro in central Tennessee.
Although Buell had moved quickly enough to head off Bragg’s invasion, he soon settled back into his earlier pace. Impatient with slow generals, Lincoln replaced him with William Rosecrans, who had just defeated a Confederate invasion of western Tennessee. Rosecrans spent two months at Nashville, preparing to launch his counterattack.
Rosecrans, General William S.
When finally Rosecrans did move south, he ran into Bragg’s defences at Murfreesboro. Despite being quite heavily outnumbered (34,000 to 41,000) Bragg managed to surprise Rosecrans on 31 December 1862 (Battle of Murfreesboro or Stone River, 31 December 1862 to 1 January 1863), but over two days of heavy fighting was unable to force a victory and retreated to Chattanooga.
Forward to Chattanooga
East Tennessee had a strong emotion pull for Lincoln. Like West Virginia it was a mountainous area, with few slave owners, and was a centre of Unionist sentiment, but unlike West Virginia it had remained firmly in Confederate hands throughout 1861 and 1862. A pro-Union revolt in November 1861 had been crushed after the failure of the Union expedition that had triggered it.
Chattanooga had another attraction. Located where the Tennessee River cut a gap in the Cumberland Mountains, Chattanooga was one of only two places where good railroads linked the western and eastern Confederacy. The second was Atlanta, Georgia, and the capture of Chattanooga would leave Atlanta vulnerable to attack.
Both the Confederate and Union armies suffered heavy losses at Murfreesboro. Rosecrans’s army had lost 12,906 men out of 41,400 (1,677 dead, 7,543 wounded and 3,686 missing). Despite having the smaller army, and being the attacker, Bragg lost slightly few men – 11,739 out of 34,739 (1,294 dead, 7,945 would and 2,500 missing).
The battle produced different results in the two armies. Rosecrans appears to have been stunned by the scale of his losses. He settled at Murfreesboro, where he set about rebuilding his army while resisting pressure from Washington to launch an attack in the spring of 1863. This was almost certainly a serious mistake on his part. In the immediate aftermath of Murfreesboro, Bragg had probably had enough troops to make any attack very dangerous. However, during the spring of 1863 the Confederacy had needed its men elsewhere. A sizable part of Bragg’s army had been sent west to help Joseph Johnston’s attempts to relieve the siege of Vicksburg. In the east, Lee was invading Pennsylvania on his way to Gettysburg. Bragg was on his own.
While Rosecrans prepared, Bragg bickered. Although he had many positive qualities as a general, getting on with his subordinates was not one of them. By the start of 1863 he had fallen out with every single corps and division commander in the Army of the Tennessee. Two of his most senior subordinates wrote to President Davis requesting a chance of command, and suggesting Joseph Johnston. Another came close to challenging him to a duel. Bragg himself was aware of this discontent, and wrote to Davis in January on suggesting that he be replaced!
Davis responded by sending Joseph Johnston, not to take command, but to investigate the situation, with the expectation that Johnston would recommend that he took over. However, Johnston did not cooperate. Until he had been injured at Seven Pines in 1862, Johnston had held the Virginia command, and now he was fit he wanted it back. Accordingly he recommended that Bragg remained in command at Chattanooga, and even hinted that Lee should be sent west! When the fighting resumed later in the year, poor relations between Bragg and his senior officers hampered the Confederate effort.
Despite all his delays, Rosecrans finally moved on 24 June. Bragg had formed a defensive line along the Duck River around Tullahoma, blocking the railroad from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga. When he did move, it became clear that Rosecrans had not wasted his time. He had divided his army into four infantry and one cavalry corps. Each one now used a different pass through the hills on the northern edge of the Duck River Valley, thoroughly confusing Bragg, who now found himself in severe danger of being trapped. Federal corps were on both of his flanks. One cavalry division got dangerously close to the railroad south.
Realising how much danger he was in, Bragg pulled his army out of its lines and retreated to Chattanooga. In one week Rosecrans had advanced eighty miles at a cost of only 570 casualties against a enemy that had had six months to prepare. His achievement was appreciated more in the south than in the north. Chattanooga was clearly vulnerable, and Georgia in imminent danger.
Ironically, the fall of Vicksburg and the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg combined to put Rosecrans in a great deal of danger. The troops Bragg had sent west were now to be returned to him. Later in the campaign he was also reinforced by Longstreet’s corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, temporarily available in the aftermath of Gettysburg.
This danger was not immediately apparent, and indeed it took some time to fully develop. Unfortunately for his men, Rosecrans paused again after his Duck River triumph, allowing the Confederate forces to begin to concentrate against him.
This time the planning took six weeks. Bragg had a strong position at Chattanooga. The town could be defended (or besieged) from strong positions to east and west, while the Tennessee River protected the town to the north. A badly mauled Union army was soon to defend a much weaker position on the south bank of the Tennessee.
During the last two weeks of August, Rosecrans pushed Bragg out of this strong line without fighting a battle. His campaign began on 16 August. One part of his army was sent just east of Chattanooga, to convince Bragg that the main attack would come from that direction. Meanwhile the bulk of his army crossed the river much further downstream – McCook’s corps crossed over near Stevenson, over thirty miles to the west of Chattanooga.
More bad news reached Bragg from the north. A Confederate army 10,000 strong had been defending Knoxville, the heart of Unionist East Tennessee. It is a telling indication of the scale of the fighting in 1863 that their opponents, the 25,000 strong Army of the Ohio, could be considered a small army. Its commander was General Ambrose Burnside, sent west after his disastrous period in command of the Army of the Potomac.
Given a less high profile command, Burnside did rather better. Like Rosecrans he sent his army through several different mountain passes to threaten Knoxville from four directions. The Confederate defenders of the town decided to withdraw, and on 3 September 1863 Burnside entered Knoxville in triumph.
The Confederate garrison of Knoxville reached Chattanooga only to find that Bragg was about to withdraw from the city. On 8 September, fearing that he was about to be cut off in Chattanooga, Bragg withdrew to LaFayette, Georgia, from where he was soon to launch a counter attack. On 9 September Rosecrans’s left wing, originally intended to be nothing more than a diversion, entered an undefended Chattanooga.
Rosecrans now demonstrated why it was best if he planned his movements carefully. Convinced that Bragg was beaten, and that he would face no serious fighting, Rosecrans finally aimed for speed. From his position west of Chattanooga the path of most of his army was blocked by Lookout Mountain. The mountain rises sharply from the southern bank of the Tennessee River before running south into Alabama, with steep slopes to east and west. Rosecrans decided to split his army into three main columns, spread out across forty miles of tough mountainous terrain.
Bragg was now given one of the best chances the Confederacy ever had to inflict a crushing defeat on a major Union army. Bragg was reinforced by two divisions from Mississippi, returned to him after the fall of Vicksburg. More significantly, two divisions from James Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia were sent west, despite objections from Robert E. Lee, who almost always opposed any weakening of his army. 12,000 veteran Confederate soldiers began the journey west on 9 September. The first elements of this force reached Bragg on 18 September, and about half of them arrived in time to take part at Chickamauga.
Even before they arrived, Bragg could just about match Rosecrans’s total numbers. Over the next few days Bragg was presented with two chances to crush isolated fragments of Rosecran’s divided command. On 10 September he had a chance to attack a single Federal division with an entire corps. On 12 September another chance came, this time to attack one spread-out Federal corps with two of his own.
Both of these chances were missed, largely because of the poor relations between Bragg and his senior officers. In each case the men ordered to launch the attacks found reasons not to. On 10 September his orders were ignored and then argued over until the chance had gone while on 12 September Leonidas Polk turned defensive in the face of imaginary enemies.
These aborted attacks warned Rosecrans that Bragg was still in the area and ready and willing to fight. Accordingly, Rosecrans ordered his scattered corps to concentrate along the line of the West Chickamauga Creek. The same concern quickly spread to Washington. On 13 September U.S. Grant was ordered to move all available troops east to help relieve Chattanooga. Rosecrans’s was already seen to be in danger before the battle of Chickamauga.
Bragg gained one last chance for an easy victory on 18 September. Rosecrans’s left flank was positioned too far south to secure his route back to Chattanooga. Bragg moved most of his army north, and crossed Chickamauga Creek hoping to cut off Rosecrans in the mountains south of Chattanooga. For once his hopes were dashed by the enemy, not by his own officers. Rosecran’s cavalry discovered Bragg’s move. The Federal Fourteenth Corps under George Thomas was sent north and blocked the Confederate advance.
Bragg’s reinforced army would have to take on the entire Union army along the line of Chickamauga Creek. For once the Union army was outnumbered in a major battle – Rosecrans had around 60,000 men, while Bragg had been reinforced up towards between 65,000 and 70,000 men (although only half of Longstreet’s reinforcements arrived in time for the battle).
The first day of the battle of Chickamauga (19 September 1863) did not hold out much promise for a Confederate victory. Bragg concentrated on the Union left, still hoping to push past that flank. Thick undergrowth prevented effective cooperation between Confederate attacks, and Thomas was able to hold out on the Federal left, although not without suffering heavy casualties.
That night Longstreet arrived with two of his brigades. Bragg promptly put him in charge of the Confederate left, with Polk in charge of the right. His plan for 20 September was to launch an attack ‘in echelon’ from right to left, division by division. At the attack developed on the right, Rosecrans would shift troops to deal with it, leaving the Union right dangerously vulnerable. At that point Longstreet would launch his attack against a weakened line.
Bragg’s plan worked, but not quite in the way that he had expected. Polk did not launch his attack on time and when it did go in, several hours late, made very little headway against Thomas’s men, now thoroughly dug in. However, Rosecrans did start to shuffle his troops towards the left. Now the dense woods worked against the Union forces. A gap was reported where in reality there was already a Union division concealed in the woods. In attempting to plug this imaginary gap, Rosecrans created a real one.
This might not have mattered had not Bragg lost patience with Polk’s slow progress and ordered Longstreet to launch an attack with all five of his divisions. Instead of hitting a strong Federal line, Longstreet found himself marching straight into this gap. On both sides of the gap, Federal troops found themselves being attacked from what they had thought was a safe flank. About one third of the army broke and fled back to Chattanooga. Amongst them was Rosecrans, whose headquarters had been in the line of the Confederate advance.
Rosecrans fled convinced that his army was crumbling behind him. It probably should have been, but Bragg did not realise how total the Federal collapse had been and refused to reinforce Longstreet. The Union left still held. George Thomas was forever after known as the ‘Rock of Chickamauga’. His own corps held. Many other men rallied around them, and he was able to form a strong position on Snodgrass Hill. With the help of the reserve division he was able to hold off Longstreet’s determined attacks all day. That evening Thomas was able to retreat in good order to Rossville Gap, where he stopped on 21 September, before being ordered back into Chattanooga.
Thomas, General George
Chickamauga was one of the Confederacy’s few major victories in the west, but it came at a terrible price. A combination of the fierce fighting on the first day and Thomas’s determined stand after the Confederate breakthrough meant that Bragg’s army suffered over 18,000 casualties (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded and 1,468 missing). Federal losses were lower at 16,000 (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded and 4,757 missing, with many of the missing being men captured during the collapse of the right wing). Both armies lost around 30% of their total strength.
The Siege of Chattanooga
Neither commander performed well in the aftermath of Chickamauga. Rosecrans pulled right back into Chattanooga, even abandoning key positions on Lookout Mountain, dominating the western approaches to the city. He began to plan for a retreat back from Chattanooga.
Bragg was nearly as stunned by the aftermath of victory. His 18,000 casualties had included ten of his generals and caused massive disruption throughout his army. Even so, over the next few days he missed a great chance to capture Chattanooga before the Federal army could dig in.
Instead Bragg decided to conduct a regular siege. Inside the city were 55,000 Federal troops, including nearly 10,000 wounded. Their main supply line from Union territory was the railroad heading west then north into central Tennessee. Immediately west of Chattanooga this railroad could be blocked by whomever held Lookout Mountain.
That position was soon in Confederate hands. Bragg moved to occupy Lookout Mountain to the west of the city, Missionary Ridge to the east and created a fortified line between the two. To the north the Tennessee River completed the blockade. Union forces still controlled the railroad as far as Bridgeport, twenty six miles west of Chattanooga, where the railroad crossed to the south bank of the Tennessee, but Bragg’s blockade meant that the only route still open involved a sixty mile diversion through the mountains on the north bank of the river.
55,000 men consume a massive amount of food. The torturous mountain route combined with the autumn weather combined to put the Army of the Cumberland in real danger of being starved into surrender. U. S. Grant reported the soldiers as saying they were living on "half rations of hard bread and beef dried on the hoof."
Grant, Ulysses S.
Raising the Siege
It was to Grant that Lincoln turned to save Chattanooga. Even before Chickamauga he had been ordered to send all available troops east to reinforce Rosecrans. On 18 October he was met by Secretary of War Stanton at Indianapolis, where he was offered the command of a new Military District of the Mississippi, running from the Mississippi river east to the Alleghany Mountains. Stanton had prepared two copies of the order, one retaining Rosecrans and one replacing him with Thomas. Grant chose the second.
Reinforcements were already moving towards Chattanooga. At the end of September Stanton persuade Lincoln to detach the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac and send them west under Joe Hooker (failure in command of the Army of the Potomac was clearly no barrier to further service!). By the middle of the first week of October some 20,000 men had been moved to Bridgeport from Virginia, a journey of over 1,100 miles in eleven days. Sherman was approaching from the west with four divisions (17,000 men) from Grant’s old army of Vicksburg. They reached Bridgeport on 15 November. These reinforcements were concentrated at Bridgeport because the supply situation at Chattanooga had not yet improved.
Grant reached the besieged city on 23 October. He found that a plan for creating a new supply route had already been prepared, but not acted on by Rosecrans. West of the city the Tennessee River passes through a narrow gorge in the mountains where the river was too rapid for the steamboats of the day. From Kelly’s Ferry on the west side of Racoon Mountain, steamboats had to be pulled upstream to Chattanooga. An alternative route was to use a pass through the mountain to reach Brown’s Ferry at the northern end of Lookout Valley. From there you could cross over to the north bank of the Tennessee, where you would find yourself only one mile away from Chattanooga.
Grant’s aim was to secure control of this route. This would allow him to use the river for eighteen of the twenty six miles between Bridgeport and Chattanooga and then the land route for the last eight. The Confederate forces on Lookout Mountain would be unable to interfere with this route once it was secured, but if they realised what was happening early enough then they could easily block the route.
The Union plan involved three separate forces. One, under General Hooker, was to cross the river at Bridgeport, march along the south bank to Whitesides, where a pass leads to Lookout Valley, then head up Lookout Valley to Brown’s Ferry. The second, a division under General Palmer, was to match them on the north bank of the river, then cross over at Whitesides to protect the road behind Hooker.
The third force was to come from Chattanooga, under the command of General W. F. Smith, the designer of the plan. 1,800 of his men were to float downstream on sixty pontoon boats (later to be used as the base for a pontoon bridge), using the fast flowing Tennessee and the cover of night to get past Confederate pickets at the base of Lookout Mountain. This force was to seize Brown’s Ferry. The remaining 2,200 men under Smith were to cross a flying (temporary) bridge Chattanooga and march to the north bank of the river opposite Brown’s Ferry, from where they were to be ferried across to reinforce the pontoon force.
The plan went without a hitch. Hooker began his march on 26 October, only two days after Grant arrived at Chattanooga. At three in the morning of 27 October the pontoon boats were launched from Chattanooga. Smith had already begun his march on the north bank of the river, arriving opposite Brown’s Ferry in time to watch the amphibious force land there at five in the morning, overwhelming the Confederate picket. By seven Smith’s entire force was over the river, and by ten they had completed the pontoon bridge. Grant now had a secure land route from Chattanooga west to Lookout Valley.
The next day Hooker’s force reached Lookout Valley. One division was posted three miles from Brown’s Ferry, while the rest of the force moved to the river. Grant now had his secure route from Brown’s Ferry west to Kelly’s Ferry, and from there along the river to the railhead at Bridgeport. This was the famous ‘cracker line’, which within a week had restored the Army of the Cumberland to full rations.
Bragg made one attempt to break the line. On the night of 28-29 October he attacked the single division at Wauhatchie. For three hours that division held off the Confederate attack before relief arrived from Brown’s Ferry and drove off the attackers. That was the only attempt Bragg made to cut Grant’s essential new supply line.
Instead, he turned his attention to Burnside at Knoxville. Despite the victory at Chickamauga, Bragg and his generals were still arguing. Nathan Forrest actually left the army! At the start of October Jefferson Davis decided to travel to Chattanooga in person, in an attempt to sort out the mess, but his visit was fairly disastrous. All four of Bragg’s corps commanders told Davis that Bragg must go. Davis offered the command to Longstreet, who turned it down. No other options were available, and so Bragg was retained. On the same visit, Davis suggested that Longstreet should be sent to recapture Knoxville.
Now, with Grant active at Chattanooga, already reinforced by Hooker and with Sherman on the way, Bragg acted on that suggestion. On 4 November Longstreet was sent north with his own 15,000 men and 5,000 cavalry. This move has been criticised since, but it worried Grant. Burnside would be outnumbered. His army was running short of supplies and was a long way from the nearest Union railroad. If Longstreet had moved fast, he could have attacked Knoxville before Grant pushed Bragg away from Chattanooga. Instead, he reached the end of his own rail link and remained there until 13 November. He didn’t attack Knoxville until 29 November, by which point the siege of Chattanooga was over. That attack was repulsed, and although Longstreet remained in East Tennessee for the rest of the winter, the Union position was now secure.
At Chattanooga Grant was preparing to push Bragg off his positions on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. He now had three separate armies to command. In Chattanooga there was the Army of the Cumberland under Thomas. Just west of Lookout Mountain was Hooker with his divisions from the Army of the Potomac (although these armies soon became very mixed). Now Sherman had arrived on the scene with a large part of the Army of the Tennessee, which Grant placed on the north bank of the Tennessee facing the northern end of Missionary Ridge.
This move may have induced Bragg to send another division to Knoxville, thinking that Sherman had been sent to help Burnside. Thus when the crucial battle developed, Grant had 60,000 men and Bragg only 30,000, with over 20,000 of his men absent on the Knoxville campaign. Nevertheless, his position on Missionary Ridge was very strong.
Aware of this, Grant decided not to attack the main position. He decided to use Sherman and Hooker’s men to attack the flanks of the Confederate position, with Thomas holding the centre, although it was Thomas’s men who began the fighting on 23 November (Battle of Orchard Knob) by pushing the Confederate line back a mile towards the base of Missionary Ridge.
The next day saw the start of the main action (battle of Chattanooga, 24-27 November 1863). On the Union right Hooker cleared the Confederate defenders off Lookout Mountain, forcing Bragg to pull his left flank back to Missionary Ridge. On the Union left, Sherman crossed over the Tennessee and launched an attack, but what he initially though was an unexpectedly easy attack on the northern end of Missionary Ridge turned out to be heading up some hills detached from the rest of the ridge by a deep dip.
The Battle of Missionary Ridge (25 November) saw the main fighting. Sherman was ordered to attack at dawn. Hooker was also to move at dawn, and attack the Confederate left. Thomas was to wait until Hooker launched his attack and then join in. Unfortunately, the retreating Confederates had destroyed a key bridge over the Chattanooga Creek, which meant that Hooker took four hours to reach the starting point for his attack on the ridge. Meanwhile, most of the Confederate firepower was concentrated on Sherman’s attack to the north.
Finally Grant could wait no longer and ordered Thomas to launch his attack. At about three in the afternoon the Army of the Cumberland rolled over the first Confederate line at the base of the ridge. Not stopping there, they kept on going, so close behind the fleeing Confederates that they were protected from enemy fire! To the surprise of everyone watching, this frontal assault quickly smashed through the centre of the Confederate line. Most of Bragg’s army broke and fled, not stopping for thirty miles! Only Cleburne’s division on the Confederate right, which had been in constant action against Sherman, retreated in good order, preventing the retreat from turning into a complete rout. On 27 November that division stopped the Union pursuit at Ringgold, Georgia and Grant called off the pursuit.
Now Chattanooga was safe, Grant’s mind turned to Burnside, besieged at Knoxville. Accordingly, on 29 November Sherman was ordered to march to the relief of Knoxville. Although his troops had marched and fought hard over the last few weeks, Grant knew that of his commanders, Sherman would be most likely to reach Knoxville in time. The same day saw Longstreet make his main attempt to capture the town (battle of Knoxville, 29 November), but he was repulsed by the newly constructed defences. Sherman made sure that Longstreet knew that his force was closing in, and on 4 December Longstreet withdrew east towards Virginia.
The relief of Chattanooga was of profound importance. In the south it destroyed a last resurgence of optimism. After a summer that had seen the loss of Vicksburg and Chattanooga and defeat at Gettysburg, the mood in the Confederacy was understandably gloomy. Chickamauga had restored some hope, but now the chance it had held out to destroy a major Union army and recapture the town had gone. One of the last east-west rail links in the Confederacy had been cut. East Tennessee had finally been restored to the Union. Finally, the Union was now in position to launch an attack towards Atlanta and beyond that into the heart of the Confederacy. 1864 was to see Sherman launch that attack, which would eventually take him all the way to the Atlantic coast.