By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
In October 1863, the Confederates, under Braxton Bragg, had pinned down the Union Army in Chattanooga. It was a dismal scene for the Federals under William S. Rosecrans; their supplies were depleting fast and thousands of their horses had perished. It is then that the Federal high command made a big decision. What was it? And, did it change the course of the campaign?
Bragg Lays Siege of Chattanooga
Braxton Bragg had occupied two key pieces of high ground at Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge, a 400-foot-high ridge, and Lookout Mountain, which loomed over Chattanooga and the Tennessee River. Bragg’s army also had control of the rail and water communications into the city.
Meanwhile, Union reinforcements were ordered to Chattanooga to bolster Rosecrans’s force. From Mississippi, William Tecumseh Sherman came with 17,000 men; and Joseph Hooker was sent out with 25,000 men from the Army of the Potomac.
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Ulysses S. Grant Takes Charge
On October 17, Abraham Lincoln named Ulysses S. Grant the commander of all Union forces. And, as soon as Grant took charge, he removed William S. Rosecrans from command of the Army of the Cumberland. And, Lincoln approved of this. As Lincoln put it, he thought Rosecrans had “become confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head” after Chickamauga.
Next, Grant went to Chattanooga, and things began to look up for the Federals once he was on the scene.
Bragg Loses Troops, Grant Gains Some
Help for Grant came from an expected quarter: with the detachment of Confederate General James Longstreet and about 15,000 troops from Bragg’s army, as they were sent off to try to recapture Knoxville. This had been Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s idea. But now, Bragg was left with only about 45,000 troops. By mid-November, Grant had built his army up to 75,000 men in the city.
Bragg still sat in his lines on Missionary Ridge and on Lookout Mountain. Along Missionary Ridge, there were trenches at the base and top of the ridge, and then there was a line of rifle pits about midway up; so, three groups of defensive positions on this ridge. Meanwhile, three southern brigades held the 2,000-foot-high Lookout Mountain. It seemed to be a very strong position.
Grant’s Grand Plan
Grant had a solution: He sent Hooker’s soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to capture Lookout Mountain. Meanwhile, Sherman’s men from the Army of the Tennessee were to attack Bragg’s right flank at the northern end of Missionary Ridge. And George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, in the center, would demonstrate against the front of Missionary Ridge to hold the Confederates’ attention.
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Events of November 24 and the Capture of Lookout Mountain
On November 24, Joseph Hooker captured Lookout Mountain. There was no heavy fighting, but it resulted in a quite dramatic Union victory: On that day, clouds had dropped so low that part of the mountain was shrouded in clouds. It was eventually called the “Battle above the Clouds”.
Sherman had less success on the same day. He ran into the best Confederate division in Bragg’s army: a division commanded by Patrick R. Cleburne, a first rate division commander, who kept his troops well in hand and repulsed Sherman’s attacks.
Federals Take Over Missionary Ridge
The next day—on the 25th—Grant ordered Thomas’s troops to make a diversionary attack toward the base of Missionary Ridge. He wanted them to only capture the first line of trenches at the base of the ridge. He never would have ordered them to attack the top of the ridge; it would have been unthinkable to order troops to assault a 400-foot-high ridge.
The troops moved forward that day. Grant and Thomas were back on a little nob in Chattanooga watching the action. The Federals captured the works at the foot of Missionary Ridge and then there was a pause. They were taking fire from higher up the ridge.
And then, as Grant and Thomas looked on in amazement, the Federals began to move up the face of Missionary Ridge.
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The Battle of Missionary Ridge: An Extraordinary Feat
The Federal troops didn’t have orders to move up the ridge. But they did; they went up in big inverted Vs, straight up into the teeth of Braxton Bragg’s position on Missionary Ridge. Incredibly, the attack swept all the way to the top of the ridge and drove Bragg’s entire army off this extremely strong position.
There is absolutely nothing like this in the history of the Civil War. It went against everything that any trained soldier would say was possible. It was a frontal attack—against fortified defenders on top of a 400-foot-high ridge—and was a success. As the Federals reached the crest and saw the Confederates break into retreat, many of them started to chant, “Chickamauga, Chickamauga”, and taunt the Confederates who were falling back.
Cleburne’s division covered the Confederate retreat and Braxton Bragg dropped back about 25 miles to a position near Dalton, Georgia. And with that came the end of the siege of Chattanooga or the Chattanooga Campaign.
Common Questions about Grant’s Actions in the Battle of Chattanooga
On 17 October 1863, Abraham Lincoln named Ulysses S. Grant the commander of all Union forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. And, as soon as Grant had the responsibility, he removed William S. Rosecrans from command of the Army of the Cumberland.
The Union Army, under Ulysses Grant, won the Battle of Missionary Ridge. They was able to successfully drive away Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army.
During the Battle of Chattanooga, the Union troops drove away Confederate troops from the Lookout Mountain. It came to be know as the Battle above the Clouds, or the Battle of Lookout Mountain.