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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battles for Chattanooga


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Federal troops under Sherman began crossing the Tennessee River just below the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek before dawn. That afternoon, Sherman advanced toward the north end of Missionary Ridge to attack the Confederate right flank but found the topography and Confederate troop dispositions different than what had been expected. Sherman was not successful in rolling up the Confederate right.

On the Confederate left, Federals under Hooker attacked and drove the Confederates from the slopes of Lookout Mountain. Geary's and Cruft's divisions swept northward toward and around the northern tip of the mountain. Joined by Osterhaus's Division, they drove the Confederates before them and forced the Southerners to abandon their remaining positions on Lookout Mountain that night.

The crossing began on schedule, and by 6:30 A.M. Sherman had two divisions assembled less than two miles from Missionary Ridge. A mile and a half to the south, General Howard was preparing to send Bushbeck's brigade north along the river road to open communications with him. And John Smith had discovered a second, more commanding ridge 500 yards east of the one he had fortified. He seized it without opposition. Not a single Rebel could be seen in the fields to his front. At a minimum, a strong reconnaissance into the woods beyond seemed in order. Yet Sherman hesitated, unwilling to move until Ewing was up. He told Smith to fortify the ridge, and the morning slipped quietly away.

Bragg was in the saddle shortly after daybreak. He rode north along Missionary Ridge examining his lines with satisfaction when, through the lifting fog, he saw, two miles across the valley, the divisions of John Smith and Morgan Smith digging in at the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek and Bushbeck's brigade filing north to join them.

No doubt Bragg was stunned. He had not expected a movement against his right emanating from a point so far to the north. But even now, with proof of Grant's intentions there before him, Bragg faltered; perhaps Sherman's crossing was merely a feint. The measures he took during the morning were stopgaps, reflecting an uncertainty as profound as that of Sherman. Bragg had ample troops at hand with which to contest Sherman's advance: Cleburne's division, reinforced by the Orphan Brigade, lay bivouacked behind Bragg's headquarters. But Bragg told Cleburne to send only one brigade to the far right. When Marcus Wright's brigade reached Chickamauga Station at 8:30 A.M., Bragg ordered him to march to the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek to "resist any enemy attempt to cross"—a bizarre order since Sherman already had five times as many troops over as Wright had in his brigade.

Bragg did nothing more. Only two brigades, neither within supporting distance of the other, moved to resist an advance by three divisions, supported by a fourth under Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis.

Bragg had handed Sherman the chance to destroy his army; the Ohioan let it slip through his fingers. As the morning passed, he kept the two Smiths busy digging in while waiting for Ewing to cross the river. Howard cantered up to the head of Bushbeck's column at noon. Less certain that he could succeed without reinforcements, Sherman convinced Howard to leave Bushbeck with him.


At 1:30 P.M., with less than four hours of gray daylight remaining, Sherman advanced. Less than a mile and a half of fields, forest, and swamps stood between Sherman and the high hills at the northern extreme of Missionary Ridge. Displaying uncommon trepidation, Sherman moved at a snail's pace, constantly looking to his right for any sign of Rebels bounding down from Missionary Ridge to take him in the flank.

But there was not a Confederate within two miles of Sherman's flank. Before noon, Bragg had ridden off toward Lookout Mountain without taking any further action to strengthen his right. Nor did Hardee act until Sherman's massed Federals marched out into the fields, at which time he ordered Cleburne to move his remaining three brigades with all haste toward the right of Missionary Ridge, "near the point where the [railroad] tunnel passes through."

The nexus of the line Hardee hoped to hold with Gist and Cleburne was Tunnel Hill (so named by Cleburne in his report). The highest point along the northern stretch of Missionary Ridge, Tunnel Hill rose 250 yards north of the Chattanooga and Cleveland Railroad tunnel. The next piece of ground to the north were two detached hills that formed a U-shaped eminence much higher than Tunnel Hill.

Cleburne had just inspected the ground around Tunnel Hill when a courier announced that the Yankees were marching up the far slope of the eastern hill. Cleburne ordered the Texas Brigade of Brigadier General James Smith across Tunnel Hill and up the near slope of the detached hill. In a ravine between the elevations, the Texans collided with Yankee skirmishers. Smith halted on the summit of Tunnel Hill and kept the Federals occupied while Cleburne deployed the rest of his division. He arrayed Mark Lowrey's brigade to the left of Smith and sent Daniel Govan to the east-west spur north of the railroad to protect Smith's right flank and rear.


Sherman's actions in the first crucial minutes after contact was made were deplorable. He had made a terrible error. Through a combination of poor maps and negligent reconnaissance, Sherman had marched from the river convinced that the detached hills were the northern extreme of Missionary Ridge. Not until the lead brigades of his three divisions consolidated on the summit of the eastern bill did Sherman, looking toward Smith's Texans drawn up on Tunnel Hill, realize his mistake. With fifty minutes of daylight remaining—enough time to have driven Cleburne's badly attenuated line across the railroad and probably have forced Bragg to abandon his entire Missionary Ridge position—Sherman chose the safe course: he ordered his men to dig in for the night.

Fighting Joe Hooker had not the slightest doubt that he could take Lookout Mountain. Scouts, deserters, and simple observation had given him an excellent feel for Confederate dispositions, numerical strength, and vulnerabilities. Hooker dismissed any direct attempt at dislodging Stevenson from the summit; his position there would become untenable, in any case, once Hooker swept around the bench.

Hooker and his staff worked until after midnight perfecting their plans. Attention to detail was imperative, as Hooker's force consisted of three divisions from three different corps, none of which had fought together before.

At 3:00 A.M. on November 24, Geary received his orders to "cross Lookout Creek and to assault Lookout Mountain, marching down the valley and sweeping every rebel from it." He was to break camp at daylight. Colonel Whitaker got his orders at the same time. He roused his men at 4:00 A.M. for the two-hour march to Wauhatchie, where they would join up with Geary. Colonel Grose was instructed to effect a lodgment on the far bank of Lookout Creek near the mouth. To General Osterhaus went a supporting role. Williamson's brigade was to protect the artillery that Hooker was gathering on the hills near the mouth of Lookout Creek; Woods's brigade would cover Grose and cross the creek after him, then ascend the slope and form a junction with the left of Geary's division as it worked its way around the mountain.

Hooker left little to chance. During the night, he brought forward all available artillery to pulverize the Rebel pickets and cover the advance of his own infantry. By daybreak, he had nine batteries lined up between Light's Mill and the mouth of Lookout Creek. Two batteries from the Army of the Cumberland lent their support from Moccasin Point; two others set up near Chattanooga Creek.


General Walthall had no idea that a quarter of Grant's artillery was trained on his brigade, but he could feel the cold tingle of impending calamity in the misty dawn air. General Moore was even more pessimistic than Walthall: "No serious effort has been made to construct defensive works for our forces on the mountain."

The man in overall command, Carter Stevenson, could offer his subordinates little. He was unfamiliar with the ground and was not even sure that Bragg really wanted him to stay on the mountain.

Dawn came at 6:30 A.M. High water and a fast current delayed Geary's crossing of Lookout Creek until 8:30 A.M. The fog had thickened, observed Geary with satisfaction: "Drifting clouds enveloped the whole ridge of the mountain top, and heavy mists and fogs obscured the slope from lengthened vision."

A little after 9:30 A.M., the bugles sounded "Forward" and Geary's skirmishers disappeared into the fog and timber. For nearly an hour the Federals slipped and stumbled along the craggy western slope of Lookout.

Colonel George Cobham's brigade filed across a footbridge over Lookout Creek first. Next over was Colonel David Ireland, whose brigade faced to the front midway up the slope to form the center of Geary's line of battle. Colonel Charles Candy's brigade crossed the creek next and extended Geary's left down to the base of the mountain. Walter Whitaker brought his brigade over Lookout Creek last and formed 300 yards to the rear of Geary.

A little after 9:30 A.M., the bugles sounded "Forward" and Geary's skirmishers disappeared into the fog and timber. For nearly an hour the Federals slipped and stumbled along the craggy western slope of Lookout. Finally, at 10:30 A.M., the rattle of musketry from the skirmish line announced that contact had been made. Geary's skirmishers had struck Walthall's pickets one mile southwest of the point. The Rebels held on, but their line was stretched far too thin to offer prolonged resistance. Geary's main line came up without much trouble, and the pressure on the Mississippians became unbearable. As the Federals closed to within a few yards, the Rebels broke. Dozens were hit, and scores more surrendered.



As Geary's line came in sight and the Rebel pickets began trickling from their breastworks, Hooker ordered his artillery to saturate the enemy's line of retreat along the mountainside. Hooker's intentions were good but, up in the dusky forest toward which his cannoneers trained their pieces, the opposing lines were on top of one another. Smoke and fog hid the action from those in the valley, making the aim of the artillerymen uncertain at best.

About 11:30 A.M., the wild Yankee pursuit came to an abrupt halt 300 yards southwest of the point of Lookout Mountain when Ireland and Cobham ran into Walthall's two-regiment reserve, posted between the base of the cliff and the Cravens house. Though badly outnumbered, the Mississippians gave a good account of themselves, throwing back Ireland's first attempt at storming their works.

With Geary and his staff on foot far to the rear, Ireland and Cobham acted on their own to meet this unexpected resistance. Outnumbered four to one and outflanked on both the right and left, Walthall's second line of resistance disintegrated. Walthall tried to rally the men, but few paid him any attention. All order was lost as the Mississippians spilled rearward, past Walthall, around the point of the mountain, and back toward the Cravens house.

At 12:10 P.M. Ireland and Cobham rounded the point of Lookout Mountain and drove eastward along the bench toward the Cravens house.

The Federals kept on past the Cravens house after Walthall's survivors who were disappearing into the fog. Uncertain of what lurked in the mist-shrouded trees beyond the Cravens place, Ireland's New Yorkers wheeled to the right and trod southeastward along the slope. Off to their left were Chattanooga Valley and the entrenchments of the Army of the Cumberland.

Geary's appearance below the point of Lookout Mountain at noon was the signal for Hooker to set in motion the brigades of Charles Woods and William Grose, which were poised on the west bank of Lookout Creek, ready to cross a footbridge. While Cobham and Ireland cleared the upper reaches of the mountain, Candy's brigade swept the ground between the base of Lookout Mountain and the east bank of the creek.

Shortly before noon, Candy passed through the marshy field opposite the footbridge, clearing the way for Woods and Grose. Woods advanced eastward, while Grose ascended the slope. The belated advance of Woods and Grose spelled doom for the last of Walthall's regiments. Crouched behind the railroad embankment near the turnpike bridge, the Thirty-fourth Mississippi was cut off from the forces on the bench by the Federal crossing, and virtually the entire regiment surrendered. With them were 200 men from Moore's picket line, taken from behind by Woods.


General Moore caught a glimpse of his picket line withering, but he had more pressing concerns on the bench, where the remainder of his brigade stood, 400 yards south of the Cravens house. Ninety minutes had passed before Moore received an answer from Mudwall Jackson to a 9:30 A.M. inquiry asking where he should deploy his brigade. Jackson was incredulous: Did Moore not recall the plan of the night before to defend the line at the Cravens house? Moore was reluctant to move. He applied to Walthall for reassurances that the Mississippian would be on his left when Moore brought his own brigade forward. Walthall could not answer—he was being overwhelmed too quickly to promise anything.

There was bungling aplenty among the Confederate commanders on Lookout Mountain, but no one displayed greater negligence than Jackson. He remained glued to his headquarters, a mile behind the line he had been charged to defend. Jackson lacked even the presence of mind to call for reinforcements; Stevenson had to offer them. When the roll of rifle volleys announced Walthall's clash with Geary at 12:30 P.M., Stevenson ordered Brigadier General Edmund Pettus to take three of his regiments down from the summit and report to Jackson.



By then, Moore was moving. As they neared the Cravens yard, his Alabamians met the remnants of Walthall's brigade rushing to the rear. Instead of finding the stone wall to their front, Moore and his men glimpsed Ireland's New Yorkers through the drizzle. Both sides opened fire at a range of 100 yards. The thick mist disguised Moore's small numbers, and the New Yorkers retreated beyond the stone wall. Moore settled his men in behind it and in the rifle pits it screened.

Moore put up a good fight. He stretched his 1,000 men as thin as he felt he could behind the entrenchments, from the Cravens house down the mountainside, and awaited the Yankee counterattack.

It was slow in coming. Ireland's men were dazed and tired. They lay down along the western fringe of the Cravens yard, protected from Moore's fire by the fog and a dip in the ground.

Whitaker's brigade arrived behind Ireland's stalled line a little after 1:00 P.M. His men were spoiling for a fight, and they swept over the supine New Yorkers and into the yard.

Moore was woefully outnumbered—Whitaker alone had 500 more men than he did—and the odds were getting worse. To Moore's right front, Candy's brigade was clambering up the mountainside to regain its connection with Ireland's left. To Candy's left and rear were the brigades of Woods and Grose. Although not yet near enough to attack Moore, the Federal line clearly extended far beyond his right flank: "It became evident we must either fall back or be surrounded and captured," surmised Moore. He chose the former course and withdrew most of his command off in good order southward, toward the Summertown road.

Their front clear, Whitaker's men whooped and hopped over the stone wall. Whitaker wanted to stop there, but his men surged past him. Ireland was on the move again as well, to the left and rear of Whitaker.

Whitaker was not alone in wanting to call a halt. As the weather worsened, Hooker was content merely to see Geary round the bench. Fearful that the enemy might be reinforced and his own lines disordered by the fog and rugged ground, he had sent word to Geary to halt for the day before reaching the Cravens house. But Geary was on foot and too far behind his troops to stop them, and so, as Hooker put it, "fired by success, with a flying, panic-stricken enemy before them, they pressed impetuously forward."

The fog slowed them, giving Moore the chance to get away and Walthall time to form a scratch line 300 yards south of the Cravens house with the 600 men left to him. Crouching behind boulders and fallen trees, they kept up enough of a racket to halt Whitaker. Thirty minutes later, they heard the tramp of Pettus's column coming up behind them.

Pettus filed his three Alabama regiments off the Cravens house road and into line. Marching forward, they relieved Walthall's band a little after 2:00 P.M. and fell in behind a natural breastwork of limestone outcrop. Moore regrouped on their right.

Pettus's line was engaged instantly. For the rest of the afternoon and well into the night, the six Alabama regiments of Pettus and Moore traded volleys with an invisible foe. In some places, the two lines were just thirty yards apart. At points of collision, the smoke of battle hung in blue sheets among the naked branches of the trees until beaten into nothing by the falling rain. The fighting degenerated into a series of weak, half-blind punches and counterpunches in the foggy twilight. The racket was tremendous, the lead expended prodigious, but hardly anyone was hurt.


Fighting Joe Hooker's confidence returned an hour before sunset. Although he had told Geary earlier to dig in for the night along the eastern slope, Hooker now announced to Grant his intention to descend into Chattanooga Valley as soon as the fog lifted. "In all probability the enemy will evacuate tonight. His line of retreat is seriously threatened by my troops."

The fog never lifted, so Hooker was not put to the test. Hooker may have embarrassed himself with his blustering, but he had correctly guessed Bragg's intentions.

Down in Chattanooga Valley, Bragg was furious—at a loss to understand how Stevenson, with six brigades at his disposal, could have failed to hold the bench and slope of Lookout Mountain. Now Stevenson was begging for another brigade in order to avert total defeat. Bragg granted the request conditionally—the brigade sent over was to be used to cover Stevenson's withdrawal. Bragg would do no more. To him, the battle effectively was over and Lookout Mountain lost. At 2:30 P.M., he instructed Stevenson to withdraw from the mountain to the east side of Chattanooga Creek.

As Bragg left the timing and manner of the withdrawal to his discretion, Stevenson decided not to risk breaking contact with the Federals on the eastern slope until the troops on the summit made good their escape. Walthall, Pettus, and Moore would have to hold on—all night if necessary—to keep open the Summertown road, the only means of egress into Chattanooga Valley.

The senseless firing on the mountainside continued, alternately sputtering and swelling. Union regiments were moved in and out of the line during the night so that everyone on the mountain eventually had a hand in the fight.

Down in the valley, near Chattanooga Creek, Breckinridge, Stevenson, Jackson, and the recently returned Ben Franklin Cheatham met at the Gillespie house at 8:00 P.M. Cheatham was livid—Jackson had nearly destroyed two of his brigades. Breckinridge yielded the floor and left, and Cheatham took charge of the meeting. He concluded the business rapidly. Cheatham told Stevenson to remove his own and Cheatham's divisions from the west side of Chattanooga Creek and stand by on the east bank while Cheatham searched out Bragg for further orders.

Bragg, meanwhile, was absorbed in a meeting of his own. Breckinridge had ridden directly from the Gillespie house to army headquarters. There he, Bragg, and Hardee fell into a largely futile discussion of how they might recoup their losses of the day. The situation was grim. With Lookout Mountain lost and Sherman menacing Tunnel Hill, both flanks were in danger. Another setback on either flank threatened the whole army. Outnumbered two to one, Bragg barely had enough troops to reinforce one flank. Finally, South Chickamauga Creek was swelling rapidly from the steady rains, jeopardizing Bragg's line of retreat.

Bragg had no idea what to do. He turned to Hardee and Breckinridge for advice. Hardee was all for conceding Chattanooga. The army, he said, should cut its losses and withdraw across South Chickamauga Creek. Breckinridge disagreed vehemently. There was no time that night for such a move, which certainly would be discovered. In falling back, Breckinridge continued, the army would be subject to defeat in detail after daybreak. Furthermore, he said, Missionary Ridge was an inherently strong position.

Bragg endorsed Breckinridge's petition to hold fast on Missionary Ridge. Hardee argued a bit longer for a withdrawal but finally relented. He convinced himself that the natural strength of Missionary Ridge was sufficient to deter a direct assault against the center or left. Hardee decided that the real threat would come from Sherman against the right flank, which he argued was also the most vulnerable part of the Confederate line.

Bragg agreed. He promised to send Cheatham and Stevenson to reinforce the right during the night. Hardee would command the four divisions on the right—those of Cleburne, Walker, Stevenson, and Cheatham. Anderson's division was too far to the left for Hardee to devote adequate attention both to it and to the expected fight around Tunnel Hill. Consequently, it was reassigned to Breckinridge. The Kentuckian was to order Stewart up from Chattanooga Valley and onto the ridge at once; responsibility for guarding the extreme left at Rossville Gap would rest with Stewart.

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