The events of July 4, 1863, cemented Ulysses S. Grant’s position as a household name firmly into the public mind. The capitulation of the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg to “Unconditional Surrender” Grant of Donelson fame – on Independence Day no less – electrified the North and dismayed the South.
And yet, after Vicksburg Grant and his army entered a hiatus. Grant remained one western departmental commander among several. He commanded the Department of the Mississippi, alongside Nathaniel P. Banks, heading up the Department of the Gulf; William S. Rosecrans of the Department of the Cumberland; and Ambrose E. Burnside at the helm of the Department of the Ohio. Each of those men continued in independent command, answerable directly to the War Department in Washington, and conducting their own independent operations. President Abraham Lincoln did sound Grant out about the possibility of coming east to replace General George G. Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant was unenthusiastic, and nothing came of the idea. Over the next few weeks Grant’s troops dispersed to garrison much of the newly captured territory, or were lent out for intended expeditions in Arkansas and East Texas. From July until the end of September, Grant was called upon to do very little. Vicksburg might have been a turning point in Grant’s career trajectory, but if so, that turn was not immediately obvious.
In fact, it took another crisis to propel Grant into his subsequent high rank, political career, and enshrinement as one of America’s principal military heroes. That crisis was Chattanooga, in the fall of 1863.
On September 20, 1863, after three days of combat at the battle of Chickamauga, Union General William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland was badly defeated and driven into the defensive works of Chattanooga – the disastrous culmination of a month-long campaign in which Rosecrans leveraged Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of that city, only to see Bragg’s heavily reinforced army strike back. Bragg nearly encircled Rosecrans’s surviving force, leaving the Federal commander with a stark choice: Starve, surrender, or conduct a disastrous further retreat across the Tennessee Barrens.
Faced with this crisis, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reacted quickly. They rushed reinforcements to Rosecrans from Virginia, and called upon both Grant and Burnside to furnish additional men. Grant received notice of this need on September 22, and within three days had nearly 20,000 men in motion.
But Stanton wanted something more: unified command. He was greatly dissatisfied with Union General Henry W. Halleck’s ability – or lack thereof – to orchestrate a cohesive military policy across the vast Western Theater from Halleck’s office in Washington D.C. Stanton also despised Rosecrans and was convinced that the Army of the Cumberland’s commander was not fit to meet the challenges now at hand. Accordingly, Stanton turned to Grant.
In mid-October Stanton dispatched a cryptic message requesting that Grant meet him in Louisville. Stanton traveled west on a special train, while Grant did the same from Cairo Illinois. They met on October 17. There Stanton handed Grant an order naming him commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, a comprehensive new command embracing the entire Western Theater. Grant’s orders came in two versions: the first retained Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, while the second replaced Rosecrans with George Thomas. In theory, Grant could choose which officer he preferred; but Grant almost certainly understood what Stanton wished to happen. On October 18, spurred into additional haste by an alarming dispatch from Chattanooga, Grant assumed command of the Division, and wired the order relieving Rosecrans to the Army of the Cumberland’s headquarters. Thomas took up command as soon as it arrived.
This bit of theater was aimed at making the government seem impartial, distanced from Rosecrans’ removal. Rosecrans, an Ohioan and War Democrat, was widely popular in his home state, and Ohio was in the middle of a crucial gubernatorial election that fall. But it was theater: Stanton never intended to retain Rosecrans. The Secretary informed Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton of as much the evening before he even met with Grant. Nor was Grant inclined to want to keep Rosecrans in command. Those two men also had a difficult relationship, dating back to the fall of 1862 and the battle of Iuka. Grant, who always valued teamwork over raw military capacity, had no intention of working with the brilliant-but-difficult Rosecrans unless forced to.
Grant proceeded to Chattanooga immediately. He arrived in the city on October 23, after an arduous ride, traversing flooded streams and forbidding mountains on roads churned to muddy soup. He arrived at Thomas’s headquarters that evening, to what at least one witness described as a chilly reception from the taciturn Rock of Chickamauga, George Thomas. No one else described such a scene, and Grant never mentioned feeling rebuffed, so how much of snub was actually delivered remains a very open question. If Thomas did mean to slight Grant, Grant seemed to take no notice.
Grant reached Chattanooga, but his troops certainly hadn’t. Major General William T. Sherman, at the head of four divisions of the Army of the Tennessee, was toiling his way across Northern Alabama. It was slow going. Initially charged with repairing the badly damaged Memphis & Charleston rail line as he went, Sherman was badly delayed by the effort. Once in Chattanooga, Grant ordered Sherman to abandon that labor and make for Chattanooga as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, there was a supply line to re-open. The Union army’s main supply depots were at Bridgeport and Stevenson Alabama, forty miles to the west. Confederate troops sealed off the direct route, forcing Federal supply wagons to follow the same meandering mountain roads that Grant used to enter the city – a journey of more than 60 miles – and which would become unusable with the onset of winter. The obvious solution was to restore Union navigation on the Tennessee, whereby steamboats could carry all the supplies Thomas needed as far as Kelley’s Ferry, and from whence they could be hauled by wagon the last few miles into the city. Grant arrived just as the planning for an operation to accomplish this task was being finalized. Rosecrans had explained the plan to Grant as the two met in Grant’s rail car at Bridgeport, in passing. Details were finalized, and the plan was capably executed by Union Major General Charles F. “Baldy” Smith, the Army’s chief engineer, a week after Grant’s arrival. The danger of starvation or surrender had passed by the beginning of November.
Mere survival was not in Grant’s make-up, however. Grant intended to attack, and soon. He ordered a first effort in early November, when he discovered that Bragg was sending a large portion of his own army under James Longstreet into East Tennessee to recapture Knoxville. That effort was foiled by the Army of the Cumberland’s still-parlous condition, especially in horseflesh. Thomas’s livestock suffered severely in October, and there simply weren’t enough fit animals to draw the artillery, let alone anything else. Frustrated, Grant urged Thomas to strip the officers of their mounts for the purpose; but those horses weren’t in any better shape. Nor was Sherman present with his troops, leaving Grant with no good options. There would be no early November offensive.
A little more than two weeks later, Union prospects were much improved. Sherman was present, Thomas’s army was ready, and the Rebels were greatly outnumbered. Grant could at last give his offensive nature free rein.
The results were spectacular. On November 24, Union Major General Joseph Hooker attacked Bragg’s left, capturing the lower slopes of Lookout Mountain. This success forced the Confederates to abandon the crest of Lookout that same night, lest they be cut off from the rest of Bragg’s army on Missionary Ridge. Also on the 24th, Sherman’s column slipped across the Tennessee River upstream from Chattanooga and established a lodgment on the south bank near Bragg’s right flank at Tunnel Hill – which dominated the north end of Missionary Ridge.
The following day, November 25, Union arms were crowned with even greater success, though there were some early stumbles. Grant opened with Sherman’s force striking at Tunnel Hill to complete the turning of Bragg’s right, something Grant intended Sherman to have accomplished the day before. Sherman’s effort, however, fell short. In the meantime, almost as an afterthought, Grant directed Hooker to advance against the Rebel left at Rossville. Hooker’s advance was slow, greatly delayed by a destroyed bridge. In the afternoon, when it had begun to look like the Union plans were completely undone, Grant ordered Thomas to attack the Confederate defenses at the foot of Missionary Ridge, striking Bragg’s center, in the sector everyone supposed was the strongest part of the Rebel line.
The troops took the first line of works handily, but then, without orders, they kept on going: up and over the crest of Missionary Ridge, throwing much of Bragg’s army into headlong retreat. Success was capped by Hooker’s seizure of Rossville near dusk, followed by a lateral sweep northward astride the ridge by three more Union divisions, which completed the rout. It proved to be one of the more complete Union victories of the war.
To both the northern public and the Union leadership in Washington, this triumph appeared to be a stunning reversal of fortune; just a month previous, Lincoln, Stanton, and millions of other Northern citizens were bracing for disaster. Grant’s reputation, already riding high, ascended to the stratosphere.
Arguably, Chattanooga was Grant’s acid-test for theater command. Vicksburg was a great victory, but it did not produce an immediate elevation; after all, the Lincoln administration had a long record of importing winning general from the West, with disappointing results. But if Grant could achieve such a stunning result at Chattanooga, might not he be the man – at last – Lincoln could turn to in order to finally win the war? Chattanooga, more so than Vicksburg, propelled Grant the following March into an unprecedented promotion to lieutenant general, tasked with command of all Union armies in the field.
Of course, there is some irony here: Far from being Grant’s most brilliantly-engineered strategic triumph, Chattanooga was arguably Grant’s worst-planned and worst-fought battle. In Grant’s original plan, Sherman was supposed to do all the heavy lifting; with Thomas’ and Hooker’s men largely relegated to spectator status. Sherman’s command, after all, contained Grant’s trusted veterans, the men of the Army of the Tennessee. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland and Hooker’s Army of the Potomac transplants – at least in Grant’s eyes – could not be trusted to fight offensively. Too many defeats loomed in their past records, the most recent of which was Chickamauga. Grant told Sherman as much when that officer reached Chattanooga in mid-November.
Grant intended to send Sherman across the Tennessee to seize the northern end of Missionary Ridge on November 24. Hooker’s assault on Lookout Mountain was meant to be nothing more than a demonstration, diverting Bragg’s attention from Sherman’s decisive blow. But Sherman faltered, never even reaching Missionary Ridge. Hooker’s men wrested control of Lookout after a sharp – and spectacular, to all onlookers – fight (an affair Grant always afterward dismissed as nothing more than a skirmish.) Worse yet, when Sherman was tasked with the main effort the next day, he again stumbled badly, delivering a series of uncoordinated piecemeal attacks which were easily blunted by the Confederate defenders. Thomas’s assault on the Confederate center was only supposed to be a demonstration, a ploy meant to divert enemy forces away from Sherman. No troops were diverted (again, something Grant consistently failed to accept even years after the war) but Thomas’s men shattered the very center of the Confederate line.
As such, Chattanooga might well go down in the books as Grant’s luckiest battle, with the men he trusted the least succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations. But Chattanooga is also more than mere luck. As a battle, it also demonstrated Grant’s strongest traits as a soldier – adaptability and perseverance. Those were the traits which had sustained him at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga; and would eventually carry him to total victory in Virginia.
More than any other single battle or campaign, Grant’s resounding success at Chattanooga convinced Lincoln and Stanton that they had at last found their man.