Chattanooga: More Than Just Another Victory for Grant

TurningPoints-logoIn the late summer and early days of fall of 1863, it seemed that all eyes were on the small railroad town of Chattanooga, TN. The disastrous defeat at Chickamauga and the huge casualties it reaped turned what had nearly been for Union commander Major General William S. Rosecrans a victory almost as significant as the fall of Vicksburg into an embarrassing defeat of epic proportions. Yet in the defeat, Rosecrans still held onto Chattanooga, the objective of his campaign, although his army, the Army of the Cumberland, soon found itself under siege in the town.

Rosecrans managed to hold on thanks to a 60-mile supply line to their forward supply base of Bridgeport, Alabama, only 25 miles away, but due to the placement of the Confederate army’s best cannon on Lookout Mountain and sharpshooters along the banks of the Tennessee River, direct access was impossible. Rosecrans continued to work on the defense of the town and planned a move to open up another, shorter route of supply, although word of this was not making it to the ears of the War Department. The assistant secretary of war, feeding a growing panic about Rosecrans, sent false reports of an eminent withdrawal. Already reinforcements were on the way to aid Rosecrans, though: Joe Hooker was dispatched with the XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac from Virginia, and William T. Sherman was coming with a portion of the Army of the Tennessee from Mississippi. But suddenly another move was made that would have tremendous impact on the rest of the war and one that proved fatal to Rosecrans’s career. 

Major General Ulysses S. Grant had steadily grown into the hero of the Union cause. From the first so-needed victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat at Shiloh, and the hard road to capture Vicksburg, Grant seemed to provide the victories that the Union cause desperately needed. Grant proved himself to be a tough-as-nails commander, and his maxim of “when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back or stop until the thing intended was accomplished” served him well.

However, Grant also displayed some very human flaws. He was sometimes jealous of the attention the press gave other officers and displayed some misplaced paranoia. This resulted in a bitter rift with Rosecrans, destroying a decades-long friendship in the wake of the battles of Iuka and Corinth the previous fall.

Grant’s accomplishments, though, shined brightly now that the Mississippi once more, through his efforts, ran “unvexed to the sea,” severing the Confederacy. With this latest accomplishment, Grant received notification of his promotion to command the newly created Military Division of the West, which covered a massive expanse of ground: the three military departments between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, including his old command, the Army of the Tennessee, now commanded by his good friend and loyal subordinate, William T. Sherman, and also that of the now seemingly collapsing Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland.

Grant was tasked with insuring that Chattanooga remained in Union hands. The War Department gave him two sets of orders related to the fate of his old friend, Rosecrans. He literally held Rosecrans’s fate in his hand. One set of orders retained him, and the other removed him from command and replaced him with Major General George H. Thomas.

There never was any doubt: Rosecrans was done.

Grant arrived at the Union supply depot at Stevenson, Alabama, approximately 45 miles west of Chattanooga, on October 22 to be met by the departing Rosecrans. In what could only have been a very tense meeting, Rosecrans briefed Grant on the situation at the front and also about his plans for opening a supply line. Grant, for his part, falsely told Rosecrans that he didn’t have anything to do with his removal before sending him on his way.

The following day, Grant made his way through a pouring rain to Chattanooga, where he met with General Thomas and heard more about Rosecrans’s plan—though the army’s chief engineer, General William F. Smith, claimed it was his own. Grant now turned his energies to getting the much-needed supplies into Chattanooga. Taking Rosecrans’s plan and making it happen, Grant launched one of the war’s few night-time assault—and an amphibious one, at that—the battle of Brown’s Ferry, which broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. What became known as “the Cracker Line” was now open, and a steady stream of supplies moved unvexed into Chattanooga.

Along with the supplies, a path was open for the reinforcements that had begun arriving. Hooker’s men had arrived only eleven days after they were dispatched, played a big part in opening the “Cracker Line” and then defending it in a series of fights that are collectively called the battle of Wauhatchie. Grant now waited for Sherman to arrive.

In the interlude, the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg, dispatched part of his army to deal with the third army under Grant’s command, Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, which captured Knoxville, TN, after the city’s garrison had rushed to reinforce Bragg just before the battle of Chickamauga. Now wanting to eliminate Burnside as a threat and retake Knoxville, Bragg sent Lt. Gen. James Longstreet with his corps for this mission. When Sherman finally arrived at Chattanooga in mid November, Bragg initially discounted him as a local threat, thinking Sherman’s men were on the way to Knoxville—which, in turn, prompted him to order more of his army to that front. Ironically that move compelled Grant, now growing worried about Burnside, to act against Bragg.

Receiving a report that the Confederates were leaving his front, Grant ordered a reconnaissance in force on November 23 against the Confederate picket lines near Orchard Knob, a prominent hill between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, along whose base a long portion of the Confederate defenses ran. That reconnaissance soon turned into the first of what would be three days of fighting. The Confederates were still in their lines, and a short fight ensued, with the Union forces capturing Orchard Knob.

Grant now saw that it was time to act. He sent orders for the main assault to occur the following day. Sherman would attack the Confederate right and roll up the line, sweeping the Confederates away from Chattanooga and into North Georgia, while Hooker would attack Lookout Mountain in diversionary action.

However, November 24 proved to be a day of frustrating success and failure. Hooker’s attack was a success, forcing the Confederates to abandon the seemingly impregnable Lookout Mountain, while Sherman, due to a poor reconnaissance and even poorer maps, attacked what proved to be an undefended set of hills slightly in front of Missionary Ridge. Grant now had to draw up a new set of plans for November 25 even as Bragg pulled all of his men back to defend Missionary Ridge. The following day, Sherman was to attack what he now knew was the Confederate right on the portion of the ridge known as Tunnel Hill, while Hooker would move off Lookout Mountain, cross Chattanooga Valley, and attack the Confederate left, crushing the Confederates between the two forces as the Army of the Cumberland loomed as a diversion in their front.

Once again luck seemed not to be with the Union forces, though. Flooded creeks and a burned bridge delayed Hooker as he moved eastward, while Sherman was handed several humiliating repulses in his attacks on the north end of the line.

Finally, late in the day, having received erroneous reports that Bragg had reinforced his right. Grant decided that it was time to commit Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. Late in the afternoon of November 25, the Cumberlanders moved forward with orders to attack the Confederate defenses at the foot of the ridge, a move they made easily enough—but finding themselves under heavy fire from the Confederate main line on top of the ridge, the men surged forward without orders. Clambering up the side of the ridge, they shouted over and over again, “Chickamauga!” Using the name of their defeat as their battle cry, they soon had the summit and, in short order, broke the Confederate line and sent the Rebels into full retreat. Grant had his victory.

In the aftermath of the battle, Grant was once again hailed as the great victor, this time having opened the gateway into the heart of the Deep South. In the space of four months, Grant had delivered two of the most important victories of the war—and he was destined for even greater things. Grant, in short order, was promoted again, this time to take command of all of the Union Armies. He, in turn, promoted Sherman—despite Sherman’s failures—to take command of the Military Division of the West. The team was now being assembled to win the war.

The following spring, Grant traveled to Virginia to try his luck against Robert E. Lee, and Sherman moved through the gateway into Georgia, beginning a campaign that would lead to both his fame and infamy—but all of it leading to the death of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga wasn’t just another victory for Grant, it was the event that enabled him to assemble his winning team—a team that won the war.

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[For more on the relationship between Grant, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, read Dan Davis’s essay “Vicksburg: The Victory That Unleashed Ulysses S. Grant” in Turning Points of the American Civil Warpart of the “Engaging the Civil War” Series.]