- James Houser
November 25, 1863 - The Chattanooga Campaign & the Battle of Missionary Ridge
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
November 25, 1863. The Union army in Chattanooga, humiliated by recent defeat, has been given a small task: take the Confederate outpost line in front of their steep, high entrenchments. An astonished General Grant watches as the soldiers take their objective – and, against orders, keep going. As the sun bursts from behind the clouds in one of the most dramatic moments of the Civil War, the Stars and Stripes ascend Missionary Ridge.
Abraham Lincoln had reasons to be pleased in the middle of 1863. Robert E. Lee had been defeated at Gettysburg, and Ulysses S. Grant had just captured Vicksburg, splitting the Confederacy down the middle. One important front of the Civil War, however, had remained quiet for most of the year: Middle Tennessee. General William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland sat tight in and around Nashville, Tennessee, confronting Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee which blocked the road southeast to Chattanooga. Lincoln had been irritated with Rosecrans’ inaction, since the liberation of East Tennessee had been at the top of his list since 1861. East Tennessee, much like West Virginia, was solidly Unionist and had passively resisted the Confederacy. Two cities, Knoxville and Chattanooga, were the key to East Tennessee, but Chattanooga was more – it was the key to invading farther south into Georgia.
Even as the great victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were in progress, though, Rosecrans set a new plan in motion. Utilizing clever deceptions and rapid maneuver and with only a few minor skirmishes, the Army of the Cumberland (mostly troops from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan) managed to dislodge Bragg from all his defensive positions. By July 3, as the smoke was settling over Pickett’s Charge and the Confederate garrison in Vicksburg asked Grant for surrender terms, Rosecrans had wrapped up his admirable Tullahoma Campaign, which forced Bragg to abandon central Tennessee without firing a shot. Rosecrans, though, was miffed that he did not receive due recognition for this feat, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it had been achieved without costing thousands of casualties.
After recocking for a month, Rosecrans moved once again, this time forcing Bragg out of Chattanooga itself in mid-August. At the same time, Ambrose Burnside’s small Army of the Ohio advanced from eastern Kentucky and captured Knoxville. It seemed like the Union was in total control of Tennessee and that very little could threaten this position – but Bragg was preparing to strike back. The Confederate armies that had abandoned East Tennessee were added to his numbers, followed by reinforcements from Mississippi and even a part of Lee’s army under James Longstreet. As Rosecrans moved south across the border into northern Georgia, Bragg struck.
September 19-20 1863 witnessed the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, only eclipsed by Gettysburg. It was also the only major battle of the war where the Confederates, thanks to Bragg’s last-minute reinforcements, outnumbered the Union. The Battle of Chickamauga was a horrific struggle that only turned towards the Confederates when a mistaken order opened up a gap in the Union line; at this moment, Longstreet’s Antietam and Gettysburg veterans plowed through the weak point in a tight and powerful attack. With the Union army overwhelmed and seeming to fall apart, Rosecrans scampered for Chattanooga to salvage what he could, leaving General George H. Thomas to cover the retreat. Thomas managed to make a brilliant defensive stand that held off the surging Rebels until nightfall, earning him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.”
This performance could not hide the reality. The Army of the Cumberland was now stuck in Chattanooga, and the Confederates were approaching to surround the city and cut them off. Chattanooga’s geography is unlike almost any other city in the United States. The Tennessee River lies north of Chattanooga, and its deep valley extends north to Knoxville and flows south into Alabama. The broken, demoralized, and tired Army of the Cumberland sat with their backs to a river, surrounded by high ground on all sides in a virtual fishbowl. To the south lay mighty Lookout Mountain, while to their southeast rose a long, craggy slope called Missionary Ridge. At the northern apex of Missionary Ridge was a warren of railroad tunnel and rocky promontories known as Tunnel Hill. Within days, Bragg’s Army of Tennessee had occupied all these positions.
Not only was the Army of the Cumberland trapped, but their food supplies were extremely low. Due to the geography, all the rail lines to and from Chattanooga entered the city from the south, meaning that the Confederates sat astride any possible supply routes. It was a strong possibility that the Army of the Cumberland, having been utterly defeated, would starve and be forced to surrender. This would be an epic Union disaster that might cancel out even the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Lincoln, upon learning of this dangerous situation, reacted quickly. He sent two corps of Gettysburg veterans of the Army of the Potomac west under General Joseph Hooker, and the North’s railroads performed a magnificent feat in transporting these troops almost 500 miles in less than a week. Lincoln also realized that the demoralized Rosecrans needed to be replaced by a firmer hand. Lincoln described Rosecrans as “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” He needed someone who would not be overwhelmed by the stress of the situation, someone who would not be stunned, and someone who had solved a similar engineering and logistics problem only a few months before at Vicksburg.
On September 29, a week and a half after the disaster at Chickamauga, Lincoln appointed General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of all the Union armies from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, making him Rosecrans’ immediate boss; he asked his most trusted general to go to Chattanooga in person to see what the solution was. Lincoln also gave Grant the option to relieve Rosecrans if he wanted, and after Grant got wind of Rosecrans’ pitiful telegraph messages, he knew that the Army of the Cumberland needed a new leader. After a brief hesitation, Grant relieved Rosecrans and replaced General Thomas in charge. He ordered Thomas to “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards,” to which the Rock of Chickamauga responded simply, “I will hold the town until we starve.”
Due to the bitter geography of the region and the isolation of Chattanooga itself, Grant had to make the journey on a mule over a winding mountain trail – currently the only supply line open to Rosecrans’ 40,000 men. If this hadn’t brought home the difficulty of the Union situation, Grant’s subsequent meeting with Thomas in Chattanooga on October 23 laid out the difficulties before them. The first step was opening a supply line; only then could the hard work of breaking the Confederate stranglehold on Chattanooga begin.
Hooker’s newly arrived troops had detrained and encamped at a railroad station farther down the Tennessee from Chattanooga, but the Confederates still sat astride the river between the two Union forces at a landing site called Brown’s Ferry. To open up the river line, Grant’s chief engineer William F. Smith proposed a daring plan, and after reviewing it Grant gave his approval and coordinated the operation. A brigade of Thomas’s army floated silently down the river by night and ambushed a Confederate force at Brown’s Ferry on October 27, quickly overwhelming the Rebels and seizing the high ground. Hooker’s troops set out the next morning and linked hands with Thomas’s army, opening an unorthodox but functioning supply line. Sure, the crackers would have to be shipped by rail, floated upriver, marched across a short stretch of land to Brown’s Ferry, then shipped AGAIN to Chattanooga, but hey - it was lunch.
The opening of the “Cracker Line,” as the trapped soldiers affectionately called it, was a potent symbol of Grant’s ability to get things done: within four days of his arrival, he had taken care of the most immediate emergency facing the Union armies. The next issue, of course, was breaking the Confederate grip on Chattanooga, which was going to be a tall order. Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Tunnel Hill were all extremely strong defensive positions, and they had a psychological impact too. Missionary Ridge, especially, loomed over Chattanooga like a predator, and it was hard to feel easy about attacking up that steep ramp of rocky ground, studded as it was with Confederate battle positions and artillery.
Any attack up Missionary Ridge looked like it had to be suicide. Grant, instead, decided to call up more troops an attack either end of the Confederate line at Lookout Mountain and Tunnel Hill. Arriving by mid-November was Grant’s most trusted subordinate, General William T. Sherman, with some units of Grant’s old army – the veterans of Shiloh and Vicksburg. Grant would use a combination of Union troops from all over the country to break the Army of Tennessee.
Bragg’s army itself faced a set of issues. Bragg was a difficult boss, maybe one of the most toxic generals to ever command a large force in the Civil War, and his unceasing arguments with his top officers had created dissension and poor morale in the Army of Tennessee. Bragg had a habit of blaming everyone for his failures but himself, and seeing plots everywhere – which had the effect of creating plots where none had previously existed.
Many of Bragg’s chief subordinates had penned a letter to President Jefferson Davis that detailed Bragg’s many sins and asked that he be relieved of command. Davis, who for some reason had a long-standing attachment to Bragg, visited the army and listened to the generals’ complaints. He even held an open meeting with Bragg and his top commanders where the President asked for a show of hands if they believed Bragg should be relieved, and MOST of Bragg’s own officers raised their hands right in front of their commander. All of this was bad enough on Davis’s part, but what he did next was inexplicable: he LEFT Bragg in command, after engineering a situation where most of his generals had publicly rejected him. This was not a recipe for a good working relationship.
One of the ringleaders of the anti-Bragg cabal was James Longstreet, who had recently come from Lee’s army in Virginia and looked with abject horror at the mess that was the Army of Tennessee. Longstreet in this period of the war was angling for an independent command and clearly saw himself in Bragg’s place. Bragg had quickly soured on Longstreet, especially his superior attitude (“you Westerners have screwed things up, it took an Easterner from LEE’s army like ME to fix things”) and found a reason to get rid of him.
On November 5 Bragg sent Longstreet with almost 20,000 men north, away from Chattanooga, to try and take Knoxville back from its Union occupiers under Burnside. Thus, command incompetence, jealousy, and toxicity had weakened Bragg’s army at the very moment that Grant was planning to break its hold on Chattanooga. This would leave him outnumbered 72,000 to 50,000 when the Battle of Chattanooga began, but Bragg still held the obvious advantages of terrain and position. Despite Bragg’s incompetence and mismanagement, the Rebel army would be hard to budge.
Grant planned a two-pronged attack on either flank. To the south of Chattanooga, Joseph Hooker’s troops from the Army of the Potomac would have to launch an energetic attack up to the peak of Lookout Mountain and drive its 5,000 Confederate defenders from the slopes. Once this had been accomplished, Sherman’s veterans would strike the northern end of the Confederate line at Tunnel Hill and unravel Bragg’s position along Lookout Mountain. As a supplement to the pincers, however, Thomas’s battered Army of the Cumberland would stand by, ready to launch a diversion if necessary. Between Sherman and Hooker’s pincers, the idea was that the center along Missionary Ridge might be weakened enough for Thomas’s army to break through – though Grant hoped that no attack up Missionary Ridge would be necessary, since everyone knew it would be suicidal.
The Battle of Chattanooga opened on November 23, 1863, when Thomas’s troops launched a limited attack to seize a hill known as Orchard Knob that lay between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge. This was little more than a diversion, but it placed the Army of the Cumberland in a prime position to storm Missionary Ridge if necessary. Thomas’s men stared up at the Confederates on their powerful perch. Their morale had been quite low since the defeat at Chickamauga, only made worse by their isolation and kenneling up in Chattanooga and the need for other Union armies to come rescue them. The men of the Army of the Cumberland chafed not under cowardice, but humiliation and a thirst to revenge the loss of their honor at Chickamauga. The arriving Union reinforcements, coming from the victorious armies of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, taunted the Army of the Cumberland and insulted the soldiers for their failure to defeat their foe.
The next day, November 24, Grant’s pincers went into motion. As Sherman used the river to slip his troops north and gain a position from which to attack Tunnel Hill, Hooker led the Gettysburg veterans of the XI and XII Corps in the attack on Lookout Mountain. This dramatic fight was known ever after as the “Battle Above the Clouds,” as the Union columns ascended Lookout Mountain as it was ringed by smoke and low-flying clouds. The men down in Chattanooga, including Grant himself, didn’t know the result of the battle until the next morning – they only heard the shooting and the yelling echoing like thunder off the sides of the valley. The fighting on the mountain was bitter, disjointed, and often hand-to-hand, but in the dawn of November 25 the clouds lifted and the Stars and Stripes were visible atop Lookout Mountain. Under the cover of a lunar eclipse, Bragg’s men evacuated the mountain, burning the bridges spanning Chattanooga Creek behind them.
November 25 was supposed to be the finishing touch to Grant’s grand battle plan. Hooker was supposed to descend Lookout Mountain and attack the Confederate southern flank, while Sherman assaulted Tunnel Hill. Underneath the low-hanging clouds, the grim day opened as Sherman launched assault after assault against Tunnel Hill. His troops had lost their way during their approach on the night before, largely thanks to that lunar eclipse, and through poor knowledge of the terrain ended up foundering on the Confederate defenses. It didn’t help that the Rebels were led by the Irish-born General Patrick Cleburne, the “Stonewall Jackson of the West” and a well-known tactical genius. Cleburne’s significantly smaller force utterly stymied Sherman’s attacks, and by the middle of the day the Tunnel Hill battle was making no progress. Hooker, too, had his attack stalled by the burned creek bridges.
With the attack petering out, the clouds seemed to settle even lower across the gloomy battlefield. Bragg nodded in satisfaction: the Yankees would not take his line today. At this juncture, Grant – with some reluctance – ordered Thomas to make a limited advance towards Missionary Ridge. He didn’t want Thomas to try and take the imposing defenses, but instead to secure a set of advanced positions and rifle pits along the base of the ridge. Grant still believed that attacking Missionary Ridge would be a slaughter, and only wanted to divert Confederate reinforcements away from Sherman’s and Hooker’s attacks.
The Army of the Cumberland moved out at 3:30pm, streaming out from Orchard Knob with a hungry look in their eyes. Quickly rushing forward, the Union soldiers overran the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, sending the Confederate troops retreating up the slope. But now the attackers were in a difficult position. Grant’s orders had only called for them to take the rifle pits, but in these newly occupied positions the Union troops were exposed to sniping fire from the Confederates atop the ridge, as well as the skirmish lines that had just retreated from the pits. Any retreat would inevitably be exposed to the same fire. So it was that without orders, the Army of the Cumberland – burning with a desire to redeem themselves – went the only way they could go: up.
A few soldiers started advancing up the ridge. Then more followed. No one is sure who started the attack, although a few generals such as division commander Philip Sheridan quickly realized what was happening and raced to lead their men. Soon the whole Army of the Cumberland was racing up the slopes of Missionary Ridge, bayonets fixed. There was no formation, no plan, no program. Every unit clung together as a mass, with the color-bearers racing at their heads; when one fell, another grabbed the flag. A great wave of 40,000 men was surging up the slope in violation of orders, fear, and common sense.
Grant, aghast, watched the spectacle from his headquarters on Orchard Knob. He angrily asked Thomas if he had ordered the attack, and when Thomas answered in the negative, Grant muttered that if it failed there would be hell to pay. His eyes stayed fixed on the crest, waiting for the wave of musket and cannon fire that everyone expected would blast away the Army of the Cumberland.
But appearances were deceiving. Bragg’s defensive line was placed at the very top of Missionary Ridge, which would seem like a good position – but from where his men and guns sat, they didn’t have actual observation over the steep slope, and the cannon could not depress far enough to fire down the ridge. It didn’t help that the Confederate units retreating from the rifle pits were flooding into the main line of defense with the Union hot on their heels. Finally – as if an intervention from heaven – the sun burst through the clouds as it was receding to the west, creating a brief burst of light into the eyes of the Confederate defenders. To the Union commanders observing below, it was as if God himself had peeled aside the curtain and let light shine on Missionary Ridge.
As the Army of the Cumberland ascended Missionary Ridge, one young officer of the 24th Wisconsin – the 18-year-old Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, Jr. – seized the flag of the 24th, screamed “On Wisconsin!”, and was among the first men to reach the peak of the ridge. MacArthur would be awarded the Medal of Honor – much like his famous son, Douglas MacArthur. The sun glinted off the eagle atop Lieutenant MacArthur’s staff as Old Glory waved atop Missionary Ridge. Short, stocky General Sheridan ascended elsewhere on the line, followed by a pack of Indiana soldiers who streamed into the Confederate trenches. All along the line, the bluecoats came over the top of the ridge like a rolling wave.
The Confederates had assumed their position impregnable. They had been disconcerted by the retreat, were demoralized by the high command shenanigans, and stunned by the sudden ferocity of the attack. The sheer audacity of the thing, more than anything, decided the whole affair. By 4:30pm, one hour after Grant had ordered the initial limited attack, the center of Bragg’s army was shattered and streaming back in disarray. Against all odds, the Army of the Cumberland had done what no one expected: they had frontally assaulted and taken Missionary Ridge. In so doing, they erased the stain of their retreat from Chickamauga and proved the other Union armies wrong. In the final accounting, they weren’t rescued – they had rescued themselves.
Only Cleburne’s division stopped the Union pursuit as Bragg’s shattered army raced back into Georgia in utter defeat. It wasn’t just a retreat: it was a rout. Bragg lost around 9,000 men, including over 6,000 taken prisoner, most in the confusion atop Missionary Ridge. The Union had lost around 6,000, mostly in the assaults on Tunnel Hill and Lookout Mountain. The assault up Missionary Ridge had been surprisingly less bloody than anyone had ever dreamed. When Thomas was asked whether he wanted the dead to be buried by state, he simply said, “Mix them up. I am tired of states’ rights.”
The Battle of Chattanooga secured Tennessee for the Union for the rest of the war. Immediately after victory was assured, Sherman marched north to help Burnside in Knoxville, who was being menaced by Longstreet; Longstreet drew off without a serious fight. Never again would the South stand a good chance of regaining any part of Tennessee. Even worse for the Confederacy, Chattanooga opened up the gates to Georgia – and it would be from this base that Sherman would advance to Atlanta in 1864. Finally, Grant’s role in coordinating the victory at Chattanooga confirmed Lincoln’s confidence in him and played a key role in his elevation to commander of all Union armies in March 1864.
The Union charge up Missionary Ridge was easily one of the most dramatic, unexpected, and unforgettable moments of the Civil War. More than any single event of the war, it was a victory won by the soldiers, not the generals. It was those first few riflemen to start moving up the ridge who were the real heroes of Chattanooga, and it is they who are the real legends of Missionary Ridge.