The battle for Chattanooga 23, 24, and 25 November 1863
See below comparative time table for the 25th of Nov., also 20 questions which other writers don't answer.
Thomas to Halleck: "I have made my last protest while the war lasts. You may hereafter put a stick over me if you choose to do so. I will take care, however, to so manage my command, whatever it may be, as not to be involved in the mistakes of the stick."
After the defeat of the Union army at Chickamauga, which was saved from being a complete rout only by the improbable stand of Thomas against Bragg's entire army (25,000 against 60,000), Rosecrans fortified Chattanooga, abandoning the heights of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge to Bragg. Rosecrans was thus safe for the moment, but his supply situation was critical and got worse.
For various reasons (chaos also in the Confederate supply situation, horrendous losses at Chickamauga, strong fortifications around Chattanooga) Bragg decided to starve Rosecrans out rather than attack whereby it wasn't exactly clear, who was besieging whom. Bragg was also occupied with trying to clean out all of the insubordinate elements in his army who had contributed greatly to limit his options before this battle, indeed since his first foray into Kentucky. At this moment, one of the most insubordinate elements was Longstreet, the savior from the East. He had arrived the night before the battle of Chickamauga, expecting Davis to sooner or later name him Bragg's replacement, and after the battle he jumped feet first into the rebellion among Bragg's officers, aligning himself against Bragg, of course. But then Davis came to Chickamauga, listened, saw, and stuck with Bragg.
Bragg tried to placate Longstreet by giving him the responsibility for the entire left flank (Chattanooga Valley, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Valley, and beyond), but Longstreet was not to be mollified. He displayed complete indifference to his charge, disobeyed Bragg's order to throw back Hazen (who had effected the crossing at Brown's Ferry on 27 Oct.), and disobeyed Bragg's order to use "all necessary force" to oppose Hooker who had entered Lookout Valley from the West on 28 Oct. with a mixed corps. Instead, Longstreet ordered an improvised night attack by a division against Hooker's rear guard - a division at Wauhatchie under Geary. This accomplished nothing, and Hooker was there to stay as long as he wanted. This stabilized the line of supply from the Nashville railroad to Stevenson, Ala., from there via steamboat to Kelley's Ferry, and on to Chattanooga via the easy wagon and RR route past Raccoon Mountain to Brown's Ferry - the "cracker line". Having thrown away Bragg's entire left flank, Longstreet then lobbied with Davis in order to be sent back to Virginia, promising to stop on the way and chase Burnside out of Knoxville.* Davis so ordered, and Bragg concurred, wanting to be rid of Longstreet anyway, and hoping the threat to Burnside would draw away some of Grant's forces from Chattanooga.
For Grant had arrived on 23 Oct. Thomas, on 19 Oct., had taken over the command of the Army of the Cumberland from Rosecrans who had not recovered from the debacle at Chickamauga. Thomas began immediately reorganizing the army and solving the supply problem (following a plan worked out by Baldy Smith and Rosecrans). Grant approved of the plan which was already underway. Meanwhile Grant was preparing his own plan which was designed to highlight Sherman as the agent of the victory in the coming battle against Bragg, with all due reflection upon himself as the architect thereof. At this time Sherman was slowly approaching Chattanooga from western Tennessee with Grant's former army, the Army of the Tennessee, now Sherman's (Grant had been promoted to Cmdr. of the Division of the Mississippi).
However, Thomas and Grant didn't like each other very much. Grant felt uncertain of himself in Thomas's presence, seeing in him the only possible rival for overall command. On the other hand, Thomas didn't like Grant's improvised way of doing battle. Moreover, Thomas didn't really need Grant's help to deal with Bragg. For a complete summary of this situation see my article "Politics in the Union Army at the Battle for Chattanooga". Grant's hidden or not so hidden agenda (promote Sherman, get himself called East to take on Lee, open other paths to success after the war) was therefore in conflict with that of Thomas who merely wanted to decisively defeat Bragg and shorten the war.
In a nutshell, Sherman arrived late and performed incredibly badly in his task of taking the northern end of Missionary Ridge. This series of lapses allowed Thomas to shift his effort to where he wanted to make it in the beginning, namely against Bragg's southern flank at Rossville Gap. According to Grant's plan, Hooker was to be held in reserve, and maybe demonstrate a little bit, and Thomas was only to demonstrate and then join Sherman in his victory march down the ridge. Sherman's delay enabled Thomas to get "permission" for Hooker to attack Lookout Mountain on 24 Nov.
Hooker at Lookout Mountain. Original 30' x 13' painting by James Walker on display at Point Park Visitor's Center in Chattanooga.
While Sherman was crossing the Tennessee and occupying the northern and practically undefended end of Missionary Ridge,** Hooker took Lookout Mountain. Sherman's botched reconnaissance (resulting in his stopping far short of his objective in his orders - the railroad tunnel - on the afternoon of 24 Nov.) allowed Thomas to get orders for Hooker to attack Rossville Gap on the next day.
The afternoon of 25 Oct., while Sherman was being defeated piecemeal by Cleburne (who had less than a quarter of the forces that Sherman had), Hooker took Rossville Gap and sent troops in 3 columns north toward Bragg's headquarters on Missionary Ridge. Osterhaus (Sherman's division stranded on the south side of the Tennessee by a break in a pontoon bridge and then borrowed by Hooker), even got around far to the rear of Bragg's position and probably started the panic in Southern ranks which then helped Thomas's troops to break the Bragg's center in 6 places during the famous charge up the ridge. Maybe it started even earlier as they watched Hooker with 12,000 men or so cross the valley unopposed toward their left flank and their road back home if he so chose.
This charge began as Grant's order for a limited demonstration in order to draw away pressure from Sherman. Thomas's troops were supposed to advance to the foot of the ridge "take the rifle pits" and stop - a really bad order because the soldiers would have been directly exposed to defending fire from above. In various ways, Thomas stalled the execution of this order until he knew that Hooker was around behind Bragg. When the troops did take the rifle pits, they continued the charge up to the crest (4 to 500 feet above the flats, inclination up to 45%), and broke through. There is dispute among historians concerning whether this charge was spontaneous, whether the various division and brigade commanders were simply confused, or whether Thomas had in some way ordered the movement beyond the rifle pits behind Grant's back. The division commander Baird on the Federal center right and August Willich (under Wood in the center and one of the first brigade commanders to reach the top) wrote in their reports that their orders were to take the crest. Who gave this order?
Grant didn't. Grant's reaction to the charge up the ridge, described as being everything from mild surprise to cursing and rage, proves with certainty that he had not ordered the charge and decidedly did not want it. Grant had proven already, and would prove again many times later, that he was not particularly motivated by a desire to keep as many of his men alive as possible in battle. The main reason for his displeasure, aside from his habitual reaction to any perceived infraction of his orders, was the fear that the charge might succeed. That not Sherman , but Thomas would win the battle (and get the credit).
Afterward, Grant, Sherman, Halleck, and Dana did the next best thing and rewrote the history of the battle, making Sherman's failure into a successful holding operation, turning Thomas's charge into a miracle (i.e. one-time fluke), and negating almost altogether Hooker's turning of Bragg's left flank. For a couple of hours Hooker simply disappeared into some sort of black hole in Rossville according to Grant's report.
After the battle, Thomas's Army of the Cumberland was incorporated into Sherman's Army of the Tennessee, and Sherman was put in charge of the drive toward Atlanta (see the Hundred Days campaign). It didn't hurt him that his brother was US senator from Ohio, nor that his father-in-law was a former senator.
* Burnside did a good job at Knoxville, paid Longstreet back for Fredericksburg. ** According to local historian and head of the Missionary Ridge neighborhood association Bob Graham, this first detached hill of Missionary Ridge received its name "Billy the Goat Hill" after the battle.
Reconstructed comparative time table for the day of 25 Nov. 1863 As Sherman himself said this same morning: “Time is everything!"
Thomas and center
Sherman at Tunnel Hill
Hooker signals readiness
Thomas nudges Grant about Hooker (speculation)
Stevenson’s troops from Lookout Mountain march all night long north on ridge, tell their story en route
Hooker receives order
Thomas sends Hooker order to move via flagmen
Stevenson’s troops begin to take position next to Cleburne
Hooker’s troops move, advance units already in valley
Corse starts frontal attacks against Swett’s battery on Tunnel Hill
Bragg reports Hooker’s movement across valley.
Loomis starts attack toward tunnel
Bragg receives report of activity at Chattanooga Creek. Hooker sends Osterhaus across on first “stringers".
Bushbeck joins Loomis
Hooker announces he needs one more hour to complete bridge. Osterhaus secures Rossville Gap
Riflefire heard as Osterhaus attacks Rossville Gap. This is also heard up on the ridge.
Mathies attacks Tunnel Hill from west.
Grant goes to lunch.
Hooker’s cannons cross Chattanooga creek and begin firing. Osterhaus secures Rossville Gap
Grant returns, sees Sherman’s troops fleeing from Tunnel Hill. Cannon fire from south audible. Grant suggests that Thomas move troops forward to the rifle pits and stop
Sherman’s final attack against Cleburne is repulsed, Cleburne counter-attacks, takes prisoners. Sherman calls it quits, does not tell Grant.
Cruft and Hooker drive Clayton. Osterhaus moves along rear of ridge without opposition. Impossible that Stewart is unaware of this movement.
Sound of battle from Hooker’s direction intensifies. Grant sharply issues his verbal order for Thomas’s men to move to the rifle pits and stop.
Geary moves against Stewart from southwest. Osterhaus continues north toward center, still no opposition.
Battle noise moves further north. Grant again issues the verbal order for Thomas’ men to move to the rifle pits and stop.
Panicked troops from Clayton and Stewart units flee towards center and down eastern side of ridge.
The 6 cannon fire in successions to initiate the advance of Thomas’s 4th and 14th corps toward the ridge.
Cruft and Hooker drive Stewart, Johnson advances up ridge from west.
4th and 14th corps engage Confederates in rifle pits. Some continue up ridge, rest follows, Grant rages. Panic intensifies in Bragg’s center.
Sherman apprised by Grant that Thomas has “carried the hill": “Now is your time to attack…". Sherman’s reply to Grant missing in records.
Osterhaus meets Johnson’s troops on top of ridge.
Johnson’s troops almost shoot Osterhaus.
Hooker bivouacs on ridge, troops celebrate.
Sheridan gets some men killed pursuing in darkness.
Cleburne forms rear guard, Sherman does not pursue.
Twenty previously unanswered questions about the battle of Chattanooga
1) Fact: The morning of the 25th there was communication between Thomas on Orchard Knob and signalmen on Lookout Mountain because this was how Thomas sent his orders to Hooker at about 9:30 once the fog had lifted. Is it possible that these signalmen, who were in a perfect position to observe Hooker's movements across the valley, did not keep Thomas informed of Hooker's further progress that day? Is it possible that Grant, no more than 20 yards away from Thomas the afternoon of the 25th (Orchard Knob wouldn't permit a greater distance), was not also so informed?
2) Fact: Thomas in his official report of the battle states that on 24 Nov. Hooker "reported by telegraph" that he had defeated the Confederate defenders at Craven's house on Lookout Mountain. Hooker's battle report also mentions telegraph communications. Who cut the telegraph wire on the 25th?
3) Fact: Hooker was known to be extraordinarily ambitious. He was especially motivated to wipe out the stain of Chancerllorsville. What then held Hooker back at the foot of Lookout Mountain the morning of 25 Nov. until 10 AM?
4) Fact: Stewart's artillery started firing at Hooker sometime around 1 PM. Hooker got his artillery across Chattanooga Creek around 2 PM and started using it then (at the very latest) against Stewart. Is it possible that Thomas and Grant, Bragg and Breckinridge, Confederate grunt up on the ridge and Union grunt down on the flats didn't hear this cannonfire and the other attendant racket?
5) Facts: the western face of the ridge was mostly cleared for field of fire, the upper Chattanooga valley was a mixture of cultivated fields and forest, and there were no leaves on the hardwood trees. Bragg reports that he saw at about 11 AM "masses of troops coming from Lookout" and heading "toward his front". Could the Confederate grunts up on the ridge not also see Hooker proceeding unopposed across the valley toward their road back home?
6) Fact as reported by Sword: August Willich, a German born and Prussian trained general officer of Wood's division situated right in front of Orchard Knob, stated afterward that he had understood that, according to his orders, he was to "advance" after reaching the rifle pits. Is it likely that such a person would have misconstrued the order as issued by Grant? Did he then receive a different order, and if so, from whom and through whom?
7) Fact as reported by Cozzens: After Grant's second verbal order to Thomas to have his men move to the rifle pits and stop, Thomas and Gordon Granger (the man who had saved Thomas at Chickamauga) conferred alone for a few minutes, whereupon Granger "went off". What did Thomas say to Granger?
8) Fact as reported by Cozzens: After Grant's second order to take the rifle pits, still nothing happened, whereupon Grant ordered the movement a third time, and the machinery started into motion. Where did Granger go and to whom did he talk between Grant's 2nd and 3rd enunciations of the order?
9) Fact: Grant's order for Thomas to have his men "demonstrate" toward the rifle pits and stop would have, if rigidly adhered to, exposed these troops to grave danger because of the plunging fire. Was Thomas the sort of man to not intervene in some way in order to mitigate the effect of such an order?
10) Fact: Many writers call this order on the part of Grant "foolish" or "ill-considered" or even "quixotic". Was not Grant anything but foolish, and did he not normally reflect on his orders, and isn't the word quixotic an unusual term to describe the behavior of the mature general Grant?
11) Observation: There is an amazing congruity between the chronology of Hooker's progress against the Confederate left flank and the chronology of Grant's repeated ordering of Thomas to move against the rifle pits AND STOP. Is this a coincidence?
12) Fact: According to Sword, some of the official communications of the afternoon of 25 Nov. between Grant and Sherman are missing from the Official Records. Is it possible they were removed, and if so, by whom?
13) Fact as reported by many of the officers of Stewart's Divisions' battle reports (Broadfoot's Supplements to the OR) show that the Confederate retreat began first in his division under the attack from Hooker, before Tucker gave way in the center. Why does Grant state in his battle report, and then again in his Memoirs, that Hooker was held up for four hours at Chattanooga Creek and did not meet the expectations placed in him?
14) Fact: From any elevated point within the former Federal perimeter, one can clearly see the two notches (through which pass today Campbell St. and Lightfoot Mill Road) delineating the northern and southern limits of Tunnel Hill. Why couldn't Sherman, who in his “Memoirs" reports having gone to Ft. Wood, see this?
15) Fact: From various points along Hixon Pike on the northern bank of the Tennessee, you can see the the depressions marking the limits of Tunnel Hill. On 7 Nov. from a hill in that area opposite the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek (probably today's River Hills) Baldy Smith and Thomas did see the campfires on Missionary Ridge. What did Sherman see the afternoon of 16 Nov. when he made his reconnaissance outing to this same spot?
16) Fact: Sherman cited "wrongly laid down maps" which led him to think that Billygoat Hill was Tunnel Hill. Did such defective maps exist, and, if so, to what extent were they defective? Why did Sherman not include the defective maps in his battle report?
17) Fact: Thomas had the most extensive “secret service" of any army of the war. Many specialists were employed in this service, including professional topographical engineers who provided information for Thomas's famous topographical books. What were these engineers doing during the 2 months between the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga?
18) Fact: Grant in his orders to Thomas of 18 Nov. complains obliquely about "not being provided with a map giving names of roads, spurs of the mountains, and other places". Why would Grant, after having spent 3 weeks at Chattanooga, admit to any discerning reader of his order that he couldn't get the information he wanted from Thomas? Was he, in fact, hinting at something else?
19) Fact according to Baldy Smith, Thomas's chief engineer: There were scientifically prepared and accurate survey maps of the area in Thomas's HQ. Why didn't Grant ask for a more detailed map if he wanted one, and if he did ask, why didn't he get one? Why would he begin a battle without one?
20) Observation: Grant's behavior in Chattanooga was inconsistent with the common description of him as being modest and unassuming. His subsequent battle report was inconsistent with the common description of him as being honest. Was not Grant as ambitious and occasionally as unscrupulous as many another top commander in this and any other war?