Union gains control of Tennessee

This week 150 years ago in Civil War history was highlighted with some of the most dramatic fighting and one of the most pivotal engagements of the entire war. It brought a successful Union close to the Chattanooga Campaign.

At the end of the week, the Union held the vital rail center and gateway to the Deep South that was Chattanooga. General William Tecumseh Sherman would establish his supply and logistics base there and in the coming spring launch his Atlanta Campaign.

Nov. 24: “Fighting Joe” Hooker captured Lookout Mountain. The next day, the Union forces dramatically pushed the Confederate army off the bastion, Missionary Ridge, but received a bloody nose in chasing after retreating Confederates at Ringgold Gap on the 27th. The successful defense of Ringgold Gap by Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s troops, who were outnumbered 4 to 1, allowed the remainder of Confederate army to pass safely through to Dalton, Ga., where it encamped Nov. 28. U.S. Grant decided to end further pursuit and the Chattanooga Campaign was at an end. Grant had lost his chance to destroy Bragg’s Confederate army.

Nov. 24: The Yankees, under the command of “Fighting Joe” Hooker, swept the Rebels off Lookout Mountain, in the battle made famous in our history books as the “Battle Above the Clouds” so-named first by Gen. Montgomery Miegs, quartermaster general of the Union Army, observing the fog-shrouded action from Orchard Knob. Confederate Commander Braxton Bragg had diluted his forces that defended the mountain in response to his perceived need to strengthen his right flank on Missionary Ridge. Although the climb was rugged the Union troops enjoyed good fortune that day. The Confederate troops were separated and their commanders made mistakes aplenty. Hooker’s troops established a line of battle and effectively swept skirmishers before them, surrounded pockets of troops that surrendered (about 1,000 in total) and caused most to flee and retreat off the mountain. Hooker had about 10,000 troops while the Confederate Commander, Carter Stevenson, had 8,700. By comparison to many Civil War engagements Lookout Mountain was more of a major skirmish, considering the modest casualties involved.

Some Trumbull boys did fight on Lookout Mountain. General Thomas had detached Cruft’s Division from the main body of the Army of the Cumberland to join Hooker. Included in those troops was the 24th OVI in Grose’s brigade.

Lookout set the stage for the pivotal battle of the Chattanooga Campaign, the Battle for Missionary Ridge. The Ridge runs for a few miles from southwest to northeast parallel to the Tennessee River as it flows north of the city of Chattanooga. It is about 500 feet high on average. After the Battle of Lookout Mountain, most all of Bragg’s forces were dug in on the crest of the ridge.

Grant’s plan was to attack the right side (north) of the Rebel line, turn their flank and drive them southward. He would send his favorite and whom he thought best general, William Tecumseh Sherman, to do that most important job. He would then send George C. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, in which he had little confidence, into the center of the line to attack the Confederates retreating before Sherman. Gen. Hooker would move up from the base of Lookout Mountain onto the south side of the ridge pushing the Confederates before him northward into the path of Thomas and Sherman.

The plan did not go well. Sherman’s army of 26,000 was bogged down in the face of 13,000 stout Rebel defenders at Tunnel Hill under General Patrick Cleburne, one of the best fighters in all the Confederate ranks. He had been reenforced by Carter Stevenson after the latter had been pushed off Lookout Mountain. Sherman could not, by any means, gain the ridge and turn the Rebel flank. He tried to attack from the north to no avail and then directly from the west with no better results. At 3 p.m. Sherman sent a message to Grant that he had thrown in the towel. To add insult to injury Cleburne went on the offensive, stormed down the ridge and captured some of Sherman’s tired fighters that could not get back to their lines.

Grant, irritated by the turn of events, decided to send Thomas against the center of the Confederate line. He only wanted the army to advance to the rifle pits at the base of the ridge and hold there, awaiting further instructions. But the orders were confusing in their distribution. Some Union troops thought they were only supposed to take the pits and others thought they were to take the pits and then ascend the ridge. Confederate orders were equally confusing. Some thought they were to hold the pits while others thought were to retreat to the top of the ridge. When the battle signal was sounded at 3:40 p.m. troops stepped off unsure of exactly what to do.

Thomas formed his ranks with characteristic precision. When 20,000 men started out on the plain it had to be an awesome sight to the defenders on the ridge. The attackers took the rifle pits easily. And the Confederates on the ridge had to limit their fire so as to not hit their mates scrambling up the ridge. But, when they cleared, the defenders began to fire down on the Union soldiers, who knew they could not stay there and could not retreat. The only way was to go up. Luckily, the Confederates had put their defense line on the geographical top of the ridge instead of the military top and could not see the climbers approaching. Soon hordes of Yankees came pouring over the top. As Sgt. Albert Jernigan of the 6th Texas noted: “Now a scene of the wildest disorder and confusion ensues, some fly, others surrender, while others, for a brief space continue to fight.” By 5:00 PM the Confederate army is in full retreat. Cleburne continued to keep Sherman pinned down and successfully provided rear guard defense to protect the rest of the fleeing army.

Chaplain John J. Knight of 58th Indiana Infantry observed, “The taking of Missionary Ridge, therefore, was inaugurated not so much by the genius of commanders or the bravery of soldiers, as by mistake. It was fortunate for us that this mistake was committed, as it would have been very disastrous to have remained long at the foot of the ridge.”

The Confederate enthusiasm that had risen so high after Chickamauga had been dashed on Missionary Ridge. One of the Confederacy’s two major armies was routed. The Union now held undisputed control of the state of Tennessee.

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.