Battle Among the Clouds: the Chattanooga Campaign

Nov 22, 2013

The words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, memorializing the Civil War’s largest battle to date, were still echoing when Union and Confederate forces engaged in yet another large scale engagement in late November 1863. This time around the North’s rising military star, Ulysses S. Grant, commanded the Union forces.

By late 1863 Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the Tennessee River, and close to the borders of Alabama and Georgia, emerged as the Union’s key to striking deep into the heart of the Confederacy. Seeing that, both sides tried to control this strategic point. Union troops occupied Chattanooga, but Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg seized the nearby heights, effectively trapping their foes. Siege tactics, used by Grant to capture Vicksburg the previous summer, were now applied against the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, which was facing the grim prospect of slow starvation or surrender.

In order to prevent the loss of Chattanooga the energetic Grant took immediate steps to develop a supply line from points downstream on the Tennessee River, including Stevenson, Alabama. Known as “The Cracker Line”, no doubt in honor of that staple of Civil War military cuisine—hardtack—this route enabled the provisioning and reinforcement of Chattanooga. While few Connecticut units were directly involved with this campaign, the Twentieth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry regiment, fresh from its recent action at Gettysburg, was transferred to Grant’s command and assigned to help protect the thirty-five mile supply line from Stevenson to Cowan, Tennessee, just west of Chattanooga.

As at Gettysburg topography dictated strategy and figured prominently in the final outcome of the battle for Chattanooga. The ability of Union forces to both reinforce and move quickly played a crucial role in gaining control of Missionary Ridge, a heavily wooded rise just east of the town, as well as Lookout Mountain, a 1,200-foot-high promontory looming over the Tennessee River just to the south where the river makes a spectacular 180 degree turn. Over the period of three days, November 23-25, some 100,000 Union and Confederate troops waged a bloody contest among the fog-shrouded rugged peaks that led one observer to describe it as a “battle among the clouds.” The combined casualty toll at the end of the battle, though not as great as at Antietam or Gettysburg, still exceeded 8,000 killed or wounded. The Confederate Army of Tennessee also lost more than 4,000 men captured or missing. Forced to withdraw, the Confederates could only prepare for the next Union offensive thrust deeper into Dixie. Chattanooga’s location proved vital, as the city served as a crucial supply anchor for Sherman’s 1864 invasion of Georgia.

The Connecticut Historical Society has a large collection of Civil War manuscripts, photographs and objects which may be viewed by visiting the Waterman Research Center at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut. The Research Center is open Thursday from 12-5 and Friday and Saturday from 9-5. For more information, go to www.chs.org. Selected photographs may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at www.cthistoryonline.org.