It Is All Poetry – Fighting on the Flanks at Chattanooga

November 24, 1863 (Tuesday)

“The battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle, and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.” – General Ulysses S. Grant.

Tunnel at Tunnel Hill
Tunnel at Tunnel Hill

General Braxton Bragg had nearly deserted his left to fortify his right, leaving a mere brigade of 1,500 men as an anchor. But now, beyond his right, came anxious word that the Federals were laying a pontoon bridge near Chickamauga Creek, about six miles above Chattanooga. It was quickly becoming clear, even to Bragg, that his right was now his center.

It was in the dark before morning when they came, floating from the mouth of North Chickamauga Creek, down into the Tennessee River. They were 3,000 men in 116 pontoons, and hugging their own bank, they made a quiet, quarter-mile slip, until the bridgehead was met and they established a crossing. In a sudden, the Rebel pickets, watching the southern bank of the Tennessee were prisoners, and not a shot was fired.

They were from Giles A. Smith’s Brigade from William Tecumseh Sherman’s army, and once across, they dug like beavers into the banks. Sherman crossed two of his three divisions by what passed for dawn on this dreary and misty day. Through the morning, the bridge was constructed, and Sherman was able to link up with O.O. Howard’s XI Corps, which he had been given to make his assault.

On this day, Sherman wanted to take the northern-most hill along Missionary Ridge – known forever as “Tunnel Hill.” It was said that no Confederates occupied this portion of the ridge, and taking it would cut Bragg’s connection with James Longstreet’s Corps besieging Knoxville to the north.

Through the gloom of early afternoon, Sherman’s army of three columns moved steadily as the rain. They crossed swails and smaller ridges, shifts in ground, and hillocks, with skirmishers to the front. Before them, only the gray shadow of resistance faded with their coming, folding themselves back into the mists. Soon, and in this way, they reached the summit. Tunnel Hill was now in Sherman’s hands, and without a fight. Sherman had remained near the bridgehead, not accompanying his troops toward the hill. When word came back that it was taken, he was jubilant – an entire day’s worth of fighting was sidestepped before 3:30pm.

Map of Sherman's advance on the 24th.
Map of Sherman’s advance on the 24th.

But they were wrong. Through the shifting thick clouds, once in a while, from atop the summit where they now stood, the Federal troops could see a larger eminence just beyond their own.

Braxton Bragg, hearing that the Federals were throwing across a pontoon bridge beyond his right flank, ordered Patrick Cleburne’s Division to Tunnel Hill. It was around 2pm. Cleburne rushed ahead of his men to inspect the line. He had but three brigades, and discovered that it was not enough troops to cover the ground.

Just as his advance brigade was arriving, a scout reported that the Federals were approaching an adjacent hill. Cleburne ordered the brigade on hand to race forward, to snatch the adjacent hill before the Union troops could secure it. But it was too late. When the brigade marched into the valley between, he was fired on from above.

Cleburne believed he was too late. The Federals had secured a foothold upon Missionary Ridge. Sherman, however, believed that he had secured the ridge itself. General Grant soon informed him that a large column of Rebels was seen through breaks in the clouds to be moving toward Tunnel Hill. These were Cleburne’s men, and Sherman was just now discovering this for himself. From some gray hill beyond his own, firing was coming, and shells were falling, as if from some blackened heaven.

Still Sherman was convinced he had taken Tunnel Hill. The sounds of battle were to be expected. This was merely a Rebel counter attack. By now, twilight was at hand, and the shaded day turned to gloomy night. Sherman was still in the dark, and there he would remain until morning.

The Battle of Lookout Mountain by James Walker
The Battle of Lookout Mountain by James Walker

But this was not the battle of Lookout Mountain. That, as General Grant had noted after the war, was hardly a battle. Ultimately, it was one that he had never wanted. The right flank of the Union army had never been a real concern for Grant. If he could secure a hold on Missionary Ridge (on his left), then Lookout Mountain (on his right) was untenable, and could be acquired without a fight.

As it went, that is almost what happened anyway. General Joseph Hooker was determined to somehow get into the action. When Howard’s XI Corps was sent to accompany Sherman, Hooker pleaded to be allowed to move with it. Denied and left with only the XII Corps, he petitioned to attack Lookout Mountain. In the early morning of this date, as Sherman’s troops were floating down the Tennessee, he got his wish.

It turned out that Grant had learned that the Rebels were suspecting an attack upon Lookout Mountain and though this was old news, he wanted Hooker to make some kind of demonstration. Hooker took this order for a mere demonstration and did everything he could to turn it into a battle.

Map of the Battle of Lookout Mountain
Map of the Battle of Lookout Mountain

Just after dawn, the men received word that they were to capture Lookout Mountain. They were dumbfounded. Its peak reached high above them, and though the thick clouds now obscured it from their sight, they knew that such a thing was impossible. Of course, Hooker never meant that they were to scale the entire mountain. He was only interested in the lower slopes nearest the river. Once they were taken, any Rebels at the top would retire.

Over the rocks and defiles they scrambled, and with the mists and clouds created the poetry that would forever recall a battle. But not a shot was yet fired until well over a mile of ground was covered. They came from the only Rebel brigade left upon Lookout Mountain – that helmed by Carter Stevenson.

He gave whatever resistance he could afford, but by noon, they were pushed around the northern spur of the mountain, and were slowly being driven south toward the main Confederate line. General Hooker, perhaps fancying himself a poet, claimed that the Rebels “were hurled in great numbers over the rock and precipices into the valley.” This was only figuratively true.

Stevenson had called for reinforcements, but no word came from Bragg. And so he fed in one of his own nearby brigades just as the first was broken. Along this northern spur they clung until another brigade was sent. But it too arrived just as the first reinforcements were broken. This piecemeal way of fighting never seemed to work. But for two hours, they fought, holding in the hope that Bragg would finally send actual reinforcements.

Fighting at Lookout Mountain
Fighting at Lookout Mountain

But nearing 3pm, Bragg finally refused. Not only would there be no reinforcements, but Stevenson was to “fight the enemy as you retire” to the main line. The fog could be used for cover. Through the night, Stevenson retired best he could. A small flare up around 10pm caused Hooker to become nervous, believing that Bragg’s entire army was somehow gunning to retake Lookout Mountain. By morning, like Sherman, he would see his mistake.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 2, p746; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; The Shipwreck of Their hopes by Peter Cozzens; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat Vol. 2, by Judith Lee Hallock; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. []
Creative Commons License
It Is All Poetry – Fighting on the Flanks at Chattanooga by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by