Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Battle of Chattanooga, November 23-25, 1863.

“To Appomattox” will give viewers a chance to view some of the most important battles of the American Civil War, many of which have never been dramatized on film. One of those battles took place in November of 1863, when Confederate leadership after Chickamauga led to one of the biggest defeats in the west. Here is a look at the events that took place at that battle, taken from a research paper I wrote.

The Battle of Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863.

Confederate fortunes in the Western Theater of the war had taken a grave turn by the summer of 1863. Although Confederate General Braxton Bragg had led his army successfully into Kentucky, he failed to capture the momentum, and following the battle of Perryville in October of 1862, he was forced to pull his men back. Following that battle, Bragg and his men fought several major engagements against Union forces under William S. Rosecrans, most notably the Battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863. Although he attempted to defeat Rosecrans several times, Bragg was forced to continue retreating. By September, Rosecrans had driven Bragg out of Tennessee, and was ready to chase him through Georgia.

However, things began to look up when Confederate General James Longstreet and his 1st Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia were sent to aid Bragg. With these men added to his army, Bragg now outnumbered his enemy, and planned to attack once more. At the battle of Chickamauga on September 19-20, Bragg successfully drove Rosecrans’ force off the field, though a delaying action by troops under General George Thomas delayed Bragg’s forces long enough to allow the army to retreat safely. This action earned Thomas the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.”

The victory at Chickamauga proved to be a major strategic one for the Confederacy. It was “achieved by again using the telegraph and the railroad to carry out a Napoleonic concentration over an immense space. It drove back Rosecrans, essentially nullifying the gain he had made in his crossing of the Tennessee and preventing him from taking a position where he could threaten northern Georgia.”[1] It was a costly victory for the Confederacy. Bragg lost a combined 18,454 men during the two-day battle, while Rosecrans lost 16,170. Bragg’s offensive cost him more than his enemy counterpart. “Though the losses were fairly close as a percentage of the armies engaged, the South suffered double the percentage loss of total forces in the field.”[2]

But it was here that Bragg made one of the biggest mistakes of the campaign. Instead of chasing the enemy and finishing them off, he failed to carry the initiative, and allowed Rosecrans and his army the chance to retreat all the way back to Chattanooga. That mistake would prove to be one of the biggest of his career. He did finally move his men to Chattanooga. However, instead of leading an assault to take the city, he instead chose to settle in for a siege. Once again, dissension took hold of the commanders under Bragg. Several officers petitioned President Davis to have Bragg removed from command. However, Davis boarded a train to Bragg’s headquarters. Instead of removing Bragg from command, he had those questioning the authority of their commanding general transferred to other parts of the conflict. He also gave instructions to Bragg to send Longstreet’s corps to try and retake Knoxville. This decision would deprive Bragg of more than twenty-five percent of his force, and eventually accomplish nothing.[3]

Another factor added to the disaster about to befall the South at Chattanooga. In Washington, President Lincoln answered the failure of Rosecrans’ command at Chickamauga by authorizing the creation of the Division of the Mississippi, which encompassed the entire region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. To command this new division, he chose a man who had proven himself a fighter in the West: Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had made a name for himself in this theater, taking Forts Henry and Donelson in February of 1862, and just the past July, he had successfully forced the Confederate Garrison at Vicksburg to surrender. But in taking this command, he would show that he was not only successful at laying siege to a position, but he could also break a siege coming from the enemy.[4]

Grant wasted no time when given his new command. With the center of activity taking place at Chattanooga, he set out for the besieged city immediately. One of his first major decisions was to remove Rosecrans from command of the Army of the Cumberland, and replaced him with Thomas. On October 23rd, within a week of Grant’s arrival, Union troops were able to open a supply line known as the “cracker line,” and get food and other supplies to the hungry soldiers. In addition, more troops were coming to help. Among those were Joseph Hooker and 20,000 men from the Army of the Potomac, and 17,000 men from the Army of Tennessee under William T. Sherman. These forces added to the 35,000 men Thomas had in the Army of the Cumberland. With these forces arriving, Bragg’s chances of success at Chattanooga continued to diminish. It would not be long before Grant would be ready to attempt to break the siege of the town, and drive the Confederates out of Tennessee.[5]

Grant’s plan for the assault was to have the Army of the Cumberland, which he believed to still be demoralized following the Chickamauga defeat, to sit and threaten the center of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge, which Grant believed too strong for a frontal assault. While they were busy there, the men under Sherman and Johnston would do the real fighting on the flanks of the Confederate positions. However, by enacting “this plan Grant unwittingly applied a goad to Thomas’s troops that would produce a spectacular though serendipitous success.”[6]

The battle of Chattanooga began on November 24th, as three divisions of Hooker’s army assaulted Confederates on top of Lookout Mountain. In a fight that would become known as the “Battle Above the Clouds,” Union infantry fought to get uphill through an intermittent fog, marching over fallen trees and boulders to get to the top. The assault proved successful, as the rebels retreated down the reverse slope. This “forced Bragg to evacuate his defenses on Lookout and pull the survivors back to Missionary Ridge. During the night the skies cleared to reveal a total eclipse of the moon; next morning a Kentucky Union regiment clawed its way to Lookout’s highest point and raised a huge American flag in sunlit view of both armies below.”[7]

Meanwhile, the assault on Missionary Ridge was not going according to plan. Although Sherman and his men were able to take the assigned hill on the north end of the ridge, they quickly discovered that it was not a part of the ridge itself, but a detached part separated by a ravine strewn with rocks. The following morning they attacked the main portion of the ridge, but were repulsed by Patrick Cleburne’s forces. On the opposite end of the ridge, Hooker’s force faced a wrecked bridge and other obstacles. With these problems, Grant decided to order Thomas to attack, and attempt to take the first line of trenches. Using this order as an attempt to redeem the reputation of the Army of the Cumberland, he pushed forward with 23,000 men, crossing an open plain straight into the Confederate line. They took the first line of trenches fairly easily, forcing the Confederates to retreat to the second and third trench lines.[8]

However, the momentum did not slow down. Despite the orders to just attack and take the first line, Union troops continued to push forward toward the other Confederate lines. Some of the heaviest fighting took place where the 24th Michigan was positioned in the assault. The men from Wisconsin took heavy casualties, including the color bearer from the regiment. It was at this moment that a Lieutenant in the regiment, Arthur MacArthur, Jr., seized the colors, and ordered his men forward. They climbed the slope, sustaining heavy casualties, but eventually pushed forward to the top of the crest. The actions of Lieutenant MacArthur earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor. Years later, his son, Douglas MacArthur, would be able to attend West Point, because he was the son of a Medal of Honor winner.[9]

Along the rest of the line, the Union troops pushed forward with the same momentum as that of the 24th, charging to the cries of “Chickamauga!” With the Confederate lines crumbling, the Confederates retreated in a rout, not stopping to regroup until they were nearly thirty miles away. Many of the Union officers could not believe that the men continued up the hill. Grant said that there would be hell to pay if the assault failed, yet it did not. By sundown, the attack was already being called the Miracle at Missionary Ridge. For Bragg and his men, the siege of Chattanooga ended in humiliating defeat, with Confederates forced to pull back once again into Georgia, having lost over 6,600 men during the battle. For the Union, whose losses amounted to less than 6,000, it was a resounding triumph that paved the way for the campaigns to come. The following year, Grant was made Lieutenant General, and placed in command of all forces in the field. Sherman would then be given command of the force to push into Georgia, and take Atlanta. For the Confederates, the disaster at Chattanooga ushered in final Union victory in the west.[10]


[1] Archer Jones, Civil War Command & Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 176.

[2] Jones, 176.

[3] Jams M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 676-677.

[4] McPherson, 676.

[5] McPherson, 676.

[6] McPherson, 677.

[7] McPherson, 677-678.

[8] McPherson, 678.

[9] Geoffrey Perret, “Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur,” The Washington Post (Washington Post Website, 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/oldsoldi.htm.

[10] McPherson, 680-718.

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About Steven Hancock

I am an avid student of American and World History, with a particular interest in the American Civil War. I am currently a student at American Public University, working toward a Master's Degree in United States History. I am also a Civil War Reenactor, donning the uniform of the common Union and Confederate soldier at reenactments throughout the year.
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2 Responses to Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Battle of Chattanooga, November 23-25, 1863.

  1. Boy, I received a thrashing when I posted your paper on General Rosecrans & the Battle of Chattanooga. Please read the following posted by a facebook follower (& Civil War Scholar):
    I hate to tell you how many things you got wrong in that write up. Relying on McPherson without consulting other sources makes for a one sided view. First, Rosecrans drove Bragg out of Tennessee in the Tullahoma campaign, considered by some to be one of the most brilliant in military history. Having driven Bragg back, Rosecrans secured Chattanooga, a vital strategic point and the man purpose of the campaign. Taking Chattanooga deprived the Confederacy of one of their main rail links connecting east and west, as well as many sources of natural resources they needed for the war. One analyst said that taking Chattanooga was far more significant strategically than the victory at Gettysburg or the fall of Vicksburg. Rosecrans pursued Bragg into Georgia due to faulty intelligence, but quickly regrouped and held Bragg at bay. Rosecrans kept moving troops northward to prevent Bragg from flanking his left and getting between the Army of the Cumberland and Chattanooga. When one unit was supposed to move north to reinforce Thomas, but didn’t, a staff officer mistakenly said there was a gap in the union line, so Rosecrans issued an order to Gen. Woods that was badly written by a subordinate. It told Wood to close up and support Reynolds. Since closing up meant move next to, and there was a unit in the way, Woods chose to support, which meant move behind Reynolds, thereby creating the actual gap. It was stupid since Woods should have either ignored the order since it was based on faulty information, or asked Rosecrans (200 yards away) what to do. In any case, in sheer bad luck, when Woods vacated the line, it was the exact place Longstreet (who was Rosecrans’ roommate at West Point) chose to fling his corps. It rolled up the union right, but the left under Thomas held on while the army made its way back to Chattanooga.

    • The 2nd part of the missive regarding General Rosecrans:
      There’s no way Bragg could have gotten to Chattanooga first without driving Thomas off of Horseshoe Ridge, which he failed to do. When Rosecrans was retreating along with the others on the right, he decided that defending the strategic objective of the campaign was the most important thing to do, so he decided to go to Chattanooga and reorganize the army, logistics, entrenchments and so forth, while sending his aide, Garfield, to find Thomas. For that, his enemies said he was a coward who ran from the battlefield. That despite an impressive record of heroism. When he got to Chattanooga, he organized the town and army while creating a supply system, such as building boats and repairing rail tracks. That process was underway when Grant, who had just been appointed commander in the Western Theater, showed up and relieved the man he really hated, Rosecrans. He said Rosecrans didn’t do anything to relieve the supply problems and accused him of planning to desert Chattanooga. Neither was true and Grant took the credit for what Rosecrans had already done. By the way, Rosecrans ordered Burnside to send him reinforcements before Chickamauga several times and while Burnside said he would, he never did.

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