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The Champion of Chattanooga: Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Triumph in Tennessee


Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s mind was at work as he rode out from Chattanooga, Tennessee on the morning of October 24, 1863. He had a major crisis to solve. Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee held the commanding heights of Missionary Ridge to the east and Lookout Mountain to the southwest, leaving the Union Army of the Cumberland besieged in the city of Chattanooga. With only one tenuous supply route open, and the other key points effectively cut off, Bragg’s goal of starving the Federals into surrender seemed to be working. Even now, as Grant and his party studied the terrain, looking for a way to break the stranglehold, the general recalled how they “were within easy range” of nearby Confederate pickets. Not only did the enemy not fire at them, but they also seemed undisturbed by their presence. As Grant saw it, the rebels “looked upon the garrison of Chattanooga as prisoners of war, feeding or starving themselves, and thought it would be inhuman to kill any of them except in self-defense.” This was the atmosphere. With an entire army, a crucial city, and so much more at stake for the Union at this pivotal stage of the American Civil War, it was up to General Grant to turn it all around.

While the dire situation in Tennessee left many across the Union feeling uneasy in the fall of 1863, Northern spirits had been soaring only a short time earlier. That summer witnessed the Union’s two greatest victories of the war to date. In an epic showdown at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from July 1-3, 1863, Major General George G. Meade and his Army of the Potomac prevailed over Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia, which was then at the height of its power. One day after Lee had been repulsed at Gettysburg, Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and its garrison of nearly 30,000 soldiers to Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee. With the end of the war seemingly in reach after these victories, the eyes of the Union fell on Major General William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland. “You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion,” wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Rosecrans. “Will you neglect the chance?”

The Glorious Fourth by Mort Künstler, depicting Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee's conquest of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)

Although overshadowed by the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Rosecrans and his army had also done good work that summer, pushing Braxton Bragg’s forces back 100 miles and out of Middle Tennessee. Rosecrans did not make his next move as swiftly as President Abraham Lincoln and Stanton wanted, but by September 9, Bragg’s army had been driven from Chattanooga and the critical rail hub fell into Union hands. That victory was complemented by the capture of Knoxville a few days earlier by Major General Ambrose Burnside and his Army of the Ohio. As Stanton’s eyes inside Rosecrans’s headquarters, Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana reported, “Everything progresses favorably.”

With momentum on his side, Rosecrans believed he had Bragg on the run and pursued him into northwest Georgia. As Rosecrans soon learned, however, Bragg was far from finished. With fresh troops added to his ranks, which included two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Bragg took the fight to Rosecrans. From September 18-20, Bragg’s Army of Tennessee hit hard against Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland at Chickamagua Creek, which sat 15 miles southeast of Chattanooga. After fiercely contesting the Confederate onslaught on September 19, Union fortunes collapsed the following day. As historian Bruce Catton summarized it, “Part of Rosecrans’s army was driven from the field in wild route, and only a last-ditch stand by [Major General] George Thomas saved the whole army from destruction.” Bragg’s Confederates were the victors of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War’s Western Theatre, a clash that produced an estimated 34,624 combined casualties, 16,170 of those on the Union side and 18,454 for the rebels.

To the Last Round by Keith Rocco, depicting the Union's 21st Ohio Infantry using their Colt Revolving Rifles to hold off rebel troops during the chaotic fighting of September 20, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga. (Photo Credit: Keith Rocco)

Rosecrans and his defeated army fell back to Chattanooga, where they were quickly surrounded by Bragg’s Confederates positioned along the heights around the city. Shaken by the losses he had suffered at Chickamauga, which had cost him more than 30 percent of his effective manpower, Bragg was content to starve the Army of the Cumberland into submission. He had the perfect stranglehold to do just that. With the rebels in control of the heights of Lookout Mountain to the southwest, Missionary Ridge to the east, and the river roads to the west, historian James M. McPherson explains that they were able “to interdict all of Rosecrans’s supply routes into the city except a torturous wagon road over the forbidding Cumberlands to the north.” By mid-October, the situation in Chattanooga was so desperate that one could frequently hear Union soldiers crying for “crackers!” (Known as hardtack, the crackers that the desperate men in Chattanooga pleaded for were a staple meal for soldiers during the Civil War. Made from flour, water, and salt, these crackers were able to last a long time. They were also so hard to bite and chew that soldiers had nicknames for them like “sheet iron crackers” or “tooth duller.”)

Something needed to be done to save the Army of the Cumberland and President Abraham Lincoln believed that Ulysses S. Grant was the man to do it. While Grant’s star currently shined brightly, his journey to high command in the Union had not been an easy one. An 1843 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Grant performed extremely well during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, displaying great courage under fire and a sharp mind in the chaos of battle. After the war with Mexico, life in the peacetime Army took a heavy toll on Grant. Bouncing from one remote military post to another, he grew very lonely. Desperately missing his family, he struggled with his drinking and ultimately resigned from the Army in 1854. Over the next seven years, Grant toiled tirelessly to support his beloved wife Julia and their four children. At one point, Grant was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis in his quest to solve “the problem of poverty.” When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Grant stepped forward to serve the Union. Haunted by the rumors of his drinking, however, he initially struggled to obtain a command. Once Grant got his opportunity to lead, though, he took it and ran away with it. Where other Union commanders complained endlessly about not having enough troops and hesitated to fight, Grant did the best with what he had and always looked for opportunities to strike the enemy. President Lincoln came to admire this dogged and uncomplaining general, once saying of him, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!” Coupled with his indomitable spirit, Grant was guided by a philosophy that historian Harry S. Laver summarized as, “find your enemy, strike hard, and keep moving; never surrender the initiative.” That fighting philosophy produced pivotal victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and beyond, distinguishing Grant as the Union’s supreme soldier.

Major General Ulysses S. Grant. (Photo Credit: Mathew Brady Collection/Library of Congress)

On October 17, the victor of Vicksburg boarded a train in Indianapolis and met with Edwin Stanton. The secretary of war handed Grant two sets of orders from President Lincoln. Under Lincoln’s directive, Grant was put in charge of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, placing all Union forces in the Western Theatre under his command. With the fate of the Army of the Cumberland and the situation in Chattanooga now his responsibility, Grant also had a choice to make. Lincoln gave him the option to either keep Rosecrans in command or of replacing him with George Thomas. Based on his performance at Chickamauga, and his shaky grasp of the situation in Chattanooga, Lincoln commented that Rosecrans was “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” Thomas on the other hand had performed supremely well at Chickamauga, leading a spirited defense that saved the Army of the Cumberland from destruction. Thomas walked away from that battle with a new nickname: “the Rock of Chickamauga.” Not surprisingly, Grant decided to replace Rosecrans with Thomas.

When the Civil War broke out, many Southerners who were currently serving in or who had once served in the U.S. Army could not bring themselves to fight against their native states. As a result, they sided with the states they called home when they seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. George Thomas was not one of them. A native son of Virginia, an 1840 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and a distinguished veteran of the Mexican-American War, Thomas was offered prominent commissions to serve in the Confederate army at the start of the war. However, unwilling to abandon the Stars and Stripes for the Stars and Bars (the national flag of the Confederacy), he refused to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and remained faithful to the Union, a decision that led to his family disowning him. With his manly bearing, the confidence he inspired in his soldiers, and many more positive attributes as a commander, some like Charles Dana went on to compare Thomas to the greatest Virginian, and perhaps American, of all, George Washington.

Major General George H. Thomas. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On October 19, 1863, William Rosecrans found a telegram from Washington waiting for him at his headquarters. It informed him that he was relieved of his command at the head of the Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans subsequently sent for the man who was to replace him. When George Thomas arrived and learned the news, he initially said he would not accept the command. This was done out of loyalty to his friend Rosecrans. Following further consultation with Rosecrans, though, Thomas ultimately agreed to take the command. A telegram from Ulysses S. Grant soon followed, urging Thomas: “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards.” After fearful reports that Rosecrans had been close to surrendering, Thomas’s reply was more of Grant’s kind of language. The Army of the Cumberland’s new boss vowed, “I will hold the town till we Starve.”

A wet and weary Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Chattanooga on the night of October 23. Grant had set out for the embattled city three days earlier and the final 60 miles of his journey had been the hardest. This involved riding up and down the rough and steep mountain road that served as the only supply route still open to the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. With heavy rains turning the road into a muddy mess and mudslides literally washing away parts of the path, Grant, who was still hobbled by a leg injury he had suffered a month earlier, needed “to be taken off his horse and lifted over hurdles, an ordeal he endured with stoic fortitude,” according to Grant biographer Ron Chernow. Along the way, Grant and his party were also impeded by smashed wagons everywhere and their noses were assaulted by the stench emanating from the thousands of dead mules and horses that littered the landscape. It was a grim introduction to the tenuous atmosphere he was entering.

Grant wasted no time getting to work. On the morning after his arrival, he rode out from Chattanooga to assess the terrain with Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland’s chief engineer, Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith. With his offensive mind, Grant wanted to take the fight to the enemy, but before that could happen, the supply situation had to be sorted out. Working with Thomas and Smith, Grant ordered that an operation originally planned by Rosecrans’s staff for opening a new supply route into Chattanooga be carried out. It succeeded so quickly that by October 28, Grant reported to Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck that the “question of supplies may now be regarded as settled.” With the opening of the “cracker line,” Grant later reflected, “The men were soon reclothed and also well fed, an abundance of ammunition was brought up, and a cheerfulness prevailed not before enjoyed in many weeks.”

Within five days of Grant’s arrival in Chattanooga, the Confederate siege had been broken. His immediate impact on the ground was undeniable. As one Union officer put it, “we began to see things move. We felt that everything came from a plan.”

With the siege lifted and the supply situation resolved, the state of tension that had hung like a dark cloud over the Army of the Cumberland began to dissipate. Where one crisis had just ended, however, another was unfolding in nearby Knoxville, where Ambrose Burnside and his Army of the Ohio were threatened by 15,000 Confederates under James Longstreet that had been detached from Chattanooga. Recognizing that “Burnside was in about as desperate a condition as the army of the Cumberland had been,” Grant decided that the best way to offer relief was to carry out his eagerly anticipated assault against Bragg at Chattanooga. On November 7, Grant outlined his plan of attack to Thomas, ordering that the assault be made without haste the following morning, and leaving the details to Thomas since he had been on the ground longer and was more familiar with the surroundings. Thomas, however, worried that his army still needed time to recover its strength before launching a full-scale attack. General Smith backed up Thomas, advising Grant that the offensive movement should be paused until Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops from the Army of the Tennessee reached Chattanooga. Although under pressure from a frantic Washington to do something to relieve Burnside, Grant relented and revoked his order for the attack against Bragg. In one weeks time, he expected to have his ace. Reunited with Sherman, the duo would work together to smash the enemy on yet another battlefield of this war.

An 1840 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Sherman was posted to California during the Mexican-American War and missed out on the combat that proved to be such a vital training ground for Grant and the many others who went on to lead troops in the Civil War. Following a series of lackluster assignments, he resigned from the Army in 1853. Like Grant, Sherman found life difficult in the years after leaving the army, struggling to find his footing in the fields of banking and law. He spent a short period as the superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy and resigned from that position to return North when the Civil War began. Sherman went on to lead a brigade in the war’s first major battle at Manassas, Virginia. Despite the Union defeat, he performed so well that he was promoted and sent to Kentucky, a border state that President Lincoln and his cabinet greatly feared might secede and join the Confederacy. Around this time, the pressures of command seemed too much for Sherman. Suffering from what some have speculated as depression or nervous exhaustion, Bruce Catton explained, “Sherman was going through a strange phase just then, crediting the Confederates with more soldiers and more aggressive intentions than they actually had, and behaving with a worried caution very uncharacteristic of the Sherman of later years.” The press took note of this unsteady behavior and labeled Sherman as insane. Shaken by the Kentucky ordeal, Sherman subsequently requested to be relieved from command. He did not sit on the sidelines for long. A few weeks later, Sherman was reassigned to the Western Theatre, where he eventually found himself serving under Ulysses S. Grant. The two became trusted friends and went on to forge arguably the greatest partnership of the Civil War. As Sherman once remarked of their friendship during the struggle, “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always.” When Grant was placed in charge of all Union forces in the Western Theatre, Sherman succeeded him as the commander of the Army of the Tennessee.

Major General William T. Sherman. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On November 15, Grant and Sherman were reunited in Chattanooga. Sherman’s troops, however, still lagged behind him. His 17,000 men would ultimately march 600 miles from Vicksburg to reach Chattanooga. With his trusted military brother by his side, Grant ironed out his plan of attack. Once all of Sherman’s forces were on the scene, Grant would have 80,000 troops from the three principal Union Armies to attack: 20,000 from the Army of the Potomac under Major General Joseph Hooker, 17,000 from the Army of the Tennessee under Sherman, and some 43,000 from the Army of the Cumberland under George Thomas. This gave Grant nearly twice the amount of troops as Bragg’s 42,000-strong army.

Grant might have held the edge in manpower, but Bragg’s Confederates commanded very good ground. Along 400-foot-high Missionary Ridge, the rebels had three groups of defensive positions: trenches at the base and top and a line of rifle pits in the middle of the ridge. Over on 2,000-foot-high Lookout Mountain, Bragg had three brigades in place to menace any Union attackers. As McPherson puts it, Grant recognized that the strong rebel defenses on Missionary Ridge made attempting a frontal assault “suicidal.” With this understanding, Grant intended to overcome the enemy by striking both ends of Bragg’s line and smashing through his flanks. The main thrust was to come from Sherman in an assault against Bragg’s left flank at the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Hooker’s troops were to move against the southern anchor of the rebel line and capture Lookout Mountain. Thomas was to hold his forces in the center, standing in readiness to be sent forward when needed.

Although Grant intended to launch his offensive on November 21, Mother Nature refused to cooperate with his plans. Heavy rains made it impossible for Sherman’s troops to be in position to make the attack on time. Fearful that every lost moment was putting Burnside and Knoxville at greater risk, these delays were agonizing for Grant. When it looked like Bragg was sending more troops to assist in the conquest of Knoxville, Grant knew he had to act. On November 23, he got the ball moving at last, ordering Thomas to advance his forces toward a piece of high ground called Orchard Knob, which sat in front of Missionary Ridge. Thomas’s men succeeded in driving back the roughly 600 rebels holding the line around Orchard Knob and seized the position. Grant’s decision to order this movement proved to be a very wise one, causing Bragg to recall the forces he had sent toward Knoxville. Orchard Knob also became Grant’s headquarters and gave him the perfect vantage point from which to observe the greater efforts to come.

Ulysses S. Grant, George Thomas, and their staffs observing operations from Orchard Knob. Grant would later say that Chattanooga was “the first battlefield I have ever seen where a plan could be followed and from one place the whole field be within one view.” (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

By November 24, everything was finally ready and Grant’s grand offensive rolled into motion. Sherman’s part in this first phase of the action proved to be one of confusion. Due to faulty intelligence or defective maps, Sherman’s troops did not end up on the undefended northern end of Missionary Ridge like they were supposed to. Instead, as Ron Chernow explains, they found themselves on “a freestanding hill, detached from the main ridge by a deep ravine.” While the day was filled with complication for Sherman and his troops, Joseph Hooker and his Army of the Potomac boys found glory on their end of the battlefield.

In the face of an intermittent fog, “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s troops scrambled up the steep northern slope of Lookout Mountain, pushing past boulders and fallen trees as they faced rebel soldiers firing from trenches and rifle pits. It was a remarkable sight of a fight. As Chernow writes, “The peak was high enough that clouds congregated at lower levels, with Hooker’s men intermittently visible above them,” thus giving this clash its name: The Battle Above the Clouds. Despite the tough terrain and the hazy, rainy elements they encountered, Hooker’s men succeeded in driving the Confederates down the reverse slope of Lookout Mountain. Having suffered a serious blow to his battle line, Braxton Bragg withdrew his remaining forces from Lookout that night and repositioned them back on Missionary Ridge.

Battle Above the Clouds by Mort Künstler. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)

Whether in blue or in gray, when the soldiers of both armies looked up the following morning, they saw a large American flag planted atop the summit of Lookout Mountain. It had been placed there earlier that a.m. by six soldiers from the Eighth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The sight of the Stars and Stripes brought out many cheers from the Federal soldiers on the ground. There would be much more cheering on the Union side before November 25 was fully over.

The planting of Old Glory on Lookout Mountain. The flag raisers are, from left: Sgt. Joseph Wagers, Pvt. Joseph Bradley, Sgt. Harris H. Davis, Pvt. William Witt, Sgt. James Wood and Capt. John C. Wilson (holding the flag.) Although their initial flag raising on the morning of November 25 was not captured on camera, several days later these six men agreed to stage the event again so that it could be photographed. (Photo Credit: Northern Kentucky Tribune)

After the confusion of the previous day, Sherman and his troops met the enemy on the morning of November 25. The going was very hard as they collided with the best division in Bragg’s army under Major General Patrick Cleburne. An intriguing figure in his own right, Cleburne was originally born in Ireland and served in the British Army before emigrating to the United States. Ranked as one of the greatest field commanders in the Confederate service by Civil War historians like the great Shelby Foote, Cleburne exemplified that reputation in his duel with Sherman at Chattanooga. Anchoring the northern end of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge at Tunnel Hill, Cleburne’s troops repulsed Sherman’s soldiers at every turn. After hours of his men slamming into the bloody brick wall that was Cleburne’s division, Sherman’s soldiers were finding it impossible to break through.

Never Forsake the Colors! by Keith Rocco, depicting Union Colonel Holden Putnam leading his 93rd Illinois Infantry in battle against Cleburne's Confederates at Tunnel Hill. Encouraging his men in the chaos of combat, Colonel Putnam grabbed his regiment's flag with one hand and waved his sword with the other. While doing so, a rebel bullet found him and killed him. (Photo Credit: Keith Rocco/Civil War Talk)

The situation did not look much better for Joe Hooker at the southern end of Missionary Ridge. After his glory the previous day, Hooker’s advance was stymied by obstructed roads and by the burning of a key bridge by retreating Confederate soldiers.

With Sherman and Hooker each stuck at the northern and southern ends of Missionary Ridge, the spotlight fell on George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland to turn the tide of battle. Hoping to draw Confederate units away from Bragg’s flanks, General Grant ordered Thomas to send his troops forward to capture the base of Missionary Ridge. To Grant’s frustration, however, an hour came and went without his order to attack being carried out. After watching Thomas talking with Brigadier General Thomas Wood, who led one of the divisions that was to make the assault, the normally unperturbed Grant called Wood over and said, “I ordered your attack an hour ago. Why has it not been made?” “I have been ready for more than an hour,” came the reply from Wood, “and can attack in five minutes after receiving the order.” Grant thus ordered Wood to attack and remembered, “He was off in a moment, and in an incredibly short time loud cheering was heard.”

Why was George Thomas so slow to act in carrying out Grant’s order to attack? While speed was a key tenet of Grant’s own fighting philosophy, Thomas typically proceeded more slowly, making his preparations as perfect as possible before going on the offensive. Henry Van Ness Boynton served under Thomas and would be awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, for his bravery during the assault against Missionary Ridge. Boynton also left behind this valuable description of his commander, writing that Thomas “looked upon the lives of his soldiers as a sacred trust, not to be carelessly imperiled. Whenever he moved into battle, it was certain that everything had been done that prudence, deliberation, thought and cool judgment could do under surrounding circumstances to ensure success commensurate with the cost of lives of men.” Given this understanding, some have argued that Thomas’s slowness on November 25 may have been because he feared his men might be slaughtered by the dug-in-defenders along Missionary Ridge. Others like Harry Laver make the case that the delay from Thomas was because he “opposed the assault.” Whatever the reason, Thomas’s soldiers would not let their commander down, treating him and all watching to one of the most daring spectacles of the entire war.

Still stung by the defeat they had suffered at Chickamauga, and the ensuing period of privation during the siege of Chattanooga, the Soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland were determined to prove their mettle on the afternoon of November 25. Covering a two-mile front, nearly 23,000 of Thomas’s men set their eager eyes forward and advanced toward the base of Missionary Ridge. Fifty rebel guns opened fire on the long blue wave, but the attackers kept on coming. “The troops moved under fire with all the precision of veterans on parade,” said Grant in admiration of Thomas’s soldiers. The Union column rolled over the Confederate works at the base of Missionary Ridge, forcing the defenders to abandon their positions and scramble back up the hill toward their remaining two lines of resistance along the middle and at the crest of the ridge. As it turned out, the soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland were just getting started.

Confederate troops defending Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. Defense of the Ridge by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit: Dale Gallon)

From his perch atop Orchard Knob, Ulysses S. Grant watched through his field glasses as Union soldiers began to race up the slope of Missionary Ridge. Grant turned to the Army of the Cumberland’s commander and asked, “Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?” “I don’t know,” came the reply from Thomas. “I did not.” The answer was that the soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland had taken matters into their own hands.

Although they had no further orders to advance after capturing the rebel works at the base of Missionary Ridge, Union soldiers quickly found themselves exposed to fire from rebel defenders firing at them from higher up the hill. Acting on their own initiative, the men from the Army of the Cumberland dashed straight up the hill, hot on the trail of the rebels who had fled from their trenches at the base, and into the heart of Braxton Bragg’s army. As McPherson adds, “The Union attackers followed the retreating rebels so closely that Confederates in the next line had to hold their fire to avoid hitting their own men.” The flood of nearly 18,000 blue-clad troops could not be stopped and the Federals made it all the way to the top of Missionary Ridge. As they watched the Confederates turn their backs and take off in headlong retreat, cries of “Chickamauga!” rang out from many of the Army of the Cumberland’s soldiers as they savored their redemption.

Union soldiers from the 8th Kansas Infantry Regiment fighting their way up Missionary Ridge. Eighth Kansas at Missionary Ridge by Dale Gallon (Photo Credit: Dale Gallon/HistoryNet)

With victory in the air, Ulysses S. Grant mounted his horse and rode up to the crest of Missionary Ridge. As Grant biographer Ronald C. White reports, “the common soldiers recognized him and clung to his stirrups, raising their voices in cheers.” With the lift of his hat, Grant proceeded to thank the men who had gone forward and taken a position that many Confederate commanders once considered impregnable. As Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who had watched the assault from Orchard Knob, put it, “The storming of the Ridge by our troops was one of the greatest miracles in military history.”

Braxton Bragg’s army was shattered by the storming of Missionary Ridge and Confederate soldiers quickly began a rapid retreat to the south. Patrick Cleburne’s division, however, remained unbroken to the end and stubbornly fought to protect the rebel retreat. Bragg and his demoralized forces did not look back, not stopping or regrouping until they “had retreated thirty miles down the railroad toward Atlanta,” according to McPherson. After Union forces ended a three day pursuit of the fleeing rebel army, Bragg proceeded to submit his resignation, which was promptly accepted by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Haunted by the stunning way in which his army had been driven off Missionary Ridge, Bragg went on to write: “no satisfactory excuse can possibly be given for the shameful conduct of our troops. . . . The position was one which ought have been held by a line of skirmishers.”

With Braxton Bragg and his army driven away from Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant immediately turned his attention back to Ambrose Burnside in Knoxville. Grant rushed reinforcements to help bolster the Army of the Ohio and stressed to Burnside the importance of holding on “to the very last moment.” With his own troops exhausted from the action at Chattanooga, though, the relief forces were slow in reaching Knoxville, which greatly distressed Grant. Luckily, his fears were quickly put to rest. Burnside and his soldiers managed to hold on, beating back a mighty final assault from James Longstreet’s Confederates on November 29. Four days later, Longstreet abandoned his siege of Knoxville.

“All we needed was a leader,” explained the Union soldiers whose prospects had once looked so grim as they were besieged in Chattanooga for more than two months. They got the leader they needed when Ulysses S. Grant arrived on the scene. As Chernow writes, “Within a month, [Grant] had done what seemed impossible: he had gone from being besieged by opponents to ejecting them. . . .” A key component of that victory was Grant’s ability to take three different Union armies that had never fought together before and forging them into a united coalition. Once all the preparations were complete, it took less than three days for that unified force to defeat Bragg’s well-positioned army. While Grant was unquestionably the indispensable man of the hour, victory also would not have been possible without George Thomas, William Sherman, Joseph Hooker, and the individual soldiers themselves. Because of their efforts, and those of Burnside and the Army of Ohio in Knoxville, most of Tennessee was now firmly in Union hands and the door was open for further Federal operations to be carried into Georgia. With these developments to close out the year 1863, Grant believed the Union had driven “a big nail in the Coffin of rebellion.”

Ulysses S. Grant (standing in the left corner) and other Union soldiers taking in the sights from the top of Lookout Mountain. (Photo Credit: National Park Service)

The victor of Vicksburg was now the champion of Chattanooga. President Lincoln had put all his trust in Grant, and that trust had been rewarded. On December 8, Lincoln wrote to Grant: “I wish to tender you, and all under your command, my more than thanks-my profoundest gratitude-for the skill, courage, and perseverance, with which you and they, over so great difficulties, have effected that important object. God bless you all. A. Lincoln.” Later that spring, Lincoln brought his military champion to Washington, rewarding him with the highest command in the land. Grant was elevated to the sacred rank of lieutenant general, making him the first officer to be promoted to that grade since America’s most revered soldier, George Washington. As general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States, all Union forces, which encompassed over a million men across the war-torn nation, were placed under Grant’s command. It thus fell to Ulysses S. Grant to win the war for the Union, once and for all.

Photo header credit: Now Is Your Time by Dale Gallon, depicting Ulysses S. Grant and George Thomas directing operations from Orchard Knob on November 25, 1863. (Photo Credit: Dale Gallon)


American Battlefield Trust: Chattanooga.

American Battlefield Trust: Chattanooga - Fight for Tunnel Hill.

American Battlefield Trust: Chickamauga.

American Battlefield Trust: George Thomas.

American Battlefield Trust: Patrick R. Cleburne.

American Battlefield Trust: William T. Sherman.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

National Park Service: George Thomas.

National Park Service: Hardtack During the Civil War.

National Park Service: Lincoln, Grant, and the 1864 Election.

National Park Service: Orchard Knob.

Smithsonian Magazine: Catching Up With "Old Slow Trot"

Tennessee Civil War Trails: Patrick Cleburne.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.


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