Breaking Out of Chattanooga

November 14, 1863 – Major General William T. Sherman arrived at Chattanooga with his three Federal divisions close behind to reinforce the Federals preparing to break out of the city.

Federal Major General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Federal Major General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

By November 1, the Federal “cracker line” had broken the Confederate siege of Chattanooga by delivering supplies to the hungry Federals via Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River. With Federal troops receiving full rations once more, President Abraham Lincoln informed Secretary of State William H. Seward that dispatches from Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federals “from Chattanooga show all quiet and doing well.”

For the Confederates, General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee besieging the town, blamed this setback on Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s defeat at Wauhatchie in late October. To this President Jefferson Davis replied, “The result related is a bitter disappointment, as my expectations were sanguine that the enemy, by throwing across the Tennessee his force at Bridgeport, had ensured the success of the operation suggested by General Longstreet, and confided to his execution.” Davis suggested that Bragg move his force around the Federal right, but he left the final decision on strategy to Bragg.

On the 4th, Bragg assigned Longstreet to take two divisions, two artillery battalions, and a cavalry force “to destroy or capture (Major General Ambrose) Burnside’s army” at Knoxville. Bragg ignored Longstreet’s objections that 1) his 15,000 men could not defeat Burnside’s 25,000 and 2) such a move would reduce Bragg’s army by a quarter and leave him vulnerable to a Federal attack. Bragg insisted that recapturing Knoxville was necessary to restore communications with Virginia while also enabling Bragg to get rid of another disgruntled subordinate.

Now that the supply line had been opened, Grant began planning to attack Bragg’s Confederates on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and break out of the city. He ordered Sherman to bring part of his Army of the Tennessee east to reinforce the Federals in Chattanooga. Sherman’s men had been repairing railroad track destroyed by Confederate raiders, but Grant instead dispatched a division under Brigadier General Grenville M. Dodge, a former railroad engineer, to rebuild the line. Dodge’s men completed the work in just 40 days.

As Grant awaited reinforcements and his men received much-needed supplies, Bragg’s Confederates could do nothing except block potential efforts to reinforce Burnside at Knoxville. By the 11th, Davis became increasingly concerned that Grant was preparing to break through Bragg’s army, and he sent a message through General Custis Lee:

“His Excellency regrets that the weather and condition of the roads have suspended the movement (on your left), but hopes that such obstacles to your plans will not long obstruct them. He feels assured that you will not allow the enemy to get up all his reinforcements before striking him, if it can be avoided… (Davis) does not deem it necessary to call your attention to the importance of doing whatever is to be done before the enemy can collect his forces, as the longer the time given him for this purpose, the greater will be the disparity in numbers.”

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Sherman arrived at Chattanooga on the 14th as his 17,000 Federals reached Bridgeport, Alabama. Sherman reconnoitered Confederate positions, received orders from Grant, and returned to Bridgeport to begin leading his men up Lookout Valley to Brown’s Ferry. Grant scheduled an attack for November 21, but Sherman’s slow movement through the mud and rain compelled Grant to delay the assault.

Meanwhile, Davis asked General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding all Confederates in the Western Theater, to send all reinforcements he could to Bragg’s army. Bragg sent Grant a message under a flag of truce: “As there may still be some noncombatants in Chattanooga, I deem it proper to notify you that prudence would dictate their early withdrawal.” This indicated to Grant that Bragg would attack soon if the Federals did not strike first.

On the 21st, most of Sherman’s men crossed the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry before a storm destroyed the pontoon bridge and isolated his third division on the other side of the river. Grant assigned that division to Major General Joseph Hooker commanding Federals in the Lookout Valley sector. Under Grant’s plan:

  • Sherman would take the northern part of the line and attack Confederates north of Missionary Ridge
  • Major General George H. Thomas would attack the Confederate center on Missionary Ridge after transferring one of his divisions to Sherman
  • Hooker would take the southern part, move from Lookout to Chattanooga Valley, and attack the Confederate left

As Federals moved into positions on the 22nd, Bragg guessed that Sherman was moving north to reinforce Burnside at Knoxville. Consequently, he ordered divisions under Generals Simon B. Buckner and Patrick Cleburne to help Longstreet. Buckner’s men left by train, while Cleburne’s men waited for the train to return for them. This left Bragg’s army even more vulnerable to Grant’s planned attack.



  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 821, 825-26, 833, 837-38
  • Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 97, 99-120, 154-55
  • Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 33-35, 65-67, 182
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 428-36
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 133-35
  • Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 79-80
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Loc 52529-30

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