Breaking Out of Chattanooga

November 22, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant prepared to fight his way out of Chattanooga as General Braxton Bragg sent more of his Confederate Army of Tennessee away.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant, commanding the Federals under siege in Chattanooga, planned to launch his long-awaited attack on the Confederate besiegers on the 21st. This required the 17,000-man XV Corps of Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee to march northeast from Bridgeport, Alabama, over Lookout Mountain, and north through Chattanooga to extend the left of Grant’s line to meet Bragg’s right flank on Missionary Ridge.

Meanwhile, Major General George H. Thomas’s 36,000-man Army of the Cumberland held the Federal center in Chattanooga, and Major General Joseph Hooker’s 11,000 men from the Army of the Potomac’s XI and XII corps held Lookout Valley west of Chattanooga.

By the 20th, Sherman’s vanguard finally reached the Brown’s Ferry pontoon bridge, having marched 27 miles in rain and mud from Bridgeport. This slow advance meant that Grant could not attack as scheduled. As Sherman’s westerners trudged along, they encountered Hooker’s easterners for the first time, and Sherman later recalled:

“It was on this occasion that the Fifteenth Corps gained its peculiar badge: as the men were trudging along the deeply-cut, muddy road, of a cold, drizzly day, one of our Western Soldiers left his ranks and joined a party of the Twelfth Corps at their camp-fire. They got into a conversation, the Twelfth Corps men asking what troops we were, etc., etc. In turn, our fellow (who had never seen a corps-badge, and noticed that everything was marked with a star) asked if they were all brigadier-generals. Of course they were not, but the star was their corps badge, and every wagon, tent, hat, etc., had its star. Then the Twelfth Corps men inquired what corps he belonged to, and he answered, ‘The Fifteenth Corps.’ ‘What is your badge?’ ‘Why,’ said he (and he was an Irishman), suiting the action to the word, ‘40 rounds in the cartridge box and 20 in the pocket!’”

A New York soldier described Sherman’s men as they passed:

“This army looked quite unlike our own. They all wore large hats instead of caps; were carelessly dressed, both officers and men, and marched in a very irregular way, seemingly not caring to keep closed up and in regular order. They were a large fine type of men, all westerners; it was easy to see that at any serious time they would close up and be there. As they passed by we viewed their line and a good deal of friendly chaffing was done. They expressed their opinion that we were tin soldiers. ‘Oh look at their little caps. Where are your paper collars? Oh how clean you look, do you have soap?’”

As Sherman’s Federals continued moving toward their positions opposite Missionary Ridge, Grant received a message from Bragg 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 that Bragg may attack soon. Meanwhile, President Jefferson Davis requested that General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding Confederate forces in Mississippi, send more reinforcements to Bragg.

The next day, Grant began finalizing his plan of attack. Although Thomas urged an all-out attack on Lookout Mountain, Grant planned for all three Federal armies to attack to not only drive Bragg away from Chattanooga, but push him away from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps, which was laying siege to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, about 100 miles northeast.

When Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck informed Grant that Burnside was surrounded at Knoxville, Grant replied, “Our attack on the enemy’s right has not yet commenced. Troops have been moving night and day ever since Sherman appeared at Bridgeport, but narrow and bad roads have made an earlier attack impossible. Owing to heavy rain last night, it will be impossible to attack Bragg before Monday (the 23rd).”

The heavy rain destroyed the pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry and left one of Sherman’s divisions under Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus isolated on the wrong side of the Tennessee River. Grant reassigned that division to Hooker’s force in the Lookout Valley instead. Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis’s division of Thomas’s army was transferred to Sherman’s command.

Thomas continued arguing in favor of a concentrated attack on Lookout Mountain, warning Grant that Bragg might discover Sherman’s movement and strengthen his right. But Bragg had no idea that Sherman planned to attack Missionary Ridge. He reported, “Sherman’s force has arrived, and a movement on our left is indicated.” Bragg guessed that Sherman was moving to his right to reinforce Burnside, not to threaten Missionary Ridge. Because of this, Bragg urged Longstreet to hurry and destroy Burnside, then come back to rejoin him at Chattanooga.

Longstreet directed Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division to attack the Federal works outside Knoxville, stating that casualties “will not be great compared with the importance of the move.” McLaws was to attack on the night of the 22nd, but he told Longstreet that such a move would be futile. Longstreet informed Bragg that his force was not strong enough to “warrant my taking his works by assault. Can’t you spare me another division? It will shorten the work here very much.”

When Bragg warned Longstreet that Sherman was coming to oppose him, Longstreet wrote, “There can be no force to move against my rear, unless it comes from your front, and it cannot come from there without your being advised in time to send more troops to me.”

Bragg then dispatched an officer to personally inform Longstreet that he would be sending 11,000 troops under Major Generals Bushrod R. Johnson and Patrick R. Cleburne, with Cleburne in overall command. These troops currently held Missionary Ridge. Johnson’s command left by rail immediately, while Cleburne waited for the train to return for his men.

This left Bragg with less than 35,000 men to face Grant’s revitalized army of nearly 70,000. Based on Thomas’s persistence, Grant slightly modified his plan by changing Thomas’s attack in the center to a mere demonstration instead. Sherman would assault the Confederate right, and Hooker would act based on the progress made by Sherman and Thomas on the morning of the 23rd.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 343; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 374; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 118-20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 435-36

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