November 25, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals finally broke the siege of Chattanooga and nearly broke General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee in the process.
By this time, the three Federal armies had made progress in pushing the Confederates away from Chattanooga:
- Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee held a spur across a ravine from Tunnel Hill, north of Chattanooga.
- Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland held Orchard Knob in the center.
- Major General Joseph Hooker’s forces from the Army of the Potomac held Lookout Mountain southwest of Chattanooga.
Thomas’s Federals, unaware of Hooker’s victory the night before, cheered when they saw the U.S. flag waving atop Lookout Mountain the next morning. Grant’s plan for this day’s action included:
- Sherman seizing Tunnel Hill and driving the Confederates off Missionary Ridge.
- Thomas advancing after Sherman seized his objective.
- Hooker advancing toward Rossville Gap to cut off the Confederate line of retreat.
Sherman’s 16,000 Federals advanced at dawn and arrived in front of Tunnel Hill around 11 a.m. Bragg’s best division, Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s 4,000 men, defended the hill, with support from divisions under Major General Carter L. Stevenson and Brigadier General States Rights Gist. The small, narrow hill allowed for an easy defense against a superior attack force. Cleburne held the Federals off for four hours and earned the nickname “Stonewall Jackson of the West” for this action.
To the southwest, Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate corps held Hooker off as the Federals had to stop and repair the bridge leading to Rossville Gap. When the bridge was finally repaired around 3 p.m., the Federals advanced in force and Breckinridge slowly fell back in the face of superior numbers. Grant had expected Sherman to destroy the Confederate right, but instead Hooker was threatening to crumble the Confederate left.
Meanwhile, Sherman signaled Grant’s headquarters several times asking him to send Thomas into action. With Sherman faltering and Hooker slowing down, Grant finally assented. In Thomas’s front, Bragg’s Confederates manned three lines of rifle pits ascending Missionary Ridge. Grant, who had little faith in Thomas’s Federals based on their combat history, ordered them to simply advance from Orchard Knob and capture the first line at the foot of the ridge.
Some 23,000 Federals advanced across the open plain along a two-mile front. The Confederates fired one volley and fell back to the second line. As the Federals entered the first line, they were in danger of being decimated by rifle and artillery fire from the two lines above them. Without orders, the divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan and Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood led a general charge up the mountain. Grant, watching from headquarters, asked, “Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?” Thomas replied, “I don’t know, I did not.” Grant did not abort the unauthorized assault, hopeful for success.
The Confederates abandoned the second line, with many hit by friendly fire from their comrades in the line above. The Federals then continued their charge up to the third line, with some chanting, “Chickamauga! Chickamauga!” Confederate artillerists could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers; some desperately lit fuses in shells and rolled them down the mountain. The Federals swept through the third line and raced to the top of Missionary Ridge, nearly capturing both Breckinridge and Bragg in the process.
While Cleburne’s men celebrated repelling Sherman, Lieutenant General William Hardee, Cleburne’s superior, informed him that the center had collapsed, and his Confederates were about to be isolated. Cleburne quickly formed a rear guard to prevent the Confederate retreat from becoming a rout. Bragg’s army retreated down the reverse slope of Missionary Ridge, and the Federal pursuit, led by Sheridan’s division, ended at nightfall. Hooker soon joined the rest of the Federals on Missionary Ridge.
Three days of fighting ended in a resounding Federal victory that ended the siege of Chattanooga. During that time, the Federals sustained 5,824 casualties (753 killed, 4,722 wounded and 349 missing). Grant telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“Although the battle lasted from nearly dawn until dark this evening I believe I am not premature in announcing a complete victory over Bragg. Lookout mountain-top, all the rifle pits in Chattanooga Valley, and Missionary Ridge entire, have been carried, and are now held by us. I have no idea of finding Bragg here tomorrow.”
The Confederates lost 6,667 men (361 killed, 2,160 wounded and 4,146 missing, mostly captured). They also lost 41 guns. Bragg regretfully reported, “A panic which I had never before witnessed seemed to have seized upon officers and men, and each seemed to be struggling for his personal safety regardless of his duty or his character.”
The Confederates crossed Chickamauga Creek, with Cleburne reporting:
“By 9 p.m., everything was across, except the dead and a few stragglers linger here and there under the shadow of the trees for the purpose of being captured: faint-hearted patriots succumbing to the hardships of the war and the imagined hopelessness of the hour.”
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