Preparations for Attacking the Enemy’s Position

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, overall Federal commander in the Western Theater, continued preparing his forces to break out of General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate siege of Chattanooga. The Federal line ran from Missionary Ridge on the left to Lookout Mountain on the right. The Federals had cleared Lookout Valley of Confederates, which enabled them to move supplies up the Tennessee River from Bridgeport to Brown’s Ferry, and then on to Chattanooga. Grant’s forces consisted of:

  • The Army of the Cumberland under Major-General George H. Thomas
  • Two corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major-General Joseph Hooker

Grant was also responsible for the Federal Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, at Knoxville. Burnside was being threatened by a Confederate force under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, but before Grant could do anything, he had to wait for the arrival of Major-General William T. Sherman’s 17,000 Federals from the Army of the Tennessee. Sherman had arrived at Bridgeport on November 13, and the next day he went up the Tennessee to discuss the military situation with Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Sherman took a supply steamer from Bridgeport to Kelley’s Ferry, where Grant had a horse waiting to take him the rest of the way into Chattanooga. Sherman met with Grant, Thomas, Brigadier-General William F. “Baldy” Smith (chief Federal engineer), and Major-General Oliver O. Howard (commanding the Eleventh Corps from the Potomac army). Howard noted the informality of this strategy session and how greatly it differed from similar discussions in the Army of the Potomac.

On the 15th, Grant, Thomas, Sherman, and Smith rode out to the Federal left, east of Chattanooga, to inspect the Confederate lines on Missionary Ridge. Bragg’s siege line ran from Missionary Ridge on the Confederate right (northeast) to Lookout Mountain, three miles to the left (southwest). The Federals in Chattanooga could see the Confederate camps and cannon looming in the heights above them.

As the officers studied the enemy positions from the parapet of Fort Wood, Sherman exclaimed, “Why, General Grant, you are besieged!” “It is too true,” Grant replied. The Federals may have opened the cracker line, but they were still weak from being nearly starved out. Also, most of the horses in Chattanooga had starved, leaving no reliable animals to haul heavy guns. Grant was anxious to fight his way out, but to succeed, he knew he needed Sherman’s troops from Grant’s old, reliable Army of the Tennessee.

Sherman was directed to seize the Confederate lines, and after studying them for half an hour, he expressed confidence that he could succeed. This prompted Grant to modify his original plan, which had been for Thomas’s Federals to seize Lookout Mountain to the west. Instead, Sherman was to turn the Confederate right, which would enable the Federals to seize the two railroads leading east. This would force Bragg to “either to weaken his lines elsewhere or lose his connection with his base at Chickamauga Station.”

Howard’s corps would be pulled back north of Chattanooga, in position to reinforce either Sherman on the left or Thomas on the right. Major-General Joseph Hooker would continue holding Lookout Valley with a division and two brigades; this reduction in Hooker’s force reflected Grant’s lack of confidence in him.

Grant announced on the 16th that he would attack Bragg’s army at dawn on the 21st. But his chief of staff, Brigadier-General John A. Rawlins, was losing confidence in him. Rawlins had been tasked with keeping Grant sober and out of trouble, especially following his horse accident at New Orleans in September. But, as he wrote his fiancé, there had been “free use of intoxicating liquors at Headquarters, which last night’s developments showed me had reached to the General commanding… I had hoped, but it appears vainly, that his New Orleans experience would prevent him ever again indulging with this his worst enemy.”

Rawlins wrote a desperate letter to Grant pleading him to cease and desist from drinking, “for the sake of my bleeding country and your own honor.” But Rawlins did not send the letter because he soon learned that he was mistaken; Grant had not been drinking the previous night.

On the 17th, Sherman’s troops were still coming into Bridgeport when they were informed that they would have to continue east to positions opposite Missionary Ridge. The Federals might have moved faster if Sherman had ordered them forward without their supply train; marching with the wagons considerably slowed Sherman’s pace. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, observing operations on behalf of the War Department, wrote Washington:

“A lamentable blunder has been committed in moving Sherman’s forces from Bridgeport, with the enormous trains they brought from west Tennessee following in usual order in rear of each division, instead of moving all the troops and artillery first. Grant says the blunder is his; that he should have given Sherman explicit orders to leave his wagons behind; but I know that no one was so much astonished as Grant on learning they had not been left, even without such orders.”

Grant notified Burnside at Knoxville that Sherman was leaving one division behind at Lookout Mountain, which Grant hoped might threaten Bragg’s left flank enough for him to recall Longstreet from Burnside’s front. Grant wrote that the rest of Sherman’s force was on the move, and “there will be no halt until a severe battle is fought or the railroads cut supplying the enemy.”

By the 18th, the Federals were all moving into their slated positions. Grant wrote to Thomas and Sherman, “All preparations should be made for attacking the enemy’s position on Missionary Ridge by Saturday (the 21st) at daylight.”


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  • Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
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