|Politics in the Union Army at the Battle for Chattanooga|
George H. Thomas and Politics in the Union Army at the Battle for Chattanooga
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. James 3:16
"In politics it is not the way things really are that counts, but the way they appear to be." Theodore H. White - In Search of History
Thomas to Halleck (Van Horne, "Life", p. 88): "I have made my last protest while the war lasts. You may hereafter put a stick over me if you choose to do so. I will take care, however, to so manage my command, whatever it may be, as not to be involved in the mistakes of the stick."
Summary: Grant comes to Chattanooga with the express purpose of creating the conditions for promoting Sherman and relegating Thomas and Hooker to secondary roles. Sherman's political allies will then promote Grant's career. As events unfold and Sherman can't bring off even a semblance of a victory on his wing, Grant gets desperate and orders Thomas to sacrifice part of his army in order to relieve the pressure on Sherman. Thomas hinders the execution of the order until Hooker has begun to undermine Bragg's left flank. The most highly trained army of the day then does its job and takes the ridge, whereupon Grant rewrites history so that it conforms to a modfied version of his original plan. Article based upon McKinney and Cozzens, but goes one logical step further. Mcfeely wrote on page 380 of his "Grant" biography that Grant "had outmaneuvered all the generals who might have stepped in front of him during the war". Fortunately for the nation this was true only politically. As the following article will demonstrate, Thomas outmaneuvered him militarily.
For Christmas in 1990 I received as a gift the Burns compendium on the Civil War drawn from the Public Television series of the same name. It fascinated me, but I don't believe I read anything else about the Civil War until the next year when I made a business trip to Chattanooga. On that occasion in Feb. 1991 a person from the company I was visiting took me to the Chickamauga battlefield. That same afternoon, armed with no more than what I had learned from Burns, I drove alone along Missionary Ridge, looked at some markers (including one from a Hooker unit which announced that it had arrived at that point at 5PM on 25 Nov. 1863), and stopped in Bragg Reservation. There is a panel there, and on it is a button. I pressed it, and a recording of the final part of Bragg's official battle report came over a speaker. I listened to that distinctly regional voice say those astounding things about the “shameful conduct” of the “hardened veterans” (footnote, henceforth fn1), and I said to myself: “Something is wrong here. Couldn't Bragg and his hardened veterans see Hooker coming across the valley toward their left flank against no opposition?" This question on that day has set me off on a quest to understand this battle which continues to this day. Below you see the current state of my investigation. I have found out that they could indeed see Hooker coming. Bragg also knew, or at least quickly found out where they were headed (fn2), and his soldiers must have known also. I started reading and accepted at first the commonly held opinion that Bragg was some kind of fool who couldn't keep his strife-ridden Army of Tennessee in hand. The more I read, however, the more I began to realize that he was not a fool. I also began to find more and more indications that he wasn't given the authority by Richmond to deal with a rebellion among his officers which began well before the troubled breathing space after the battle of Chickamauga. At the same time I came across indications that all was not halcyon harmony within the Union army either. The following article deals mostly with the internal politics of the Union army at Chattanooga in Oct. and Nov. 1863. My conclusions will perhaps surprise you and even upset you, because up to now such things were generally reported to happen with certain unsuccessful generals and with certain unsuccessful armies, surely not with the victorious Grand Army of the Republic, and most assuredly not with Ulysses S. Grant, savior of the nation. Certain more specialized works hint at the internal conflict, without carrying the argument to its logical conclusion, however. The truth as I begin to see it is, as usual, even more complicated and more entertaining than in the most critical accounts of this battle I have read until now.
There are two reasons for devoting special attention to the battle of Chattanooga:
1) As Lincoln wrote to Halleck after Rosecrans had retired to Chattanooga after the battle of Chickamauga: "If he can only maintain this position without gaining more, the rebellion can only eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals." Lincoln was right again, although off on the time-scale. Chattanooga was the decisive battle of the war because it was the only one the South absolutely had to not just win, but win then in order to prolong the struggle so that some sort of political settlement could be achieved. Thanks to Thomas's inspired management of the battle, in spite of Grant's continued interference (See Stephen Z. Starr's article on the battle of Nashville (fn3) to see a similar circumstance if you think my judgment too harsh), Sherman was later able to capture Atlanta in time to influence and perhaps determine the outcome of the congressional and presidential elections in the North in the fall of 1864.
2) It is a laboratory example of a politicized battle. Indeed, the battle for Chattanooga was perhaps the most politicized battle of the entire war. All of the battles were also internal political battles, but what made Chattanooga outdo the other ones in this respect was the one-time presence of massive reinforcements at this time to the core armies of the Cumberland and Tennessee. The Army of the Cumberland was reinforced by Hooker from the East and Sherman from further west, and the Army of Tennessee had been reinforced by Longstreet from the East.
To cap it all was the arrival of Grant who had already been sounded out by politicians from Missouri to New York trying to get him to run for president in 1864. He was even being touted for the job on the front pages of the New York Tribune (fn4). Grant obviously was not going to immediately accept these offers, but very few men are immune to
such temptation. I will attempt here to show that Grant, in the light of his conduct of the battle of Chattanooga, was not immune and was then, at the latest, more interested in furthering his own career, be it military or political, than he was in achieving a simply military objective. When politics enter into a battle in a big way, purely military considerations are bound to suffer. Grant knew,
because hundreds of people including Lincoln had told him in one way or another, what his short and long-term prospects were if he played his cards right, maintained his facade of modesty, didn't get too impatient, and held on to his luck. He planned his strategy accordingly.
Thomas offered an alternative method of conducting war to that of Grant. Thomas's method can be summed up as follows: Take care of your men and train them well, plan thoroughly so as to put yourself in the position to improvise with minimal risk, force or trick your opponent to attack you on ground of your choosing, know the terrain better than your opponent does, have a reserve ready for flanking movements, be open to technological innovation, NEVER throw massed forces against a single point of your opponents line (because it almost never really works and is always expensive), and strike hard when it counts. Thomas always tried to coordinate attacks at 2 or 3 or more different points of the enemy's position so that the enemy commander could never know which was the main thrust. This method requires a lot of very dull homework on the part of the practitioner, which doesn't recommend it to the hasty or the distracted.
In this Thomas was in agreement with Rosecrans who did well enough by this method until he disregarded Thomas's advice to first consolidate in Chattanooga before going after Bragg in Georgia. Instead Rosecrans got overconfident (also bowing to intense pressure from Washington), dispersed his forces, and stumbled into a battle before he had got set (fn5).
Following the above named precepts, Thomas had been phenomenally successful until then in every battle or segment thereof where he had commanded. On the other hand, Grant's method was a study in contrasts to that of Thomas. Grant sums it up himself in his Chattanooga battle report in this way: “…the great object being to mass all the force possible against one given point.” This was in accordance with the Napoleonic doctrine taught at West Point before the war, but already outdated in 1849 with the introduction of the minié bullet and rifling. Grant's method would still work given a preponderance of force, but the human cost would be very high.
However, Grant had an advantage over Thomas: Grant was from Ohio. Thomas was from Virginia and had therefore renounced his political base when he returned south "at the head of my men" (fn6). It is difficult for us today to conceive the importance of regional politics and its effect on the military of those times, because our political parameters have changed. Today corporations dominate politics, but back then the dominant forces were the state political machines. Thomas had no potential usefulness to these machines and their would-be president makers and exploiters. Indeed, there were many politicians who professed to distrust Thomas, suspecting him of doubtful loyalty and perhaps, in the long run, of not being amenable to a policy of looting a defeated adversary.
Before I begin discussing this confrontation I want to outline the possible background of a personality conflict between Grant and Thomas. Consider what it was like to be a career officer in the pre Civil War army. If you were from the South, and especially from Virginia, you had the better chance of promotion because of Virginia’s decades long domination of the war department. Northern born officers therefore had years to conceive and then nurture a grudge against southern born officers. For whatever reason, Grant’s career had stagnated before the Civil War, and Thomas, the quintessential Virginian, had made steady progress. Of course, this disadvantage was completely reversed with the start of the war, but that does not mean that old resentments were forgotten. After the unprecedented carnage of Shiloh, Halleck arrived on the scene and took charge. He apparently disapproved of the way Grant had handled the battle, so he made Grant a supernumerary second in command, placed Grant’s troops under Thomas, and spent most of his time at Thomas’s headquarters (the right wing) during the slow approach to Corinth. Grant was decidedly unhappy about this, although he probably needn't have been (fn7). Shortly thereafter, Thomas requested that Grant’s troops be restored to him, perhaps thereby only adding fuel to the fire. Finally, every one of Grant’s victories up until his arrival at Chattanooga had drawn much criticism. Knowing this as well as anyone, Grant faced Thomas whose record of command success to that point had been an unimpeachable 100 % (fn7.5).
On the other hand, Thomas must have resented Grant’s very presence there as an affront and a suggestion that Thomas couldn’t do the job alone (fn8). Thomas also surely did not approve of Grant’s improvised approach to doing battle which led to avoidable suffering and death among the troops in his own commands (fn9). At some point he perhaps began to suspect that Grant had even deeper motives for being there. So, when Grant arrived at Chattanooga on 23 Oct. 1863, the stage was set for a behind the scenes confrontation. They both knew each other very well, and both had reasons for mistrusting the other. According to adjutant James H. Wilson's often and variously retold anecdote about Grant’s first arrival at Chattanooga, Thomas let him know from the beginning he wasn’t particularly welcome (fn10). However, according to Horace Porter in his "Campaigning with Grant" the scene was quite different: Porter recounts that a member of Thomas's staff first pointed out the situation. Apparently Grant had first ordered a staff meeting before worrying about his creature comforts, and summoning the staff officers seemed to be Thomas's first priority after the hasty meal. But Wilson's anecdote, harmless as he tells it but villainous as the apologists retell it, is the version most commonly cited (fn11).
Another factor influencing Grant's behavior was the freshness of his promotion to commander of the Division of the Mississippi. If successful in Chattanooga, Grant could expect to be called east in order to deal with the Lee problem on which many a good man before him had bitten out his teeth. However, if Grant were to stumble in his new assignment, the only possible choice to succeed him would have been Thomas. To buttress his position for the moment and against the possibility of future setbacks in the East, Grant needed a certain kind of victory in Chattanooga, one which would propel his fairly pliant lieutenant Sherman forward and not unduly enhance the reputation of Thomas. Sherman’s limited grasp of battlefield dynamics didn’t matter. His political connections (his brother a U.S. senator, father-in-law a former senator) and his willingness to apply himself to Grant’s larger design did matter. In other words, Grant came to Chattanooga in order to head Thomas off at the pass, already planning to promote Sherman over Thomas at the end of this battle. Politically at least it was "nolo contendere" because Thomas was one of those rare top commanders who focused more on the military objective than his personal advancement. However, as far as the strictly military objective of securing Chattanooga and doing as much damage to Bragg’s army as possible was concerned, Thomas would not back down, not even to Grant.
Grant’s plan consisted of giving Sherman the major role and the credit for the victory, and as little as possible of both to Thomas. Sherman was to have the bulk of the troops, and Thomas and Hooker were to do no more than demonstrate and then cooperate with Sherman once Sherman had crushed Bragg's northern flank. This plan is outlined in Grant's order of 18 Nov. 63 to Thomas and Sherman which I quote here from Grant's battle report of 23 Dec.63:
Maj. Gen. GEORGE H. THOMAS: All preparations should be made for attacking the enemy's position on Missionary Ridge by Saturday at daylight. Not being provided with a map giving names of roads, spurs of the mountains, and other places [but he did have a scientific contour map], such definite instructions cannot be given as might be desirable. However, the general
plan, you understand, is for Sherman, with the force brought with him, strengthened by a division from your command, to effect a crossing of the Tennessee River just below the mouth of Chickamauga, his crossing to be protected by artillery from the heights on the north bank of the river (to be located by your chief of artillery); and to secure the heights from the northern extremity to about the
railroad tunnel before the enemy can concentrate against him. You will co-operate with Sherman. The troops in Chattanooga Valley should be well concentrated on your left flank, leaving only the necessary force to defend fortifications on the right and center, and a movable column of one division in readiness to move whenever ordered. This division should show itself as threateningly [only a
“demonstration”] as possible on the most practicable line for making an attack up the valley. Your effort then will be to form a junction with Sherman, making your advance well toward the northern end of Missionary Ridge, and moving as near simultaneously with him as possible. The juncture once formed, and the ridge carried, communications will be at once established between the two
armies by roads on the south bank of the river. Farther movements will then depend on those of the enemy.
Strangely enough, neither the original of this order quoted here, nor the copy of it to Sherman which Grant mentions, is present in the Official Records of the Civil War. We have only Grant's report, and there is no other corroboration of a written version of this order. But more about this later.
In order to carry out this plan Sherman had on 25 Nov., according to Baldy Smith (fn12), "six perfectly appointed divisions" (3 of his own plus 3 borrowed from Thomas and Hooker), whereas Thomas had 4 and Hooker almost 3. On his own left flank (next to S. Chickamauga Creek), Sherman had the 2 divisions under Howard (borrowed from Hooker) which were not even deployed on the 25th, although they would have been opposed only by Wright’s brigade from taking Chickamauga Station 8 miles away (fn13). The division of J.C. Davis (borrowed from Thomas) remained in the rear to guard the river crossing (against what, against whom?). In addition, in the early afternoon of 25 Nov. Grant detached yet another division from Thomas (Baird’s) and sent it toward Sherman (which would have brought his total to seven divisions!) who sent it back because he had no place to put it. However, with the belated exception of Bushbeck’s brigade, Sherman made no use of the reinforcements. He relied on his own troops from the army of the Tennessee, and even those he used badly, throwing them in a brigade at a time. He obviously was in the manic phase of his repeated manic-depressive cycles and expected an easy triumph, but he had yet to meet in battle an all-rounder like Cleburne who, unlike Johnston and Pemberton, would also attack. In addition Cleburne, by using an approach to troop management similar to that of Thomas, had developed his division into the most effective shock troops of the entire Confederate army. On the 25th Sherman was not just halted by Cleburne with less than a quarter of his forces, he was thrown back. More than 200 of his men were even captured in a counter-attack and spent the rest of the war in Andersonville. Sherman's attack was, as Cozzens writes, "one of the sorriest episodes in this or any other battle of the war" (fn14).
The situation was critical at 2:30 PM on 25 Nov. for both Grant and Thomas, but for different reasons. The day was almost over, and if something wasn't done shortly, Bragg was going to get away with no more than a bloody nose. But if something were done too soon (under the mounting pressure from Sherman and Grant), then Thomas's troops might be repulsed, would in any case suffer excessive casualties, and Bragg might be able to claim not just a draw, but a victory. Grant was not worried about excessive casualties, but rather about his derailed plan and Sherman’s stalled attack, so Grant started ordering Thomas to move his 4 divisions (just after Baird returned) forward to the base of the ridge and then stop (fn15), ostensibly to induce Bragg to cease reinforcing Cleburne (fn16), in any case no more than a demonstration. This order has been called “foolish”, “not thought out” and “quixotic” by sundry authors because the Union soldiers would thus have been exposed to galling fire from above and unable to defend themselves.
In his battle report of 23 Dec. 1863 Grant writes this about the “order”:
“Thomas was accordingly directed to move forward his troops, constituting our center, Baird's division (Fourteenth Corps), Wood's and Sheridan's divisions (Fourth Corps), and Johnson's division (Fourteenth Corps), with a double line of skirmishers thrown out, followed in easy supporting distance by the whole force, and carry the rifle-pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge, and when carried to reform his lines on the rifle-pits with a view to carrying the top of the ridge [italics mine].
I call attention again to the fact that the entire weight of eye-witness testimony lends credence to the issuance of quite a different verbal order, namely to only take the rifle pits and stop (fn15).
There is yet another order in the Official Records dated 24 Nov. which almost supports Grant’s version of events, but not quite. Grant does not mention this order in his battle report, although he cites verbatim four other orders (2 to Burnside, 1 to Thomas, and 1 to Sherman, plus 1 reply from Burnside and 1 communication from Bragg). Instead Grant quotes this order twenty years later in his Memoirs on p. 340. I cite here the version present in the Official Records (fn17):
"HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, Chattanooga, Tenn., November 24, 1863.
This order for a dawn assault toward the center of Missionary Ridge was never carried out. Some authors, citing only Fullerton's report on Chattanooga in Battles & Leaders III 723, write that Grant, upon seeing in the morning that Sherman hadn't yet reached the tunnel, "suspended his orders". Others write that Thomas ignored or even "flouted" it. In any, case the Official Records
contain no document which explains why this order was not carried out. Note that no time of day is given for the issuance of this order, note also the vagueness of the words “and ridge directly in front of them”. Such imprecision is unusual from a man famous for his concise, clear orders. I repeat, in his battle report of 23 Dec.63 Grant does not mention this order. It seems to this author that
Grant would surely have cited this order in his battle report if he could have. This leads this author to propose two explanations:
1) The order existed but did not sufficiently bolster Grant’s case that the battle had been conducted according to his plan;
2) This order as written was inserted into the Official Records sometime after 23 Dec. 1863 (the date of Grant’s report) as part of a cover-up. This is a hypothesis which could be conclusively proven if the actual document of this order (kept in the National Archives in Washington DC) were clean and neatly written as opposed to being stained or even dirty as written orders issued under battle conditions usually are. Was there a cover-up? I will deal with this question below.
Before I try to fathom what Grant may have meant with “carry the rifle-pits and ridge directly in front of them”, permit me to confront this with a quote from another order of 24 Nov. present in the Official Records, written by Rawlins, “by order of Major-General Grant” to Sherman. This order also has no time, although information contained in it indicates that it was issued after 3:00 PM:
"Maj. Gen. WILLIAM T. SHERMAN, Near Chattanooga: “You will attack the enemy at the point most advantageous from your position at early dawn to-morrow morning (25th instant). General Thomas has been instructed to commence the attack early to-morrow morning. He will carry the enemy's rifle-pits in his immediate front [italics mine], or move to the left to your support, as circumstances may determine best.”
A comparison of the two orders leads this author to the conclusion that with “the rifle-pits and the ridge directly in front of them” Grant meant only that part of the ridge immediately beyond the rifle pits, not the crest itself. We can also conclude that some sort of early morning action for Thomas had been contemplated (but never carried out), but it is impossible to decide with certainty whether the actual order was verbal or written, and what kept it from being carried out, aside from its utter impracticality.
To put some clarity in this matter I cite yet another order from Grant to Thomas in the Official Records, now with indication of time. This order is from the day before and is nothing more than a vague confirmation of the standing order to Thomas of 18 Nov. which defined Thomas’s strictly supportive role in the plan as envisioned by Grant:
CHATTANOOGA, November 24, 1863--1 p.m
Against this welter of orders (and there are more!) I cite here Thomas’s own conception of the orders applying to him, as expressed in his battle report of 1 Dec., 1863:
”Orders were then given (Baird)…to move forward on Granger's left, and within supporting distance, against the enemy's rifle-pits on the slope and at the foot of Missionary Ridge.”
For these reasons I feel it is fair to proceed from the assumption that, in Grant’s mind, his plan as expressed in the orders of 18 Nov. (as cited in his after battle report of 23 Dec. 63) to Thomas was still valid, and that the verbal order as reported by the other observers on Orchard Knob is representative of Grant’s true intentions that afternoon.
Peter Cozzens has this to say about Grant’s verbal version of the order: “[Grant] never satisfactorily explained his foolish order to Thomas to seize only the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. Instead Grant chose to lie” (fn18). In addition, there are numerous eye-witness accounts of Grant’s anger and even rage when it became obvious that Thomas’s troops were indeed proceeding up the ridge (fn19).
From all of this confusion at least two certainties can be drawn:
1) Grant was out of control of the situation on 24 and 25 Nov. 63 because Sherman hadn't done his part of the plan, and he issued various contradictory, confused, and confusing orders in an attempt to regain control.
2) Through it all Thomas held to a simple plan, namely attack in the center as soon as one wing or the other of Bragg's line was broken, and this plan succeeded.
Most of the general treatments of the Civil War gloss over all of this and say merely that Thomas's men, at the last possible minute and to the mild surprise of Grant, then saved the day by taking matters into their own hands in a miraculously successful charge up the center of impregnable Missionary Ridge. If Hooker is mentioned at all, he was only belatedly and usually ineptly threatening Bragg's southern flank, not having “met the expectations” placed in him (see Grant’s battle report).
Aside from common sense, two considerations speak against this neat interpretation:
1) Newly available source material (Stewarts' Divisions' reports, Broadfoot's Supplements) shows that the situation may have even more contrary to Grant's plan than is commonly supposed. Hooker was not just threatening Stewart's flank, he may even have been the catalyst for Bragg's collapse in the center. The retreat began first in Stewart's sector of the line under Hooker's simultaneous attack from the west, south, and the rear. This, in turn, threw demoralized troops toward the center which facilitated the miraculous breakthrough there. Particularly devastating was the attack of Osterhaus against Stewart’s rear as reported on all levels of command in Stewart’s Division (fn20).
This is supported by Hebert (fn21) who writes: “[Hooker’s] threat on the enemy flank contributed to the demoralization which Thomas soon found in his attack on the center.” By any measure Hooker did good work on the 25th, especially considering that, of all of the major commanders, he had the least opportunity to familiarize himself with Chattanooga Valley and Missionary Ridge before 24 Nov. It's time, at last, to give Hooker his due for this day.
2) Many authors report uncertainty on the part of senior Union officers concerning the order they actually received. Some believed they had received an order to take the crest. In fact, according to McKinney: “Of the eleven brigade commanders engaged in the assault only one stated positively that he was to halt at the foot of the Ridge and await orders.” The others were either uncertain or convinced that they had been ordered to take the crest (fn22). To this effect I can also quote the Prussian born division commander Gen. August Willich (fn23) and Maj. James Connelly, topographical engineer under Hazen. I include here a lengthy quote from Connelly's "Letters" (fn24):
"I rode down along the line of our division, and there I found Woods Division formed on our right and facing the ridge just as we were; I rode on and came to Sheridan’s Division formed on Woods right and facing the same. Here was a line of veteran troops nearly two miles long, all facing Mission Ridge, and out of sight of the enemy. The purpose at once became plain to me, and I hurried back to my own Division, and on asking Gen. [Baird] he replied: “When 6 guns are fired in quick succession from Fort Wood, the line advances to storm the heights and carry the Ridge if possible. Take that order to Col. [Phelps]…and tell him to move forward rapidly when he hears the signal.” I communicated the order at once and that was the last I saw of the brigade commander, for he was killed just as he reached the summit of the ridge" [where Phelp’s monument is located today].
Did Thomas intervene here to make sure that someone would take the initiative and move out of the rifle pits? There were opportunities to do so that afternoon through another officer such as Granger (fn25). Or did he trust to fate and his insistent training of the troops? Or had he prepared the movement long in advance? To this effect I cite here Francis McKinney (fn26):
“Twice between the time of Sherman’s arrival and the time scheduled for the attack Thomas convened meetings of his subordinate commanders to be sure that they were letter perfect in their parts. He pointed out that their role was confined to demonstrations on Bragg’s front…The main attack was to made by Sherman. He talked, too, about a frontal assault on Missionary Ridge, warned them about the heavy casualties it would demand…if it were made before the Rebel flanks were shattered. The officers seemed to understand their commander, for their battle reports express the conviction that the Army of the Cumberland eventually was to storm Missionary Ridge.”
Catton throws up his figurative hands and writes that it “is impossible to harmonize all of the tales of what happened that afternoon on Orchard Knob” (fn27). However, concerning the basic question Catton hasn’t the slightest doubt: “The storming of Missionary Ridge came under orders” (fn28). In support of this with, at least as
far as a portion of Sheridan’s division is concerned, I cite here the 25 Nov. report of Col. Jason Marsh (fn29):
"After a very brief rest [in the rifle pits], an effort was made to move the men forward, which it was found a very difficult thing to do. The long, steep ascent in front covered with the enemy, the top lined with numerous batteries and breastworks, was well calculated to appall the stoutest hearts. It was, therefore, not strange that men required much urging to induce them to brave the danger [italics mine]. My efforts were directed entirely to the officers and men of my command to move them forward, irrespective of the previous order of the lines or of the movement of other regiments, and in this effort I was zealously and efficiently assisted by many of the officers of my command."
So much for the spontaneous urge of the Union troops to be better generals than their commanders. Whatever theory one chooses, it is apparent that, on the afternoon of 25 Nov. 1863, Grant is gradually losing his grasp of the overall situation while Thomas is gradually taking over.
Note the times in my timetable below, and note again that Grant, at every step of the campaign, had explicitly relegated Thomas and Hooker to supporting and demonstrative roles. Thomas had proposed a concentration against Bragg's southern flank, but was turned down. Thomas then had to nudge Grant into authorizing Hooker's attack on Lookout Mountain, and then his movement against Rossville Gap. Then, as things went wrong on the afternoon of 25 Nov., Thomas came under increasing pressure to throw in his troops (first 4, then 3, then 4 divisions) against Bragg’s 5 divisions in the center into the attack. The pressure came first from Sherman, as we can see from the following exchange of messages (fn30):
"MISSION RIDGE STATION, November 25, 1863--12.45 p.m.
The reply came directly from Thomas:
"ORCHARD KNOB, November 25, 1863--1 p.m.
Then Grant started to add pressure, as will be explained in detail below. First he ordered to Sherman yet another division from Thomas (Baird’s), then he began to first suggest and then order Thomas to intervene. However, Thomas repeatedly stalled the carrying out of Grant's murderous limited demonstration order until he was sure that Hooker had engaged Stewart, thus reducing the risk
of uselessly sacrificing his precious Army of the Cumberland in favor of Grant’s failed and politically motivated plan.
Grant had reason to be nervous about Sherman well before 2:30 PM on 25 Nov. Sherman's troops had started crossing the to the south bank of the Tennessee at around 2 AM on 24. Nov. By dawn about 8000 troops were already landed. Instead of moving forward immediately, Sherman waited until his entire force was across before getting underway. Nine hours later Sherman, after having covered all of 3 miles and encountered no more than skirmishers, entrenched on the first rise (named "Billy the Goat Hill" after the battle according to local Chattanooga historian Bob Graham). He then reported to Grant that he had reached the tunnel, the objective stated in his orders (fn31). Grant took the message at face value and telegraphed Washington that Sherman had taken the ridge up to the tunnel. However, Sherman had stopped and entrenched too soon. He was not yet at the object of his orders as he reported that evening. Thanks to this error, Cleburne was allowed to move in that same afternoon to fill the void on Tunnel Hill. He then spent the night preparing his defenses. The next morning when Sherman started his attack, he was more than a mile to the north of the tunnel. When the fog lifted at about 9:00 AM this must have been apparent to all observers on Orchard Knob. Grant thus had several hours to formulate a contingency plan. However, if we are to lend credence to Sherman's battle report of 19 Dec. 63 (see appendix 7), Grant had even more time than that. I quote:
"Thus we passed the night [of 24 Nov.], heavy details being kept busy at work on the intrenchments on the hill [Billy the Goat]. During the night the sky cleared away bright and a cold frost filled the air, and our camp fires revealed to the enemy and to our friends in Chattanooga our position on Missionary Ridge [Is this a concealed rebuke to Grant and/or Thomas for not having warned him?]."
How had Sherman made such an error? In the middle of Nov. he briefly came to Chattanooga to confer with Grant. He writes in his Memoirs that he (together with Grant), on the morning of 15 Nov., walked to Ft. Wood to inspect the northern end of the ridge (fn32). From that point the tunnel entrance is about 3 1/2 miles away and masked by a spur of the ridge. However, the dip in the ridge under which the tunnel is located - the second notch from the north - is perfectly visible with the naked eye from today’s Ft. Wood Historical District. The next afternoon he rode along the north bank of the Tennessee to again inspect the northern end of the ridge. He writes (fn33):
“In company with Generals Thomas, W.F. Smith, Brannan, and others, we [i.e. Sherman and Grant] crossed by the flying bridge, rode back of the hills some four miles, left our horses and got on a hill overlooking the whole ground about the mouth of the Chickamauga River, and across to the Missionary Hills near the tunnel.”
This is the same hill which Thomas and Baldy Smith had visited on 7 Nov. and from which they could see the Confederate campfires on the ridge. This point is about 4 miles from the tunnel mouth and is probably today’s River Hills or "Continental" Hill, from either of which you can also see the two notches (or depressions if you will) mentioned above.
In Sherman’s defense it must be noted that from both vantage points the two notches could be considered mere undulations in the ridge contour, and that the tunnel mouth itself is rendered invisible from the one direction by a spur from the ridge, and from the other direction by the least amount of vegetation surrounding the tunnel. It is very difficult to ascertain today how much vegetation had been left standing by the Confederates. Much (but by no means all of it) had been removed for creating fields of fire, for firewood, and for creating primitive housing erected on the flats just to the west of the ridge.
It has been objected that today’s observer is already informed about the depth of the cuts delineating what today is called Tunnel Hill or Sherman Reservation, and is therefore at an advantage over Sherman. Against this I oppose the observation that looking at passes through a telescope and judging the actual terrain was part of Sherman’s business, because passes, even small ones, were supremely important in those times, given the almost entire dependence on horses to draw heavier equipment such as cannon. In mountainous terrain passes were the surest ways to either outflank the enemy or to be outflanked by the enemy.
Regardless of whatever Sherman actually saw or thought he saw on these two occasions, either nobody pointed out to him the actual distance from the first rise of the ridge (Billygoat Hill) to the tunnel (under the 2nd notch), or Sherman was told and wasn’t listening. I conclude that Sherman was told, but blinded by the foretaste of certain victory, was too exalted to worry about such details,
but the reader is free to draw another conclusion if he or she finds one to suit.
There is another possibility: In the bustle of working all night and much of the following day while moving 30,000 or so soldiers across a river and then 3 miles inland, Sherman simply became confused during the day on 24 Nov. and perhaps became totally flustered on the evening of 24 Nov. when he discovered he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. So he perhaps lied in his report to Grant that evening and really put his mentor and protector in an embarrassing position. I leave it up to the reader to imagine how Grant felt about being put in a spot like that (fn34).
In his battle report Sherman afterward stated that the northern end of the ridge appeared to be “continuous” and vaguely cited “wrongly laid down maps”. Thomas was, however, famous for his maps which his secret service topography engineers produced. I cite here Baldy Smith, Thomas’s chief engineer, concerning the map-work carried out before the battle (fn35):
“I forward with this a map large enough to show the strategic movements made before the battle, and also a map giving the battlefield. These maps are mainly due to the exertions of Captain West, U.S. Coast Survey, of my staff, and to the labors of Captains Dorr and Donn, of the same Department, who have been ordered to report to me by Professor Bache, Superintendent U.S. Coast Survey…By them the distances were determined before the battle [italics mine] for the use of artillery, and also the heights of artillery positions occupied by us and the enemy.”
In other words, the map Grant submitted along with his battle report had been made before the battle. The referral here is to a contour map prepared by C.S. Mergell which is now part of the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records (fn36). This is thus also the map which Grant apparently had before the battle which indeed lacks “names of roads, spurs of the mountains, and other places”, and upon which the principal troop dispositions were superimposed after the battle (with the interesting omission of Hooker at Rossville Gap). The lower left hand corner of this map is devoted to naming the manifold map studies (plane table surveys, compass surveys, and reconnaissance surveys) undertaken by scores of scouts under the supervision of at least 10 officers between major and lieutenant) which were used to prepare this map now in the Atlas. I refer here to a footnote which illustrates how one such scout and topographical engineer, Ambrose Bierce, in Hazen’s command (under Thomas) worked (fn37). In short, in Thomas’s headquarters before the battle of Chattanooga there was a mass of map materials which prove conclusively that the entire area was perfectly known to the topographical engineers in Thomas’s command.
In another of Grant's enigmatic orders (the one of 7 Nov. instructing Thomas to attack the northern end of the ridge the next day, before either Sherman or Hooker had arrived), Grant himself reveals that he knew that Thomas was very well informed about the area in question when he writes: "You having been over this country and having had a better opportunity of studying it than myself, the details are left to you." What kept Grant so busy that he didn't have time for such "details"?
In any case, the map Grant had in his possession before the battle is in all probability also Sherman’s “wrongly laid-down” one. If the reader will consult the Atlas to the Official Records, he or she will see that it clearly and scientifically indicates the contours of the ridge, the principle elevations thereof, and the course of the two railroads along with the position of the railroad tunnel named as the objective in Sherman’s orders. Two more maps, one from 1863 and another from 1896 (but based on the maps made before the battle) indicate the extent of the mapping of the area. They both clearly show the major elevations which confronted Sherman. In addition, the second 1896 map shows the unit dispositions of both armies, and it can be acquired by contacting the NPS bookstore at Chickamauga. These maps prove that this area was anything but virgin territory to the topographical engineers of the day.
The map Grant submitted with his battle report of 23 Dec. indeed lacks the “names of roads, spurs of the mountains, and other places”, but it does have the names and locations of the houses of 8 private citizens clustered around the northern end of the ridge, indicating intensive scouting efforts in that area preparatory to Sherman's effort there. The mapmakers' scouts had probably been there to talk to these people.
In addition, there is anecdotal information (from Henry Boyd, native and lifelong resident of Chattanooga and student of its history), according to which the area benefited from some unusual scouting operations. Namely the house owned by Mrs. Magill located on Shallow Ford Road east of the ridge and indicated on all period maps of this area, was a brothel frequented by both Confederate and Union officers during the siege of Chattanooga. Apparently the informal truce established between the two sides shortly after the Union army dug in at Chattanooga extended further than is commonly supposed.
If Grant’s map was indeed Sherman’s “wrongly laid-down map”, then Sherman had the means to be sufficiently informed in order be able to orient himself among the elevations and cuts of the northern end of the ridge. If he had a different map, then all he had to do was include it in his battle report, but he didn’t. I quote from Sherman's report of 19 Dec. 63 in order to name the only map he did include, i.e. a map his staff officer prepared after the battle:
"Inclosed you will please find a map of that part of the battle-field of Chattanooga fought on by the troops under my command, surveyed and drawn by Captain Jenney, of my staff."
As I have proposed above, the best explanation for Sherman's disorientation is that he was distracted, overconfident, and then simply confused under the pressure of a battle situation, and his mention of defective maps fits in with his behavior in other embarrassing situations during his military career. In other words, he lied.
Could Thomas and/or his staff have done even more to make sure that Sherman was completely informed about the terrain between the river bank and his stated objective? Or did Thomas and his staff simply shrug their shoulders in the face of such massive (and previously demonstrated) incompetence, knowing that they would be able to salvage the situation anyway? Perhaps. The following quote illustrates Thomas’s basic estimation of his situation before the battle of Chattanooga: “We greatly outnumber Bragg’s army and, if in our attack we can bring the crushing weight of our full force to bear, we are sure to win” (fn38). As McKinney writes: “From this point on [23 Nov.], by luck and foresight, Thomas saturated the Battles for Chattanooga with his military talent” (fn39). In short, Thomas was able to compensate for whatever shortcomings the Grant and Sherman team brought to Chattanooga, and he knew it.
Should Thomas and/or his staff have done more? That is debatable, especially in light of the subsequent falsification of the course of the battle which we find in Grant’s and Sherman’s battle reports. Cozzens writes: ”Only minutes after Thomas’s troops crowned Missionary Ridge, [Grant] began rewriting history” (fn40).
In my opinion, the most likely explanation of Grant’s oblique remark in his battle report of 23 Dec. 63 about “not being provided with a map giving names of roads, spurs of the mountains, and other places” is that he was trying to lend cautious support in his inimitable way to Sherman’s canard about the “wrongly laid-down” maps, hoping that subsequent historians and readers would not take the trouble to follow this paper trail and discover the probable identity of the two maps. Note again that this order of 18 Nov., which Grant quotes in his battle report, is not otherwise present in the Official Records of the Civil War. It is only present in the OR's only as part of Grant's report of 23 Dec. (OR 31/2,55, p 31). This author therefore suspects that the actual order of 18 Nov., as Grant quotes it, was either verbal, or if it was issued in writing on or about the 18th, the wording was different from that of the one in the report. In order to hide this discrepancy, the actual order (if it existed) could have been removed from the Official Records as were others, such as several of the communications between Grant and Sherman on 24 and 25 Nov. 63 (fn31). The reader, again, remains free to propose his or her own explanation for these goings on.
By the way, the 1896 Map of the Battlefields of Chattanooga and Wauhatchie prepared under the direction of the then secretary of war Daniel Lamont (during the presidency of the democrat Grover Cleveland) gives a much clearer and more accurate disposition of the troops than the Atlas map and In order to see what this map looks like, click here.
In the light of such easily available information, the statements of some authors such as Brooks Simpson “Ulysses S. Grant, 1822-1865” can only surprise the discerning reader. I quote from p. 239: “Before long there was bad news, Sherman sent word that in fact he had not taken Tunnel Hill - a deep ravine just north of that location, which had escaped Union observation [italics mine], served to give the Confederates an ideal defensive position.” As the preceding exposition makes clear, the entire area was completely mapped by Union topographers. The statement that the ravine served to give an “ideal defensive position” can only be the result of lack of careful reading about Cleburne’s conduct of the defense and ignorance about the terrain in question. Cleburne in fact set up his defensive line at least 500 yards south of the ravine and near the top of a gentle slope almost at the far end of Tunnel Hill. In general, Simpson’s treatment of the battle of Chattanooga betrays serious defects in interpretation of available sources.
Regardless of the availability of adequate maps to Sherman and Grant, the bulk of the evidence indicates some sort or breakdown in the cooperation between the staffs of Grant, Sherman, and Thomas which goes beyond Grant’s and Sherman’s notorious carelessness in such matters. At the very least we must conclude that the tensions between Grant and Thomas must have been higher than any historian I
have read has been willing to postulate. At any time the most detailed information Grant could desire was there in abundance in Thomas’s headquarters. All Grant and Sherman had to do was ask, if they dared or cared to. Were they too proud or too intimidated to ask?
It is important to grasp this question of maps because it concretely documents one way that Grant and Sherman manipulated the record in order to obscure the record of what went wrong for them on 24 and 25 Nov. 63. Once this is understood, then it is possible to then understand the often and variously described drama between the two generals Thomas and Grant which took place on Orchard Knob the afternoon of 25 Nov. 63.
Every author I have read who deals with the events on Orchard Knob on the afternoon of 25 Nov. tells the story differently with considerable variation. Some authors quote from the Grant order of the evening of 24 Nov. for Thomas to take the rifle pits and the ridge “directly in front of them”. I repeat, this order is not quoted in his battle report, although four other orders (plus one response and a communication from Bragg) are quoted verbatim. Of the two authors who have most recently written books devoted to this battle, Sword mentions the order of the 24th with no reference to the words “and ridge directly in front of them”. The other, Cozzens, states that Thomas "flouted" this order, and doesn't go into further discussion of the matter. Cozzens allows no connection between this order and that of the afternoon of 25 Nov. Cozzens roundly states that the version referred to in Grant’s battle report did not exist (fn18).
Thomas in his report only summarizes Grant’s order of 18 Nov. (without mention of date), and I quote here directly from Thomas’s battle report of 1 Dec. 1863:
“I was to co-operate with Sherman by concentrating my troops in Chattanooga Valley, on my left flank, leaving only the necessary force to defend the fortifications on the right and center, with a movable column of one division in readiness to move wherever ordered. This division was to show itself as threateningly as possible on the most practicable line for making an attack up the valley. I was then to effect a junction with Sherman, making my advance from the left, well toward the north end of Mission Ridge, and moving as near simultaneously with Sherman as possible.”
If Grant felt that it served his purpose to "quote" his order of 24 Nov. in his subsequent battle report, he would have. That he didn’t means that he couldn’t at the time, or that it, in his opinion, did not sufficiently support his argument. Therefore, Grant’s unsupported reference to such an order in his battle report can be discounted as irrelevant and/or mendacious.
For these reasons I will, in the following, accept Thomas’s, Buell’s, Cozzens’s and Sword’s (and others’), version of the limited advance order and proceed from the assumption that the basic plan outlined in Grant’s "formal" order of 18 Nov. was still standing the afternoon of 25 Nov. As far as the outline of the events that afternoon and the timetable of Grant’s enunciation of the order as it is most often reported is concerned, I have decided to follow Cozzens while referring to one of the most reliable contemporaries (Baldy Smith), and try to deduce the rest as much as possible from the battle reports of the major commanders at Chattanooga.
For the next part of this paper the reader should refer to appendix 1: “Comparative timetable of events on 25 Nov. 1863”.
When Grant started giving his order to Thomas at about 2:30 PM on 25 Nov., at first as a suggestion (fn41), he did not yet know that Sherman was not just repulsed. He could not have dreamed that Sherman had already given up without telling anyone and would in fact recall all of the advanced units at 4 PM (fn42). However, he must have known that, if
something wasn't done, Bragg was going to save his army, in effect pull out at least a draw with incalculable consequences for Lincoln's prosecution of the war, not to mention for Grant’s career.
The morning of 25 Nov. Hooker was impatient and requested orders at 9:20 (fn43). At around 9:30 AM, after the fog had cleared, he received via flag signal from Thomas on Orchard Knob the order to move to Rossville Gap (What had happened to the “telegraph” of the day before, also mentioned in Hooker’s report?). That his columns were already in motion by 10 AM indicates that they were in a state of readiness when the order was received. In fact, Hooker had been held back until that point by Grant who kept fine-tuning his plan of battle, first ordering a dawn demonstration toward the rifle pits and then canceling the order according to Sword (fn44), and it seems unlikely that Thomas could have been in favor of either the dawn attack or Hooker’s delay. The standard rate of march back then was 2 miles/hour. However, this standard should not apply here, since this march was certainly forced. Since Hooker’s advance units had about 4 ½ miles to cover before arriving at Chattanooga Creek, is safe to assume that his advance units reached it around noon. The creek was flooded and unfordable. The night before Stevenson, during his retreat from Lookout Mountain to a position next to Cleburne on Tunnel Hill, had burned the bridge. According to Hooker’s report, Osterhaus’s division crossed immediately on the first “stringers” laid of the new bridge. Cozzens writes of a “footbridge” (fn45). While the bridge was being rebuilt Osterhaus covered the 3 additional miles to Rossville and cleared away Clayton’s brigade, thus securing Rossville Gap. He then took some of his forces around the rear of Missionary Ridge along what today is Seminole Dr., and he met no opposition, reaching eventually a point almost directly behind Bragg’s headquarters at around 4:30 PM (fn46) where he was able to capture 2000 Confederates during the general retreat. (See Sherman’s report: “My Osterhaus division did Hooker’s best work.”). Meanwhile the rest of Hooker’s troops were brought across gradually, and finally the artillery crossed the completed bridge as soon as it could bear the weight. Without artillery it would have been folly to commit his entire force against the unknown disposition of Stewart’s troops on Bragg’s left flank (fn47). At some point Geary began attacking Stewart at the western face of the ridge, and Cruft directly attacked the remains of Clayton’s brigade on the ridge. The unit tablets on Missionary Ridge tell the basic story. Two Hooker unit tablets report being “there” (well up on the ridge) at 5 PM. There is no tablet for Osterhaus on Seminole Dr. behind Bragg Reservation. The Stewart’s Division’s tablet at a point .4 of a mile south of Bragg’s headquarters states the following:
“In the afternoon of the Nov. 25th its position was attacked on the left and left rear by Hooker’s command, and in front by the divisions of R.W. Johnson and Sheridan. Being thus compelled to yield position the division retreated toward Ringold.”
According to Thomas’s report Hooker effected the crossing “after 2 p.m.” According to Grant’s report Hooker was delayed “for four hours”. There is a difference here of more than 1 ½ hours, a period which is crucial if the subsequent events at the center of Missionary Ridge are to be understood. For the above named reasons I choose Thomas as the more reliable source.
For a summary of Hooker’s contribution to these events I quote here again from Thomas’s battle report:
“In moving upon Rossville, General Hooker encountered Stewart's division and other troops. Finding his left flank threatened, Stewart attempted to escape by retreating toward Graysville, but some of his force, finding their retreat threatened from that quarter, retired in disorder toward their right, along the crest of the ridge, when they were met by another portion of General Hooker's command, and were driven by these troops in the face of Johnson's division of Palmer's corps, by whom they were nearly all made prisoners.”
The conclusion is inescapable that Grant ordered a limited demonstration with Thomas's men against the center because he hoped only to save the situation for Sherman, regardless of the cost to the army of the Cumberland. Much light would be shed on Grant’s thinking that afternoon if the records of his official correspondence were complete, but they are not. Several key exchanges of the 24th and 25th between Grant and Sherman are missing from the official records (fn31), which leads to further speculation about the possibility that they were suppressed. Someone who is willing to suppress records is also willing to add to them.
There is a further possibility which offers itself if we confront the events on Orchard Knob with my reconstructed time table of Hooker's progress, between which we can see a very close correspondence. If you consider that Hooker's and Stewart’s artillery made noise (fn48), if you consider that Grant repeatedly mentions the noise of Hooker’s battle the day before (only to go strangely silent on the matter in his treatment of the following day), and if you consider that Thomas was in communication with Lookout Mountain (the ultimate observation tower) through signal flag (fn49), and that Thomas states in his official report that on 24 Nov. Hooker had "reported by telegraph" to him, then it is reasonable to assume that both Thomas and Grant were informed of how close Hooker was getting to Stewart. Indeed, Thomas was well-known for his uncanny ability to judge the progress of a battle by sound alone, even when the battle was taking place out of his sight (fn50). Coincidence or not, it is a fact that, the closer Hooker got, the more Grant displayed his concern for Sherman.
Was Grant then willing to sacrifice a good portion of Thomas's army in order to keep the “dangerous” (fn51) Hooker from getting credit for winning the battle?
I am, by the way, willing to listen to other explanations of Grant's behavior, except that he was "foolish" or "hadn't thought the order through". Grant was not foolish, and he had hours and hours to mull the order over before Thomas finally let his troops move forward. Besides, if Grant was foolish, he had no business being there anyway.
A final extant communication from Grant to Sherman on the evening of 25 Nov., not reported by Grant but by the chief signal officer Capt. Ocran Howard reveals Grant’s fidelity until the very end to his original plan (fn52). It also makes a fitting postscript to this battle:
"SHERMAN: Thomas has carried the hill and lot in his immediate front. Now is your time to attack with vigor. Do so. GRANT."
The battle is already over and is as decided as it’s going to be, and Grant makes one last stab at salvaging something for Sherman whose troops are already bivouacking for the night. Sherman’s reply to this message is not recorded (fn53).
Essentially, Thomas's charge up the middle was a well-timed and glorious mopping up operation, and nothing could have pleased Thomas better. That it didn't please Grant is attested to by numerous eye-witness accounts of Grant's anger or even cursing rage as Thomas's troops exceeded his orders (fn19). He didn't need a success on Thomas's part, and he really didn't want Hooker
to get any credit. So, after the battle, Grant did the next best thing by rewriting history in both his official report and later in his Memoirs. He redefined Sherman's attack as a successful holding operation, turned Thomas's attack into a miracle (fn54) which he had ordered anyway (but hadn't), and had Hooker disappear into the black hole of Rossville (fn55).
The machine Grant later helped create was in place for decades and in the position to induce the general public to buy this legend (fn56). A large part of the interested public today, including many professional scholars (fn57), still buys at least a portion this legend. However, we don't have to, especially if we let Grant speak for himself who, according to Hooker (true, not the most disinterested of witnesses), said right after the battle: "Damn the battle. I had nothing to do with it" (fn58). Has a nice ring to it, anyway.
As far as the unfortunate Bragg is concerned, the intrigues of Polk, Breckinridge, Hardee, Cheatham, and Longstreet, with Davis's benign connivance, had much reduced the effectiveness of the Army of Tennessee by the time the battle took place. Longstreet's 18,000 men were sorely missed after Longstreet succeeded in getting Davis to order him to Knoxville (in which Bragg all too willingly acquiesced), but Longstreet himself was not missed in Chattanooga by his colleagues, as he through insubordination and indifference had literally thrown away Lookout Valley and thus undermined Bragg's entire left flank. By the way, at Knoxville Burnside (no fool) paid Longstreet back handsomely for Fredericksburg.
When on 23 Nov. (after Thomas's "exploratory" move forward expanded the Federal perimeter to include Orchard Knob) Bragg realized that his position on Missionary Ridge perhaps was not impregnable, he appointed Breckinridge of all people to oversee the work of fortification. An engineer by the name of Captain Green started that very evening in the dark with very few tools and worked all the next day, but, regardless of what all the authors say about this battle, Missionary Ridge has very little military crest with which Captain Green could work, not even with more time allotted to him. In many places it is about 20 yards wide, and much of its western face drops off almost vertically, only to be then divided into innumerable spurs. Cannon could not be decisive up there against a rush, even with elaborate emplacements for them. Instead, Bragg needed men to flesh out the line and to constitute a reserve (fn59), but, with Longstreet's men gone, he could do neither. In addition, Bragg’s men were split between the flats and the crest which impeded the defenders on top of the ridge when the assault started. In any case, he would have been wiser to retreat on the 24th (fn60), and when he didn't, his own troops took matters into their own hands and decided to save their army if Bragg wouldn't.
This brings me back to my point of departure - listening years ago in Bragg Reservation to the quote from Bragg's report about the “shameful conduct” of his veteran troops. That day I sensed that both they and Bragg had seen the "masses of troops" moving toward their hanging left flank and/or the road back home. All including Bragg (regardless of what he wrote in his battle report for consumption in Richmond) knew whither the masses of troops were headed. The trap was closing in on them, and Bragg didn’t have the courage to order retreat. He had collapsed under the weight of his responsibility. Today, after years of reading and reflection, I feel that the knowable facts support my first and intuitive assessment of this battle.
I conclude here with Lincoln’s own assessment of Thomas after the battle of Chickamauga in reply to slanderous comments from “a citizen of New York”:
“It is doubtful whether his heroism and skill exhibited last Sunday afternoon, has ever been surpassed in the world” (fn61). At Chattanooga Thomas surpassed himself, as the above article has attempted to demonstrate.
Acknowledgment and thanks to:
- Jim Ogden of the National Park Service at the Chickamauga Battle Park visitors’ center for providing essential pieces of evidence and documentation;
- Carrington Montague, Mel Young, and Henry Boyd of the “Friends of the Park” in Chattanooga for critically reviewing the rough draft of this paper;
- “Shotgun” for making key battle reports so readily available.
- The staff of the Newnan-Coweta Public Library for invaluable assistance in procuring research material.
2. According to Bragg’s report the forces which he first supposed to be moving “to our front” were then reported “far to our left” near the route “open to our rear”. In my opinion the first indication that Hooker was moving “to our front” was for Richmond’s consumption, to avoid the embarrassing question of why Bragg didn’t order a retreat as soon as he saw Hooker start across the valley.
Still [Lincoln] was not yet ready to bring Grant in from West. One reason was that the general was beginning to be talked about as a possible presidential candidate in 1864. He was a favorite of the influential New York Tribune, and, since his political views were unknown, he was wooed by both Democrats and Republicans. With General McClellan conspicuously courting the
Democrats, Lincoln was not about to appoint another general-in-chief who had political aspirations. Washburne referred him to J. Russell Jones, a close friend of Grant and his investment adviser, who brought to the White House Grant’s letter pledging that nothing could persuade him to be a candidate for President, particularly since there was the possibility of reelecting Lincoln. “You will never
know how gratifying that is to me,” the President said after reading the letter. “No man knows, when that presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it; and I didn’t know but what there was one gnawing at Grant” (p. 490-91)
And again after the convention (p. 525):
After Lincoln’s nomination, there was still a movement afoot to replace him. Dissidents wanted to call a new convention. “Inevitably reports of these plans reached Lincoln’s ears. He was neither surprised nor worried by most of the schemes to replace him as the nominee of the Republican party, but he was alarmed when he heard that the dissidents were thinking about running Grant. He did not think the general had political aspirations but, concluding that he ought to sound him out again, he asked Colonel John Eaton, who had worked closely with Grant in caring for the freedmen in the Mississippi Valley, to go to the Army of the Potomac and ascertain his views. At City Point, Eaton told Grant that many people thought he ought to run for President, not as a party man but as a citizens’ candidate, in order to save the Union….Grant replied: 'They can’t compel me to do it!…My only desire will be, as it has been, to whip out rebellion in the shortest way possible, and to retain as high a position in the army afterwards as the Administration then in power may think me suitable for.' When Eaton reported the conversation to the President, his relief was obvious. “I told you,” he said, “they could not get him to run until he had closed out the rebellion.”
Robert Leckie, “None Died In Vain” (Harper Perennial 1990), concerning Lincoln's initial inquiry, wrote: "Lincoln was now satisfied, although the phrase 'Administration then in power' suggested to him that the simple soldier from the West might not be as artless as he seemed…” (p. 573).
5. Ambrose Bierce, “A Little of Chickamauga”, Works 1, p. 271-272
7. Grant’s “Memoirs”, p. 196
O.R.--SERIES III--VOL II [S# 123] CORRESPONDENCE, REPORTS, ORDERS, etc., FROM APRIL 1 TO DEC. 31, 1862.(*)--#28
Consider also Francis McKinney’s assessment (“Education in Violence”, p. 274): “The reasons for Thomas’ aloofness have never been revealed. Personal relations between the two had been strained during the Corinth campaign and seemed to have worsened since. Thomas’ feeling was so marked that it was adopted by his staffs the model for their official relations with Grant’s headquarters. As a
result, transactions between the two chiefs-of-staff deteriorated in several instances to personal rudeness. Friendly cooperation between the staffs was never established.”
7.5. In this I go only a little bit further than Governor Brownlow who, upon presenting Thomas a gold medal offered him by the Tennessee legislature on the 2nd anniversery of the battle of Nashville said: "General, in no spirit of flattery, I must be permitted to say, that in the great struggle of four years, which recently convulsed the Nation, of all military commanders, you are perhaps the only one that never lost a battle, and in the government of armies and departments never made a mistake." T. van Horne, "Life of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas", p. 416
8. “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War”, W.F. Smith’s Comments on General Grant’s “Chattanoga” vol. 3, p. 714
10. Many authors retell the anecdote originating from James H. Wilson (Grant’s then inspector general) that Thomas snubbed Grant at his arrival in Chattanooga after a difficult trip over Walden’s Ridge. Instead of immediately offering Grant dry clothes, Thomas let Grant sit for a while in front of the fire while a puddle formed underneath him from his wet clothes. For some Grant apologists this incident was the basis for all of Grant’s future persecution of Thomas.
11. Horace Porter, "Campaigning with Grant", pp. 3-5
13. In fact a flanking movement around the northern end of the ridge was made, but not by any troops under Sherman, but rather by Wilder’s cavalry under Thomas. In his order of 18 Nov. to Sherman (quoted in Grant’s battle report) there is a cryptic mention of a brigade of cavalrymen which was to be “thrown across the Tennessee above Chickamauga and may be able to make the trip to Cleveland [halfway between Chattanooga and Knoxville] or thereabouts.” McKinney on p. 292 mentions “Thomas’ cavalry which was wrecking Bragg’s communications further off to the north and east.” I find this further corroborated in Sam Watkins “C. Aytch”, p. 100 . Watkins and Sgt. Tucker were on picket duty opposite the mouth of N. Chickamauga Creek. A Yankee waded over to swap “a few lies, canteens, and tobacco”. “That man was General Wilder, commanding the Federal Cavalry, and at the battle of Missionary Ridge he threw his whole division of cavalry across the Tennessee River at that point, thus flanking Bragg’s army, and opening the battle. He was examining the ford, and the swapping business was but a mere by-play. He played it sharp, and Bragg had to get further.” Although this story is apocryphal (since Wilder was on sick leave from the army at the time because of typhoid), it is still worth retelling.
15. McKinney, 295
18. Cozzens, p. 391:
19. The question of the extent of Grant’s surprise, dismay, anger, or rage as the 4th and 14th corps continued up the ridge after taking the rifle pits would alone be the topic of a scholarly article. Suffice it to mention here that many eyewitnesses give testimony that Grant definitely did not want Thomas’s men to make that charge. I mention here Fullerton (B & L, vol. 3, p. 725), Charles Brigham of the New York Tribune (Hirshson, p. 174), and Thomas Wood (“The battle of Missionary Ridge”, p. 42) whom I quote here: “This statement of General Grant is absolutely refuted by the anger displayed by him (which display was witnessed by many living men, and has been publicly attested by several responsible witnesses) when he saw my division commence the assault of Missionary Ridge, accompanied by the breathing out of threatenings and slaughter, against myself especially if the assault failed…If General Grant intended the assault of the crest of the Ridge to follow immediately on the heels of the initial success, he certainly kept that intention to himself.”
20. For ex.: Broadfoot’s supplements to the Official Records, Vol. 6, p. 129, report of Capt. W.B. Scott:
21. Walter H. Hebert "Fighting Joe Hooker", p. 297
23. O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXXI/2 [S# 55] NOVEMBER 23-27, 1863.--The Chattanooga-Ringgold Campaign.
25. Cozzens, p. 247 (based upon OR 31, pt. 2, 68, 116 and accounts by Wilson, High, Fullerton, and Roper)
31. Sword, p. 201:
34. O.R.-- SERIES I--VOL. XXXI/2 [S# 55] NOV. 23-27, 1863.--The Chattanooga-Ringgold Campaign. No. 4. --:
35. OR, Series I-volume 31, part II-reports, p. 75. In addition Gen. O.O.Howard has this to say in a report about the railroads as he found them in his sector: "From the map it will be noticed that the Atlanta railroad, passing south of Fort Wood, runs northeast nearly parallel with the river. The East Tennessee railroad, passing north of Fort Wood, crosses the other before entering the tunnel through Mission Ridge. My line cut both these roads, and its left rested just across the Citico on the river." (O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXXI/2 [S# 55], p 348)
37. Ambrose Bierce, “George Thurston”, Stories, 369
39. McKinney, pp. 274-5
40. Cozzens, p. 392. See also W.F. Smith’s assessment of Grant’s treatment 20 years later of the battle and Thomas in “Battles & Leaders”, vol. 3, p. 715
43. O.R.-- SERIES I--VOL. XXXI/2 [S# 55] NOV. 23-27, 1863.--The Chattanooga-Ringgold Campaign.No. 9.--:
47. It is a matter of record what happened when Hooker attempted to rush Ringgold Gap on 27 Nov. while his artillery was still behind the burned bridge over Chickamauga Creek. Hooker certainly should have used more caution here, but he was under pressure to pursue a beaten enemy. When Sheridan sent his men into a trap in the darkness of the evening of 25 Nov. he was praised
for his aggressiveness and was later promoted and, later still, allowed to try his hand at pursuing trapped Indian families. Consider here Dana’s treatment of the Ringgold Gap affair (O.R.-- SERIES I--VOL. XXXI/2 [S# 55]NOV. 23-27, 1863):
48. O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXIX/2 [S# 49]: “CHATTANOOGA, November 25, 1863--1 p.m.
49. O.R.-- SERIES I--VOL. XXXI/2 [S# 55]NOV. 23-27, 1863.--The Chattanooga-Ringgold Campaign. No. 9.--:
50. McKinney, p. 100
51. Grant’s “Memoirs”, p. 581-582:
54. Grant in his after battle report of 23 Dec. 1963 describes the unfathomable in this fashion: “I can account for this only on the theory that the enemy’s surprise at the audacity of such a charge caused confusion and purposeless aiming of their pieces.” Grant could leave it up to Dana and others to expressly use the word “miracle”.
55. The very OR Atlas map (mentioned above) which Grant attached to his battle report tells the entire story. The credits to the mapmakers in the bottom right hand corner, surrounded by a large white area, cover the battlefield almost up to Rossville. Grant doesn’t place a single Hooker unit at the southern end of Missionary Ridge.
56. McKinney, p. 304:
57. Shelby Foote gives us a perfect example of this on page 850 of vol. 2 of his book "The Civil War, a Narrative" where he relates that Hooker was "delayed some four hours" at Chattanooga Creek, thus demonstrating "Fighting Joe's ineptness". Sound familiar?
62. Cozzens, p. 210:
As Sherman himself said this same morning (fn62): “Time is everything!”
Hooker signals readiness
Thomas nudges Grant about Hooker (speculation)
Stevenson’s troops from Lookout Mountain march all night long north on ridge, tell their story en route
Hooker receives order
Thomas sends Hooker order to move via flagmen
Stevenson’s troops begin to take position next to Cleburne
Hooker’s troops move, advance units already in valley
Corse starts frontal attacks against Swett’s battery on Tunnel Hill
Bragg reports Hooker’s movement across valley.
Loomis starts attack toward tunnel
Bragg receives report of activity at Chattanooga Creek. Hooker sends Osterhaus accross on first “stringers”.
Bushbeck joins Loomis
Hooker announces he needs one more hour to complete bridge. Osterhaus secures Rossville Gap
Riflefire heard as Osterhaus attacks Rossville Gap. This is also heard up on the ridge.
Mathies attacks Tunnel Hill from west.
Hooker’s cannons cross Chattanooga creek and begin firing. Osterhaus secures Rossville Gap
Grant returns, sees Sherman’s troops fleeing from Tunnel Hill. Cannon fire from south audible. Grant suggests that Thomas move troops forward to the rifle pits and stop
Sherman’s final attack against Cleburne is repulsed, Cleburne counter-attacks, takes prisoners. Sherman calls it quits, does not tell Grant.
Cruft and Hooker drive Clayton. Osterhaus moves along rear of ridge without opposition. Impossible that Stewart is unaware of this movement.
Sound of battle from Hooker’s direction intensifies. Grant sharply issues his verbal order for Thomas’s men to move to the rifle pits and stop.
Geary moves against Stewart from southwest. Osterhaus continues north toward center, still no opposition.
Battle noise moves further north. Grant again issues the verbal order for Thomas’ men to move to the rifle pits and stop.
Panicked troops from Clayton and Stewart units flee towards center and down eastern side of ridge.
The 6 cannon fire in successions to initiate the advance of Thomas’s 4th and 14th corps toward the ridge.
Cruft and Hooker drive Stewart, Johnson advances up ridge from west.
4th and 14th corps engage Confederates in rifle pits. Some continue up ridge, rest follows, Grant rages. Panic intensifies in Bragg’s center.
Osterhaus nears Crutchfield Rd. behind Bragg’s headquarters
Willich’s division breaks through at Sharp’s spur.
Stewart’s division collapses. Osterhaus takes 2000 prisoners.
Sherman apprised by Grant that Thomas has “carried the hill”: “Now is your time to attack…”. Sherman’s reply to Grant missing in records.
Osterhaus meets Johnson’s troops on top of ridge.
Johnson’s troops almost shoot Osterhaus.
Hooker bivouacs on ridge, troops celebrate.
Sheridan gets some men killed pursuing in darkness.
Cleburne forms rear guard, Sherman does not pursue.
Twenty questions about the battle of Chattanooga (basis for thesis above)
1) Fact: The morning of the 25th there was communication between Thomas on Orchard Knob and signalmen on Lookout Mountain because this was how Thomas sent his orders to Hooker at about 9:30 once the fog had lifted. Is it possible that these signalmen, who were in a perfect position to observe Hooker's movements across the valley, did not keep Thomas informed of Hooker's further progress that day? Is it possible that Grant, no more than 20 yards away from Thomas the afternoon of the 25th (Orchard Knob wouldn't permit a greater distance), was not also so informed?
2) Fact: Thomas in his official report of the battle states that on 24 Nov. Hooker "reported by telegraph" that he had defeated the Confederate defenders at Craven's house on Lookout Mountain. Hooker's battle report also mentions telegraph communications. Who cut the telegraph wire on the 25th?
3) Fact: Hooker was known to be extraordinarily ambitious. He was especially motivated to wipe out the stain of Chancerllorsville. What then held Hooker back at the foot of Lookout Mountain the morning of 25 Nov. until 10 AM?
4) Fact: Stewart's artillery started firing at Hooker sometime around 1 PM. Hooker got his artillery across Chattanooga Creek around 2 PM and started using it then (at the very latest) against Stewart. Is it possible that Thomas and Grant, Bragg and Breckinridge, Confederate grunt up on the ridge and Union grunt down on the flats didn't hear this cannonfire and the other attendant racket?
5) Facts: the western face of the ridge was mostly cleared for field of fire, the upper Chattanooga valley was a mixture of cultivated fields and forest, and there were no leaves on the hardwood trees. Bragg reports that he saw at about 11 AM "masses of troops coming from Lookout" and heading "toward his front”. Could the Confederate grunts up on the ridge not also see Hooker proceeding unopposed across the valley toward their road back home?
6) Fact as reported by Sword: August Willich, a German born and Prussian trained general officer of Wood's division situated right in front of Orchard Knob, stated afterward that he had understood that, according to his orders, he was to "advance" after reaching the rifle pits. Is it likely that such a person would have misconstrued the order as issued by Grant? Did he then receive a different order, and if so, from whom and through whom?
7) Fact as reported by Cozzens: After Grant's second verbal order to Thomas to have his men move to the rifle pits and stop, Thomas and Gordon Granger (the man who had saved Thomas at Chickamauga) conferred alone for a few minutes, whereupon Granger "went off". What did Thomas say to Granger?
8) Fact as reported by Cozzens: After Grant's second order to take the rifle pits, still nothing happened, whereupon Grant ordered the movement a third time, and the machinery started into motion. Where did Granger go and to whom did he talk between Grant's 2nd and 3rd enunciations of the order?
9) Fact: Grant's order for Thomas to have his men "demonstrate" toward the rifle pits and stop would have, if rigidly adhered to, exposed these troops to grave danger because of the plunging fire. Was Thomas the sort of man to not intervene in some way in order to mitigate the effect of such an order?
10) Fact: Many writers call this order on the part of Grant "foolish" or "ill-considered" or even "quixotic". Was not Grant anything but foolish, and did he not normally reflect on his orders, and isn't the word quixotic an unusual term to describe the behavior of the mature general Grant?
11) Observation: There is an amazing congruity between the chronology of Hooker's progress against the Confederate left flank and the chronology of Grant's repeated ordering of Thomas to move against the rifle pits AND STOP. Is this a coincidence?
12) Fact: According to Sword, some of the official communications of the afternoon of 25 Nov. between Grant and Sherman are missing from the Official Records. Is it possible they were removed, and if so, by whom?
13) Fact as reported by many of the officers of Stewart's Divisions' battle reports (Broadfoot's Supplements to the OR) show that the Confederate retreat began first in his division under the attack from Hooker, before Tucker gave way in the center. Why does Grant state in his battle report, and then again in his Memoirs, that Hooker was held up for four hours at Chattanooga Creek and did not meet the expectations placed in him?
14) Fact: From any elevated point within the former Federal perimeter, one can clearly see the two notches (through which pass today Campbell St. and Lightfoot Mill Road) delineating the northern and southern limits of Tunnel Hill. Why couldn't Sherman, who in his “Memoirs” reports having gone to Ft. Wood, see this?
15) Fact: From various points along Hixon Pike on the northern bank of the Tennessee, you can see the the depressions marking the limits of Tunnel Hill. On 7 Nov. from a hill in that area opposite the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek (probably today's River Hills) Baldy Smith and Thomas did see the campfires on Missionary Ridge. What did Sherman see the afternoon of 16 Nov. when he made his reconnaissance outing to this same spot?
16) Fact: Sherman cited "wrongly laid-down maps" which led him to think that Billygoat Hill was Tunnel Hill. Did such defective maps exist, and, if so, to what extent were they defective? Why did Sherman not include the defective maps in his battle report?
17) Fact: Thomas had the most extensive “secret service” of any army of the war. Many specialists were employed in this service, including professional topographical engineers who provided information for Thomas's famous topographical books. What were these engineers doing during the 2 months between the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga?
18) Fact: Grant in his orders to Thomas of 18 Nov. complains obliquely about "not being provided with a map giving names of roads, spurs of the mountains, and other places". Why would Grant, after having spent 3 weeks at Chattanooga, admit to any discerning reader of his order that he couldn't get the information he wanted from Thomas? Was he, in fact hinting at something else?
19) Fact according to Baldy Smith, Thomas's chief engineer: There were scientifically prepared and accurate survey maps of the area in Thomas's HQ. Why didn't Grant ask for a more detailed map if he wanted one, and if he did ask, why didn't he get one? Why would he begin a battle without one?
20) Observation: Grant's behavior in Chattanooga was inconsistent with the common description of him as being modest and unassuming. His subsequent battle report was inconsistent with the common description of him as being honest. Was not Grant as ambitious and occasionally as unscrupulous as many another top commander in this and any other war?
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