Prelude to the Battle
Rosecrans Moves Toward Chattanooga
On December 26, 1862, Major General William S. Rosecrans led the Union Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville, Tennessee with orders to capture Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga was an important railroad junction that connected the upper Confederacy with the Deep South. Between Rosecrans and Chattanooga was Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg and his Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Bragg Abandons Chattanooga
The two armies clashed in a series of battles over the next nine months and Confederates consistently retreated south. On September 9, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga and led the Army of Tennessee through the mountains into northern Georgia.
Bragg Stuns Rosecrans at Chickamauga
Although Rosecrans achieved his goal of capturing Chattanooga, he pursued Bragg’s army into Georgia. Stung by criticism that he received for abandoning Chattanooga, Bragg counterattacked at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863).
Bragg Invests Chattanooga
The victorious Confederates drove the Federals back toward Chattanooga, forcing them to occupy the defensive works previously constructed by the Confederates. Bragg seized the high ground overlooking Chattanooga (Lookout Mountain, Seminary Ridge, and Raccoon Mountain) and laid siege to the city.
Changes in Federal Leadership
Reacting to the Army of the Cumberland’s dire situation, Northern authorities sent 20,000 soldiers commanded by General Joseph Hooker, and 16,000 men led by Major General William T. Sherman to help lift the siege. Officials placed General Ulysses S. Grant in command of all Northern soldiers near Chattanooga and also replaced Rosecrans with General George Thomas as the commander of the Army of the Cumberland.
As reinforcements arrived in late October 1863, Grant launched an operation to ease the Army of the Cumberland’s supply problems. By October 28, Grant’s men opened a narrow supply line known as the “Cracker Line” and provisions started flowing into Chattanooga.
Clash at Orchard Knob
On November 22, Grant received reports that Bragg was withdrawing from the Chattanooga area, possibly headed for Knoxville. The next day, Grant ordered Thomas to undertake a reconnaissance operation to determine Bragg’s intentions.
Thomas deployed two divisions commanded by Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood and Brigadier General William T. Sherman to complete the operation. Around noon, about 14,000 Union soldiers moved out of the federal lines in front of Chattanooga and assembled as if preparing for a review. Sherman’s division was on the right and Wood’s division was on the left. The assembly took place in front of a small knoll about 100 feet high, known as Orchard Knob. About 634 Confederates from two regiments of Brigadier General Arthur Manigault’s Brigade (28th Alabama and 24th Alabama) defended the hill.
At about 1:30 p.m., Union buglers sounded the “Forward” command and about 14,000 troops sprang forward at the double-quick time. The stunned Confederate defenders unleashed only one volley before being overrun. The few Confederates who were not killed or captured fell back to the base of Missionary Ridge. A little before 3 o’clock, Wood informed Thomas: “I have taken the first line of the enemy’s entrenchments.”
Outcome of the Battle
Although Grant’s orders had called for Wood to return to the original federal lines after his reconnaissance, Thomas responded, “Hold on; don’t come back; you have got too much; intrench [sic] your position.” Wood followed his new orders and two days later Grant moved out of Chattanooga and established his headquarters at Orchard Hill for the rest of the breakout operation.
Union casualties at the Battle of Orchard Knob were roughly 1,100 (killed, wounded, and missing/captured). The Confederacy suffered about 600 casualties.