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.
Longstreet Departs for Knoxville
On November 4, 1863, Bragg detached 15,000 soldiers from his army and sent them to East Tennessee under the command of Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet’s task was to dislodge Major General Ambrose Burnside and the Union Army of the Ohio from Knoxville and prevent him from reinforcing Grant at Chattanooga. Longstreet’s departure weakened Bragg’s forces investing Chattanooga.
Grant Plans to Take the Offensive
Following the opening of the Cracker Line, Grant began planning an assault on the Confederate forces. He intended to wait until Sherman’s men reached Chattanooga. Sherman’s men began arriving on November 20, but most of his force showed up later. On November 23, rumors circulated through Northern lines that the Confederate forces were retreating. Grant ordered General Thomas to reconnoiter the center of the Confederate line at the base of Missionary Ridge to determine Bragg’s intentions.
Battle of Orchard Knob
Early in the afternoon, 14,000 Northern forces under Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood easily overpowered the 634 Confederates at the Battle of Orchard Knob. Initially, Grant had directed the men to return to Northern lines, but upon seeing the ease the Union men had in securing the position, he ordered his soldiers to hold the position and to entrench.
Lookout Moutain — the Battle Above the Clouds
Union forces continued their assault on the Confederate position the next day. On November 24, General Hooker’s men attacked Confederate forces on Lookout Mountain, on the Southerners’ left flank. By mid-afternoon, the Union assault had stalled, primarily because a dense fog enveloped the mountain. The thick fog prompted soldiers later to nickname the Battle of Lookout Mountain as the Battle Above the Clouds. Although Hooker’s men did not take the mountain, he correctly predicted that Southern forces would withdraw from the mountain that night.
Battle of Missionary Ridge
On November 25, Grant ordered a general assault on Missionary Ridge. Still stinging from their defeat at Chickamauga, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland routed the center of the Confederate line forcing Bragg to withdraw his army south into Georgia. Grant ordered Hooker to pursue the fleeing Confederates with 12,000 Union soldiers.
Clash at Ringgold Gap
Bragg reassembled his retreating army at Dalton, Georgia, about thirty miles south of Chattanooga. To do so, he needed to stall Hooker long enough to get his artillery and supply wagons out of harm’s way. Bragg designated Major General Patrick Cleburne’s division as his rearguard.
Near midnight on November 26 Bragg ordered Cleburne to deploy his division at a narrow railroad cut in the mountains near the town of Ringgold, Georgia, north of Dalton. Bragg instructed Cleburne “to hold this position at all hazards, and keep back the enemy until the artillery and transportation of the army are secure.”
Early the next morning, Cleburne did a masterful job positioning his troops to defend Ringgold Gap. With only two canons and 4,100 troops at his disposal, Cleburne ordered his men to wait until Hooker’s soldiers were almost upon them before firing their weapons. As the leading elements of Hooker’s force neared the gap, the Confederates unleashed a withering volley that sent the unsuspecting Yankees reeling back.
Unable to use his superior numbers against the defenders in the narrow gap, Hooker resorted to trying to outflank the Confederates, but Union assaults on each Confederate flank failed. Around noon, Cleburne ordered his men to retreat after receiving word that all of Bragg’s stores had safely reached Dalton.
Outcome of the Battle
By 2 p.m. the Federals occupied Ringgold, but at a high cost. Hooker reported casualties of 432 men (killed, wounded, captured/missing) compared with Confederate losses of 480. Eyewitnesses to the battle, however, claimed that Union losses were much higher than Hooker reported. Even Grant noted a clear discrepancy at the bottom of his official battle report.
Regardless of the accuracy of the casualty reports, Cleburne successfully delayed Hooker’s advance for over five hours, allowing Bragg’s army to reassemble. After the Battle of Ringgold Gap, Grant ended the pursuit. Both armies went into winter quarters, bringing the Chattanooga Campaign to an end.