back to basics
- Dear fellow WT enthusiasts,
Forgive the following horrendously long posting. It's a repeat of my early
posting of my "theses" which I have brought up to date after the recent
exchanges here. If you already know what I think or aren't interested, then
read no further. At least it's not in latin.
A New View of the Battle for Chattanooga
There are two reasons for devoting special attention to the battle of
1) It is 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 micro-management (to borrow Stephen Starr's
felicitous term) of the battle, Sherman was later able to bag Atlanta in
the nick of 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 about 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 trying to get him to run for president in 1864. Grant obviously
was too smart to cave in immediately to these blandishments, 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
completely immune and was at least as interested in furthering his own
career as he was in achieving the primary military objective. When politics
("For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and
every vile practice. James 3:16) enter into a battle in a big way, purely
military considerations are bound to suffer. Grant knew what his prospects
were if he played his cards right, maintained his facade of modesty, didn't
get too impatient, and held on to his luck, and he planned his strategy
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 EVER 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. 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 exceedingly well 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 political pressure), dispersed his forces,
and stumbled into a battle before he had got set.
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's method would work given a preponderance of force, but the human
cost would be very high. Moreover, Grant's record up to that point did not
really bear close scrutiny. Nobody knew this better than Grant did.
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 his troops". He had no potential usefulness
to 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
Before I begin discussing this confrontation I want to discuss 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 best chance
of promotion because of Virginia's decade 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. This disadvantage, of
course was completely reversed with the start of the war, but that does not
mean that old resentments were forgotten. Then, after the battle of Shiloh,
Halleck arrived on the scene. He apparently disapproved of the way Grant
had handled the battle, so he made Grant a supernumerary second in command,
placed his troops under Thomas, and spent most of his time at Thomas's
headquarters during the slow march to Corinth. Shortly thereafter, Thomas
requested that Grant's troops be returned to him, perhaps adding only fuel
to the fire. Finally, every one of Grant's victories up until his arrival
at Chattanooga had drawn much criticism, much of it justified. Knowing this
as well as anyone, Grant faced Thomas whose record of success to that point
had been an astounding 100 %. 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. 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. 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 all anecdotes about Grant's first
arrival at Chattanooga, Thomas let him know he wasn't particularly welcome.
Another factor was the freshness of Grant's promotion to commander of the
department of the Mississippi. Grant was on his way east to deal with the
Lee problem on which many a good man before him had bitten out his teeth.
If Grant were to stumble in his new assignment, the only possible choice to
succeed him would have been Thomas. To fatten his account for emergencies,
Grant needed a certain kind of victory in Chattenooga. I sustain that
Grant, as a part of his political contingency planning, came to Chattanooga
expressly to head Thomas off at the pass. However, it was, politically at
least, "nolo contendere" because Thomas was one of those rare top
commanders who focused more on the military objective than his personal
Grant needed to not just win at Chattanooga (in order to affirm his recent
promotion), but to win in certain way by stacking the deck so that the
fairly pliant Sherman would get the starring role and Grant the credit, and
Thomas wouldn't. Grant's plan was to give Sherman the bulk of the troops
and have Thomas and Hooker do no more than demonstrate and cooperate with
Sherman once Sherman had crushed Bragg's northern flank. In fact, on 25
Nov. Sherman had, according to Baldy Smith, "six perfectly appointed
divisions" (3 of his own plus 3 borrowed from Thomas and Hooker), whereas
Thomas had 4 and Hooker 2 1/2. Sherman obviously expected an easy triumph,
but he had yet to meet in battle an all-rounder like Cleburne who, unlike
Johnston, would also attack. He was not just halted by Cleburne with less
than a quarter of his forces, he was thrown back. A lot of his men were
even captured in a counter-attack and went to Andersonville. Sherman's
attack was, as Cozzens writes, "one of the sorriest episodes in a war full
of sorry episodes".
Things were really desperate at 2:30 PM on 25 Nov. for both Grant and
Thomas. 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, then Thomas's troops would be ground up, and
Bragg would be able to claim not just a draw, but a victory. So Grant
started ordering Thomas to move his 4 divisions forward to the base of the
ridge and then stop, ostensibly to induce Bragg to cease reinforcing
Cleburne, just a demonstration please. This order has been called many
things, the word "foolish" being often used because the Union soldiers
would have been exposed to galling fire from above and unable to defend
Most of the books say that Thomas's men , at the last possible minute, then
saved the day by disregarding their "foolish" order and taking matters into
their own hands in a uniquely successful charge up the center of
impregnable Missionary Ridge while Hooker was "finally" threatening Bragg's
southern flank. A miracle (in other words, a one-time fluke) had occurred.
Aside from common sense, two considerations speak against this neat
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 attack. This, in turn, threw demoralized troops toward
the center which facilitated the breakthrough in the center.
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. Did Thomas intervene here to make sure
that someone would take the initiative and move out of the rifle pits? Or
did he trust to fate and his insistent training of the troops? At the
moment we can only speculate.
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. On the
afternoon of 25 Nov. Thomas then repeatedly STALLED Grant's murderous
limited demonstration order. Thomas had to impede the order from being
carried out until Hooker had engaged Stewart, thus reducing the risk to his
precious Army of the Cumberland.
That Grant had reason to be nervous about Sherman well before 2:30 PM on 25
Nov. was obvious to all observers on Orchard Knob. Sherman's troops had
started crossing the Tennessee at around 2 AM on 24. Nov. By dawn about
8000 troops were already on the south bank. Nine hours later Sherman, after
having moved forward 1 1/2 miles and encountered no more than skirmishers,
entrenched on Billygoat Hill. He then reported to Grant that he had reached
the tunnel, the objective stated in his orders. However, Sherman was in
error. The tunnel was still 2 long miles away, and the people on Orchard
Knob could see that Sherman couldn't be at the tunnel. That night Cleburne
was moved in to fill a void on Tunnel Hill. It must have been a long night
for Grant too, plenty of time for him to formulate a contingency plan.
How had Sherman made such an error? In the middle of Nov. he briefly came
to Chattanooga to confer with Grant. On 15 Nov. he writes in his Memoirs
that he walked to Ft. Wood to inspect the northern end of the ridge. From
that point the tunnel entrance is about 5 miles away and masked by a spur
of the ridge. However, the notch in the ridge under which the tunnel is
located - the second notch from the north - is perfectly visible. On 16
Nov. he rode along the north bank of the Tennessee to a point opposite S.
Chickamauga Creek and climbed a hill with Baldy Smith who had been there
with Thomas on 7 Nov. This point is about 4 1/2 miles from the tunnel mouth
which was visible from there. On these two occasions either nobody pointed
out the actual distance from the first rise of the ridge (Billygoat Hill)
to the tunnel (under the 2nd notch), or Sherman wasn't listening or
looking. Sherman afterward cited "wrongly laid down maps" which he surely
would have added to his battle report if he could have produced them.
Thomas's was, however, famous for his maps which his secret service
topography engineers (among them Ambrose Bierce) produced. Sherman must not
have had one of Thomas's maps, and neither did Grant (footnote here Grant's
battle report)! This indicates a breakdown in the cooperation between the
staffs of Grant, Sherman, and Thomas which goes beyond Grant's and
Sherman's carelessness in such matters. Departing from this forced
conclusion, we must further conclude that the tensions between Grant and
Thomas must have been much higher than any historian I have read has been
willing to postulate. This forms the background of the often and variously
described drama between the two generals which took place on Orchard Knob
the afternoon of 25 Nov.
When Grant started giving his order to Thomas at about 2:30 PM on 25 Nov.
he did not yet know that Sherman was not just repulsed. He could not have
dreamed that Sherman had already quit without telling anyone. However, he
must 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
precision of the sequence of events which followed speaks for Thomas's
inspired management in the face of Grant's interference.
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 "orphan" 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 afternoon of the 25th between Grant and
Sherman are missing from the official records which leads to further
speculation about the possibility that they were suppressed.
There is a further possibility which offers itself if we confront the
events on Orchard Knob with a reconstructed time table of Hooker's
progress, between which we can see a very close correspondence. If you
consider that Hooker's artillery made noise, and if you consider that
Thomas was in communication with Lookout Mountain (the ultimate observation
tower) through signal flag, 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. The closer Hooker got, the more Grant
worried about Sherman.
Was Grant then willing to sacrifice a good portion of Thomas's army in
order to keep 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.
In any case, Thomas's charge up the middle was essentially 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 rage as Thomas's troops exceeded his
orders. He didn't need a success on Thomas's part, and he really didn't
want the "dangerous" 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 which he had
ordered anyway (but hadn't), and had Hooker disappear into the black hole
of Rossville. The machine Grant later helped create was in place for
decades and in the position to induce the general public to buy this
legend. A large part of the interested public today, including many
professional scholars, still buys this legend. 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 after the battle: "Damn the battle.
I had nothing to do with it." 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. When on the 23rd of Nov. (after Thomas's
"exploratory" move forward expanded the Federal perimeter to include
Orchard Knob) it dawned on Bragg that his position on Missionary Ridge
perhaps wasn't quite so impregnable as it might look, 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. 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, 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, and when he didn't, his own troops took
matters into their own hands and decided to save their army if Bragg
This brings me back to my point of departure - listening in Bragg
Reservation to the quote from Bragg's report about the unexplainable
behavior of his veteran troops. That day I sensed that both they and Bragg
had seen the "masses of troops" moving toward 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.
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. 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 halfway up on Lookout Mountain the morning of 25 Nov.
until 10 AM?
4) Fact: Hooker had artillery with him and used it against Stewart starting
sometime between 3 and 4 PM on 25 Nov. 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
5) Facts: the western face of the ridge was 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 grunt up on the ridge not also see Hooker
proceeding unopposed across the valley toward his 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 resident historian Jim Ogden of the Chickmauga NPS:
Stewart's Divisions' battle reports 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 (formed by 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
15) Fact: from Hickson Pike on the northern bank of the Tennessee, you can
see the western portal of the railroad tunnel and, on 7 Nov. on a hill in
that area opposite the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek, Baldy Smith and
Thomas did see the campfires on Missionary Ridge. What did Sherman see on
16 Nov. when he made his reconnaissance outing to this same spot?
16) Fact: Sherman cited "wrongly laid out 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?
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?
19) Fact according to resident historian Jim Ogden of the NPS at
Chickamauga: There was an accurate geodesic survey map of the area in
Thomas's HQ. Why didn't Grant or Sherman ask for a detailed map, and if
they did ask, why didn't they get one? Why would they begin a battle
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?