150 Years Ago This Week: The battle above the clouds

November, 1863

On Saturday, Nov. 21, Maj. Gen. William Sherman moved up his Union troops and crossed the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry before marching to the right flank of Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. His objective was to recross the Tennessee and attack the Confederates at the north end of Missionary Ridge.

Maj. Gen. George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland in the environs of Chattanooga, received orders to attack the Confederates at the center of Missionary Ridge; Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s orders were to take his Union troops and attack the Confederates through Chattanooga Valley and strike the left flank of the Army of Tennessee.

Heavy fog made the Battle of Lookout Mountain a tough fight.Courtesy photo
Heavy fog made the Battle of Lookout Mountain a tough fight.

Troop movements on this Saturday, however, were delayed by heavy rains. There was fighting in Virginia as an expedition of Union troops moved through Fauquier County from the railroad at Bealeton Station to Thoroughfare Gap. In Washington, President Lincoln, weary from his travels to Gettysburg, Pa., was in bed with varioloid, a mild form of smallpox.

The next day, the unsuspecting Gen. Bragg, unaware of the Union troop movements against him, detached Maj. Gen. Simon B. Buckner’s divisions and sent them to reinforce Lt. Gen. Longstreet’s corps besieging Knoxville. Gen. Ulysses Grant countermanded his orders to Maj. Gen. Thomas, and ordered Gen. Thomas to move his troops on Nov. 23 to strike the Confederates on his front facing Missionary Ridge. The battle for Chattanooga was about to begin.

On the coast of Texas, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks moved his troops against Confederates occupying Fort Esperanza and Matagorda Island. By the end of the month, Gen. Banks’ troops occupied the fort, the island and the surrounding area.

At the Confederate-held eminent position near Chattanooga dubbed Orchard Knob, Maj. Gen. George Thomas moved forward two divisions under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood. In the opening of the two-day Battle of Chattanooga, the Federals drove out the Confederates with few casualties.

At the same time, Gen. Sherman sent a brigade across the Tennessee River near South Chickamauga Creek to establish and erect a bridge. The next day, Nov. 24, three Union divisions under Gen. Hooker crossed Lookout Creek in the morning and began the difficult climb up Lookout Mountain.

At Cravens’ Farm, located on a “bench” on the side of the mountain, the Union troops encountered serious Confederate resistance. Fighting was difficult due to heavy bands of fog, and the engagement became known as the “Battle Above the Clouds.” By the end of the day, the Union troops occupied Lookout Mountain, having driven off the Confederate defenders.

Losses on both sides were slight, but the fighting cleared the way for the major drive to get the Confederates off Missionary Ridge. At the north end of Missionary Ridge, Gen. Sherman discovered that a wide ravine separated his troops from the main part of Missionary Ridge and Tunnel Hill, site of an important railway tunnel.

On Nov. 25, Gen. Grant ordered Gen. Sherman to send his troops against Tunnel Hill and the north end of Missionary Ridge. Gen. Hooker was ordered to move from Lookout Mountain and cut off the possible route of Confederate retreat into Georgia. Gen. Thomas and his troops were ordered to move into the center after Gen. Sherman’s men reached the ridge. Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s Confederates stubbornly resisted and heavy fighting ensued. Four Union divisions made an incredible charge up the 400 feet of rock and brush-encrusted incline. Confederates on top of the ridge were hampered in shooting down the hillsides for fear of hitting their own troops fighting below.

Heavy fighting continued along the fronts all day long, and Gen. Bragg finally ordered his army to retreat south to Chickamauga Creek at nightfall. Though badly defeated, Gen. Bragg had rescued most of his army, and Chattanooga and all the surrounding area were now firmly in Union hands. Casualties numbered 5,824 killed, wounded or missing, while Confederates sustained losses of 6,667, with most of them captured as prisoners. Union troops had some 56,000 engaged, while Confederates sent forth a force of about 46,000.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.