Thursday, September 1, 2016

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

Most people with a basic knowledge of the Civil War are most familiar with the eastern theater -- famous battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Bull Run.  The western theater by contrast is much less well known, except for the fall of Vicksburg, along the Mississippi River.  Just as in our history books, during the war itself, the South also placed much less emphasis on the western theater than the eastern theater, in terms of the generals, units, and resources they sent there.  And, perhaps, that ultimately led to their final undoing in the months following the devastating defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863.

In September of 1863, always afraid his army was out-manned and out-gunned, Confederate General Braxton Bragg began retreating through Tennessee.  After stopping briefly in Chattanooga, only to be out-flanked by the larger Union army, Bragg begins retreating again into northern Georgia.  Union General William Rosecrans believes that Bragg would continue to retreat and spreads his army to maneuver Bragg's army by force.  Instead, for the first time in 6 months, Bragg finally decides to make a stand around Chickamauga Creek.

This time Rosecrans gets spooked and makes plans to pull his army back north to the safety of Chattanooga by conducting a series of leapfrog maneuvers with different parts alternately defending against the Confederates and then maneuvering north.  In the confusion of the battle, Rosecrans believes his left flank needs reinforcement against Confederate strikes and mistakenly moves part of his army from the middle to reinforce his flank.  That opens up a hole in the middle of his line right at the time the Confederates charge that part of the line.  Seeing their good fortune, the Confederates charge through the gaping hole near the Brotherton farm cabin, abandoned the day before when the Union troops arrived.

The Brotherton Cabin.  Confederate troops exploited the inadvertent gap in the Union line flanking Union troops from left to right in this picture.
Despite repeated Confederate assaults along the Union line, the Union army tenaciously holds on, refusing to cede control of the field.  As darkness falls, however, the Union troops withdraw back to Chattanooga.  There, just a few miles up the road, the story continues...

The Union army dug in at Chattanooga.  This time, the Confederates have the advantage, setting up a siege line around the city, anchored at the Tennessee River on both sides of the city with strong positions on Lookout Mountain and east onto Missionary Ridge.  Angry at the embarrassing loss at Chickamauga and the choking siege in Chattanooga, Lincoln fires Rosecrans and brings Grant east to take control.

Grant made quick work.  He broke the Confederate line at the Tennessee River on the west side by silently crossing the Tennessee at night, right under the noses of the sleepy Confederate pickets guarding it, and opening a supply line to the west.  Right on the heels of that, he orders Gen Sherman to attack the Confederate right flank with Gen Thomas and Gen Hooker making a noisy demonstration on the Confederate center and left.  Gen Hooker finds that Lookout Mountain has been abandoned and continues charging up the ridge as the Confederates retreat up and over Missionary Ridge just to the east, reinforcing to counter Sherman's attack on their right.  Sherman attacks piecemeal, squandering his advantage, and the Confederates hold off the assault at Missionary Ridge, but Gen Bragg once again gets cold feet and once again retreats back down through Georgia, leaving the high ground and the vital Tennessee River and railways to the Union army.

The battlefield on Lookout Mountain bears little resemblance today to how it must have looked in late 1863.  Rather it affords a spectacular view of the Confederate position as they besieged the Union army down in the city. 

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River from the Edge of Lookout Mountain
While taking in the view, imagine being a Confederate on the line here with the commanding view over the Union army holed up down below.  Imagine cannon behind you, ready to fire at the first massed movement, slowly choking out the Union army.  Then turn east and south, imagining giving up this perfect position because the General feared being overrun and began retreating back to where you had just whupped some Union bootie, leaving your army nothing to show for it.  Thus, Chattanooga was really another defining moment.  By this point in the war, the Confederates were truly whipped in the west and on their heels fighting a defensive war in the east.  It was only a matter of time...

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