American Civil War: 1863
|American Civil War: 1863|
|Date Begun||April 12, 1861|
|Date Ended||April 9, 1865|
Died from other: 417,000
|United States (Union)|
|Secretary of State||William Seward|
|Secretary of War||Edwin M. Stanton|
|Secretary of the Navy||Gideon Welles|
|Confederate States (Confederacy)|
|Secretary of State||Judah P. Benjamin|
|Secretary of War||James A. Seddon|
|Secretary of the Navy||Stephan R. Mallory|
At the beginning of 1863, the Confederacy seemed to have a fair chance of ultimate success on the battlefield. During this year, however, three great campaigns would shape the outcome of the war in favor of the North. The first would see the final solution to the control of the Mississippi River. A second, concurrent with the first, would break the back of any Confederate hopes for success by invasion of the North and recognition abroad. The third, slow and uncertain in its first phases, would result eventually in Union control of the strategic gateway to the South Atlantic region of the Confederacy—the last great stronghold of secession and the area in which the aims of military operations were as much focused on destroying the economic infrastructure of the South as defeating main-force rebel units.
For the social, political, economic and diplomatic history see American Civil War homefront
- 1 Eastern Theater
- 2 A second invasion north
- 3 Battle of Gettysburg
- 4 Western Theater
- 5 Articles in the series
- 6 Links
The course of the war in the east in 1863 was dramatic and, in many ways, decisive. After the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac went into winter quarters on the north bank of the Rappahannock, while the main body of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia held Fredericksburg and guarded the railway line to Richmond. During January of the new year, Burnside’s subordinates intrigued against him and went out of channels to present their grievances to Congress and President Abraham Lincoln. When Burnside heard of this development, he asked that either he or most of the subordinate general officers be removed. The President, not pleased with either Burnside’s string of failures or his ultimatum, accepted the first alternative and on January 25, 1863, replaced Burnside with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. He was highly favored in Washington, but in appointing him the President wrote a letter that went right to the point:
- Major General Hooker:
- I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside's command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it's ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.
- And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.
- Yours very truly
- A. Lincoln 
Under Hooker’s able administration, discipline and training improved. Morale, which had fallen after the Fredericksburg debacle, rose as Hooker regularized the furlough system and improved the flow of rations and other supplies to his front-line troops. Abolishing Burnside’s grand divisions, Hooker returned to the previous corps organization of seven corps, each numbering about 15,000 men. One of Hooker’s most effective innovations was the introduction of corps badges to provide a sense of identity in a unit and improve esprit de corps. He also took a long step toward improving the army’s cavalry arm, which up to this time had been assigned many diverse duties and was split up into small detachments. Hooker regarded cavalry as a combat arm of full stature, and he concentrated his units into a cavalry corps of three divisions under Brig. Gen. George Stoneman. On the other hand, Hooker made a costly mistake in decentralizing tactical and administrative control of his artillery to his corps commanders. This may have improved tactical usage of artillery, but it prevented the focusing of massive amounts of artillery on a single front. As a result the artillery, in which the Union had a distinct advantage in numbers, would not be properly massed in the coming action at Chancellorsville and thus was not as effective as it could have been.
Hooker had no intention of repeating Burnside’s tragic frontal assault at Fredericksburg. With a strength approaching 134,000 men, Hooker planned a bold double envelopment that would place strong Union forces on each of Lee’s flanks. He hoped to take advantage of his superior numbers to outmaneuver Lee. He ordered three of his infantry corps to move secretly west up the Rappahannock and Rapidan and to ford the streams to outflank Lee to the north. Meanwhile, two more corps, having conspicuously remained opposite Fredericksburg, were to strike across the old battlefield there to tie down Lee’s forces. Two more corps were held in reserve. The cavalry corps, less one division that was to screen the move upriver, was to raid far behind Lee’s rear to divert him.
Hooker’s plan was superb, his execution faulty. The three corps moved quickly up the river and by the end of April had crossed and advanced to the principal road junction of Chancellorsville. They were now in the so-called Wilderness, a low, flat, confusing area of scrub timber and narrow dirt roads in which movement and visibility were extremely limited. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on the twenty-ninth, and the two remaining corps moved to within supporting distance of Hooker at Chancellorsville. So far everything had gone according to plan, except that Stoneman’s diversion had failed to bother Lee. One of Brig. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart’s brigades kept Stoneman under surveillance while the main body of cavalry shadowed Hooker so effectively that the Southern commander knew every move the Union Army made. By the morning of April 30, Lee was aware of what was afoot and knew that he was threatened by double envelopment. Early on May 1, Hooker was sending his columns east, toward the back door to Fredericksburg. A less bold and resolute man than Lee would have retreated south at once and with such ample justification that only the captious would have found fault. But the Southern general, his army numbering only 60,000, decided to take a bold risk. Using the principles of the offensive, maneuver, economy of force, and surprise to compensate for his inferior numbers, he decided to attack an enemy almost twice his size. Instead of retreating, he left a small part of his army to hold the heights at Fredericksburg and started west for Chancellorsville with the main body. Lee’s superb intelligence and reconnaissance, based largely on his expert cavalry force, provided him with accurate and timely intelligence so Hooker’s every move was known to him while his own plans were hidden from Hooker.
Then Hooker lost his nerve. Since he did not know exactly where Lee was, he began taking counsel of his fears and failed to follow his own plan. Over the vehement protests of his corps commanders, he ordered the troops back into defensive positions around Chancellorsville, surrendering the initiative to Lee. The Federals established a line in the forest, felled trees for an abatis, and constructed earth-and-log breastworks. Their position faced generally east and south, anchored on the Rappahannock on the east; but in the west along the Orange turnpike, it was weak, unsupported, and hanging in the air. Lee brought his main body up and on May 1 made contact with Hooker’s strong left. At the same time, Stuart’s cavalry discovered Hooker’s vulnerable right flank and promptly reported the intelligence to Lee. Conferring that night with Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson, Lee made a truly daring decision. Facing an army much greater than his own, having already divided his forces by leaving some units back at Fredericksburg, he decided to divide his forces again to further envelop the envelopers. Accordingly, Lee committed 17,000 men against Hooker’s left to hold it in place while Jackson with 26,000 men made a wide, fifteen-mile swing to get beyond Hooker’s right flank. Lee’s decision was technically a violation of the principles of mass and concentration; but the principles are guides, not laws. A bold commander can knowingly undertake a higher measure of calculated risk if the potential reward is high enough. And Lee was probably the boldest risk taker of the war. In addition, while Lee’s two forces were separated, their common objective was the Army of the Potomac and their ultimate routes converged on a common center.
Jackson’s force, in a ten-mile-long column, moved out before daybreak on May 2, marching southwest first then swinging northwest to get into position. The Federals noted that something was happening off to the south but were unable to penetrate the defensive screen; Hooker soon began to think that Lee was actually retreating. In the late afternoon Jackson turned onto the Orange turnpike beyond Wilderness Tavern. This move put him west of Hooker’s right flank; since the woods thinned out a little at this point, it was possible to form a line of battle. Because time was running short and the hour was late, Jackson deployed in column of divisions, each division formed with brigades abreast, the same kind of confusing formation General Albert S. Johnston had used at Shiloh. Shortly after 5:00 P.M. Jackson’s leading division, shrieking the "rebel yell" and driving startled rabbits and deer before it, came charging out of the woods, rolling up the different brigades of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps. Despite a few heroic attempts to stand in the face of the rebel onslaught, the Union troops retreated in disarray. Jackson pressed forward, but fresh Union troops, the disorganization of his own men, and oncoming darkness stymied the attack. While searching for a road that would permit him to cut off Hooker from United States Ford across the Rappahannock, Jackson fell victim to friendly fire. During the night of May 2, Stuart, Jackson’s temporary successor as corps commander, re-formed his lines. Against Stuart’s right Hooker launched local counterattacks that at first gained some success, but the next morning he withdrew his whole line. Once more Hooker yielded the initiative at a moment when he had a strong force between Lee’s two divided and weaker forces.
Stuart renewed the attack during the morning as Hooker pulled his line back. To complicate matters further, Hooker was knocked unconscious when a shell struck the pillar of the Chancellor House against which he was leaning. Until the end of the battle he was dazed and incapable of exercising effective command, but he did not relinquish it nor would the army’s medical director declare him unfit. Union artillery, centrally located but not centrally controlled, might have proven decisive at this point of the battle; but its fires were not coordinated. Meanwhile Sedgwick, who shortly after Jackson’s attack had received orders to proceed through Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, had assaulted Marye’s Heights. He carried it about noon on May 3, but the next day Lee once more divided his command, leaving Stuart with 25,000 to guard Hooker, and moved himself with 21,000 to thwart Sedgwick. In a sharp action at Salem Church, Lee forced the Federals off the road and northward over the Rappahannock at Banks’ Ford. Lee made ready for a full-scale assault against the Army of the Potomac, now huddled with its back against the river on May 6; but Hooker ordered retirement to the north bank before the attack. Confederate losses were 13,000, Federal losses 17,000. Lee’s brilliant and daring maneuvers had defeated only one man — Hooker — and in no other action of the war did moral superiority of one general over the other stand out so clearly as a decisive factor in battle.
Stonewall Jackson was taken to a small cabin at Guinea Station, Virginia, where his left arm was amputated. He seemed to recuperate, and progress was sent to General Lee, who replied that while "Jackson has lost his left arm, I have lost my right arm." But pneumonia had set in, and on May 10 he was dead. Some said that his last words conjured up memories of his boyhood home, pleasant images of Jackson's Mill. "Come, let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."
A second invasion north
Indecision seemed to strike General Hooker again. He waited for nearly a week before ordering his troops to break camp and then marched cautiously northward, keeping his army between Washington and the suspected Confederate route of march. By this time, Lee's troops had already defeated a Union force at Winchester, Virginia, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.
General Lee was not ready to sit idle and wait for the next Union thrust after Chancellorsville. He had communicated with Richmond for several months on his desire to make another invasion of the North and by late May saw an opportunity to take the initiative while Union forces appeared to be in disarray. Lee's objectives were quite simple: take the war out of Virginia so that the land could recover, a necessary measure to provide relief to farms and farmland devastated by battle and foraging armies, and to gather supplies for his hungry army. His army's movement north of the Potomac River would not only force the Union Army out of Virginia, but hopefully also draw Union troops away from the ongoing siege of Vicksburg. Once his army had raided northern territory, he could gather his troops for battle in an area to his liking where advantages of position could force the Union to attack and Lee counterattack as opportunities were presented. Politically, Lee reasoned a conclusive victory on northern soil would add weight to the growing Northern peace movement, apply pressure to the Lincoln administration to end the war and sue for peace, and provide sufficient reason for official recognition of the Confederacy by European powers. Only the political diplomacy of the Lincoln administration had kept England and France from recognizing the southern government as an independent nation. Lee's argument was reasonable to Jefferson Davis and though the Confederate president was nervous about Richmond not being fully protected by Lee's forces, he approved the plan.
Despite the loss of Stonewall Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia was never stronger both in manpower and high morale than in the summer of 1863. "It was an army of veterans," recalled A.H. Belo, Colonel of the 55th North Carolina Infantry, "an army that had in two years' time made a record second to none for successful fighting and hard marching." In mid-June, Lee's soldiers crossed the Potomac River and stepped into a rich land barely touched by the war. Except for some persistent Union cavalry units, the southerners tramped along unopposed as militia units retreated from their path leaving the land and its residents to the mercy of the Confederates.
For Lee's men who had been living for months on reduced rations, Maryland and Pennsylvania were bursting with plenty. "I can hardly believe that a rebel army has actually left poor Virginia for a season," wrote Major Eugene Blackford of the 5th Alabama Infantry. "Of course there is no end of milk and butter which our soldiers enjoy hugely." Encounters with the civilian population of Maryland and Pennsylvania made for good subject matter in letters home such as that of Private William McClellan of the 9th Alabama Infantry, who described Pennsylvanians as, "the most ignorant beings of the world. They don't care how long the war lasts so they are not troubled." Like many of his comrades, McClellan especially detested the females who, "would not look at a Rebel, they would turn up their nose and toss their heads to one side as contemp(t)uously as if we were high way Robers."
"There's hardly any sickness or straggling in the army," added Private Eli Landers, 16th Georgia Infantry. "We have a large army now in Pennsylvania and it is good and in fine spirits. We intend to let the Yankey Nation feel the sting of the War as our borders has ever since the war began." Despite the feelings of retribution that Landers and his fellow soldiers had, on June 21, General Lee issued Order No. 72, which forbade the seizure or theft of private property. Federal property was another matter. Confederate quartermasters used their authority to seize Federal stores found in government warehouses, post offices, and railroad depots. Anything that was of use to the southern army was quickly inventoried and carried away, much to the dismay of Federal authorities. Quartermasters also purchased needed supplies from merchants and privately owned storehouses. Soldiers begged for food from civilians and were often rewarded by farmers too frightened to refuse the Confederate money handed them in payment. Apart from some minor infractions, the Confederates obeyed General Lee's order and respected civilian property.
Yet, northern store owners found themselves in a quandary when their shops were suddenly filled with armed men who helped themselves to boots and shoes before inspecting other goods the owner may have in stock. Cloth, hats, canned foods and other groceries were in high demand. Much to the storekeeper's dismay, the Confederates paid in southern script that was worthless above the Mason-Dixon Line. But most accepted the Confederate paper hoping that it could be eventually exchanged for Federal notes. Many more were careful to hide some of their inventory before the Confederates arrived or be strangely absent with shop doors bolted when the dusty column of Confederates entered a town whose civilian population was already on edge from rumors of rampant thievery and towns burned to the ground. Many of these wild rumors centered around the feared "Louisiana Tigers", rumored by many northeners to be the toughest southern soldiers and the most lawless. Such was the case when the first Confederate column, commanded by General Jubal Early entered Gettysburg, demanding supplies and money. "After matters had been satisfactorily arranged between our Burgess and the Rebel officers," recalled Fannie Buehler who resided on Baltimore Street, "the men settled down and the citizens soon learned that no demands were to be made upon them and that all property would be protected. Some horses were stolen, some cellars broken open and robbed, but so far as could be done, the officers controlled their men. The 'Louisiana Tigers' were left and kept outside of town."
This first encounter was not without a bloody mishap. A small squad from the 21st Pennsylvania Emergency Cavalry was chased out of town and Private George Sandoe was shot and killed, the first official casualty of the coming battle. Early did not tarry for long in Gettysburg, but moved on toward York and Columbia where he was stopped by Pennsylvania militia that burned the bridge over the Susquehanna River. Meanwhile other Confederate forces had occupied a large area of south central Pennsylvania and some had even closed on Harrisburg, threatening the state capitol.
The slow pursuit of Lee by the Army of the Potomac not only alarmed War Department officials but shocked governors of northern states who clamored for something to be done to stop the rebel invasion. Political pressure on the Lincoln administration added to the tug of war between General Hooker and the US War Department, which finally ended on June 28 as the Army of the Potomac concentrated at Frederick, Maryland. Completely frustrated by the mistrust and lack of support from War Department officials, Hooker requested to be relieved of command, which was quickly granted.
Major General George Gordon Meade was ordered to take command of the army. "I have been tried and condemned", the surprised general remarked after receiving word of his appointment. Using traces of information known on Lee's whereabouts and objectives, Meade decided to send the army north to feel for the enemy and draw Lee into battle on a defensive line he wanted to establish on Pipe Creek, Maryland. The very next day, the Army of the Potomac marched out of their camps to search for the Confederates in Pennsylvania.
On June 30, Confederate troops left their camps at Cashtown and marched toward Gettysburg in search of supplies. Upon reaching the edge of Gettysburg, scouts spied a column of Union cavalry south of town, closing fast. Under orders not to initiate a battle, the Confederates returned to Cashtown where they reported the encounter to their commander, Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill. Hill agreed to send two divisions of his corps toward Gettysburg the next day to investigate the arrival of the mystery cavalrymen and the stage was set.
The first day
The battle began early on the morning of July 1 when a Confederate column under General Henry Heth, marching east from Cashtown encountered Union pickets three miles west of Gettysburg. Opponents sparred over the gently rolling farmland west of Gettysburg, until the cavalrymen were forced back to McPherson's Ridge where Union infantry were just then arriving at 10 AM.
Some of Heth's Confederates reached McPherson's Ridge where they were hit by a vigorous Union infantry counterattack and forced back. North of the Chambersburg Pike, other Confederates were briefly victorious before they, too, were counterattacked, many being forced to surrender in the railroad cut. One of the first officers to fall was Major General John Fulton Reynolds, commander of the Union First Corps, instantly killed as he led his troops into the fray.
A brief noon-time lull gave commanders on both sides time to plan and augment their battle lines. Union troops manned a jagged line extending from the McPherson Farm northward along Seminary and Oak Ridge with troops of the Eleventh Army Corps, which had just arrived, were deployed north of Gettysburg on the grounds of the county Alms House. Confederate forces were arrayed against this line in heavier numbers, with more troops expected to arrive at any moment. The battle was renewed at 2 PM when Confederate forces attacked McPherson's Ridge and Oak Ridge. Union troops fought desperately, repulsing the attacks with heavy losses to both sides. General Lee arrived on the battlefield and though a battle had been initiated against his orders, he immediately saw an opportunity. Having already ordered his troops east of Gettysburg to concentrate near the town, Lee allowed the attack to continue knowing that the battered Union line would be pressured from three directions as soon as General Richard Ewell's Corps arrived from the direction of Dover, Pennsylvania.
After two hours of desperate fighting, it was apparent to General Abner Doubleday, commanding the First Corps after the death of Reynolds, that none of the ridges west of Gettysburg could be held and he ordered a fighting withdrawal to Seminary Ridge. North of Gettysburg, the Eleventh Corps was in a predicament with too few troops to defend a large area. Some Union regiments dissolved as Ewell's Confederates hit them from three directions at once while others valiantly fought back, losing scores in killed and wounded including General Francis Barlow being among the latter.
The Union line finally collapsed and thousands of Union soldiers pushed headlong through the streets, yards and alleys of Gettysburg, many taking refuge in outbuildings and churches already filled with the wounded and dying. Terrified citizens fled to their cellars while others risked their lives to help the injured. Those who could find their way to Cemetery Hill were met by Major General Winfield S. Hancock, sent to Gettysburg by General Meade, and reorganized into a line of defense from Cemetery Ridge to Culp's Hill. General Lee entered Gettysburg and located General Ewell who he requested him to continue his attack south of Gettysburg "if practicable". Unable to consolidate his forces before nightfall and with the threat of a large Union force on his left, Ewell deferred. The sounds of battle slowed to a murmur as night fell. Exhausted soldiers of both armies collapsed beside stone walls and fences, in fields and woods, and streets and alleys to wait for the fighting to resume on the morrow.
July 1 was a great victory for General Lee, but not a decisive one. Though the Union forces had been badly mauled, they had retreated to a strong position south of Gettysburg. General Meade arrived on the battlefield near midnight and after discussions with his corps commanders, decided to wait for the rest of his army to concentrate around Cemetery Hill. Come the morning, he would attack Lee or defend the prominent hills where his men now rested. Lee, meanwhile, seated in his headquarters tent on Seminary Ridge, pondered the growing strength of the Union position south of Gettysburg. If only he could hear from his cavalry chief J.E.B. Stuart and information he could provide about the remainder of the Union army.
The second day
Lee attacked late in the afternoon, striking both flanks of the Union position. The fighting raged until after nightfall. By the morning of July 2, the Union army had established strong positions along a giant U-shaped line from Culp's Hill to Cemetery Ridge. Satisfied with this position, General Meade decided to wait while the remainder of the Army of the Potomac hurried to the battlefield. From Seminary Ridge, General Lee studied the distant Union position. Though the Union right flank appeared to be a difficult position to attack, the left flank did not appear to be anchored on any significant feature. Simultaneous attacks on both the right and left flanks could roll up the Union line toward Cemetery Hill. Lee directed General A.P. Hill to continue to hold the Confederate center while General James Longstreet's Corps would attack the Union left and General Ewell's Corps would attack the right. Both had to strike at the same time to throw the Union off balance, not giving Meade time to shift troops to the threatened areas.
Situated on the left of the Union line was the Third Army Corps under the command of Major General Daniel E. Sickles, an audacious and sometimes belligerent commander. Unhappy with the location assigned him and finding that Confederates were massed on Seminary Ridge almost a mile in his front, Sickles ordered his corps to advance away from the main Union line on Cemetery Ridge and occupy high ground on the Emmitsburg Road, midway between Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge. In doing so, Sickles' unknowingly made Meade's established line vulnerable. Meanwhile, General Longstreet's column finally reached the southern tip of Seminary Ridge at 3:30 PM after an exhausting 18 mile march. The Confederates deployed along the ridge through Pitzer's Woods and south along Warfield Ridge. The men only had a few moments to rest and search for water before they were called into line and the attack began.
At 4 PM, Confederate cannoneers opened fire on Sickles' line from Devil's Den to the Peach Orchard. Confederates under General John Bell Hood swung eastward toward Devil's Den while fighting erupted in the Wheatfield, at the Peach Orchard and on the slopes of Little Round Top. Bravery and gallantry saved Little Round Top, a key feature on the southern end of the Union line, but Union troops could not hold Devil's Den and the adjoining area, later known as the "Valley of Death". Nearby was the Wheatfield, where soldiers who fought there compared it to a "whirlpool" of tides and eddies that continually swept around the field. Over 6,000 officers and men from both armies were killed, wounded or captured in charge and counter-charge across that field and in the woods surrounding it. Fighting spread to the Peach Orchard, along the Emmitsburg Road, and up Cemetery Ridge. At the height of the attack, General Sickles was seriously wounded while near his headquarters. Carried from the battlefield on a stretcher, the general inspired those passing by him with encouraging words and a wave of his hat.
At approximately 6:30, General McLaws sent forward his Mississippi brigade commanded by Brigadier General William Barksdale, who had waited impatiently with his men at Pitzer's Woods. The Mississippi attack rammed through Union regiments near the Peach Orchard and other Confederate units rushed from Seminary Ridge to exploit the break. The battered Union line wavered and slowly collapsed under the relentless Confederate pressure that swept across the Abraham Trostle Farm at the center of Sickles' line. Here the southerners found themselves at the doorway of a sizeable gap in the Union line between Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, held by a handful of Union artillerymen and one regiment of foot soldiers, the 1st Minnesota Infantry. The Minnesota regiment was about to do the impossible- stop the Confederate attack before they reached the center of Cemetery Ridge. The Minnesotans charged into the Confederates and succeeded in slowing their attack, but at a terrible cost. Union reinforcements arrived and drove the Confederates back, but not before they had threatened the Union line right up to its center.
In cooperation with Longstreet's attack on the Union left, General Ewell opened his cannonade on the Union right flank at 4 o'clock, but an overwhelming response of Union artillery from Cemetery Hill delayed the infantry assault, designed to first strike Culp's Hill, the strong point of the Union right. Confederate infantrymen under General Edward Johnson encountered numerous difficulties getting into position and night had fallen by the time his men splashed across Rock Creek to climb the hill's wooded slopes. Suddenly they were struck by accurate and deadly Union rifle fire delivered by a single brigade of New York troops under Brigasier General George S. Greene. Johnson's men scattered for cover though a portion of his force discovered abandoned earthworks above Spangler's Spring. Confused by the Union defense and believing that he was heavily outnumbered, Johnson decided to halt his attack to wait for reinforcements and then renew his assault the next morning.
Northwest of Culp's Hill, two Confederate brigades under General Jubal Early momentarily penetrated the Union defenses at Cemetery Hill. In the gathering gloom of dusk, "Louisiana Tigers" and North Carolina soldiers overran Union troops on the eastern side of the hill and rushed through to the summit into Union batteries stationed there. Union reinforcements rushed to the scene and immediately attacked with rifles and bayonets, throwing the Confederates off Cemetery Hill for good.
Union troops of the Twelfth Army Corps, pulled away from Culp's Hill on July 2, returned the following morning and attacked Johnson's troops before they could begin their attack. The roar of musketry was deafening. From the summit of the hill to the meadow near Spangler's Spring, combatants kept up a constant stream of rifle fire, showered all the while with leaves and branches cut from trees by bullets and shells. Unable to break the Union stranglehold on Culp's Hill, Johnson finally withdrew after six hours of continuous fighting, leaving the slopes covered with dead and wounded. By 11 AM on July 3, the southern threat at Culp's Hill had ended.
Late into the night, both army commanders evaluated the results of a long and brutal day. Apart from the precious foothold on Culp's Hill, the Confederate gamble of simultaneous attacks had failed. Knowing that he could not sustain more than another full day of battle, a frustrated Lee was working at his headquarters when a smiling General Stuart arrived. The smile quickly vanished when the disgusted army commander admonished Stuart for his long absence and failure to report Union movements in the weeks prior to the battle. Yet it was quickly back to the business at hand for Stuart's cavalry would fit prominently into Lee's strategy for the next day of battle. Meanwhile, General Meade held a "Council of War" at his headquarters on the Taneytown Road. Though the Union line had been restored by midnight there was still a sizeable Confederate force on Culp's Hill. Almost to a man, his generals agreed to stay at Gettysburg, retake and secure Culp's Hill, and then wait for Lee to attack. If he did not, then Meade should order a counterattack and force Lee to fight or flee. The Gettysburg Campaign was about to reach its climax.
The third day
Intense fighting erupted on Culp's Hill at 4 AM on July 3, and by 11 AM Union troops had secured the hill, firmly anchoring the point of the Union "fishhook" line. With the loss of his advantage at Culp's Hill, Lee decided to alter his strategy. Having already ordered Stuart to ride around the Union position and attack the Union supply line, Lee decided to strike what he thought to be a weakened Union center on Cemetery Ridge where he observed few troops and only a handful of batteries. If this section of Meade's line collapsed, it would threaten the Union rear and those strong hill positions. He issued orders for a massive bombardment aimed at this area followed by an assault of 18,000 men, coordinated and commanded by his trusted corps commander General James Longstreet.
At 1 o'clock, two guns stationed in the Peach Orchard fired the signal to begin the bombardment. Over 120 Confederate guns on Seminary Ridge simultaneously exploded, sending shot and shell toward Cemetery Ridge. Startled Union artillerymen sprang to their guns and soon both ridges were covered with thick, acrid smoke. The pounding of the guns in the great duel shook the earth for nearly an hour, when the Union fire finally slackened. Longstreet reluctantly gave the order for the infantry to advance and nearly 12,000 Confederate soldiers began the long march toward the Union line. Suddenly the Union artillery came back to life, blasting the formations and cutting large swaths through them. As they reached the Emmitsburg Road, they were startled by the blast from hundreds of Union muskets. Officers were replaced by captains and sergeants, urging the men on until they reached "the Angle". Brig. General Lewis Armistead, the lone unscathed general of Pickett's Division, pierced the Union center, crossing the stonewall with about 300 men who raced into the remains of a Union battery and nearby grove of young trees, shrubs, and vines. This was the "High Water Mark" of the battle and, for the Confederacy, of the war.
North of the Angle, troops under Generals Pettigrew and Trimble reached the Emmitsburg Road to attack the Union line between Pickett's command and Ziegler's Grove only to meet a solid wall of musketry and artillery. Groups of Confederates leapt the fences and forged ahead, the size of each melting away as they surged up the slope toward the terrible stonewall that litterally boiled with fire and smoke. None would pierce the Union line in this area. All along the line the attack ground to a halt and those who were able, turned back to Seminary Ridge. Pickett's Charge had failed. The retreating Confederates staggered back to their lines; assembled behind the stone wall the Federals repeatedly shouted "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!"
General Meade rode onto the scene just as the last shots died away. A staff officer approached and informed the general that the southerners had been whipped. His army had done the unthinkable - beaten Robert E. Lee and the best troops he could throw at them. The tired general managed to utter a hoarse "Hurrah!", then rode on to inspect the line.
General Lee witnessed the southern tide crest. Among the few soldiers walking towards him was Pickett. Lee looked at him and gave him an order to reform his division. "General Pickett", Lee said, after getting no response, "you must look to your division."
"General Lee," said Pickett wearily. "I have no division."
Stunned at the news of the loss, Lee had to admit to himself that the battle was over. Afterward, he spoke with the survivors, calming them with words of encouragement and preparing them for the Union counterattack that was sure to come. Within the hour, a courier informed Lee of Stuart's defeat three miles east of Gettysburg at what is known today as East Cavalry Field. Stuart successfully marched east of Gettysburg and turned his force south where they encountered a strong Union cavalry force blocking the Hanover Road. A spirited battle ensued with troopers of both armies fighting on foot and horseback. Southern charges meant to slice through the Union line were stopped cold by Union cavalrymen led by Brig. General George Armstrong Custer. His attempt to raid the Union rear thwarted, Stuart withdrew and retired toward Gettysburg.
Lee realized his army could no longer remain in Pennsylvania. Returning to his headquarters, he dictated orders for the army to withdraw, retreat to the Potomac River, and return to Virginia. "Too bad, too bad," a staff officer heard the general say in his discouragement. "Oh, too bad."
Storm clouds blackened the early evening sky. A heavy rain soon fell, symbolically washing the land of the carnage wrought by three days of bloody battle, the largest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere.
In the west, the major challenge facing the Union armies was the capture of Vicksburg and the seizure of control of the Mississippi River. Initially, the Federals faced the same problems of divided command that had plagued armies in the east. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, with over 60,000 men, remained in western Tennessee guarding communication lines. Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell’s army of 56,000, after containing Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, had been taken over by Major General William S. Rosecrans, whose hard-won victory at Murfreesboro at the end of 1862 had nevertheless immobilized the Army of the Cumberland for nearly half a year. To the south, Union forces under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks controlled New Orleans as part of the Department of the Gulf. Coordinating the movement of all these forces would prove a true leadership challenge.
Late in 1862 President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton worked out their own plans to accomplish the fall of Vicksburg, however without coordinating that plan effectively with their senior military commanders. They wrote somewhat vague orders for a simultaneous advance north from New Orleans and south from Tennessee. General Banks was to command the move northward from New Orleans, and command of the southbound expedition was to go to Major General John A. McClernand. Both were relatively untried as Army commanders. They were also volunteer officers who's profession before the war was in the halls of Congress; as professional politicians they often dabbled in intrigue to gain favors. Further, McClernand was to operate within Grant’s department but independently of him, often a recipe for trouble. When General Halleck found out about the Lincoln-Stanton plan, he persuaded the President to put Grant in command of the southbound expedition and to make McClernand one of his subordinates.
The Vicksburg Campaign
Grant first tried a combined land and water expedition against Vicksburg in December 1862–January 1863. He sent Major General William T. Sherman downriver from Memphis, but the Confederates under Major General Earl Van Dorn and Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest raided and cut his 200-mile-long line of communications. Sherman himself bogged down before Vicksburg; Grant, perhaps also wishing to keep close rein on McClernand (who ranked his friend Sherman), then determined on a river expedition that he would lead in person. Late in January Grant arrived near Vicksburg with upwards of 45,000 men organized into three corps: the XIII Corps under McClernand, the XV Corps under Sherman, and the XVII Corps under Major General James B. McPherson. During the ensuing campaign Grant received two more corps as reinforcements to bring his total strength to 75,000 men.
Vicksburg had almost a perfect location for defense. At that point on the river, bluffs rose as high as 250 feet above the water and extended for about 100 miles from north to south. North of Vicksburg lay the Yazoo River and its delta, a gloomy stretch of watery, swampy bottom land extending 175 miles from north to south, 60 miles from east to west. The ground immediately south of Vicksburg was almost as swampy and impassable. The Confederates had fortified the bluffs from Haynes’ Bluff on the Yazoo, 10 miles above Vicksburg, to Grand Gulf at the mouth of the Big Black River 40 miles below. Vicksburg could not be assaulted from the river, and sailing past it was extremely hazardous. The river formed a great "U"-shaped bend there, and Vicksburg’s guns threatened any craft that tried to run by. For the Union troops to attack successfully, they would have to get to the high, dry ground east of town. This would put them in Confederate territory between two enemy forces. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton commanded some 30,000 men in Vicksburg, while the Confederate area commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, concentrated the other scattered Confederate forces in Mississippi at Jackson, the state capital, 40 miles east of Vicksburg.
During late winter and early spring, with the rains falling, the streams high, and the roads at their wettest and muddiest, overland movement was impossible. Primarily to placate discontented politicians and a critical press, Grant made four attempts to reach high ground east of Vicksburg. All four were unsuccessful, foiled either by Confederate resistance or by natural obstacles. One of the more spectacular efforts was digging canals. These projects had as their objective the clearing of an approach by which troops could sail to a point near the high ground without being fired on by Vicksburg’s guns. All failed. That Grant kept on trying in the face of such discouragement is a tribute to his dogged persistence, and that Lincoln supported him is a tribute to his confidence in the general. The trouble was that Grant had been on the river for two months, and by early spring Vicksburg was no nearer falling than when he came.
On April 4 in a letter to Halleck, Grant divulged his latest plan to capture Vicksburg. Working closely with the local naval commander, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, Grant evolved a stroke of great boldness. He decided to use part of his force above Vicksburg to divert the Confederates. The main body would march southward on the west side of the Mississippi, cross to the east bank below the city, and, with only five days’ rations, strike inland to live off a hostile country without a line of supply or retreat. As he told Sherman, the Union troops would carry "what rations of hard bread, coffee, and salt we can and make the country furnish the balance." Porter’s gunboats and other craft, which up to now were on the river north of Vicksburg, were to run past the batteries during darkness and then ferry the troops over the river. Sherman thought the campaign too risky, but the events of the next two months were to prove him wrong.
While Sherman demonstrated near Vicksburg in March, McClernand’s and McPherson’s corps started their advance south. The rains let up in April, the waters receded slightly, and overland movement became somewhat easier. On the night of April 16 Porter led his river fleet past Vicksburg, whose guns, once the move was discovered, lit up the black night with an eerie bombardment. All but one transport made it safely; and starting on April 30, Porter’s craft ferried the troops eastward over the river at Bruinsburg below Grand Gulf. The final march against Vicksburg was ready to begin.
At this time the Confederates had more troops in the vicinity than Grant had but never could make proper use of them. Grant’s swift move had bewildered Pemberton. Then too, just before marching downstream, Grant had ordered a brigade of cavalry to come down from the Tennessee border, riding between the parallel north-south railroad lines of the Mississippi Central and Mobile and Ohio. Led by Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, this force sliced the length of the state, cutting railroads, fighting detachments of Confederate cavalry, and finally reaching Union lines at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Most important, for the few days that counted most, it drew Pemberton’s attention away from Grant and kept the Confederate general from discerning the Union’s objectives.
Once more, divided counsel hampered the coordination of Confederate strategy. Davis had sent Johnston west in December 1862 to take overall command of the theater, an imposing task, for Pemberton’s army in Mississippi and Bragg’s in Tennessee were widely separated. Things were further confused by Davis’ directive to Pemberton to hold Vicksburg at all costs while Johnston recognized the potential trap and ordered him to move directly against Grant. In such a situation Pemberton could do little that was right. He tried to defend too great an area; he had not concentrated but dispersed his forces at Vicksburg, the Big Black River, and along the railroad line to Jackson, where Johnston was gathering more troops. As is often the case, whoever tries to defend everything often ends up losing everything.
Grant took Port Gibson on May 1, and Sherman’s corps rejoined the main force. Now the Union commander decided that he must defeat Johnston before turning on Vicksburg. He moved northeastward and fought his way into Raymond on May 12, a move that put him squarely between Johnston and Pemberton and in a position to cut the Confederate line of communications. The next day Sherman and McPherson marched against the city of Jackson with McClernand following in reserve ready to hold off Pemberton if he attacked. The leading corps took Jackson on May 14 and drove its garrison eastward. While Sherman occupied the state capital to fend off Johnston, the other two corps turned west against Pemberton and Vicksburg. Pemberton tried too late to catch Grant in open country. He suffered severe defeats at Champion’s Hill (May 16) and Big Black River Bridge (May 17) and was shut up in Vicksburg. In eighteen days Grant’s army had marched 200 miles, had won four victories, and had finally secured the high ground along the Yazoo River that had been the goal of all the winter’s fruitless campaigning. In this lightning operation, Grant had proven himself a master of maneuver warfare and a bold risk-taker.
Grant assaulted the Vicksburg lines on May 15 and 22, but as Sherman noted of the attacks: "The heads of columns have been swept away as chaff from the hand on a windy day." The only recourse now was a siege. Grant settled down and removed McClernand from command after the attack of May 22, during which the corps commander sent a misleading report, then later slighted the efforts of the other corps and publicly criticized the army commander. Grant replaced him with Major General Edward O. C. Ord and ordered the army to dig trenches around the city and place powerful batteries of artillery to command the enemy positions.
The rest was now a matter of time, as Sherman easily kept Johnston away and the Federals advanced their siege works toward the Confederate fortifications. Food became scarce, and the troops and civilians inside Vicksburg were soon reduced to eating mules and horses. Shells pounded the city, and the Federal lines were drawn so tight that one Confederate soldier admitted "a cat could not have crept out of Vicksburg without being discovered." The front lines were so close that the Federals threw primitive hand grenades into the Confederate works. By July 1 the Union troops had completed their approaches and were ready for another assault. But Vicksburg was starving, and Pemberton asked for terms. Grant offered to parole all prisoners, and the city surrendered on Independence Day. Since Grant was out of telegraphic contact with Washington, the news reached the President via naval channels on July 7, the day before General Banks’ 15,000-man army, having advanced upriver from New Orleans, captured Port Hudson. The Union now repossessed the whole river and had sliced the Confederacy in two. Once more Grant had removed an entire Confederate army, some 40,000 men, from the war, losing only one-tenth that number in the process.
One week before the surrender of Vicksburg and the Union victory at Gettysburg, General Rosecrans moved out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and headed for Chattanooga, one of the most important cities in the south because of its location. It was a main junction on the rail line linking Richmond with Knoxville and Memphis. President Lincoln had long recognized the importance of railroads in this area. In 1862 he said, "To take and hold the railroad at or east of Cleveland [near Chattanooga], in East Tennessee, I think fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond." Furthermore, at Chattanooga, the Tennessee River cuts through the parallel ridges of the Appalachian Mountains and forms a natural gateway to north or south. By holding the city, the Confederates could threaten Kentucky and prevent a Union penetration of the southeastern part of the Confederacy. If the Union armies pushed through Chattanooga, they would be in position to attack Atlanta, Savannah, or even the Carolinas and Richmond from the rear. As Lincoln told Rosecrans in 1863, "If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee I think the rebellion must dwindle and die."
After the spring and summer campaigns in the east, the Davis government in Richmond approved a movement by two divisions of Longstreet’s corps of Lee’s army to the west to reinforce the hard-pressed Bragg. Longstreet’s move, a 900-mile trip by rail involving 10,000–15,000 men and six batteries of artillery, began on September 9. But a force under Burnside, who now commanded the Department of the Ohio, which was not part of Rosecrans’ command, had penetrated the Cumberland Gap and had driven the Confederates from Knoxville. Longstreet had to go around by way of Augusta and Atlanta and did not reach Bragg until September 18. The rail network was rickety, and Longstreet’s soldiers quipped that such poor rolling stock had never been intended to carry such good soldiers. Movement of Longstreet’s troops from Virginia was nevertheless an outstanding logistical achievement for the Confederacy and a bold operational move.
Rosecrans meanwhile began planning how to use his numerical superiority (65,000 versus Bragg’s 46,250) to maneuver Bragg out of his positions in eastern Tennessee and move against Chattanooga. Faced with Confederates in strong positions around his base at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans decided to conduct a series of feints to mislead the enemy. Starting on June 24, he dispatched one division to the southwest of the city and a corps to the east to distract Bragg while moving the bulk of his army under corps commanders Major Generals George H. Thomas and Alexander M. McCook to the southeast in a main attack on a critical mountain gap. Despite torrential rainfall and problems with muddy roads, the Union troops successfully seized Hoover’s Gap, unhinging the Confederate defensive line. Forced to retreat, Bragg fell back on Tullahoma to defend his supply lines. However, after a few days of recovery it was apparent to him that Rosecrans intended to use his superior forces to continue trying to outflank his position. Rather than be trapped, Bragg retreated again and, abandoning eastern Tennessee, he moved back over the rain-swollen Tennessee River on July 6. He returned to Chattanooga and prepared to defend that key city. In a few weeks of rapid maneuvering, Rosecrans had driven Bragg’s forces back to where they had started their offensive almost a year before.
After months of delay Rosecrans had accomplished the feat of completely outmaneuvering Bragg without a major battle. He next demonstrated across the river from Chattanooga as a diversion while actually sending the bulk of his army to cross the Tennessee River miles to the southwest. He planned to get in behind Bragg and bottle him up in Chattanooga. However, the Confederate general saw through the scheme and slipped away southward, abandoning the city while carefully planting rumors that his army was demoralized and in flight. Rosecrans then resolved to pursue, a decision that would have been wise if Bragg had been retreating in disorder.
There were few passes through the mountains and no good lateral roads. In full pursuit mode, Rosecrans dispersed his army in three columns over a forty-mile front to make use of the various passes. Watching Rosecrans carefully, Bragg stopped his retreat and concentrated his army about September 9 at La Fayette, Georgia, twenty miles south of Chattanooga. As his force was three times as large as any one of the Union columns, Bragg anticipated that he could hit each column in turn and defeat Rosecrans in detail. But his intelligence service failed him: he thought there were two, rather than three, Union columns and prepared plans accordingly. He first planned to strike what he thought was Rosecrans’ right (actually Thomas’ corps in the center) at McLemore’s Cove on September 10. However, his subordinates moved slowly, and the attacks were made in desultory fashion. By the time Bragg’s forces could converge, Thomas had pulled his troops back into safe positions. Bragg next planned to strike at Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps on the Union left flank. Again, poor coordination prevented him from catching the enemy; Crittenden also pulled back behind the safety of Missionary Ridge. Thus, twice in three days Bragg missed a fine opportunity to inflict a serious reverse upon the Federals because of his subordinates’ failure to carry out orders.
By September 13 Rosecrans was at last aware that Bragg was not retreating in disorder but was preparing to fight. The Union commander ordered an immediate concentration, but this would take several days and in the meantime his corps were vulnerable. Although Bragg was usually speedy in executing attacks, this time he delayed, awaiting the arrival of Longstreet’s corps. He intended to attack the Union left in an attempt to push Rosecrans southward away from Chattanooga into a mountain cul-de-sac where the Federals could be destroyed.
By September 17 Bragg was positioned just east of Chickamauga Creek, a sluggish stream surrounded by dense woods and named for a Creek Indian word that some said meant "river of blood". When Longstreet’s three leading brigades arrived on September 18, Bragg decided to cross the Chickamauga and attack the Federal left. But Rosecran’s forces there, with two corps almost fully concentrated, defended the fords so stoutly that only a few Confederate units got over the creek that day. During the night more Confederates slipped across, and by morning of the nineteenth about three-fourths of Bragg’s army was over the creek and poised to attack.
By then, however, Rosecrans’ third corps had arrived on the scene and Bragg faced a much stronger force than he had expected. The heavily wooded battlefield had few landmarks, and some units had difficulty maintaining direction. Bragg planned to attack all along the Union line, starting on its left and rippling down the line to the Union right in quick succession from roughly northeast down to the southwest. Over the course of the day, several of Bragg’s toughest divisions (Major Generals Alexander P. Stewart’s, John Bell Hood’s and Patrick R. Cleburne’s) attacked and almost broke through the Union line on three separate occasions. Only the hasty movement of Union reserves stemmed the tide in each case.
The fighting was brutal and often hand-to-hand in the dense woods along the choked Chickamauga Creek. It was afterward called a soldier’s battle, with little chance for grand strategy or operational deployments except for the tactical shifting of small units in response to crisis. By the evening of the nineteenth neither side had gained much terrain and the troops lay exhausted in the dense woods. The Union troops labored all night to cut down trees to fortify their positions as the Confederates gathered and reorganized for the next day’s attacks.
Bragg, sensing victory but seeking to ensure a coordinated attack on the twentieth, reorganized his army into two wings: the right wing under the command of corps commander Lietenant General Leonidas Polk and the left wing under the newly arrived General Longstreet. He planned to begin the attack again in the north with Polk attacking at dawn followed by attacks all along the front from northeast to southwest. Longstreet would attack last with three divisions into nearly the center of the Union line.
Confusion started the day on the twentieth; Lietenant General Daniel H. Hill, now subordinate to Polk, failed to receive any orders to attack as the lead element of Polk’s wing. Polk had not been found by a messenger the night before and had no knowledge of the day’s plan. Finally, Hill’s corps attacked at 9:30. The attack against Thomas’ corps was delivered with spirit; and Thomas began requesting, and Rosecrans providing, reinforcements to fight off the rebels. By late morning it seemed as if the line was holding, but even more reinforcements were being readied to move to the aid of the Union left. At that moment, Longstreet attacked with four divisions in column formation against the Union center and right. Moving along a road but under cover of the dense woods, Longstreet’s men exploded out of the tree line and attacked the Union positions. Their attack had even more impact since they hit a hole in the Union line created inadvertently by Rosecrans’ moving a division out of line because of an erroneous staff report. The combination of a gap in the lines and a powerful Confederate attacking column blew away Union defenses. As the lead Confederate division commander later put it, the attack "cast the shattered fragments to the right and left." The attack penetrated a mile into Union lines, and Rosecran’s right wing and center evaporated. The men fled in panic back toward Chattanooga. General Rosecrans himself was caught up in the rout and fled on horseback with most of his staff to the safety of the city.
The only major Union units left on the field of battle by early afternoon of September 20 were the hard-pressed divisions of Thomas’ corps. Adding to these units as they stood their ground were bits and pieces of regiments fleeing from the disaster on the Union right flank. These units and survivors pulled back onto a small piece of high ground called Snodgrass Hill to the rear of Thomas’ original defensive position. Arriving at this site in the early afternoon, Thomas saw that only a strong defense would preserve what was left of the army. If the position fell, he stood a good chance of losing the entire army and the city of Chattanooga. He began shifting units from different parts of his hasty defensive line to deal with successive Confederate attacks. When Longstreet brought his divisions on line against him, he must have despaired of holding; but the timely arrival of elements of Major General Gordon Granger’s reserve corps with fresh troops and more ammunition stemmed the Confederate tide. From then until darkness fell, Longstreet sent attack after attack up the hill against the stubborn federals. But Thomas, who won for himself and the U.S. 19th Infantry the title "Rock of Chickamauga", held the line. A Confederate remembered that afternoon how "the dead were piled upon each other in ricks, like cord wood, to make passage for advancing columns." As darkness fell and the exhausted Confederates ceased their attacks, Thomas slowly withdrew his units from Snodgrass Hill and conducted a careful withdrawal back toward Chattanooga. His retreat was in good order, saving almost two-thirds of the Army of the Cumberland from total destruction.
After the draining daylong attacks, Bragg concluded that no further results could be attained that day. Polk, Longstreet, and Forrest pleaded with him to push the defeated Federals and recapture Chattanooga. But 18,000 casualties (the Federals had lost only 1,500 fewer) so unnerved Bragg that he permitted Thomas to withdraw unmolested from the field to a blocking position extending from Missionary Ridge west to Lookout Mountain. The next day Thomas retired into Chattanooga. Polk wrote to President Davis of Bragg’s "criminal negligence," and Forrest a week later insubordinately told the army commander, "You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws." Yet nothing could erase completely the fact that the Confederates had won a great victory and had Rosecrans’ army in a trap.
Rosecrans’ army, having started out offensively, was now shut up in Chattanooga as Bragg took up positions on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge dominating the city. The Union commander accepted investment and thus surrendered his freedom of action. Burnside, at Knoxville, was too far away to render immediate aid. There were no strong Confederate units north of Chattanooga, but Rosecrans’ line of communications was cut away. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, instead of running directly into the city, reached the Tennessee River at Stevenson, crossed at Bridgeport southwest of Chattanooga, and ran through Confederate territory into town. River steamers could get to within only eight miles of Chattanooga; beyond, the Tennessee River was swift and narrow. Supplies therefore came over the mountains in wagons; but starting September 30, Confederate cavalry under Major General Joseph Wheeler, one of Bragg’s cavalry commanders, raided as far north as Murfreesboro. Though heavily and effectively opposed in his effort to tear up the railroad, he managed to destroy many precious Union supply wagons. With the mountain roads breaking down under the heavy traffic in wet weather, rations in Chattanooga ran short. Men went hungry, and horses and mules began to die of starvation. Rosecrans prepared to reopen his line of communications by means of an overland route to the west. But this route was dominated by Confederate troops on Raccoon and Lookout Mountains. Additional troops to clear these strong points were required if the Army of the Cumberland was to survive.
Washington finally awoke to the fact that an entire Union army was trapped in Chattanooga and in danger of capture. In a midnight council meeting on September 23, the President met with Secretary Stanton, General Halleck, and others to determine what could be done. As General Meade was not active in the east at that time, they decided to detach two corps, or about 20,000 men, from the Army of the Potomac and send them by rail to Tennessee under the command of General Hooker, who had been without active command since his relief in June. The selected forces included ten artillery batteries with over 3,000 mules and horses. The 1,157-mile journey involved four changes of trains, owing to differing gauges and lack of track connections, and eclipsed all other such troop movements by rail up to that time. The troops began to entrain at Manassas Junction and Bealton Station, Virginia, on September 25, and five days later the first trains arrived at Bridgeport, Alabama. Not all the troops made such good time: for the majority of the infantry the trip consumed about nine days. And movement of the artillery, horses, mules, baggage, and impedimenta was somewhat slower. Combined with a waterborne movement of 17,000 men under Sherman from Mississippi, the reinforcement of the besieged Rosecrans was a triumph of skill and planning.
Chickamauga had caused Stanton and his associates to lose confidence in Rosecrans. For some time Lincoln had been dubious about Rosecrans, who, he said, acted "like a duck hit on the head" after Chickamauga; but he did not immediately choose a successor. Finally, about mid-October, he decided to unify command in the west and to vest it in General Grant, who still commanded the Army of the Tennessee. In October Stanton met Grant in Louisville and gave him orders that allowed him some discretion in selecting subordinates. Grant was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which embraced the Departments and Armies of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee and included the vast area from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River north of Banks’ Department of the Gulf. Thomas replaced Rosecrans as Commander of the Army of the Cumberland, and Sherman was appointed to command Grant’s old Army of the Tennessee.
Now that Hooker had arrived, the line of communications, or the "cracker line" to the troops, could be opened. Rosecrans had actually shaped the plan, and all he needed was combat troops to execute it. On October 26 Hooker crossed the Tennessee at Bridgeport and attacked eastward. Within two days he had taken the spurs of the mountains, other Union troops had captured two important river crossings, and the supply line was open once more. Men, equipment, and food moved via riverboat and wagon road, bypassing Confederate strong points, to reinforce the besieged Army of the Cumberland.
In early November Bragg weakened his besieging army by sending Longstreet’s force against Burnside at Knoxville. This move reduced Confederate strength to about 40,000 about the same time Sherman arrived with two army corps from Memphis. The troops immediately at hand under Grant (Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, two corps of Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, and two corps under Hooker from the Army of the Potomac) now numbered about 60,000. Grant characteristically decided to resume the offensive with his entire force.
The Confederates had held their dominant position for so long that they seemed to look on all of the Federals in Chattanooga as their ultimate prisoners. One day in November Grant went out to inspect the Union lines and reached a point where Union and Confederate picket posts were not far apart. Not only did his own troops turn out the guard, but a smart set of Confederates came swarming out, formed a neat military rank, snapped to attention, and presented arms. Grant returned the salute and rode away. But plans were already afoot to divest the Confederates of some of their cockiness.
Grant planned to hit the ends of the Confederate line at once. Hooker would strike at Lookout Mountain; Sherman, moving his army upstream across the river from Chattanooga and crossing over by pontoons, would hit the northern end of Missionary Ridge. While they were breaking the Confederate flanks, Thomas’ men could make limited, holding attacks on the center. The Army of the Cumberland’s soldiers, already nursing a bruised ego for the rout at Chickamauga, realized that in the eyes of the commanding general they were second-class troops.
Hooker took Lookout Mountain on November 24 after a short struggle known as the Battle above the Clouds because of the height of the mountain and the mist that enshrouded it. On the same day Sherman crossed the Tennessee at the mouth of Chickamauga Creek and gained positions on the north end of Missionary Ridge. The next day his attacks bogged down as he attempted to drive south along the ridge. To help Sherman, Grant directed the Army of the Cumberland to take the rifle pits at the foot of the west slope of Missionary Ridge. These rifle pits were the first of three lines of Confederate trenches. Thomas’ troops rushed forward and seized the pits. Then, having a score to settle with the Confederates positioned above them, the troops kept going up the hill despite attempts by their officers to stop them. Coming under fire from the pits above and in front of them, the Federals inexorably swept up the hill. One of the charging Union soldiers, Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism; it would later inspire his son, Douglas MacArthur, to greater things.
When Grant observed this movement, he muttered that someone was going to sweat for it if the charge ended in disaster. But Thomas’ troops drove all the way to the top, some shouting "Chickamauga, Chickamauga"; in the afternoon Hooker swept the southern end of the ridge. The Federals then had the unusual experience of seeing a Confederate army disintegrate into precipitate retreat, throwing their blankets, knapsacks, and even weapons away as they ran. The surprised bluecoats beckoned to their comrades: "My God! Come and see them run!" Bragg personally mounted his horse and tried to stem the rout, but to no avail. Grant pursued Bragg’s army the next day, but one Confederate division skillfully halted the pursuit while Bragg retired into Georgia to regroup.
The battles around Chattanooga and the subsequent campaign in eastern Tennessee ended in one of the most complete Union victories of the war. Bragg’s army was defeated, men and materiel captured, and the Confederates driven south. The mountainous defense line that the Confederates had hoped to hold had been pierced; the rail center of Chattanooga was permanently in Union hands; and the rich, food- producing eastern Tennessee section was lost to the Confederacy. Relief had come at last for the Union sympathizers in eastern Tennessee. With Chattanooga secured as a base, the way was open for an invasion of the lower South.
Articles in the series
The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
- Library of Congress Civil War map collection
- The Civil War Homepage
- The PBS/Ken Burns documentary
- The History Place
- Civil War at a Glance; US Interior Department
- Shotgun's home of the American Civil War
- US Civil War Center, from Louisiana State University
- Civil War Treasures, from New York Historical Society
- Memoirs of U.S. Grant, from Bartleby.com