- Travel & Directions
- The Park & History
On these fields and hills, Union and Confederate armies clashed during the fall of 1863 in some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War. The prize was Chattanooga, key rail center and gateway to the heart of the Confederacy. The campaign that brought the armies here began in June 1863 when the Union's Major General William S. Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland, almost 70,000 strong, moved from Murfreesboro, Tennessee against Confederate General Braxton Bragg's 43,000-man Army of Tennessee dug in 20 miles to the south defending the road to Chattanooga. Six months earlier, these same armies had clashed at Stones River where, after a three-day struggle, the Confederates had retreated. Now, through a series of skillful marches, Rosecrans forced the Southerners to withdraw again, this time into Chattanooga itself. There Bragg dug in again, guarding the Tennessee River crossings northeast of the city, where he expected Rosecrans to attack. But late in August the Federals crossed the Tennessee River well below Chattanooga and again Bragg had to withdraw southward.
Bragg concentrated his forces at Lafayette, Georgia, 26 miles south of Chattanooga. Here reinforcements from Mississippi, East Tennessee, and finally Virginia eventually swelled his ranks to more than 66,000 men. On September 18, after twice failing to destroy isolated segments of Rosecrans's army, Bragg tried to wedge his troops between the Federals and Chattanooga by sending elements of his army to the east bank of West Chickamauga Creek along a line from Reed's Bridge to just downstream of Lee and Gordon's Mill. This, too, failed.
Fighting began shortly after dawn on September 19th when Union infantry encountered Confederate cavalry at Jay's Mill. This brought on a general battle that spread far south for nearly four miles. The armies fought desperately all day, often hand-to-hand, and gradually the Confederates pushed the Federals back to LaFayette Road. On September 20 Bragg again tried to drive between the Union force and Chattanooga, but failed to dislodge Rosecrans's line. However, when Rosecrans shifted troops to meet the attacks, a gap opened briefly in the Federal line just as Lieutenant General James Longstreet's Confederates assaulted at that very point. The Southerners smashed through the hole, routing Rosecrans and half his army. Some Federals rallied and formed a new line on Snodgrass Hill. Here they held their ground against repeated assaults and earned for Major General George H. Thomas the nickname "Rock of Chickamauga." After dark, Thomas withdrew his men from the field. The defeat forced the Union troops to retreat into Chattanooga. The Confederates pursued, occupying Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and Chattanooga Valley. By placing artillery on the heights overlooking the river and blocking the best roads and rail lines, the Southerners prevented most Federal supplies from entering the city. Unless something was done to break the Confederate stranglehold, Rosecrans's army faced starvation or surrender.
Aware of Rosecrans's plight, authorities in Washington sent reinforcements to his relief. Major General Joseph Hooker came from Virginia late in October with 20,000 men and Major General William T. Sherman brought in 16,000 from Mississippi in mid-November. Thomas replaced Rosecrans as head of the Army of the Cumberland and Major General Ulysses S. Grant assumed overall command. After that the situation began to change dramatically. On October 28 Federal troops opened a shorter supply route, called the "Cracker Line", from Bridgeport, Alabama. On November 23 Thomas's men attacked and routed the Confederates from Orchard Knob. On the 24th, aided by heavy fog that enshrouded the slopes of Lookout Mountain during most of the day, Hooker's soldiers pushed the Confederates out of their defenses around Cravens House. On November 25, with most of Bragg's army now concentrated on Missionary Ridge, Grant launched Sherman's troops against the Confederate right flank and sent Hooker's men from Lookout Mountain to attack the Confederate left. Thomas's soldiers, in the center at Orchard Knob, were held in reserve.
Hooker was delayed crossing Chattanooga Creek and the Confederates halted Sherman's attack. To relieve the pressure on Sherman, Grant ordered Thomas's Army of the Cumberland to assault the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. This was quickly accomplished. Then, without orders, Thomas's men scaled the heights in one of the great charges of the war. The Confederate line collapsed and Bragg's troops fled to the rear. During the night they retreated into Georgia. Union armies now controlled the city and nearly all of Tennessee. The next spring, Sherman used Chattanooga for his base as he started his famous march to Atlanta and the sea.