The High Ground

Chattanooga's lookout mountain provided a dramatic setting for the civil war's battle above the clouds

There may be no greater comeback story in Civil War annals than that of the Union's beleaguered Army of the Cumberland and how it escaped from a Rebel siege at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the fall of 1863.

Driven north in defeat from the field of September's battle at Chickamauga in Georgia, the Union Army retreated to Chattanooga. Taking up a defensive position in the little steamboat and railhead village of 2,500, the national army found itself hemmed in by Rebels occupying the heights overlooking the town, the most imposing of which was Lookout Mountain.

Locked down, cut off from supplies and with winter closing in, hapless Yankee commander Major General William S. Rosecrans found no military solution to his army's problems. Marginal supplies of food and virtually no clothing, weapons, equipment or ammunition made it through the Confederate blockade. With no forage, the Yankees lost 10,000 horses and mules to starvation. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant remembered the situation as so desperate that even sources of firewood were exhausted, "even to the stumps of the trees."

Lookout Mountain towers nearly 1,900 feet above the Tennessee River valley below. From its rugged outcrops and sheer bluffs, Confederate batteries could shell river traffic and the main rail lines entering Chattanooga from Union-controlled western Tennessee, as well as drop the occasional disconcerting round into the center of town. East of the village, Rebels occupied 20-mile-long Missionary Ridge, which was pierced by a tunnel bearing the only rail line to the northeast and Virginia. Between the ridge and Chattanooga, Confederates held a little promontory called Orchard Knob, while their fierce cavalry roamed every road west of town.

Now a pleasant, progressive city of just under a half-million, Chattanooga is a manufacturing and service industry center with a strong tradition of tourism on Lookout Mountain dating back to--well, to when the armies were there more than a century ago. The city is home to a number of major tourist attractions, including Ruby Falls, Rock City and the steepest inclined railway in the world.

Go to Chattanooga today and you can easily picture the problems Rosecrans faced. From the National Park Service's Point Park on the northern rim of Lookout Mountain, modern Chattanooga sprawls below like an aerial photograph, the Tennessee River lazily curling through downtown before heading north at Moccasin Bend. Stand next to the long-silent bronze and cast-iron cannon anchored to the sandstone bluff and you can see why no ship could steam upriver to relieve the starving Union command. Along the western rim, you can visualize how a Confederate battery might rain shells down upon the railroad that paralleled Lookout Creek in the Wauhatchie Valley.

Lookout Mountain's Point Park is part of the combined Chickamauga and Chattanooga Battlefields. The two battle sites, although in two different states, are less than 10 miles apart. Authorized by Congress in the 1890's along with Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the battlefield memorial park was the first and largest to be established. While the fields at Chickamauga remain today much as they were at the time of the battle, the Chattanooga sites are urban, with residential and business areas completely surrounding and, in some cases, mixed in with the historical battleground.

Traveling a few miles east of Lookout Mountain, you can drive the length of Missionary Ridge, now an area of pleasant residential subdivisions marked by occasional monuments and overlooks. During the battle, however, the low-slung ridge was heavily entrenched, making a breakout unlikely. The fate of the Union Army in the west seemed to hang in the balance. Surrender--if not outright starvation--was a real possibility.

And then, miraculously, in the span of one short month, everything changed. The South found its army reeling back to safety in Georgia, while the North--with the siege lifted and a new perimeter established--set in motion the campaign to destroy the Confederate heartland and march through Georgia to the sea.

First, some changes had to be made, starting at the top. President Lincoln consolidated command in the west under Grant, who on October 19 ordered Rosecrans replaced by Major General George Thomas. About the same time, Major General Joseph Hooker brought in 20,000 fresh Federals from Virginia. Grant himself arrived on the scene October 23.

Four days later, following a daring amphibious maneuver under fire, Union engineers built a pontoon bridge west of town just out of Rebel artillery range at Brown's Ferry. Supplies for the army started flowing into Chattanooga.

Grant's partner-in-war, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, arrived from Mississippi with 16,000 reinforcements in mid-November. Now the stage was set for a three-day battle destined to be one of the most dramatic turnabouts in American military history.

On November 23 Thomas' men drove Confederates from Orchard Knob. The next day, troops under Hooker advanced on the western and northern face of Lookout Mountain for what has become known as the Battle Above the Clouds. With the top of the mountain wreathed in fog, neither army could see its foe.

Some of the most desperate fighting occurred at Cravens House, now restored and part of the Park Service. Originally built by a prominent iron foundryman, the house was situated about halfway up the mountain both for the view and to take advantage of cool mountain breezes in summer. On the day of the battle, the site marked the lower boundary of the clouds. Captured by a force made up mainly of Hooker's New York troops, the house, previously used for Rebel headquarters, was greatly damaged in the fight. After taking Cravens House, the Northerners regrouped, then pressed on into the mist.

"You couldn't see anything uphill past this point," says Park Ranger John Housch, interpretive guide at Cravens House. "They fired at yells and sounds and hoped they weren't shooting at their own men. The Confederates above had the same problems. The cannoneers started lighting the fuses and rolling cannon balls down the hill. In the end, they were pitching rocks off the cliffs." The Confederate artillery positions on Lookout Mountain were sparsely defended by infantry. Union troops, now better-fed, back on their feet and spoiling for a fight, rolled over the thin Rebel lines, pushing them eastward off Lookout Mountain by nightfall.

The third day, energized by success, Grant turned his attention to Missionary Ridge. After feisty Confederate Major General Pat Cleburne blunted Sherman on the left and Hooker delayed on the right, a frustrated Grant ordered Thomas to send his men up the middle and seize Southern rifle pits at the very base of the mountain, which they promptly did. Then, without orders, Thomas' soldiers kept going, not stopping until they reached the crest, routing Confederate Major General John C. Breckenridge's corps and causing the whole Rebel line to collapse. All along the mountain, Bragg's Southern army broke and ran. Grant's victory was marred only by his failure to pursue the fleeing Rebel army and crush it. Still, the victory was stunning. Grant had secured the rail and river supply station Sherman would need to launch his Atlanta campaign. For the Confederacy, the loss of Chattanooga ultimately meant the loss of the deep South.

Point Park, Cravens House and several thousand acres along the slopes of Lookout Mountain might not have been included in the National Park had it not been for the generosity of Adolph and Milton Ochs, Chattanooga natives who were owners and publishers of the New York Times. Fearful that development might swallow the battlefield, the Ochs brothers assembled over 2,700 acres and donated them to the park. A museum and overlook in their honor are located on the walking tour at Point Park.

Once safely in charge of Chattanooga and its environs, Grant and his men did what thousands of tourists have done ever since: they had their pictures made while daring gravity along the edge of a cliff or standing atop one of the mountain's strange and dramatic rock formations. It is difficult to debate the claim that Lookout Mountain may be the most photographed site of the Civil War.

Should you visit Chattanooga's Point Park and have your picture made at just such an overlook, you can claim to proudly stand where noble heroes like Grant and Sherman once stood. Or--depending upon your loyalties--you can claim to have retaken the high ground.