The battered Union army in Chattanooga, in the fall of 1863, found itself in imminent danger of being starved into surrender. The city, tucked into a bend in the Tennessee River, is overlooked by Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. Holding these two areas of high ground, the Confederates had both the water and rail routes into the city blocked. A route to the North was still open, but so inhospitable was this country that any wagon train crossing it could carry little more than the forage needed to feed its teams. As the Army of the Cumberland went on half-rations, Washington was stung into action.
The defeated Rosecrans was replaced by “Rock of Chick-amauga” Thomas. Reinforcements were rushed to the scene, 17,000 from Vicksburg under William T. Sherman and 20,000 from the Army of the Potomac under “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Most important, U.S. Grant, whose star was rising fast, was put in overall charge in the western theater. Things began to happen. Food was the first priority, and through a combination of brisk fighting and Yankee ingenuity an improvised supply line was soon in operation. Grant then turned his attention to breaking the Rebel grip on the city.
Since Bragg’s center atop Missionary Ridge appeared too strong to be cracked, Grant determined to attack the flanks. On November 23 Thomas’ men seized rocky Orchard Knob, on the plain before Missionary Ridge. The next day, Hooker’s easterners successfully stormed the heights of Lookout Mountain, the left anchor of Bragg’s line. Sherman, however,
ran into trouble in his attack on the other Confederate flank, achieving few gains.
On November 25 Sherman was told to renew his offensive, but this time Grant ordered Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland to make a demonstration against the Confederate center to discourage Bragg from sending reinforcements to the fight on his flank. Four divisions of Cumberland troops stormed forward to seize the Rebel rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge. But once there, they came under a galling fire from the heights. Their casualties mounted. Suddenly,. seemingly on impulse, they began to claw their way up the rocky slopes. Turning to Thomas, Grant asked sharply, “Who ordered those men up the ridge?” “I did not,” Thomas replied. “They started up without orders,” an aide explained; “ when those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.” Promising that someone would suffer if the assault failed, Grant watched in silence.
What he saw was one of the spectacular feats of the war. Like a rising blue wave, the Yankees scrambled up the steep face of Missionary Ridge. For every man shot down, two took his place. Their bright battle flags crept ever closer to the crest. Then the wave lapped over the top, and Bragg’s troops, stunned at the audacity of the attack, turned and fled. Bragg had no choice but to order a retreat into northern Georgia. Chattanooga was delivered, and the Federals had taken a giant step toward final victory in the west.