The Civil War Battles for Chattanooga

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In 1889 an uneasy reunion took place in the fields and forest near a fabled creek in North Georgia: a gathering between Union and Confederate veterans who had slaughtered each other in staggering numbers at that spot little more than twenty-five years earlier. Willing to set differences and loathing aside (albeit briefly), they convened for a barbecue and picnic – the first of many meetings at the old Chickamauga battlefield – to work toward establishing America’s first congressionally-preserved memorial battleground. It was the first of many meetings at the old Chickamauga battlefield, which in 1895 would became part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

The park, which encompassed several battlefields along the Georgia-Tennessee border, had been the site of some of the most important military turning points of the Civil War. Union and Confederate eyewitnesses to the 1862 and 1863 battles for Chattanooga had seen some of the best and worst of military skill, bravery, and bloodletting: A Yankee route and rebel stampede that resulted in two of the most humiliating retreats for either side in the entire war; heroic charges and forlorn stands, as well as tactical skill and strategic failure by Union and Confederate generals; and perhaps most memorable of all, the terrible carnage that was followed by a series of nearly bloodless victories and defeats. Indeed, the Chickamauga-Chattanooga battles played out almost as though scripted for a Greek tragedy.

The importance of what each side stood to gain and lose at Chattanooga in 1862 and 1863 cannot be overstated. Positioned along the border of the Upper South and Deep South, the city, remote as it was, served as the transportation nexus of the entire Confederacy. Railroads radiated out in four directions, connecting to points in Middle Tennessee, Georgia, the Mississippi Valley, and the Confederate seat of government in Virginia. Whoever controlled Chattanooga would be able to run (or block) supplies and reinforcements to almost any corner of the Confederacy.

Of perhaps even greater importance was the city’s role as a transportation gateway betwixt the nearly insurmountable Appalachian and Cumberland mountain ranges. To the south, beyond Chattanooga’s rugged passageway, lay the Military-Industrial Heartland of the Confederacy, a region that manufactured every material requirement needed for the South to sustain its rebellion. Without the machine shops, armories, arsenals, clothing depots, and gunpowder works in Georgia and eastern Alabama, the South’s long-term military survival was unthinkable.

Neither the Richmond nor the Washington government spared any expenditure of blood or treasure in the struggle to seize and hold Chattanooga. Elements from no fewer than six Union and Confederate armies participated in these campaigns. The 1863 battle of Chickamauga marked the largest clash fought west of the Appalachian Mountains in North America, and the bloodiest 48 hours of the entire war. Chickamauga proved to be the most complete Confederate victory ever won in the war’s western theater. This rebel triumph, however, was almost entirely undone several weeks later, following a series of relatively bloodless Federal victories surrounding Chattanooga. Retreating from the gates of the city that winter, Confederate survivors realized that their hold over the very heart of the western theater was quickly slipping from their grasp.

The consequences of Chattanooga’s loss proved so staggering that one of the Confederate army’s high-ranking commanders, Major General Patrick Cleburne, actually implored his colleagues to pursue a program of incorporating slaves into the South’s military service. The notion was vehemently denounced by nearly everyone who heard it, and rebel forces throughout the western Confederacy continued to trek along on a sixteen-month fighting retreat that only ended with the final surrender of the Army of Tennessee near Durham Station, North Carolina.

A hundred and fifty years later, despite the epic sweep of these events, they rank among the most often overlooked and most widely misunderstood campaigns of the American Civil War. Gateway to the Confederacy brings together a team of historians to offer fresh perspectives on the Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaigns, overturning decades of controversy and misconception that have trailed in the bloody wake of these battles. The book’s ten new essays, from among the most preeminent Civil War scholars working today, provide new understandings of the armies, tactics, common soldiers, politicians and commanders that governed the various battles, marches and sieges waged for Chattanooga, Tennessee and its mountain gateway into the Lower South. Each essay breaks new ground and sheds new light on aspects of these events long in need of reappraisal.

Professor Stephen Innes, the great American historian to whom this book is dedicated, taught his students that the study of history is best pursued through “a colloquy, or conversation with the past.” There is no better place to have that conversation than with the monuments at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Now under the protection of the National Park Service, this park remains the largest preserved battleground in America at more than 9000 acres, and it is among the most densely monumented battlefields anywhere in the world. Almost all of these monuments were left behind by the Civil War generation, as a way of speaking to us from across time. The monuments tell us who these men were, what they did, and where they left behind slain comrades. Above all, they implore us not to forget the human cost of the war itself.

Evan C. Jones is the co-editor, along with Wiley Sword, of the forthcoming collection Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863 (more information here).