Discussion You Probably Have No Idea How the Battle for Chattanooga Was Really Won.

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Rhea Cole

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
YOU PROBABLY HAVE NO IDEA HOW THE BATTLE FOR CHATTANOOGA WAS REALLY WON.

lookoutmountainhw.jpg


Harper's Weekly illustration of Hooker's attack on Lookout Mountain.

There has never been a battle quite like the November 23-25 1863 fight for control of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Everything about it reads more like a work of fiction, history is never that dramatic. What could be more fanciful than a scene opening with one army perched a thousand feet up on a ridge. Below them, in a great bend of a river, their besieged opponent's defenses were laid out like a map. The only thing that could make the view more dramatic would be a full moon shining down from a crystal clear sky... with a full eclipse. That, of course, is exactly what happened.

The Confederate infantrymen of the Army of Tenneseess that gazed down at the campfires of their enemy & up into a sky filled with stars and a full moon were happy to be there. Their camp on the southern side of the ridge had become a bottomless bog. The top of the ridge might be windswept, but at least their feet were dry. It says a lot about the morale of the Confederate troops who manned the defenses that ran along the top of Missionary Ridge that their letters & diaries are full of dread. The eclipse was seen as a harbinger of doom.

Unknown.jpeg

Lookout Mountain with Orchard Knob on the right side of the image. The rocky point in the illustrations above is on the right summit of the mountain. Harper's Weekly Illustration.

Looking up from below, the men of the Army of the Cumberland had every reason to be depressed. The giant bushwhacking battle along Chickamauga Creek a few weeks before was a confused bloodletting that ended with the Cumberlanders retreating into Chattanooga. With their backs to the Tennessee River, on the night of the 22nd they gazed upward to a ridge & mountaintop wreathed in the glowing smoke of their enemy's camp fires. Mules, dogs & rats had all but disappeared from their camps, eaten to augment their meager rations. The arrival of General U.S. Grant & the opening of the "Cracker Line" had brought them full stomaches & new hope for victory. They saw the full eclipse as a harbinger of their enemy's inevitable defeat. As Napoleon said, morale is ten times more powerful than anything else on a battlefield.

The days following the omen of the lunar eclipse, uphill battles of the most dramatic kind imaginable followed on each other's heels. General Hooker Army of the Potomac veterans took Lookout Mountain. In one of those history is stranger than fiction events, Generals Grant, Sherman, & George Thomas made a personal reconnaissance of the eastern end of Missionary Ridge without recognizing that Tunnel Hill was separated from the main ridge by a deep rift. Sherman's Army of Tennessee regiments were stymied by a combination of unexpected terrain & hard fighting by General Patric Cleburne's men. Last, but not least, George Thomas' Army of the Cumberland swarmed up Missionary Ridge & routed the defenders.

If all that was not dramatic enough, Generals Grant & Thomas stood atop Orchard Knob & watched the whole thing unfold in front of them. For sheer drama, there has never been anything like it. Everybody who has ever read even the most elementary of Civil War histories knows what happened. But almost nobody knows how it was done. The answer involved nothing more than what amounts to a tablecloth tied to a broom handle.

Signal station Lookout Mountain.jpeg

Harper's Weekly illustration of Chattanooga & Missionary Ridge from the Cameron Hill signal station. Bragg's headquarters was a small white house atop the left end of Missionary Ridge. Lookout Mountain is just starting to rise on the right edge of the illustration. The Tennessee River can just be glimpsed as it rounds Moccasin Bend directly across the river from Lookout Point.

There is a whole aspect of the Battle of Chattanooga that none of the tens of thousands of visitors to Lookout Mountain ever give a thought to. Just how did General Grant, General Thomas, General Sherman & General Hooker coordinate their attacks. How did Grant, atop Orchard Knob, know what was happening on the miles wide battlefield. If you look at a map or have ever gazed out from Point Park, you know he wasn't sending and receiving messages from mounted aides unless their horses were nimble as mountain goats or exceptional swimmers. Even today, driving from Moccasin Point to Orchard Knob & on up to Point Park is time consuming. How did Grant observe, orient, decide what to do & act on what he could observe from his unprecedented general's hill?

Map Signal Stations Chattanooga.jpeg


The Key to answering the question of how General Grant managed his battle is found on this map of Chattanooga. The black flags with the white centers are signal stations. Using flags during the day & turpentine torched during the night, signalists transmitted messages at the speed of light. Before the signal net was set up, a message from General Thomas to Rosecrans' HQ took a series of horsemen 13 hours each way. After visual communication was established, messages were sent, read & a response was received in a total of 45 minutes.

I explain what that means to children at Signal Corps living history programs this way:

'Mom, can we have hot dogs for lunch?' Over a day later, she says, 'Yes, you can. Do you want chili to put on them?' Over a day later, 'Yes, thank you.' Over a day later, 'I will get some chili & hot dogs from the store. Do you want anything else?' About a week later, you do get to have hot dogs for lunch. That is the best illustration I know to explain what the unprecedented change visual signals & the telegraph brought to this battlefield.

Fortunately, one of the cavalrymen who manned the courier line at Chattanooga has left us a vivid narrative of what it took to deliver a message.

Trooper. Williams Chattanooga.jpeg

The visual signal net reached all the way from Chattanooga to Nashville. On a cold, clear night that was ideal for sending signals by torchlight, it took an hour & forty-five minutes for a signal from General Grant to reach the State House [capitol building] station in Nashville. Typical of the stations along the line was Fort Transit, atop a tall hill called Pilot Knob, ten miles east of Murfreesboro. Confederate Captain Broomfield Ridley described it.

Ridley, Fort Transit.jpeg


From their treehouse atop the giant elm, the signalists of Fort Transit surveyed a sweep of country that would not be excelled until the age of flight. As it is, from the top of Pilot Knob, a modern day visitor can clearly see the lights of aircraft landing & taking off from Nashville International, 40 miles to the Northwest. What good would it do to have eyeballs on thousands of square miles of Middle Tennessee if there was no map coordinates to fix the location of a sighting? It just so happened that the Army of the Cumberland had the best topographical unit in the world.

Thomas' topographical .jpeg

The signalists of the Army of the Cumberland were not totally occupied with sending & receiving the constant flow of messages that you would expect an army to generate. They also were spying on & recording the messages being sent from present day Point Park to the little white house Bragg occupied on Missionary Ridge.

General Hardee's message Chattanooga.jpeg


This intercepted message was music to the tone deaf General Grant's ears. What General Hardee was telling General Bragg was exactly what Grant wanted him to say. The demonstration on Raccoon Mountain was intended to divert Bragg's attention from Sherman's night time crossing of the Tennessee River. A signal was sent to Sherman via the Cranes Hill station telling him that his crossing would be unopposed. The Confederates had taken the bait.

fire on the summertown road.jpeg


From his HQ atop Orchard Knob, General Thomas sent a message to the Fort Whitaker station & the 20 pound Parrott rifles of the battery responded almost immediately. The gunners, who were from the garrison at Fort Negley near downtown Nashville, cut their fuses at 22 seconds. I don't know how far that is, the fire table for our 6 pound smoothbores only goes up to 5 seconds. The entire Chattanooga area had been surveyed by A.o.C. engineers. The gunners at Fort Whitaker & any other battery that could bring fire to bear, knew exactly what was expected of them. Referring to the map above, you can imagine the shock & chagrin of the Confederates huffing & puffing up the Summertown Road when 20 pound shells began exploding above them.

We don't have a personal account form the men on the receiving end of General Thomas' Summertown Road fire mission. We do, however, have a vivid description of what it was like to be the target of the Fort Whitaker Parrotts.

Lt Crosby... sank the trail of one of (the 20 pound Parrotts) in the ground elevating the muzzle sufficiently to explode some shells directly over the summit of the mountain. One day we noticed a signal officer on the point of Lookout, signaling to Gen. Bragg's headquarters on Missionary Ridge, & Lt. Crosby was about to fire at him when I requested him not to do so in order that I might try to read his message. I called off the numbers to one of my flagmen, who wrote them down & afterwards compared them to the Confederate code which had been given me... (Later) I said I had no objection to his firing at the flag, which he did, the shell exploding very near it, & we saw it no more... The signal station was probably moved further back on the summit where we could not see it as communication was still kept up with Missionary Ridge.

Eastman Lookout Mountain.jpeg


In battle, the commander who can observe, orient, decide & act first has a vital advantage over his opponent. Incredible as it may be, General Bragg learned of the Army of the Cumberland's attack up Missionary Ridge from a 12 pound ball fired from a captured cannon that bounded through the front door of his headquarters. General Thomas, on the other hand received a message in realtime from the ridge.

Granger from Missionary Ridge.jpeg

While Bragg could do little more than try to save himself, General Grant was able to send orders directly to Hooker & Sherman in real time. In typical Grant fashion, he laid out exactly what he wanted them to do. Unlike Bragg's generals who were wandering around in the dark, desperately trying to bring some order to the chaos on their own, Sherman & Hooker knew exactly what was expected of them. General Thomas was in direct communication with Granger on top of the ridge. The all important exploitation of the astounding success of the A.o.C. assault was not going to be frittered away. As the moon rose over the extraordinary scene below, signal torches arced back & forth, back & forth to Orchard Knob & back again.

That is how the Battle of Chattanooga was won by men armed with no more than bits of cloth or simple torches attached to poles. Truth is all so much stranger than fiction.

Note:

I wrote this post using information I have collected for use in National Park programs about Signal Corps activities during the Battle of Chattanooga. That accounts for the somewhat odd format. Standing on the site where the 20 pound Parrotts were fired from & looking up at Point Park, you gotta say, that was some shooting, sure enough.
 
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Rogue

Corporal
Joined
Apr 21, 2018
Location
Indiana
Thanks for the very interesting information. It is quite amazing to think about how they got things done. I have never been to visit this battlefield, but it is definitely on the top of my list. I have always been fascinated with this battle. Thanks for bringing more of the story alive for me.
 

Rhea Cole

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Thanks for the very interesting information. It is quite amazing to think about how they got things done. I have never been to visit this battlefield, but it is definitely on the top of my list. I have always been fascinated with this battle. Thanks for bringing more of the story alive for me.
It is my privilege, glad you enjoyed it.
 
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