The Fight for Tennessee: Battles at Chickamauga, Chattanooga & Knoxville

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  • 0:52 Early Union Success
  • 1:48 Chickamauga
  • 3:53 The Siege at Chattanooga
  • 5:00 Lookout Mountain &…
  • 6:38 One Last Detail: Knoxville
  • 7:17 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss the military campaign in Tennessee, including the battles at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. We will also see how the progress of the Civil War was affected by this important campaign.

The Importance of Chattanooga

The saga for the control of south Tennessee began in June 1863. The Confederacy was holding Chattanooga, and the Union desperately wanted to capture the city. Chattanooga was a key Confederate railroad and supply hub, essentially a gateway to the South, and a large percentage of food, weapons, munitions and other necessities flowed through the city straight to the Confederate army. The Union wanted to cut off that supply and control the gateway.

Two generals, Major General William S. Rosecrans for the Union and General Braxton Bragg for the Confederacy, faced off over Chattanooga and prepared themselves and their men for a long, hard fight.

Early Union Success

At the beginning, the Union took the upper hand. On June 24, Rosecrans led his 70,000 men to meet Bragg at Tullahoma, Tennessee, about 80 miles northwest of Chattanooga. Bragg thought he was ready for the Union onslaught, but he fell for one of Rosecrans' tricks. Rosecrans had sent a small unit to one side, making Bragg think that the attack would come from that direction. It didn't. The rest of the Union force flowed into Tullahoma while Bragg pulled back, out of the city and toward Chattanooga.

In mid-August, Rosecrans was on the move again, heading towards Chattanooga. Once again, he outmaneuvered Bragg, who quickly retreated, leaving Chattanooga in Union hands. Rosecrans was elated with his easy victory, but there was a harder struggle just over the horizon.

Chickamauga

About 30 miles from Chattanooga, Bragg was formulating a battle plan and welcoming reinforcements led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Rosecrans also called for reinforcements, and when he received them, he moved out to meet Bragg at a little stream called Chickamauga, the 'River of Blood.'

The Union made their first charge on September 19, 1863. All day long Union and Confederate soldiers hammered each other, attacking again and again. Hundreds of men fell dead and wounded, and fresh troops rushed in to take their places. The fight only halted when night fell.

The next day, September 20, the Confederates once again began slamming into the Union line. Bragg wanted to smash the Union left and trap Rosecrans. Major General George Thomas was in charge of the Union left and his men were fighting hard to hold their position. Rosecrans sent more and more reinforcements to Thomas, until he realized that something horrible had happened. There was a huge gap right in the middle of the Union line! The Confederates saw it, too, and they poured in by the thousands, shattering the Union line. Union soldiers fled in all directions.

Thomas didn't know what was going on further down the line. He was concentrating on the battle right in front of him, and he ordered his men to dig into Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill and hold on. Wave after wave of Confederates attacked, and the Union soldiers soon realized they were nearly out of ammunition. Luckily, two reserve units came up just in time to help.

With their fresh men and ammunition, Thomas was able to hold out until dark, earning the nickname 'Rock of Chickamauga.' Then, under the cover of bayonet attack by three brave Union regiments, Thomas and his men slipped quietly into the night. By the end of the day, over 18,000 Confederate and 16,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded or missing.

The Siege at Chattanooga

The Union army hurried back to Chattanooga with the Confederates in hot pursuit. The Southerners formed a line around the town, setting up headquarters on Missionary Ridge and another stronghold on Lookout Mountain. Chattanooga was under siege.

Rosecrans, stunned and confused by his defeat at Chickamauga, was unable to form a plan. General Ulysses S. Grant was called in to take charge. He replaced Rosecrans with Thomas but kept the primary leadership role for himself. He quickly opened a supply line through the siege and began planning to drive the Confederates away and hold onto Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, Union Generals William T. Sherman and Joseph Hooker arrived in Chattanooga with fresh troops. On the Confederate side, Bragg sent Longstreet to nearby Knoxville to prevent Union General Ambrose Burnside from coming to Grant's aid. This proved to be a mistake, for Bragg now only had 40,000 men at Chattanooga to Grant's 60,000, and Grant had a plan.

Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge

Grant began by moving Sherman's troops out of the city and off to the north. They appeared to be heading to Knoxville, but really, they were preparing to attack the Confederates on Lookout Mountain. Bragg fell for the ruse and did not ready his troops to defend themselves.

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