Stones in the Road: “The Situation Was Not Promising”

Part four in a series.

Early on the morning of September 22, 1863 Phil Sheridan’s division limped into Chattanooga. Their defeat only two days before along the banks of Chickamauga Creek was wearing heavy on the men as they took their assigned places in the city’s entrenchments. Sheridan remembered “The enemy, having now somewhat recovered from the shock of the recent battle, followed carefully and soon invested us close inot our lines with a parallel system of rifle-pits. He also began at once to erect permanent lines of earthworks on Missonary Ridge and to establish himself strongly on Lookout Mountain”. These two eminences commanded the city, Lookout Mountain to the southwest and Missionary Ridge to the southeast. They were separated by Chattanooga Creek, a tributary of the Tenessee River.

View from a Rebel Battery on Lookout Mountain. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
View from a Rebel Battery on Lookout Mountain. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Little Phil established his headquarters on the property of a Union sympathizer named William Crutchfield. He wrote “The position taken up by my troops inside the lines of Chattanooga was near the old iron-works, under the shadow of Lookout Mountain. Here we were exposed to a continual fire from the enemies batteries for many days, but as the men were well covered by secure, though simple entrenchments, but little damage was done…my…camp frequently received shots from the point of Lookout Mountain…I am free to confess at first our nerves were often upset by the whirring of twenty pounder shells dropped inconsiderably into our camp at untimely hours of the night”.

Adding to the annoying shellfire was Mother Nature. The skies opened and rain turned the earthworks into mud, not to mention the roads by which the Army of the Cumberland was precariously filtering supplies into their lines. By the end of the month, only two routes remained opened to provide succor to the army. Predictably, morale began to plummet in the ranks.

On September 28, in consequence for the their recent actions at Chickagmauga Maj. Generals Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden, commanding the XX and XI Corps, respectively, were relieved of their commands. The two corps were then merged to create the IV Corps with Maj. General Gordon Granger at its head. As a result of the reorganization, Sheridan’s division became part of Granger’s corps. In the words of Sheridan, the transfer “necessitated a change of position of the divsion, and I moved to ground behind our works with my right resting on Fort Negley and my left extending well over toward Fort Wood, my front parallel to Missionary Ridge”.

One might expect that the reorganization would have been enough to prod army commander Maj. General William S. Rosecrans to action. As the days past, the Yankees remained idle in their works. This lack of activity, coupled with the results of the recent battle, alarmed members of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, especially Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Five days before McCook and Crittenden were relieved, Stanton ordered reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac to proceed to the besieged city. The troops chosen for the endeavor were the XI and XII Corps. They would be under the command of Maj. General Joseph Hooker, who had recovered from his defeat at Chancellorsville in May. Hooker arrived in Stevenson, Alabama on October 3, southwest of Chattanooga. Still, Rosecrans did not act.

On October 7, the Confederates shut down one of the remaining two supply lines leading into Chattanooga. Things were growing desperate and the situation required action. The loss of Chattanooga would be a major strategic blow for the Federals. The city was a logistical hub that could potentially be used as a springboard for future operaiotns into the Deep South. Losing it would offset gains made earlier in the year. Stanton knew that Rosecrans had to be replaced. In his mind, there was only one man who could lift the siege.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton was instrumental in the removal of Rosecrans. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton was instrumental in the removal of Rosecrans. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To the Lincoln administration, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was a proven commodity. He had captured Fts. Henry and Donelson in the late winter of 1862 and that summer captured the city of Vicksburg, effectively closing the Mississippi River for Confederate use. On October 16, a decision was made to combine the three western departments of the Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee into the Middle Military Division under the command of Grant. With the appointment came the decision to either retain Rosecrans or place Maj. General George Thomas at the head of the Army of the Cumberland. Grant chose Thomas.

A week after Lincoln’s cabinet met to make the decision to appoint Grant to head the new department, the Ohioan reached Chattanooga. His arrival would have tremendous consequences for the Yankees bottled up inside the city. For Phil Sheridan, it marked the beginning of a new phase of his military career. The first chapter would be written along the slopes of Missionary Ridge.

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