Very early in the writing process for the book that became Battle Above the Clouds, the publisher, the editor, and myself all decided that instead of trying to encompass all of the fighting for Chattanooga into one ECW Series volume, we would do two books. The first volume, of course, covered the campaign up to and through the Battle of Lookout Mountain. “All Hell Can’t Stop Them” covered the rest of the fighting—the fighting for Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap. Though the time frame for Battle Above the Clouds was much longer, spanning the months of October and most of November, 1863, “All Hell Can’t Stop Them” spanned less than a week. The disparity in time, however, was more than offset by the increase in action.
Battle above the Clouds also covered important logistical efforts—not just the reopening of the Cracker Line (the Federal supply line into Chattanooga) but also in exploring the largely ignored Confederate logistical problems that so hampered Braxton Bragg’s and the Army of Tennessee’s ability to capitalize on their success or respond effectively as the Federal forces began flexing their own muscles again. Thus, the action in “All Hell Can’t Stop Them” cannot be viewed in a vacuum; the context of those Confederate limitations helps explain the outcome of the battle.
One of the events I was determined to highlight was the Federal cavalry raid on Cleveland, Tennessee, commanded by Col. Eli Long, because this raid had a significant strategic logistical component that, while not planned for or expected by Grant, severely impacted the entire Confederate War effort. Several times during the operations around Chattanooga, Grant suggested using a cavalry force to relieve pressure on Knoxville or to threaten Confederate communications along the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Not all of Grant’s ideas were practical—some were virtually suicidal—but they had to be postponed since the Federal cavalry was in such poor shape at that time. Accordingly, Grant shelved the concept until, near the end of November, he found he needed a way to keep Longstreet’s Rebels, then besieging Knoxville, from rushing south to reinforce the Bragg’s army confronting Grant once the Federals attacked. Cleveland, a stop on the Georgia & East Tennessee Railroad, offered Grant a chance to drive a wedge between these two forces.
Long’s mission seemed purely tactical, and rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as flashier, more consequential raids, but few such actions were as impactful. Copper is a vital war material. The Confederacy had limited supplies of that metal, and even more limited ability to process it. There was only one rolling mill capable of working sheet copper in the entire Confederacy, and it was located in Cleveland. Since the manufacture of percussion caps for rifles and pistols requires sheets of copper, that mill was a vital Confederate resource. Long’s raid destroyed it, creating a munitions crisis in the Confederacy for the rest of the war. While the destruction of the rolling mill was serendipitous, not planned, Long’s raid had a huge impact on the war. It was a story I wanted to tell.
Another fascinating aspect of the Chattanooga fighting was the interplay between the elements of no less than three Union armies: Joseph Hooker’s column, from the Army of the Potomac; William T. Sherman’s force, from the Army of the Tennessee; and George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. Together, these three elements made up Grant’s combined force of 80,000 men, operating in concert for the first time. Some elements worked well, others not so well. Grant’s initial reluctance to trust in any force but his own men under Sherman hampered his battle plan, especially when Sherman faltered; it took an unexpected success from the Cumberlanders and Hooker’s forces to produce a decisive victory.
That unlooked-for success was spun by Grant and his supporters into a carefully planned and superbly orchestrated triumph marketed as a hallmark of Grant’s military prowess, and Chattanooga certainly capped a year of victories sufficient to catapult Grant into command of all the Federal armies in 1864. But it was anything but superbly orchestrated. The original plan failed, and only a series of improvisations managed to carry the day. That story also needed to be highlighted.
All Hell Can’t Stop Them attempts to pack everything into the ECW series format, which is why I needed two books. Even so, writing these two volumes left me wanting to do more— which led directly to yet a third book, The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga, part of the World of Ulysses S. Grant Series from Southern Illinois University Press. Even though they are from different publishers, I think all three books complement each other in terms of subject matter and focus. Writing the first two helped me to hone my ideas concerning Grant at Chattanooga.
Then, I wanted very much to tell the story of the Army of the Cumberland here, which is reflected in the title. Defeated at Chickamauga, frustrated and besieged in Chattanooga, having lost their commander, William S. Rosecrans, the men of the Army of the Cumberland were determined to redeem their own fortunes during the fighting. They did so in spectacular fashion on November 25, 1863, charging up the forbidding slopes of Missionary Ridge without orders. When Grant, observing from Orchard Knob, asked Gordon Granger of the Union IV Corps who had ordered the charge, Granger replied that he had not, but, he added, when his men got started, “all hell can’t stop them.” That spirit inspired me.
Finally, I should say something about the Confederate side of the story. The Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg reached a nadir at Chattanooga. Despite winning the battle of Chickamauga, the subsequent lack of success and seeming stalemate led to frustration and recriminations. Long-standing feuds exploded into outright dysfunction. However, while I certainly had to tell enough of that story to allow the reader to make sense of what happened, I also felt that, unlike other aspects of the story, the troubles between Bragg and his officers were already well documented in other works. Whole books can and have been written on the Army of Tennessee’s command troubles: I did not need to plow that same furrow again.
Chattanooga suffers by comparison to other Civil War battles because, unlike so many of our battlefields, it is actually very difficult to tour the sites associated with the battles for Chattanooga, especially for large groups. Buses simply can’t go to Missionary Ridge and the Sherman Reservation, or even to the Cravens House, site of the hardest fighting on Lookout Mountain. Telling that story, and providing readers with some access to those sites, is the main reason for both books.
All Hell Can’t Stop Them: The Battles for Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge and Ringgold. November 24 – 27, 1863
by David A. Powell
Savas Beatie, 2019
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