Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet in Chattanooga, Part IV

Longstreet Portrait

ECW welcomes back guest author Ed Lowe

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What If…?

This brings up the question that what if Longstreet had decisively defeated Burnside at Campbell’s Station, reaching that vital road junction before Burnside and pinning his army up against the Tennessee River?

Grant did not initiate operations in Chattanooga until November 23, with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker taking Lookout Mountain.  The following two days saw Orchard Knob fall to Grant and the Union Soldiers charging up Missionary Ridge, driving Bragg’s forces toward Georgia the following day. Peter Cozzens in his book, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes, wrote that “it was the absence of a strong, mobile reserve with which to plug gaps along the ridge” that sparked Bragg’s withdrawal. One can well imagine Longstreet’s force arriving victorious from Campbell’s Station to provide such a “mobile reserve.” Larry Peterson writing on the critical decisions at Chattanooga opined that if Bragg had access to Longstreet’s forces, he could have placed his two divisions along Missionary Ridge, “where he could provide direct supervision and demand cooperation.” Not an unlikely scenario, either in a strong reserve position or atop Missionary Ridge.

It also begs the question would Grant had even mounted an offensive at all, knowing Longstreet had arrived back in Chattanooga? It is hard to fathom, given Grant’s propensity for offensive action, he would do anything different than what he executed.

Sherman arrived in Bridgeport on November 13 and went on to Chattanooga, reaching Grant on November 15. Most of Sherman’s four divisions still lagged behind several days after an arduous march from Vicksburg, across Mississippi and Alabama. As Grant biographer Ronald White pointed out, “Grant commanded eighty thousand men – Sherman’s four divisions, Thomas’s four divisions, Hooker’s three divisions, and two divisions to be held in reserve under Howard – nearly twice Bragg’s forty-two thousand troops.”

Nashville was still the central link for Grant and his communications with Washington, expressing concern that if the Confederates cut his telegraphic lines, he’d have trouble maintaining integrity within his command and messaging authorities in Washington. East Tennessee falling to the Confederates made this an all too real possibility.

It seems uncertain, out of Bragg’s character, to have attacked Grant if Longstreet arrived back in Chattanooga before Sherman’s troops arrived. The strong positions surrounding Chattanooga would give any commander a strong sense of confidence, looking down upon his enemy from the heights above. Improbable as it may seem, it does make one ponder if Grant would have withdrawn completely from Chattanooga, with Burnside’s army destroyed at Campbell’s Station. Losing East Tennessee completely, including Chattanooga, most likely would have dimmed his star in the eyes of Lincoln. Halleck may have remained as General-in-Chief for 1864, for example, and then all kinds of dominos fall. Does the Overland Campaign even occur? What about Sherman’s march to Atlanta and then subsequently to Savannah, a Christmas gift Sherman provided to Lincoln? Speaking of Lincoln, does he get reelected if Atlanta does not fall in September 1864, arguably a key U.S. victory that turned many voters back to Lincoln. With his reelection, the voters demonstrated support for the strategy he and Grant developed to end the war and restore the Union. Again, most improbable that Grant would have vacated completely Chattanooga. But, as he stated in his memoirs, “The first great blunder, detaching Longstreet, cannot be accounted for in any way I know.” Grant further quantified that had Bragg taken Chattanooga, “East Tennessee would have fallen without a struggle. It would have been a victory for us to have got our army away from Chattanooga safely.”

COL (ret) Ed Lowe served 26 years on active duty in the U.S. Army with deployments to Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Haiti, Afghanistan (2002 & 2011), and Iraq (2008). He attended North Georgia College and has graduate degrees from California State University, U.S. Army War College, U.S. Command & General Staff College, and Webster’s University. He is currently an adjunct professor for the University of Maryland/Global Campus & Elizabethtown College, where he teaches history and government. He is currently working on two books for Savas Beatie. The first covers Longstreet’s First Corps from Gettysburg to East Tennessee, and the second is an Emerging Civil War Series book on Longstreet’s East Tennessee Campaign. He is married with two daughters and lives in Ooltewah, Tennessee. He currently serves as President of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga Civil War Round Table, reconstituted in September of 2020.



Cozzens, Peter (1996). The Battles for Chattanooga: The shipwreck of their hopes. University of Illinois Press.

Daniel, Larry (2019). Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee failed. University of North Carolina Press.

Hess, Earl (2016). Braxton Bragg: The most hated man of the Confederacy.  University of North Carolina Press.

—. (2012) The Civil War in the West: Victory and defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. University of North Carolina Press.

—. (2012). The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee. University of Tennessee Press.

Longstreet, James (2004). From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Reprint. Barnes & Noble.

Peterson, Larry (2018). Decisions at Chattanooga: The nineteen critical decisions that defined the Battle. University of Tennessee Press.

Stoker, Donald (2012). The grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. Oxford University Press.

Sword, Wiley (1995). Mountains touched with fire: Chattanooga besieged, 1863. St. Martin’s Press.

Thomson, Brian, ed., (2002). The Civil War memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

U.S. War Department (1880-1891). The war of the rebellion: A compilation of official records of Union and Confederate armies. 128 vols. Washington, DC.

White, Ronald C. (2016). American Ulysses: A life of Ulysses S. Grant. Random House.

3 Responses to Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet in Chattanooga, Part IV

  1. Grant faced obstacle-after-obstacle during the Vicksburg campaign, and they didn’t deter him from his goal there. Did the outcomes of some of the engagements of the fabled “Overland Campaign” deter him from going on? No, they didn’t. I personally cannot imagine Grant not adapting to changing military realities in Tennessee, if some of the “What ifs” presented above had indeed taken place. As for Lincoln viewing Grant in a less favorable light, well, he knew by then that Grant got results. He also knew by late 1863 that he didn’t have to cajole Grant to go on the offensive. Now, all that said, if events had prevented the taking of Atlanta BEFORE the 1864 election, who knows what would have transpired as far as prosecuting the war? Obviously, we will never know.

    I have a “What if” of my own. What if Longstreet had gotten along with Bragg? I have been reading about both of them since I was a kid, and I have to admit that I still don’t know how to “peg” Longstreet. He is polarizing, in that he has very passionate proponents and detractors. There appears to be NO defined or single overriding opinion or belief about his performance. He had successes, and he had failures. WHY he had them is always subject to debate, as they always seem to be when it comes to Civil War leaders and their efforts. One thing I will openly question about Longstreet is his honesty (again, something that can be asked of quite a few CW participants). So much effort was put into “CYA” in the post-war period that reading the recorded scholarship about them often comes down to who does one believe? But there are claims by Longstreet that have no verification attached to them, such as his claim in his memoirs that Jeff Davis offered him Bragg’s gig as commanding general of The Army of Tennessee. There are other claims and assertions made by Longstreet in his career and in the post-war period that are not supported by anything or anyone. I stress again that he is not alone in that.

    Below is a link to a detailed series about Longstreet “going West” that appeared on this site a few years ago. All of the installments make for an insightful read.

    To you Ed Lowe, well done. I thoroughly enjoyed this series you have presented here.

    1. Thank you, sir and a great question of what if Longstreet and Bragg actually had gotten along. And thank you for sharing the link, too. Mendoza and his work on this same subject stated that Longstreet really could have made a name for himself when he left Lee’s army, corroborating and being a good subordinate, perhaps placing himself in a good view with the authorities in Richmond for a higher command. Makes for interesting talk, however. Thanks again. Ed

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