» Up the Mountain
Entering Chattanooga from the south, you drive through a cut I-24 makes in Missionary Ridge, the spinal height lining the eastern edge of the city proper and on which the decisive battles for control of the city would be fought. Taking the Broad Street exit and drifting south points you towards the first series of tour stops up on Lookout Mountain, the Tennessee River winding around the broad exaggerated contours of Moccasin Bend.
Continuing up Lookout on the appropriately named Scenic Highway, the valley drops away beyond the road’s abrupt curves. About halfway up, the road evens to a shouldered ledge and the first stop: The Cravens House. It was here that the fight for this mountain fortress reached its peak. Fought on Tuesday, November 24, 1863, “The Battle Above the Clouds” was a sharp thick fight fought over nearly impossible terrain. The eventual Union victory here would spell the beginning of the end to The C.S. Army of Tennessee’s siege of Chattanooga, a smaller battle than the ones to come that was nonetheless awarded high poetic glory in its day. Standing on the porch of the rustic rebuilt Cravens House (the original structure having been all but destroyed during the November 24 battle), it is obvious why: the view evocative, poetic.
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By late November 1863, the demoralized U.S. Army of the Cumberland had looked up at Lookout Mountain for over two months, its crest like a taunting chin, a symbol of their signal defeat and frenzied retreat into Chattanooga following the horrific Battle of Chickamauga fought in the hills of north Georgia that September.
The victorious C.S. Army of Tennessee, a much-maligned if unquestionably brave force, had taken hold of Lookout, Missionary Ridge and the valleys flanking both heights within days of that victory—having enveloped the city and the Cumberland army within. Any attempts at re-supply were forced to drive over arduous mountain routes to the north. Moreover, these trails proved impassable for U.S. wagon trains during rainfall and were left wide open to the elevated Confederate artillery as they neared the city (cannon that were more often simply aimed into the increasingly desperate Union ranks trapped below). And the cold driving rain fell in buckets throughout the fall of 1863.
This Union army was under siege. Barely subsisting on a quarter of their standard rations, the slowly starving ranks survived on a few crackers per day. Horses and pack mules were often stolen from quartermaster and artillery teams and slaughtered. Most went hungry. And if the hunger wasn’t enough, they could always look up to the Confederate cannon fixed atop the dark looming crest of Lookout—described by a correspondent as “an everlasting thunderstorm”— and be reminded of their lot.
Though the fight that wrested the key positions on Lookout Mountain from Confederate control was a statistically minor engagement (Union theatre commander, Ulysses S. Grant, himself dismissing it as an over-glorified skirmish: “one of the romances of the war”), the victory here proved so much more than its reality. It was a symbolic victory that ended The Army of the Cumberland’s season in hell.
» The Rifle Pits Trail
One of many NPS trails wraps around Lookout Mountain to the west of The Cravens House site. It quickly ducks into hardwood forest, running along a ledge about midday up Lookout Mountain. The trail’s progress overlooks a rock-strewn palisade, its massive rock outcrops, piles of eroding boulders and, at points, near vertical inclines illustrating the formidable terrain Union forces were to face in making their assault. This mile-long ledge also marks the left-most position of the Confederate defensive line on Lookout, what was on November 24, 1863, a line thinned by the years of bloody attrition. A U.S. division under the command of Joseph Hooker was sent up these rocky slopes to dislodge the undermanned line. Hooker, having recently been reassigned from the eastern theatre along with the troops in his command, would lead a force comprised of veterans who had fought to victory at The Battle of Gettysburg that July.
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By late October 1863, having been transported to and marched in from north Alabama these eastern troops had established the long coveted link with units of The Army of the Cumberland, having carried out an amphibious crossing of the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry on the night of October 27 and connecting with the besieged troops on the mentioned Moccasin Bend. The following night, Hooker’s force withstood a sharp and for the time rare night-time assault launched by C.S. General James Longstreet. The main thrust of the attack aimed at the small depot town of Wauhatchie located about halfway up the valley, and a mile south of the river. But by repelling this attempt to regain control of the valley, Hooker’s troops were left in full control of it and all approaches southwest of the city. The river crossing at Brown’s Ferry was secured and with it a supply route into Chattanooga. It would be dubbed “The Cracker Line” and would prove the beginning of the end to the investment of the city.
The U.S. forces had shifted to the offense. But still, the determined—if thinned—Confederates were in possession of Lookout and did not plan to leave without a fight. Grant, having been promoted to theatre command and now personally leading all Union forces in and around Chattanooga, brought along most of his previous command: The U.S. Army of the Tennessee. A lean battle-hardened force, they marched onto the scene with July’s hard-wrought victory at Vicksburg newly stitched onto their banners. From the now sizeable force at his disposal, Grant bolstered Hooker’s command of easterners with two more divisions: one division each from the Tennessee and Cumberland armies, who arrived along with orders for Hooker to take Lookout Mountain. On the morning of November 24, 1863, this force—then 3 divisions strong—moved out to do just that.
While Union forces in and around Chattanooga enjoyed the luxury of reinforcement, the Confederates endured a drawing down of resources—their numbers having been reduced, dramatically, since investing the city … That September, The C.S. Army of Tennessee had been reinforced by Longstreet’s I Corps: a significant force having been sent west temporarily from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to assist breaking the Union thrust then moving on the deep south. Longstreet’s command had, in fact, proven to be the wedge that broke the Union line at Chickamauga and helped seal the bloody Confederate victory. They had also proven integral in the chokehold that trapped The U.S. Army of the Cumberland within Chattanooga that fall, having taken up their positions along the banks of the Tennessee River, the valley west of Lookout (which included the Wauhatchie depot) and the heightened rims of the mountain itself. But by late November 1863, the C.S. line dotting the ledges of Lookout along today’s Rifle Pits Trail did so without Longstreet, and his proud corps.
In an attempt to relieve the mounting pressure on The Army of the Cumberland, President Lincoln had ordered the occupation of Knoxville about 100 miles northeast of Chattanooga. (This was also strategic in establishing a permanent presence in east Tennessee, the greater Appalachian area long known for its Unionist sympathies.) The occupation of Knoxville was accomplished in late September 1863. Braxton Bragg, the irritable, often vindictive, and as a result openly disliked commander of The C.S. Army of Tennessee, had—in the face of Grant’s swelling ranks—dispatched Longstreet (who had become one of Bragg’s most outspoken opponents) to check the Knoxville situation. Though billed by Bragg as having strategic merit, this left but a single division to defend the whole of the Lookout Mountain defenses—with only a lone brigade on its western face. Whatever advantage the Confederates may have drawn from elevated positions was nullified by a sheer lack of numbers; and on the morning of November 24, they found themselves overwhelmingly outnumbered. C.S. regimental commanders on the west-face could count 6 feet between each of their men dug into these rifle pits. And these men were now more under-supplied than the Union troops they held in siege: their clothes ragged, boots sole-less, half-rations at best—all while enduring the increasingly cold nights with nothing more than a blanket.
» The Cravens House
Hiking The Rifle Pits Trail back towards the grounds of The Cravens House generally follows the direction the right wing of the U.S. attack took in linking with it’s left, the left wing moving en échelon up Lookout’s northern face from positions along the river near the route of modern-day I-24. This two-pronged attack was the Union strategy on November 24, 1863, designed to bottle up and destroy the outgunned Confederates on the ledge where The Cravens House stands.
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A massive artillery barrage opened up the morning of November 24, 1863, thundering away ineffectively as it fired blind into the low-hanging fog and cloud-cover. The Confederates lining the western face of Lookout watched shells fall harmless before their positions. It was to their surprise then that the Union infantry came at them so effectively. Bogging through the valley swamps, huffing over huge rock outcrops and up sheer cliffs obscured in mist, the U.S. troops scaled terrain otherwise heavily wooded in assaulting the ragged Confederate rifle pit line.
The fight progressed better than Hooker could have hoped, his troops swarming with relative ease over the western face of the Mountain, taking hundreds of prisoners, whole regiments it seemed. Confederate cannon positioned on Lookout’s summit proved unable to depress the angle of their barrels low enough to offer any support, sharpshooters faring little better due to the uncertainty of targets moving apparition-like through the shroud of mist below. Those Southerners not captured, wounded or killed in the initial rush, fell back in disarray to a defensive line of trenches in-and-around The Cravens House.
By 1 pm, and despite a minimal reinforcement, this new line was also in danger of collapsing. The wings of Hooker’s assault were coming together, U.S. Potomac and Cumberland veterans moving in along Lookout’s western face, as the newly arrived veterans of The U.S. Army of the Tennessee moved up from positions near the river. And though the Federal advance was momentarily checked, once again their numerical advantage proved too much. A cold drizzle enveloped the scene, as an Illinois regiment on the Union right poured down the palisade from atop and behind the Confederate left flank near The Cravens House. The Southerners, realizing that their position was deteriorating, slowly began to fall back again. Union soldiers kept up the attack. And so began a stumbling, uncoordinated engagement that would engulf the foggy stone-studded woods on this north-face ledge of Lookout for the remainder of the day.
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The grounds of The Cravens House deserve additional mention. The house itself is of humble construction (again, a replication), but enjoys a world-class view—ironmaster Robert Cravens having picked himself quite a plot. Along with a number of the high vertical monuments here and atop the Mountain in Point Park, The Cravens House is clearly visible to those interstate travelers on I-24 W following the southerly loop bordering the Tennessee River. But the most unique facet of this site, is that the memorial-studded grounds honors as diverse a crosscut of Union troops as you’ll encounter on any field: Illinoisans, New Yorkers, Ohioans, Iowans. The force assembled to take Lookout was that most rare instance where units from all three of the Union’s main field armies were represented and fought side-by-side: the Cumberland, the Potomac, and the Tennessee. Confederate memorials are noticeably absent.
» Point Park
Turning right out of the road leading to-and-from the Cravens House drops you back on the Scenic Highway and eventually brings you to Point Park at Lookout’s summit. Though not integral as a battle site, it is a necessary stop if only due to the fantastic views of Chattanooga and its surroundings. Though no real fighting occurred here, it is still a key piece to the story providing both interpretive and visual context. C.S. battery positions are marked, several smoothbore Napoleons on display. Plaques describe the battles for Chattanooga in full, the view east of downtown encompassing the whole of the advance on, and fight for Missionary Ridge—itself a low dark line in mid-frame. But aside from high-up perspective, figuratively and literally, the summit of Lookout is a historical spot for another reason. A jutting ledge called The Overlook and the nearby formation of oddly stacked rocks were the backdrop for dozens of staged photographs of Union troops after the battle. Some stood with defiant looks, their rifles aimed down the rocky slopes. Others sit and stand in large groups and appear as if they were floating above the valley below. Perhaps the most memorable is of U.S. Grant and staff, the notoriously informal Union leader looking ragged, wearing a simple coat, a rumpled hat, the ever-present butt of a cigar wedged in his teeth.
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The fight for Lookout Mountain eventually ran out of steam on November 24, 1863: a tired, wet stalemate that ground to a halt. Both sides took up tentative lines and seemed content to take pot-shots at each other, most firing blind into the drizzling mist, nervous regiments firing off whole volleys at the sound of a twig snap.
Night-time brought a clearing of skies and a drilling cold. Bragg and the rest of the C.S. high command realized the situation atop Lookout as untenable, gave it up for lost and ordered its evacuation. The troops there would be needed in the defense of Missionary Ridge, the last great wall of Confederate resistance around Chattanooga. Around midnight, that evacuation began, a back-peddling which, aside from the winter lull in fighting, would not effectively end until the outnumbered Army of Tennessee had filed into the defensive lines surrounding Atlanta the following summer. But that was a winter encampment and a spring-time campaign away. There was still one significant clash—actually a series of clashes strung together on the mentioned heights—before either side could proclaim Chattanooga its own.
And as the Southerners began to file down from the mountainside, they were held witness to a rare natural phenomenon—one that many Confederates took as a bad omen: a complete lunar eclipse … Of course, Union troops would claim that the eclipse was a sign of victory being heaven-sent, the shifting tides of military fortune doing for individual perspective what rational scientific explanations of the era could not. But as dawn drew near, the Union troops had even more reason to believe “the signs.” Pickets and scouts were reporting that the Confederates had abandoned Lookout Mountain. A brigade had been sent up the slope to the summit and the area of today’s Point Park. The 8th Kentucky were the first troops to reach the crest and confirmed it vacant. As the sunrise broke cold and clear, the Union soldiers still hunkered down in the city were treated to a sight most had prayed for months to see: the Stars and Stripes unfurled atop Lookout’s crest. The previous day’s fight had been largely obscured from the valley below, rumor and random dispatches all that circulated through the Union ranks. Any doubts were now gone. As the worn Confederates continued to file into their new positions along Missionary Ridge, a thundering cheer rose to mock them: 50,000 U.S. troops cheering themselves hoarse at the sight of Old Glory.
The fight for Lookout Mountain had been decided. The battle for the Ridge was next.