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The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles…

The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga (1994)

by Peter Cozzens

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Civil War in the West (4)

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Chattanooga TN, was the site, in late fall of 1863, of a series of battles in the U.S. Civil War for not only the city but for the entryway to the inner South, the gateway to Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy. Just as Lincoln was focused on the Eastern war and the Army of the Potomac, Jefferson Davis was obsessed with what was happening in Virginia and with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But unlike Davis, Lincoln never lost sight of the strategic importance of the West; Lincoln constantly urged action on all his army commanders to liberate Tennessee and ordered reinforcements when necessary, while Davis and the Confederate War Department could hardly be bothered. Eventually Davis woke up, just before the battle of Chickamauga, when thanks to the inactivity on the Virginia front, Davis and Lee detached most of Longstreet’s Corps and sent them and Longstreet to Tennessee to reinforce Bragg. Longstreet’s First Corps played a major role in the defeat of the Federals at Chicakmauga Creek, and continued with Bragg’s Amy of the Tennessee in laying siege to Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland, which had retreated to Chatanooga and was trapped and starving there.

As everyone who reads the general histories of the U.S. Civil War knows, Grant rescued the Army of the Cumberland by opening what was known as the Cracker Road--an alternative supply route--to Chattanooga. Then he and his right-hand man, Sherman, nearly single-handedly drove the Confederates of of Missionary Ridge and started the retreat of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee back into Georgia and to eventual defeat at Atlanta. Yes, there was some bewilderment about just what happened in the final attack on the Confederate center--somehow things didn’t go quite as planned and maybe those Union troops just took it into their heads to charge up the ridge and win the day. Good boys. But overall, a great victory for Grant and Sherman, which led to Grant’s promotion to lieutenant-general and elevation as commander-in-chief over all the Union armies. It started the rise of the legend of the Trio Who won the War--Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. Bragg was the dummy, the incompetent, the bad guy.

That’s what you read even in the best of the general histories.

Cozzens has written an absolutely outstanding book, one that examines in detail the siege of Chattanooga and the several battles around the city such as the engagement at Wauhatchie, as Hooker was bringing in the lead elements of Grant’s Army, Hooker’s fight at Lookout Mountain, and the assaults on Missionary Ridge.

Grant lifted the siege of Chattanooga? Not quite. The daring plan to cross the Tennessee River and secure Brown’s Ford as a new supply route, conceived and organized before Grant ever set foot in Chattanooga, was that of Brigadier General William “Baldy” Smith of the Army of the Cumberland.


Not exactly your household name as far as the Civil War is concerned. But he along with picked troops led by Brigadier General William Hazen, who had led brilliantly at Chickamauga, secured the west bank of Brown’s Ferry. Grant arrived in enough time to approve the plan.

This critical movement was greatly aided by indifference that amounted to near-criminal negligence on the part of Longstreet, whose charge it was to guard the Tennessee and parts of the supply route from Lookout Mountain. For once, Bragg was on top of the situation and had issued orders for Longstreet to reinforce that area. Longstreet, convinced that he knew better, actually ignored Bragg’s orders--just simply pocketed the order--and did nothing, thus allowing the lodgment at Brown's Ferry and greatly contributing to the relative ease that Hooker enjoyed in bringing up the lead elements of the Union relief army.

As for Sherman, the genius: he was directed to take the north end of Missionary Ridge, specifically Tunnel Hill. Not only did he not do so--he for some baffling reason, mistook another, unimportant and irrelevant set of hills for Missionary Ridge and after great delay and hesitation--Cozzens repeatedly calls him timid--ensconced himself and his troops on the wrong ridge, after fighting a disgraceful engagement.

Thomas by this time was in Grant’s bad graces, but it was his Army of the Cumberland, not Grant’s, that took Missionary Ridge. Grant had issued a set of orders for the attack on the Confederate center that were suicidal. What saved the day and won the ridge was the understanding of the imbecility of the orders by the brigade and regimental commanders of the Union troops and by the common soldiers themselves. Thanks to ambiguity in the orders and sheer survival instincts on the part of the soldiers, the charge continued up Missionary Ridge and overcame the inept Confederate defenses.

Interestingly enough, Sheridan was one of the few Union division commanders who did NOT understand the necessity of moving forward, and caused huge casualties in his division by his indecisiveness.

So Much for The Trio That Won The War.

Cozzens has written one of the most outstanding books on the Civil War that I have ever read, and by this time, I’ve read quite a few. By this, his last book in the trilogy of the struggle for Tennessee, he has everything down pat. His prose is crystal clear, and his cartographer, Brier, finally did it right. There is a map of the Theater of Operations in the early chapters that is superb. All the other maps are equally excellent and finally, there are enough of them.

What is of equally great interest, along with descriptions of the fighting, is Cozzens quiet account of the command decisions on the part of both armies--and what happened after the battles. Longstreet’s incompetence at Chattanooga has been documented before, but I never read about it in such great detail. Bragg, granted, was an idiot as a field commander, but he was served poorly by subordinates who more interested in getting rid of him than in fighting the enemy; chief among those was Longstreet who was ambitious to replace Bragg as head of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Cozzens does a superb job of summing up the results of the fighting. Chief among them was the ascendancy of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan; Thomas was the main loser, since Grant had decided that Thomas was too slow and argumentative. Sherman’s poor performance was obvious to everyone there--but it was Grant who wrote the final report and Grant, as Cozzens shows, outright lied to save Sherman’s neck. The Army takes care of its own. And continues to do so to this very day.

I can not recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested both in the U.S. Civil War and in obtaining insight into the stupidity of adulating the military. ( )
3 vote Joycepa | Apr 8, 2009 |
This is the last of the trilogy that the author wrote about the major eastern battles in Tennessee. Most of his research came from letters and diaries of the participants. I found it hard to follow the descriptions of the movement of the battles since more maps were needed. The author was critical of Grant and his relationship with Thomas and his favoring Sherman. The author refutes the common accepted idea that Sherman was competent at Chattanooga which has been upheld by Grant in his memoirs. The author's description of the actions of the higher ranking officiers does help explain the chain of events during the battle. It also humanizes these officiers and perks interest in researching their stories. Once such example is General James Harrison Wilson. ( )
  dhughes | Oct 26, 2007 |
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Rocco, KeithIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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