The Battle of Chattanooga

Grant, Sherman, Thomas and Sheridan

A brief review of their contribution and talents during the Battle of Chattanooga, 23rd-25th November 1863.

 

Generals Granger, Grant, and Thomas (centre left) on Orchard Knob viewing the advance of the Army of the Cumberland.  (Painting by Thure de Thulstrup-Library of Congress
Generals Granger, Grant, and Thomas (centre left) on Orchard Knob viewing the advance of the Army of the Cumberland.
(Painting by Thure de Thulstrup-Library of Congress

Introduction.

As with other articles on this site dealing with generals and commanders it is my intention that they should be used only as a springboard to further research. The student should make his/her own decisions when it comes to evaluating both the character and contribution of individual leaders. The selected writings given below are only my own personal choices. I leave it up to the student to seek out his or her own material, and come to their own conclusions.

The campaign of Chattanooga brings together four of the great generals of the American Civil War, Ulysses Simpson Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Henry Thomas and Philip Henry Sheridan. Each one is shown by their respective biographers, and by Grant himself in his memoirs, as being set and determined in the common cause of ending the war. All four are also seen in the light of their reaction to one another in terms of their individual character on the battlefield.

Grant’s memoirs give a fascinating and lucid account of his military career, however one is left with the feeling that there was some strange magnetism that existed between him and Sherman. Indeed it appears at times like out and out favouritism at the risk to the feelings and advice of others. That Grant had become a mature commander there can be no doubt, but, even allowing for the tremendous responsibility that he carried, there are moments during the Chattanooga campaign when he considers Sherman’s views and opinions to the detriment of others, and of Thomas in particular.

Ulysses. S.Grant
Ulysses. S.Grant

When Thomas informed Grant that he had no means of moving his artillery, Grant tersely states that, “…nothing was left to be done…I could only urge Sherman forward, although he was making every effort to get forward.”1 But Grant was well aware of the problems facing Thomas, and had stated himself that, “…the animals had been starved.”2

 

That Grant wanted Sherman to have the glory of leading the assault on the Confederate position is all too clear, and he even kept Thomas in the dark as far as some troop movements were concerned: As he wrote to Sherman, “I will add, however, what is not shown in my instructions to Thomas, that a brigade of cavalry has been ordered here which, if it arrives in time, will be thrown across the Tennessee (River) above Chickamauga, and may be able to make the trip to Cleveland or thereabouts.”3 This back-door attitude was no way to treat a man like Thomas.

From Chapter XLII to Chapter XLV, Grant harps on about Sherman, Sherman, Sherman, with but fleeting reference to other commanders. All together Grant mentions Sherman’s name over forty times. Even when the battle was won, Grant says no word of praise for either Hooker or Thomas, but instead he relates how he and Sherman spent the evening of the 28th November together in Graysville, and that on the 29th, “I then found that Thomas had not yet started Granger, thus having lost a full day which I deemed of so much importance.”4 If he deemed it of so much importance, why was he not with Thomas himself – why go off with Sherman? Grant really can see no wrong in Sherman, but what exactly did Sherman do at Chattanooga?

William T. Sherman
William T. Sherman

B.H. Liddell Hart, in his work, Sherman, Soldier, Realist, American, comments on the fact that at Chattanooga both Grant and Sherman were, “…loyal to each other, indulged too ingenuously in the ‘general’ habit of talking as if all had gone according to plan. And they suffered like other generals on the rebound.”5 There he leaves it. Liddell Hart then goes on to say that Sherman has been criticized for trying to get on Missionary Ridge rather than get around it, and that, “…this too direct direction was implicit in Grant’s plan and rather shadowy instructions.”6  Well one would expect Liddell Hart to bring-in the ‘direction,’ airing his own favourite military stratagem, “The Indirect Approach,” however, he gives Sherman three alternatives: 1. To hold his ground; 2.To attack; 3. To move on the enemies rear.7 Just where Liddell Hart gets these alternatives we will never know. Sherman was told to attack Missionary Ridge – plain and simple.8 Liddell Hart concludes that Sherman hypnotized the enemy, and caused them to weaken their centre to prevent this massive flank attack (which never materialised), resulting in its collapse.9 But it was the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg himself who, by diminishing his forces by sending troops to Knoxville, in the face of a superior enemy on his own front, had caused his whole position to be compromised.

Liddell Hart’s attempt to cover for Sherman is not convincing. Sherman had sixteen full brigades, but he used only six.10 This was because, according to Liddell Hart, ‘ To throw more men directly (note that word again!) at Missionary Ridge would have been to throw away more lives.”11 No commander worth his rank would ‘throw away lives,’ what Sherman failed to do was to keep up the pressure. He went over to the defensive, and I personally think that he was still, at this time, afraid of failure, to himself more than to anyone or anything else.Liddell Hart says that, ‘…one valid criticism of Sherman at Chattanooga was that he did not need as many troops to use purely for distraction.12 But I suspect that he piled-up his forces more for security than for any other reason.

And what of General George H.Thomas at Chattanooga?  I do indeed feel for this tough old soldier, who put this country before his state. He always seems to be between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place,’ and although he himself was a “Rock,” he had to take a lot of psychological pounding during his career. Grant never gives him any real credit in his memoirs, and we are left with Freeman Cleaves biography, The Rock of Chickamauga, The Life of General George H. Thomas, to try to understand the character of the man. This is not easy, as Cleaves has put together thumbnail sketches and second hand impressions of what others have said or written about Thomas. At times the reader is taken away from the main participant altogether for want of filling out the narrative. In Chapter XI ‘Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge,’ Cleaves takes us back and forth from Rosecrans to Lincoln, and from Grant to Sherman, using Thomas as a branch to alight upon briefly before moving on to the various stages of the campaign and battle, and although Cleaves gives the reader a clear picture of Thomas as the stoic subordinate, one always gets the impression that something is missing in regard to a fuller understanding of the man. Oh that Thomas had not burned his letters and papers, then a more comprehensive and critical study of his personality and capabilities would have been available to the historian.

George H. Thomas
George H. Thomas

Bruce Catton’s work, ‘Grant takes Command,’ is, as one has come to expect from this fine historian, a distinctive and dynamic portrayal of Grant’s generalship. There is however always a feeling of hero-worship in Catton’s writing, even though his style is such that one has to admit that he does indeed bring out a true feeling for the man and his time. As with Grant’s memoirs, Catton takes pains to cover Sherman’s back against any idea of dilatoriness in his attack on Missionary Ridge, but if one reads between the lines it becomes clear that Catton is also concerned about Sherman’s true motives, ‘Meanwhile there was Sherman, who was supposed to have a principle part in the battle and who on November 24th contributed nothing to the legend but something to the misunderstanding.’13 Here, without coming out openly and accusing Sherman of tardiness, Catton deftly edges around the subject, almost an “Indirect Approach” one could say!

With the above being said, Catton does put flesh on the bones of Civil War history, and my only real complaint is with his treatment of Thomas. There is a condescending trait that seeks to appease Thomas for whatever Grant may have done or said about him when Catton writes, ‘When Pap Thomas swung his hammer and the Confederates lost the battle.’14 As if Grant looked upon Thomas as some latter day Thor, or rustic blacksmith. It was not Thomas but Sherman who Grant wanted to strike the decisive blow.

Roy Morris Jr work, Sheridan, The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, gives a very balanced account of a very mercurial character. However much one would like to believe that Sheridan did his best at the battle of Chickamauga (19th-20th September 1863), there is still Morris’s point that he, ‘…exaggerated both the speed and the depth of the Confederate penetration,’  ((Roy Morris Jr, Sheridan, The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, page 133)) and it is interesting to compare what Colonel Silas Miller wrote about Sheridan’s division which, ‘…through no fault of his (Sheridan’s) went into the fight on Sunday with no more show than a broken-backed cat in hell without claws.’15 Just where the fault lay is debateable, Sheridan, being the divisional commander must have known its fighting capabilities? Morris makes the point that while others were making a fight of it with what they had, ‘…Conspicuously absent from this last ditch defence was Sheridan.’16 That he returned to the field, albeit far too late to make any contribution, seems as if he was trying to make amends for his rapid departure. Morris also tells us that, what I personally think was to save face, Sheridan ordered three soldiers to be shot for deserting at Chickamauga,17 just what, in effect, he had done himself!

Philip H.Sheridan
Philip H.Sheridan

Sheridan’s character seems very charismatic, and Morris, intentionally or not, brings out a great deal of the, “look at me” type of posing and posturing that made up this strange little man. Toasting his enemy at Chattanooga with, ‘…Here’s at you,’ even when his words could only be heard by his staff, and then, when an enemy shell showered him with dirt,  ‘That’s damn ungenerous! I shall take those guns for that,’18 smacks of too much noise and bravado, possibly with the intention of covering previous mistakes. Having said this, there can be little doubt that if Sherman had followed Sheridan’s example when attacking Missionary Ridge, then Grant’s “prodigy” would indeed have been the first on top.

I was pleased to find that my views on Sherman’s contribution at Chattanooga were also those shared by the National Park Civil War Series, ‘ Sherman’s dawdling was Cleburne’s salvation,’ and ‘ Sherman was in the throes of indecision,’ and again, ‘Sherman’s poorly planned assault.’19 Thus, Sherman’s contribution to the battle must be marked down as no more than a second-rate holding action.

 

Bibliography.

Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, Library of America, 1990
Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command, (part two of the Pulitzer prize winning study), paperback edition, Little, Brown and Company, 1969
Freeman Cleaves, The Rock of Chickamauga-The Life of General George H.Thomas, paperback edition, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978
B.H.Liddell Hart, Sherman, Soldier, Realist, American, paperback edition, De Capo Press, 1993
Roy Morris, Jr, Sheridan, The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, paperback edition, Vintage Civil War Library, 1993
Peter Cozzens, This Terrible Sound, The Battle of Chickamauga, University of Illinois Press, 1992
Peter Cozzens, The Battle for Chattanooga, National Parks Civil War Series, Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association, 1996

 

  1. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, page 425 []
  2. Ibid, page 422 []
  3. Ibid, page 428 []
  4. Ibid, page 453 []
  5. B.H.Liddell Hart, Sherman, Soldier, Realist, American, page 218 []
  6. Ibid, page 218 []
  7. Ibid, page 219 []
  8. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, page 431 []
  9. B.H.Liddell Hart, Sherman, Soldier, Realist, American, page 220 []
  10. Ibid, page 220 []
  11. Ibid, page 221 []
  12. Ibid, page 211 []
  13. Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command, page 76 []
  14. Ibid, page 84 []
  15. Quoted in Peter Cozzens, This Terrible Sound, The Battle of Chickamauga, page 389 []
  16. Roy Morris Jr, Sheridan, The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, page 133 []
  17. Ibid, page 140 []
  18. Ibid, page 145 []
  19. Peter Cozzens, National Park Civil War Series, Chattanooga, page 37 []

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