In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Union Strategy for Chattanooga

For 6 weeks after the Tullahoma operations ended, Union Gen. Rosecrans held his Army of the Cumberland in camps at the foot of the Cumberland Mountains. During this period, he considered various plans for attacking Bragg's army, which had retreated to Chattanooga.

In drawing up his plans for his operations against Bragg, Rosecrans considered two options: One was to attempt a direct attack on Chattanooga and take it by a lengthy siege. The other was to flank Bragg out of Chattanooga and force him to abandon his strongholds one by one, much like he had done successfully in the Tullahoma Campaign.

The first plan was discarded, because it was the one most obvious to Bragg, and therefore the one for which Bragg was prepared. Indeed, from Chattanooga, Bragg was ready to utilize rail lines to all important points under Rebel control. With transportation in his favor, Bragg could quickly move reinforcements where needed, while Rosecrans would have to approach Chattanooga through rough, and inhospitable country, over rocky mountain ranges, far away from his base of supplies. Also, Bragg could concentrate his entire army at the Federals' point of crossing the Tennessee River.

Rosecrans wasn't going to give in to Bragg's expectations for an attack from the north. Chattanooga, the door to the Deep South, was of utmost importance to both armies. Rosecrans's strategy had to win from Bragg this gateway to East Tennessee and Northern Georgia. And to accomplish the task, he was going to need to outthink Bragg.

To understand the magnitude and significance of the campaign, it's important to understand the topography of the country. For this information, I'm relying on an army historian who was there at the time, Henry Martyn Cist,* with additional notations to reflect present day place names.

Panoramic view from Lookout Mountain, overlooking Chattanooga, 1864
By George N Barnard

Source: Wikipedia

From his base below the Cumberland range Rosecrans's army faced Chattanooga to the southeast. However, immediately in his front was the first great barrier—the Cumberland Mountains—a lofty and rocky range dividing the waters flowing into the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. The range rises far to the north and extends southwest into Alabama. North of Chattanooga the mountains are much bolder, more difficult to cross, with sheer cliffs on either side.

Chickamauga Campaign, 1863
Source: War of the Rebellion Atlas
Beyond the main range, in the direct route to Chattanooga, the Sequatchie River flows south through the Sequatchie Valley, formed by another range, Walden's (or Walling's) Ridge, jutting off to the east from the main range, and between it and the Tennessee River. It connects to the Tennessee River in steep and rocky bluffs.

South of the river, and separated from the mountain ranges north by this river, are the 2 ranges known as Sand and Lookout Mountains. The northern end of Sand Mountain is called Raccoon Mountain. Here the river cuts a great chasm through these mountain ranges, so steep that they connect directly with the water in heavy outcroppings of rock.

The tops of all these mountain ranges were covered in trees, and there was very little water available. There were only a few roads at the time, and those were almost impassable for wagons. The western slope of Sand Mountain reaches nearly to the Tennessee River. Between Sand and Lookout Mountains is Lookout Valley, with Lookout Creek flowing through it into the Tennessee River below Chattanooga. This valley was also known as Wills Valley, and at that time was crossed by a railroad. Today, part of this area includes the Chattanooga Arboretum Nature Center, east of I-24.

Beyond this is the Lookout range, an elevated rise, the highest point of which is some 2,400 feet above sea level. Then, as now, the sides of this range are nearly perpendicular and are heavily wooded. The mountain range ends abruptly in the north on the Tennessee River, which then was only 2 miles south of Chattanooga. Although it can be easily traveled by road now, in 1863 it had only 3 practical wagon roads crossing it south of Chattanooga—one close to the river, another at Johnson's Crook, and the third at Winston's Gap, 26 and 42 miles respectively.

To the east of Lookout Mountain is Chattanooga Valley, with the city at its head, and Chattanooga Creek flowing through, with Dry Creek as a branch emptying into the Tennessee River just south of town. Beyond this to the east is Missionary Ridge, and parallel to it and just beyond is Chickamauga Valley, with its namesake creek running through it to the river above Chattanooga, formed by East, Middle, and West Chickamauga Creeks, uniting with Pea Vine Creek.

Chattanooga and West Chickamauga Creeks have a common source in McLemore's Cove, which is formed by Pigeon Mountain on the east, jutting to the north as a spur of Lookout Mountain, and the West Chickamauga on its west, with Missionary Ridge, extends out from this cove. Then as now, the LaFayette Road extends from Chattanooga to Rome, Georgia, crossing Missionary Ridge into Chickamauga Valley at Rossville. It proceeds south from there, crossing Chickamauga Creek at Lee & Gordon Mills. From the mill, it extends to the east of Pigeon Mountain, passing through LaFayette about 22 miles south of Chattanooga. From there it continues on to Summerville, and 25 miles beyond to Rome.

Beyond these ranges is Taylor's Ridge, with a number of lesser ranges between it and the Atlanta Railroad that ran through Dalton. In 1863, both Pigeon Mountain and Taylor's Ridge were very rough mountain ranges with few roads, and these only through gaps. At Dalton was the junction of the East Tennessee with the Atlanta Railroad, in the valley of the head waters of the Coosa River. The valley at this point is about 10 miles wide, which formed a great natural passageway into East Tennessee from the south, strategic for the control and passage of both armies.

For Rosecrans to follow Bragg to Chattanooga and to cross the Tennessee River above the town, it would involve moving his army either the north of the Sequatchie Valley by way of Dunlap, or by Therman and Walden's Ridge, some 70 miles through rough country with narrow and difficult wagon roads, and without much available water. This route would require that Rosecrans move further away from his base of supplies and line of communication than a route south of the river. He would also need to repair the railroad line, which had been torn up by the retreating Confederates, in order to move supplies to support his army. But even with the railroad in full operation, the army could not feed itself, nor its thousands of animals, without relying upon local forage and the supplies the men carried with them.

It was over this northern route that Bragg anticipated an approach of Rosecrans's army. This would enable him to make a protracted defense of Chattanooga and retard the advance for weeks, if not months.

So, Rosecrans chose a more hazardous route, although a far speedier one for taking Chattanooga—if it worked. To achieve success it was necessary for him to cross the Cumberland Mountains with supplies and ammunition, plus a train for a bridge crossing of the Tennessee River. After the river crossing, he then would need to move his army over Sand or Raccoon Mountains into Lookout Valley. From there either he could cross Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, if he went directly to Chattanooga, or he could cross Missionary Ridge, Pigeon Mountain, and Taylor's Ridge, to strike the railroad at Dalton. His plan required his army to carry everything it needed for 25 days' subsistence. over what would develop into 2 great battles. And he had to accomplish all this without Bragg figuring out what he was up to.

It was a bold and masterful plan if he could pull it off.

Henry Martyn Cist
Source: Civil War Generals in Black & White
* Henry Martyn Cist's personal Civil War history is entwined with that the Confederate Army of Tennessee. At the outbreak of the war, Cist enlisted as a private in the Ohio infantry and was soon promoted to 2nd lieutenant. He later served as post adjutant at a POW camp set up for Confederate prisoners captured at Fort Donelson in 1862. Later that year, he rejoined the Ohio infantry as a 1st lieutenant. Promoted to captain, in time he was assigned assistant adjutant general on Gen. Rosecrans's staff (along with future U.S. President James A. Garfield). In this position he had a unique insider's view on the operations of Army of the Cumberland in its many conflicts with the Army of Tennessee. By war's end, Cist had risen to the rank of brigadier general. After the war, he became a lawyer and history writer, mingling his scholarship with military experience. He eventually turned his interest in history to working for battlefield preservation, becoming in 1889, one of the first directors of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

Sources: The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist; This Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens; National Park Service

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