The Importance of Chattanooga in the Civil War
In and around
strategically important Chattanooga, Tennessee in the autumn of 1863, there
occurred some of the most complex maneuvers and hard fighting of the Civil War.
The Confederate victory at Chickamauga (September 19-20) gave new hope to the
South after the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of that year. At
Chattanooga (November 23-25) Union forces under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
blasted this hope and prepared the way for the capture of Atlanta and Sherman's
"March to the Sea." Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military
Park, oldest and largest of the national military parks, commemorates the heroic
soldiers of both North and South in the battles for the control of Chattanooga.
The year 1863 proved to be one of victory for the Union forces. Three
great campaigns took place, which shaped the destiny of the war. The first, a
decisive blow at Gettysburg, forced a Confederate army under Gen. Robert E. Lee
to abandon its attempt to invade Northern soil. Lee began an orderly retreat to
Virginia on July 4.
On the same day, but far removed from the fields of Gettysburg, Lt. Gen.
John C. Pemberton surrendered his army and the City of Vicks- burg, Miss., to
General Grant. The fall of Vicksburg, simultaneous with the victory at
Gettysburg, gave heart and. strength to the North, while Confederate morale
The third campaign, Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, slow and uncertain in
its first phases, and including later the great Confederate victory at
Chickamauga, culminated nearly 5 months after the other two in ultimate victory
for the North in the Battle of Chattanooga.
had only 2,545 inhabitants in 1860, but its importance was out of all proportion
to its size. Situated where the Tennessee River passes through the Cumberland
Mountains, forming gaps, it was called the "Key to East Tennessee" and
"Gateway to the deep South." The possession of Chattanooga was vital
to the Confederacy, and a coveted goal of the Northern armies.
Chattanooga's principal importance during the Civil War was its position
as a railroad center. Four lines radiated in the four principal directions to
the North and Middle West via Nashville, to the western States via Memphis, to
the South and southern seaboard via Atlanta, and to Richmond and the North
Atlantic States via Knoxville.
By 1863 both sides were aware of the great advantages of strategic
railroad lines. Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg had made skillful use of the rail- roads
in 1862, when he suddenly shifted his army from Mississippi to Chattanooga to
begin his drive across Tennessee and into Kentucky. President Lincoln had long
recognized the importance of railroads in this area. In the same year Lincoln
said, "To take and hold the railroad at or east of Cleveland, in East
Tennessee, I think fully as important as the taking and holding of
Richmond." And in 1863 Lincoln wrote Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans,
"If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the rebellion must
dwindle and die. I think you and [General] Bumside can do this, and hence doing
so is your main object."
The armies that traversed this region found it a fertile farming area.
East Tennessee's rich grain fields, supplied not only wheat, corn, and hay, but
beef, pork, bacon, horses, and mules. It was a vital region for the armies of
the Confederacy. It not only supported the troops that occupied that region, but
large quantities of provisions were shipped to other armies.
In addition to the military and economic reasons, a political factor had
to be considered in the struggle for control of East Tennessee. The people
there, living in a mountainous area unlike the rest of the State, wished to
adhere to the Union. The people maintained their allegiance to the Old Whig
party, and there was an attitude of suspicion and distrust toward the Democrats.
They were mostly small farmers with little cash income, who had a dislike for
the wealthy plantation- and slave-owning class.
After fighting broke out at Fort Sumter, neighbors began to take sides.
An uneasy truce prevailed until November 1861 when small groups of Union men
struck blows at widely dispersed railroad bridges. The cancellation of a
projected northern campaign into East Tennessee left the Unionists there without
support, and the Confederates took retaliatory measures. Many of the Unionists
in East Tennessee fled to Kentucky to enlist in the Union Army; others hid in
the mountains. While relief to this section of Tennessee by the Union Army was
not to come until 1863, it was not forgotten by President Lincoln.
and Chattanooga Battlefields”
National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 25 1956