American Civil War: Impact of the Union Victory at Chattanooga

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In November 1863, with successful battles and military tactics, Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army foiled Braxton Bragg’s siege of Chattanooga. The Confederates had to drop back about 25 miles to a position near Dalton, Georgia. How important was this victory for the Federals? And, what about the Confederates?

Statue of a Civil War soldier riding a horse, with a sword in hand.
The Union morale was boosted after the success at Chattanooga. (Image: Brandon Bourdages/Shutterstock)

The successful battle at Chattanooga also completed the wonderful string of Union victories that had begun in the East and West at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Tullahoma, and Port Hudson. The attack at Chattanooga was significant at many levels.

Extraordinary Attack at Missionary Ridge

During the battle at Missionary Ridge, despite no orders from their commanders, the Federal troops went straight up into the teeth of Braxton Bragg’s position on Missionary Ridge. Incredibly, the attack swept all the way to the top of the ridge and drove Bragg’s entire army off this extremely strong position.

There is absolutely nothing like this in the history of the Civil War. It went against everything that any trained soldier would say was possible. It was a frontal attack—against fortified defenders on top of a 400-foot-high ridge—and was a success.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Battle of Chattanooga: Low on Losses, High on Impact

The overall Battle of Chattanooga was not especially bloody. There were not quite 6,000 Union casualties and a shade more than 6,500 Confederate casualties. Many of those Confederates were prisoners captured in the wild flight from Missionary Ridge.

Now these losses are small by Civil War standards. They’re very small if compared, for example, to the losses at Chickamauga that had come in the previous battle in this theater. But the battle itself was important. Chattanooga was now irretrievably lost to the Confederates.

Longstreet Fumbles and Loses Knoxville

Meanwhile, Confederate General James Longstreet and about 15,000 troops from Bragg’s army had been sent off to try to recapture Knoxville. And while battles were raging in Chattanooga, James Longstreet was experiencing nothing but frustration. So there was no chance that Knoxville was going to come back to the Confederates, either.

Whatever Longstreet’s talents (and he had a number of talents), independent command was not one of them. And he showed that without any area left open for debate in his mishandling of his attempt to recapture Knoxville from Ambrose E. Burnside. He mounted a very ineffective siege. He launched silly frontal attacks. He began to argue with key subordinates. He just pretty much fell apart in his independent operation against Knoxville.

Learn more about the early Union triumphs in the West.

Losses Mount Up for the Confederates

Rail connections between Virginia and the western Confederacy were severed and the Confederates were in no position to be able to put them back at any time during the war. So now all big Tennessee cities had been lost—Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.

Now there had been an unqualified Confederate disaster in every one of the theaters—Gettysburg in the East, Vicksburg on the river, and now Chattanooga in the Tennessee-North Georgia Theater.

But, this completely reversed the trend that had been in place the preceding May, when things seemed to be going so badly for the Federals in almost all of the theaters—when Grant seemed frustrated and stymied in his effort to capture Vicksburg, when Hooker’s army had been thrown back across the Rappahannock in the Battle of Chancellorsville, and when there was nothing going on in Tennessee that gave any indication that the Federals were going to win there.

There was a gloom in May of 1863, and by the end of the year, there were Union successes across the entire board. It was really an impressive change in the strategic picture.

Grant Gets a Promotion, Bragg Removed

The battle of Chattanooga also brought important changes of leadership in both the armies. Braxton Bragg was finally removed from the command of the Army of Tennessee. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states, picked Joseph Johnston to replace him.

A photo of Ulysses S. Grant.
Post Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant was given command of all United States armies. (Image: Fowx, Edgar Guy/Public domain)

Now, Bragg didn’t disappear from the scene. He went to Richmond and became Davis’s principal military advisor. He was on the scene right to the end of the war. He did take the field again very briefly right almost at the end of the war in North Carolina. But between Chattanooga and then, he was mainly a desk general.

On the Union side, Ulysses S. Grant was confirmed as the preeminent Northern soldier without question. Less than three months later, he was given command of all United States armies and became the General-in-Chief.

Learn more about how Ulysses Grant personally took charge at Chattanooga.

Leadership Changes Post Chattanooga

Not just Grant, other men also moved up, those who were successful at Chattanooga.

George H. Thomas turned out to be a major figure in the Western war. He first became a subordinate of William Tecumseh Sherman’s, and then independently commanded the Army of the Cumberland for the rest of the war. Sherman, also part of the victorious team at Chattanooga, ended up as the principal Union commander in this theater, in this very important Tennessee-North Georgia Theater.

And Philip Henry Sheridan, also one of Grant’s inner circle, moved up with Grant as well, and moved on east along with Grant. These four men—Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas—would become the great quartet of Union war heroes at the end of the war. These four men would go on to do more than any other military figures to win the war for the United States.

Thus, we can easily come to the conclusion that the battle, and eventual win, of the Union Army at Chattanooga, was a major episode of the military events in 1863. It also brought about a lot of changes, in terms of strategy and leadership. A lot happened in 1863, and all those military events culminated in this stirring Union success at Chattanooga.

Common Questions about the Impact of the Union Victory at Chattanooga

Q: Who won the Battle of Chattanooga in the American Civil War?

The Union Army won the Battle of Chattanooga in the American Civil War.

Q: What happened to Braxton Bragg after the Battle of Chattanooga?

Braxton Bragg was removed from the command of the Army of Tennessee after the Battle of Chattanooga. He became Jefferson Davis’s principal military advisor.

Q: What happened to James Longstreet at Knoxville?

While the Battle of Chattanooga was ongoing, Confederate General James Longstreet was sent to recapture Knoxville. He mounted a very ineffective siege and pretty much fell apart in his independent operation.

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The American Civil War: Union Morale in the Winter Campaign of 1862
Breaking the Confederate Stronghold over Vicksburg
Regaining Power: Turnaround of Events for the Union Army