November 24, 1863: Battle Above the Clouds

Monday, November 25, AD 2013

Battle Above the Clouds, the song in the above video, commemorates the battle of Lookout Mountain fought 150 years ago yesterday, part of a series of Union attacks that drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee reeling in retreat from its positions around Chattanooga that it had occupied in the aftermath of the Confederate victory of Chickamauga in September of 1863.

Major General Joseph Hooker was assigned the task of attacking the Confederate position on Lookout Mountain.  Grant was dubious that the Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain could be taken, and told Hooker to take the mountain only if it seemed practicable to do so.  Hooker had three divisions, ten thousand men, not a much greater force than the 8,000 Confederates that held the position.

Hooker, intent on regaining his reputation as a field commander, pressed the assault.  The Confederate defense was hampered by the rough terrain and lackluster commanders who put up a feeble defense.  By midnight the mountain was quiet with the Confederates withdrawing in the wee hours of November 25, aided by a lunar eclipse.  The battle electrified the North, being hailed as the battle above the clouds, a reference to the mists that clung to the slopes of Lookout Mountain.

chattanooga-lookout

Brigadier General John W, Geary, who led one of Hooker’s three divisions, shared the excitement, writing to his wife:

I have been the instrument of Almighty God. … I stormed what was considered the … inaccessible heights of Lookout Mountain. I captured it. … This feat will be celebrated until time shall be no more.

In some ways the battle was actually more of a skirmish.  Casualties were light for the Union, only 408.  Confederate casualties were higher, totaling 1251, with an additional 1064 captured or missing.

Grant, who had never had any use for Hooker, in his memoirs denigrated the “battle”:

The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.

The Union troops who participated in taking Lookout Mountain would beg to differ.  After the fighting around Chattanooga was over many of them had photographs taken on Lookout Mountain, clearly proud of their accomplishment:

Union troops posing on Lookout Mountain

Here is Hooker’s report of the battle:

As now composed, my command consisted of  Osterhaus’ division, Fifteenth Corps; Cruft’s, of the Fourth; Geary’s, of the Twelfth  (excepting from the two last-named divisions such regiments as were required to protect  our communications with Bridgeport and Kelley’s Ferry); Battery K, of the First Ohio, and  Battery I, First New York, of the Eleventh Corps (the two having horses for but one); a  part of the Second Kentucky Cavalry, and Company K, of the Fifteenth Illinois Cavalry,  making an aggregate force of 9,681. We were all strangers, no one division ever having  seen either of the others. Geary’s division, supported by Whitaker’s  brigade, of Cruft’s division, was ordered to proceed up the valley, cross the creek near  Wauhatchie, and march down, sweeping the rebels from it. The other brigade of the Fourth  Corps to advance, seize the bridge just below the railroad, and repair it. Osterhaus’  division was to march up from Brown’s Ferry, under cover of the hills, to the place of  crossing; also, to furnish supports for the batteries. The Ohio battery was to take a  position on Bald Hill, and the New York battery on the hill directly in rear. The Second  Kentucky Cavalry was dispatched to observe the movements of the enemy in the direction of  Trenton, and the Illinois company to perform orderly and escort duty. This disposition of  the forces was ordered to be made as soon after daylight as practicable.

At this time the enemy’s pickets formed a  continuous line along the right bank of Lookout Creek, with the reserves in the valley,  while his main force was encamped in a hollow half way up the slope of the mountain, the  summit itself was held by three brigades of Stevenson’s division, and these were  comparatively safe, as the only means of access from the west, for a distance of 20 miles  up the valley, was by two or three trails, admitting of the passage of but I man at a  time, and even those trails were held at the top by rebel pickets. For this reason no  direct attempt was made for the dislodgment of this force. On the Chattanooga side, which  is less precipitous, a road of easy grade has been made communicating with the summit by  zig-zag lines running diagonally up the mountain side, and it was believed that before our  troops should gain possession of this, the enemy on the top would evacuate his position,  to avoid being cut off from his main body, to rejoin which would involve a march of 20 or  30 miles.          

Viewed from whatever point, Lookout Mountain,  with its high palisaded crest, and its steep, rugged, rocky, and deeply-furrowed slopes,  presented an imposing barrier to our advance, and when to these natural obstacles were  added almost interminable, well-planned, and well-constructed defenses, held by Americans,  the assault became an enterprise worthy of the ambition and renown of the troops to whom  it was intrusted.          

On the northern slope, midway between the  summit and the Tennessee, a plateau or belt of arable land encircles the crest. There a  continuous line of earth-works had been thrown up, while redoubts, redans, and pits  appeared lower down the slope, to repel an assault from the direction of the river. On  each flank were rifle-pits, epaul-ements for batteries, walls of stone, and abatis to  resist attacks from either the Chattanooga or Lookout Valleys. In the valleys themselves  were earth-works of still greater extent.          

Geary commenced his movement as instructed,  crossed the creek at 8 o’clock, captured the entire picket of 42 men posted to defend it,  marched directly up the mountain, until his right rested on the palisades, and headed down  the valley.          

At the same time Grose’s brigade advanced  resolutely, with brisk skirmishing, drove the enemy from the bridge, and at once proceeded  to put it in repair.          

The firing at this point alarmed the rebels,  and immediately their columns were seen filing down the mountain from their camps, and  moving into their rifle-pits and breastworks; at the same time numbers established  themselves behind the embankment of the railroad, which enabled them, without exposure, to  sweep, with a fire of musketry, the field over which our troops would be compelled to  march for a distance of 300 or 400 yards.          

These dispositions were distinctly visible, and  as facilities for avoiding them were close at hand, Osterhaus was directed to send a  brigade, under cover of the hills and trees, about 800 yards higher up the creek, and  prepare a crossing at that point. This was Brigadier-General Woods’ brigade.          

Soon after this Cruft was ordered to leave a  sufficient force at the bridge to engage the attention of the enemy, and for the balance  of Grose’s brigade to follow Woods’. Meanwhile a section of howitzers was planted to  enfilade the positions the enemy had taken, and Osterhaus established a section of  20-pounder Parrotts to enfilade the route by which the enemy had left his camp. The  battery on Bald Hill enfiladed the railroad and highway leading to Chattanooga, and all  the batteries and sections of batteries had a direct or enfilading fire within easy range  on all the positions taken by the rebels. Besides, the 20-pounder Parrotts could be used  with good effect on the rebel camp on the side of the mountain. With this disposition of  the artillery it was believed we would be able to prevent the enemy from dispatching  relief to oppose Geary, and also keep him from running away.          

At 11 o’clock Woods had completed his bridge.  Geary’s lines appeared close by, his skirmishers smartly engaged, and all the guns opened.  Woods and Grose then sprang across the river, joined Geary’s left, and moved down the  valley. A few of the enemy escaped from the artillery fire, and those who did ran upon our  infantry and were captured. The balance of the rebel forces were killed or taken  prisoners, many of them remaining in the bottom of their pits for safety until forced out  by our men.          

Simultaneous with these operations the troops  on the mountain rushed on in their advance, the right passing directly under the muzzles  of the enemy’s guns on the summit, climbing over ledges and bowlders, up hill and down,  furiously driving the enemy from his camp and from position after position. This lasted  until 12 o’clock, when Geary’s advance heroically rounded the peak of the mountain.          

Not knowing to what extent the enemy might be  re-enforced, and fearing from the rough character of the field of operations that our  lines might be disordered, directions had been given for the troops to halt on reaching  this high ground, but, fired by success, with a flying, panic-stricken enemy before them,  they pressed impetuously forward. Cobham’s brigade, occupying the high ground on the  right, between the enemy’s main line of defense on the plateau and the palisades,  incessantly plied them with fire from above and behind, while Ireland’s brigade was  vigorously rolling them up on the flank, and both being closely supported by the brigades  of Whitaker and Creighton, our success was uninterrupted and irresistible.           Before losing the advantages the ground  presented us, the enemy had been re-enforced. Meantime, after having secured the  prisoners, two of Osterhaus’ regiments had been sent forward on the Chattanooga road, and  the balance of his and Cruft’s divisions had joined Geary. All the rebel efforts to resist  us only resulted in rendering our success more thorough. After two or three short but  sharp conflicts, the plateau was cleared. The enemy, with his re-enforcements, driven from  the walls and pits around Craven’s house (the last point at which he could make a stand in  force), all broken and dismayed, were hurled in great numbers over the rocks and  precipices into the valley.          

It was now near 2 o’clock, and our operations  were arrested by the darkness. The clouds, which had hovered over and enveloped the summit  of the mountain during the morning, and to some extent favored our movements, gradually  settled into the valley and completely veiled it from our view. Indeed, from the moment we  had rounded the peak of the mountain, it was only from the roar of battle and the  occasional glimpse our comrades in the valley could catch of our lines and standards that  they knew of the strife or its progress; and when, from these evidences, our true  condition was revealed to them, their painful anxiety yielded to transports of joy which  only soldiers can feel in the earliest moments of dawning victory.           Deeming a descent into the valley imprudent,  without more accurate information of its topography, and also of the position and strength  of the enemy, our line was established on the east side of the mountain, the right resting  on the palisades, and the left near the mouth of Chattanooga Creek, and this we  strengthened by all the means at hand, working until 4 o’clock, when the commander of the  department was informed that our position was impregnable.          

During all of these operations the batteries on  Moccasin Point, under Captain Naylor, had been busily at work from the north bank of the  Tennessee River, and had contributed as much to our assistance as the irregularities of  the ground and the state of the atmosphere would admit of. From our position we commanded  the enemy’s lines of defense, stretching across Chattanooga Valley, by an enfilading fire,  and also by a direct fire, many of his camps, some of which were in our immediate  vicinity. Also direct communication had been opened with Chattanooga, and at a quarter  past 5 o’clock Brigadier-General Carlin, Fourteenth Corps, reported to me with his  brigade, and was assigned to duty on the right of the line, to relieve Geary’s command,  almost exhausted with the fatigue and excitement incident to their unparalleled march.          

To prevent artillery being brought forward, the  enemy had undermined the road and covered it with felled timber. This was repaired and  placed in serviceable condition before morning.          

During the day and until after midnight an  irregular fire was kept up along our line, and had the appearance at one time of an effort  to break it. This was on the right, and was at once vigorously and handsomely repelled. In  this, Carlin’s brigade rendered excellent service. His report is herewith forwarded.          

Before daylight, anticipating the withdrawal of  the rebel force from the summit of the mountain, parties from several regiments were  dispatched to scale it, but to the Eighth Kentucky must belong the distinction of having  been foremost to reach the crest and at sunrise to display our flag from the peak of  Lookout, amid the wild and prolonged cheers of the men whose dauntless valor had borne it  to that point.           During the night the enemy had quietly  abandoned the mountain, leaving behind 20,000 rations, the camp and garrison equipage of  three brigades, and other matériel.          

An impenetrable mist still covered the face of  the valley. Prisoners reported that the enemy had abandoned it, but, deeming it imprudent  to descend, a reconnaissance was ordered, and soon after 9 o’clock report came in that the  rebels had retired, but that their pickets still held the right bank of Chattanooga Creek,  in the direction of Rossville. Soon after the fog vanished, and nothing was to be seen in  the valley but the deserted and burning camps of the enemy.          

Among the fruits of the preceding operations  may be enumerated the concentration of the army, the abandonment of defenses upward of 8  miles in extent, the recovery of all the advantages in position the enemy had gained from  our army on the bloody field of Chickamauga, giving to us the undisputed navigation of the  river and the control of the railroad, the capture of between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners, 5  stand of colors, 2 pieces of artillery, upward of 5,000 muskets, &c.          

Of the troops opposed to us were four brigades  of Walker’s division, Hardee’s corps, a portion of Stewart’s division of Breckinridge’s  corps, and on the top of the mountain were three brigades of Stevensons division.