June 7, 2012

The Attack on Chattanooga, June 7, 1862

Location: Chattanooga, TN, USA
Map of Road from Jasper to Chattanooga (on the right edge of the map)
Detail of Map by N. Michler, 1862 (Library of Congress)

From Sweeden's Cove to Chattanooga

After a perfectly executed surprise attack on Confederate cavalrymen at Sweeden's Cove on June 4, 1862, the 79th Pennsylvania and other units in Gen. Negley's command continued east towards the critically important city of Chattanooga.  They arrived in the town of Jasper, Tennessee, on June 5 where the collected prisoners from the battle the day before and stared up at the mountains before them.

Almost every account from the 79th Pennsylvania mentions hordes of Unionist refugees living under pieces of canvas in the mountains and swamps.  In his diary entry for June 6, Sgt. William T. Clark (bio) remarked
We passed through some pretty good country, the people showering blessing upon us. One woman gave a Cavalry man a flag with the inscription the Union & Constitution & Remember Washington. In another place we saw a family who had been driven from home because their son would not enlist in the rebel service. They were in a swamp with nothing but a piece of canvas to protect them from the weather. She said she hoped that God might bless us & our Cause. We caught seventeen prisoners. This is the most loyal part of the country we have been in yet.
In a letter to his wife on June 14, Pvt. Lewis Jones (bio) echoed Clark
when we got over the Cumberland mountins in to Eastern Tennssee ther was the firs union men I saw the first Union men I saw for months when they hear that we wer a coming a long they com out of the mountins  I saw one old man com to me and asked a bout his sons that had wen of in the night to Kentucky to join the union armey and he had bin liven in th ewood for weeks a frad to go to his sons  I saw women and childer a living in the oods that had bin run out of town on acont of ther sones a beaing in the union armey

The First Battle of Chattanooga

Sketch of Chattanooga (Source)

On June 7, the 79th Pennsylvania left its lofty bivouac early in the morning and began to descend the mountains to Chattanooga--scenery that Clark called "beautiful in the extreme."  Colonel Hambright's makeshift brigade arrived at the Tennessee River shortly after noon, and ascended a hill that commanded Chattanooga from the opposite side of the river.

As Hambright sent skirmishers forward to the river bank, Confederate infantry and artillery entrenched about 400 yards away on the city-side of the river opened fire and prepared to dispute any crossing.  The two artillery sections (four guns total) attached to Hambright's command replied very effectively.  (Note: the alleged first shot has been preserved and is now in a private collection.)  The cannonading and sharpshooting continued five hours until the Confederate guns became silent, although actual losses are hard to ascertain from official reports. [Link: Hambright's Official Report]

One 79th Pennsylvania soldier on the firing line was Pvt. James Fields of Company A, whose letter to his father was printed in the July 5, 1862, Weekly Mariettian.
In the morning...we continued our march over the mountain chain, toward the great city of Chattanooga at the foot of the great Cumberland mountain, where the rebels were laying with the city well fortified and entrenched with rifle pits and in readiness for us--but all this was of no avail, for we knocked theam into a three-cocked hat when we came.  We planted six cannon pointing right into the rifle pits and then we got reinforcements of the Ohio 5th, of four cannons, making ten pieces, which enabled us to give them brisk work.  The Colonel then employed skirmishers to go down to the river's edge to shoot them from the rifle pits while the cannon would fire on their entrenchments.  I was one of the number to skirmish, and we fired at them all afternoon while the cannon blazed away at them until their guns were disabled.  We could see them all afternoon carrying out their dead, and at sundown they ceased firing and evacuated the place, which we soon took possession of.      
View of Tennessee River
from Lookout Mountain
(Library of Congress)
The Union artillery reopened fire the next day but failed to solicit a response.  By afternoon, Negley declared his mission a success and started to make the return trip back over the mountains.  Remaining in Chattanooga would have meant vulnerability to attack and a very precarious supply chain (that would cause problems in October 1863 for the Union army) which Negley seemed to have no interest in testing.

Casualties on both sides are difficult to verify, but the 79th Pennsylvania did have one man wounded--the first battle casualty of the war for the regiment.  Pvt. Joshua Geiter of Company A was wounded in the arm, although he returned to the regiment, dying in the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.  Geiter also was the son in the only father-son combination that I know about in the regiment.  His father Henry, a printer by trade who wrote to the Lancaster Intelligencer later in the war, served the entire war in Company I.

Strategically, although Union forces did not end up taking possession of Chattanooga, they accomplished their goal of attracting Confederate attention and proving that a division-sized force could hop over the mountain range and strike quickly against the city.   The battle is credited with causing Confederate troop redeployment that allowed Union forces to capture the Cumberland Gap eleven days later.

The expedition with its heavy marching, tall mountains, cool streams, excited Unionists, and lopsided battles certainly made a positive impression on the men of the Lancaster County Regiment.  Elias Witmer (bio) counted marching three hundred miles over fifteen days (read his letter here), and claimed the title of the most active marchers in all the Union army during that time.  Pvt. Lewis Jones gave the best review, though, "I woul not mist the trip for fifty dollars."

(If anyone has assembled a more complete picture of the battle, please let me know.  Some of the details presented above regarding casualties, Confederate movements, other Union infantry, etc., are incomplete.)

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