Heinlein: Remembering the 'Battle Above the Clouds'

Heinlein: Remembering the 'Battle Above the Clouds'

November 24th, 2013 by By Anton Heinlein in Opinion Columns

Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs tagged the Battle of Lookout Mountain with one of the most famous nicknames in American military history - "The Battle Above the Clouds." However, it was more of a battle in the clouds. Union and Confederate forces not only battled each other on the slopes of Lookout Mountain, they also battled Mother Nature.

Describing the weather conditions on Tuesday, November 24, 1863, Private David Monat, 29th Pennsylvania Infantry wrote, "It was a cold day and a misty rain falling and we could not see very far up the mountain. Neither could the Rebs see us."

Captain Max Van Den Corput, commanding Confederate artillery on Lookout's summit reported, "The fog was so dense that we could not see the enemy, although we could hear his march, and guided by this and the report of his musketry ours was directed."

Charles Partridge, 96th Illinois Infantry, added, "The morning of the twenty-fourth was misty and disagreeable. The elements seemed to frown on us as we lay in the valley, but the elemental frown which lay between us and the summit of Lookout in reality turned a friendly side to us and a frowning side to the enemy. That foul day was the fairest day of all the year for the execution of the purpose which our leaders had in view." On this November day both sides used Mother Nature and the "Nature of the Ground" to their advantage.

When General Joseph Hooker's forces received orders that morning to "conduct a demonstration" on Lookout Mountain some began to ask one another, "What, does the general expect us to fly?" The "demonstration" was designed to get the Confederates' attention while General William T. Sherman's troops crossed the Tennessee River and seized the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Learning of the "demonstration," General John Geary remarked to a staff officer "We are about to show the world what is meant by a demonstration." Geary and Hooker planned to assault the Confederates defending the mountain.

As Union forces began their ascent, Captain William Stork, 29th Pennsylvania, wrote, "We were all on foot after crossing [Lookout] creek, it being impossible owing to the rough nature of the ground to ride a horse through the woods and over the rocks and felled trees."

Forming a long line from the base of the palisades to the bottom of the mountain, the Union forces advanced northward along the western slopes. Approaching the mountain's northern tip, the Union attackers made contact with the Confederate defenders. Private Robert Callahan, 29th Pennsylvania, was in the skirmish line out in front of the main battle line. "The rebels seemed to be behind every rock and tree, and poured down lead like hail," he said. "But it was useless, for the boys kept them on the go and advanced without once wavering... We clambered over rocks and tumbled down gulleys, but kept going and finally struck the last line [of rifle pits] that made a stand and scattered them like sheep, capturing hundreds and driving them to the rear, not taking the trouble to send a guard with them...we pushed on until we reached the nose of the mountain, which we found covered with a mist or fog. The rebels made a show of fighting, but most of them kept on going."

The Confederates defending against Callahan's skirmishers were the Mississippi regiments of General Edward Walthall's brigade. Colonel William Dowd, 24th Mississippi, ordered his men "behind rocks, trees and every cover that nature afforded, and instructed them not to fire until the enemy moved out in the open space" in his immediate front.

Failing in repeated frontal assaults, a large Union force shifted under cover of rocks and trees and before Colonel Dowd discovered the movement, they "opened fire on my flank and rear, which killed and wounded several men." Colonel Dowd had orders from Walthall to hold his ground "till hell froze over."

Seeing the overwhelming numbers coming at the Mississippians, Colonel Dowd "thinking at this juncture that the ice was about five feet over it, I went up the line and ordered my regiment to retire slowly in a skirmish line, taking every advantage of the rocks, trees and shelter."

As the Union forces had used the "Nature of the Ground" and Mother Nature to attack the defenders, the Confederates used it to withdraw from Lookout Mountain only to live and fight the next day at Missionary Ridge.

ABOUT THE WRITER Anton Heinlein is Park Ranger at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Visit http://chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.