Elliott: Eclipse helped blot out light of Confederacy

Elliott: Eclipse helped blot out light of Confederacy

July 13th, 2014 by Chris Vass in Opinion Columns

Nov. 24, 1863, at Chattanooga was a rainy, cloudy, misty, disagreeable day. It was also the day that Federal troops under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker crossed Lookout Creek onto the southwest corner of today's Reflection Riding, advanced in a line straight up to the escarpment of Lookout Mountain, and then swept around the western side of the mountain.

The Federal initiative drove the relatively small Confederate force defending the side of the mountain toward the Cravens House.

The two contending forces fought in the fog and rain all day. The numerically superior Federals slowly pushed the Rebel line past the Cravens House back toward the area where Scenic Highway now intersects the line of the Incline Railway.

The cloudy day gave way to a clear, moonlit night. The moonlight made the Tennessee River winding around Moccasin Bend shine "like a silver band."

Confederate observers from their positions on Missionary Ridge could see the flashing of musketry and artillery on the side of Lookout Mountain. For those on the front lines, however, there was likely little appreciation of the romantic beauty of the scene.

Confederate commander Gen. Braxton Bragg determined that his army "had lost all advantages of position" on Lookout Mountain and realized that he must evacuate the men holding the lines there.

Two Confederate brigades occupied the shelf of the mountain east of the Cravens House. From Chattanooga Valley, the Alabama brigade under Col. James T. Holtzclaw was ordered up the mountain to cover the Rebel retreat. Holtzclaw and his men engaged the Federals under the light of the full moon off and on for several hours.

Recent scholarship has indicated that the Southern troops who fought in the Chattanooga campaign had severe nutritional deficiencies as a result of their irregular meals of corn meal, salt pork and lean beef.

One of Holtzclaw's men wrote that "entire weeks have passed without getting as much to eat as I could eat in one day." Relevant to that clear, cold night on Lookout Mountain, the most important deficiency was a lack of Vitamin A, which resulted in a number of cases of night blindness. The same scholarship has shown that some Federal troops suffered from the condition as well.

Shining with "unusual brightness," the moon that night initially overcame whatever night blindness the soldiers on either side might have suffered. Before midnight, however, the moon began to change from brightness to virtual darkness caused by a very deep partial eclipse lasting three hours and 20 minutes. With 95 percent of the moon in shadow at maximum eclipse, the brightness of the full moon was gone.

While night blindness could have been a problem, illumination by the moon could have posed a greater problem for Holtzclaw's Alabama men as they executed a difficult retreat off Lookout Mountain.

Accordingly, the eclipse was a fortuitous event. Private C.L. Willoughby of the 18th Alabama regiment recalled: "Just as the moon went into total eclipse we received orders to abandon the mountain to the enemy, and under the friendly darkness of that eclipse, we made a safe retreat down the mountain, and at daylight resumed our old position on the ridge. It was said by some of the men that we passed very close to the lines of the enemy on the road down the mountain, and except for the deep darkness that covered our hasty retreat we would not have been able to escape as we did."

As events would transpire, Holtzclaw's men would escape that night but be heavily defeated by Hooker's men later that day on Missionary Ridge just north of Rossville.

Among the troops rounding up captured men from Holtzclaw's brigade the next afternoon were the men of the 38th Indiana regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Daniel F. Griffin, who were among the Federals on Lookout Mountain the night before.

Griffin more than likely did not appreciate the practical effect of the eclipse that Willoughby gratefully remembered but saw an appropriate symbolism. Describing the "sudden darkening" of the moonlit panorama in a letter to his wife, Griffin "beheld the dark disc of the earth's shadow passing slowly o'er the face of the moon; even as our advancing Armies were then blotting out the light of the Confederacy."

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon, chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission and the author or editor of several books and essays on the Civil War. For more information, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.