Gaston: Chattanooga's first Thanksgiving, 1863

Gaston: Chattanooga's first Thanksgiving, 1863

November 20th, 2016 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns

This undated photograph shows the military bridge over the Tennessee river that approaches the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. The Union Army of the Cumberland crossed the bridge during the three-day Battle of Chickamauga nearby in Sept. 1863 during the American Civil War. Lookout Mountain appears in the background. (AP Photo/George Barnard)

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first official Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November thereafter. President George Washington had also called for a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, but it did not become an annual event until Lincoln made it so.

Lincoln's intention was to give thanks to the Union Army and God for the Union victory at Gettysburg the previous July.

On Sept. 20, 1863, after their defeat at Chickamauga, Union forces retreated north to Chattanooga. Surrounded and besieged by Confederate forces, they were kept alive by deliveries of food and supplies via wagon across Walden's Ridge, costing the lives of an estimated 10,000 horses and mules.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in late October and was able to clear Lookout Valley by the 28th, making it possible for the Union Army to open a "Cracker Line" by river from Bridgeport, Ala., which eased the situation.

Benjamin F. Taylor, a war correspondent from Chicago, wrote on Nov. 22: "Stand with me as I stood this morning, near Major-Gen. [Gordon] Granger's headquarters, here in the heart of Chattanooga. As the sun comes up, the mists lift grandly, trail across the tops of the mountains, and are folded up in heaven. The horizon all around rises and falls like the waves of the sea.

"Stretching along the east and trending slightly away to the southwest, you see an undulating ridge edged with a thin fringe of trees. Along the sides you shall see camps sprinkled like flocks away on till the ridge melts out of sight; you shall see guns and men in gray.

"That is Mission Ridge, and you are looking upon what your heart does not warm to. You are in the presence of the enemy."

To his right is Lookout Mountain, that "rises like an everlasting thunder-storm that will never pass over" and in the midst of the scene is Chattanooga, "a town gone to pieces in a heavy sea."

Federal camps extend almost to the base of Lookout, right up to the Confederate lines: "It overturns your notions of hostile armies, this neighborly nearness. You see two thin picket lines running parallel and a few rods apart — not so far as you can jerk a peach-stone. They pass lovingly together from your left, down Mission Ridge, curve to the right along the lowlands and past the foot of the great mountain. They are the line of blue and the line of gray."

On Sept. 22, J.L. Bostick, a Confederate stationed on Missionary Ridge, described in a letter home the close proximity of the lines: "The two armies are in sight of each other, their pickets standing within 200 yards and all looks as quiet and peaceful as if they were two friendly forces.

"Only occasionally a gun is fired from one side or the other, to try the range or to feel for a battery. The pickets on both sides are ordered not to fire unless in case of an advance, and the Yankees became so familiar as to exchange several papers with our men and seemed quite desirous of entering into conversation on all occasions, until positive orders were issued by Gen. [Braxton] Bragg forbidding all intercourse of every description.

"I understand that one Yankee captain persisted in coming over to our pickets notwithstanding; he had been warned not to leave his line and was quickly made a prisoner in spite of his earnest entreaty to be released."

It ended when Gen. Joseph Hooker moved against the 2,000 Confederates on Lookout Mountain. In the early dawn of Nov. 24, Federal scouts raised the Stars and Stripes atop the Palisades on Point Lookout, having won the "Battle Above the Clouds."

The main position of the Confederates was a thin line seven miles long on the top of Missionary Ridge. After an eclipse of the moon, Nov. 25 dawned bright. Gen. William T. Sherman led the Union charge, followed by Gen. George Thomas and his men who broke the Confederate center. All Confederate troops abandoned the ridge after nightfall and began a retreat into Georgia.

The day after the battle was Thursday, Nov. 26, 1863. Chattanooga had been regained by the Union just in time to celebrate the first official Thanksgiving Day.

At noon the guns on Fort Wood began to toll — "chimes so grand that men began to uncover their heads," Taylor wrote. But the services consisted of burial details "doing for dead comrades what somebody may do for them the next day or the next."

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and former Chattanoogan. For more, visit

Updated at 11:10 p.m. to fix a typo in the headline.

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