published Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Robbins: Why the North and South fought over Chattanooga

Mickey Robbins

Though a town small in population and area, Chattanooga’s rail hub gave it great importance in the Civil War.

Historian Charles McGehee described the early setting: “Nestled in the southernmost Appalachians at the crossroads of prehistoric trade routes connecting Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, its location was as strategically situated as it was visually spectacular.”

Until the Trail of Tears, the site had been within the limits of the Cherokee Nation and known as Ross’s Landing. Afterwards white settlers found most of the soil in the valley too thin for profitable farming but merchants saw the opportunity in being at the confluence of trade routes.

In the 1840s as many as 8,000 bales of cotton and 50,000 bushels of corn passed through Chattanooga each month. A market in lumber and pork grew up around the docks. The wharves handled considerable riverboat trade and produce.

In May 1850 after years of lobbying, the first Western and Atlantic railroad came around Missionary Ridge and into Chattanooga. Three other lines joined the W&A over the next 10 years with most of the capital coming from planters in Charleston and Savannah trying to capture the inland cotton trade and undercut New Orleans. With all four lines using the same gauge track, Chattanooga was the hub that tied the South together.

When Tennessee became the last state to leave the Union in July 1861, Chattanooga was a small commercial town of less than 5,000 people. (One in 10 was a slave.) Its borders extended from the Tennessee River near the present Market Street Bridge to today’s Main Street, and easterly from the river to about Central Avenue.

While Southerners saw a flourishing city, one Northern visitor described the town, “not very sightly it being too much scattered,” and another that it “has some pretty and substantial buildings dotted about on its straggling and irregular streets, which are often interrupted by stumpy fields, ponds, and patches of forest timber.”

Soon after Tennessee’s secession, soldiers of the Confederacy were stationed to protect the town from Union invasion. The railroads in Chattanooga were indispensable avenues of transportation and communication among different sections of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga’s secondary importance came from being in an area of the South with considerable Union sentiment. Most East Tennesseans cared little about slavery or the economic problems of the people in the Deep South. Little cotton was raised in the mountains of East Tennessee; few slaves were owned. There were few plantations, most of the land being owned by farmers with small holdings. The Federal government in Washington was eager to protect and give encouragement to these Unionists.

Most of rural Hamilton County outside of Chattanooga was pro-Union while Chattanooga merchants had ties to the South.

The town’s significance as a rail hub was highlighted in early April 1862, when civilian scout James Andrews infiltrated Southern lines and led a group of Union volunteers in commandeering a train at Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), Ga.

Steaming north, they did as much damage as possible to the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad linking Atlanta to Chattanooga. The raiders were forced to abandon the engine (the famous “General”) a mile north of Ringgold.

All 24 were captured and held in Swaim’s jail on Lookout Street. Eight were hanged as spies and rest today in the National Cemetery at Chattanooga, under a replica of the engine used in their famous adventure, later featured in Buster Keaton’s silent film “The General” and Walt Disney’s “The Great Locomotive Chase” starring Fess Parker as Andrews.

Several months later in June 1862, Union troops, operating between Huntsville and Stevenson, Ala., shelled Chattanooga. The town was defended by about 1,500 Confederates.

The Federals approached from the North but stopped at the Tennessee River. After shelling Chattanooga on parts of two days but causing few casualties on either side, the Federals drew off, leaving the Confederates in possession of its valuable logistical hub.

This incident was a precursor of struggles to come in the summer and fall of 1863 — Tullahoma, Chickamauga, the Siege of Chattanooga, Wheeler’s Raid, Wauhatchie, Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap.

The South’s loss at the end of these was the North’s gain. Chattanooga became the giant Union storehouse, where supplies stockpiled during the winter months made possible Sherman’s spring 1864 March to the Sea. A year later Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.

Frank (Mickey) Robbins is an Investment Advisor at Patten and Patten. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.

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