Civil War: War on the Rivers, Rails and Mountains | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

Civil War: War on the Rivers, Rails and Mountains

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
View from Lookout Mountain.  Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

By Mark Bielski, Ph.D.

In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman assumed command of the western Union armies after U.S. Grant transferred east to face Robert E. Lee in Virginia.  Sherman enacted a grand plan that summer. He was to begin a campaign that consisted of a series of battles in northern Georgia. His ultimate goal was to destroy the Army of Tennessee and take the Confederate city of Atlanta. This would also sever supply lines that were vital to the Confederate war effort.

While Sherman was not successful in destroying the Confederate army he faced, he did capture Atlanta that September. Other than the military achievement, it had a dual effect. It lifted the spirits of northerners who had grown weary of the war, and it inspired political confidence in President Abraham Lincoln who was running for re-election that fall.

This campaign was also the starting point of Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea,” in which he left a swath of devastation throughout the Georgia countryside. This war on the civilian populace greatly darkened the prospects for the Southern cause and sapped the morale countless soldiers fighting far from home.

Leading the Confederates initially was Joseph E. Johnston. But his conservative defensive tactics wore on the patience of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, who replaced him with General John B. Hood.

Civil War: War on the Rivers, Rails and Mountains

It is the history of this campaign that we study on the Civil War: War on the Rivers, Rails and Mountains Tour, which covers the battles at Allatoona Pass, Peach Tree Creek, Resaca, Dalton and Ringgold Gap. We also get to have the diversion of the famous Great Locomotive Chase that occurred earlier in the war. Two films portrayed this adventure, the 1926 silent classic made by Buster Keaton and the more serious portrayal in 1956 that starred Fess Parker.  We see the actual locomotive and the interpretation of the chase at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

From Atlanta, we move north to Chattanooga where we visit the Chickamauga National Military Park. Here we experience the interpretation of that costly Confederate victory. A Union colonel described the opposing armies as “two wild beasts” fighting each other “in a knock-down and drag-out encounter.” This is where Union General George Thomas, a Virginian who was disowned by his family, earned the moniker, “Rock of Chickamauga” for his staunch defense of the Union retreat.

We move forward to the sites of the Chattanooga Campaign by beginning in front of the HQ of General Thomas where Ulysses S. Grant arrived to take command of the army in October 1863. We are treated to some spectacular views in our ascent of Lookout Mountain for the “Battle Above the Clouds.” We follow with a rare visit to Brown’s Ferry before proceeding to take in the pivotal actions at Missionary Ridge. We cap our stay amidst the charm and hospitality of downtown Chattanooga.

In moving north to Murfreesboro, we get to visit the crucial 1862-63 New Year’s battle of Stones River. The casualties and carnage that took place here horrified citizens throughout both North and South.

Personal stories always make history come alive and add realism to the narrative. A stop in Spring Hill gives us a glimpse of a jealous husband’s revenge. Here local Tennessee Doctor George Peters assassinated Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, the dashing Mississippi cavalier, for “violating the sanctity” of his home by having an affair with his young wife.  

Jefferson Davis had wanted more aggressiveness in his Army of Tennessee commander when he appointed General Hood to relieve Joe Johnston. Hood embodied this trait almost to a fault and we see evidence of it at Franklin, Tennessee. Hood had wanted to prevent this part of the Union army from uniting with General Thomas’ forces in Nashville. The November 30, 1864 battle culminated with a disastrous frontal assault that the Yankees repelled with grim results for the Rebels. The deadly charge killed six Confederate generals, including Irishman and once-rising star, Patrick Ronayne Cleburne who disappeared in the smoke of battle with a bullet through his heart. 

In Franklin, we see the civilian side of the war in our visits to the Carter and Lotz Houses. We get to envision what must have been an anguishing endurance of hell for the two families as they huddled in their cellars while the battle raged around them.

The failure at Franklin did not deter Hood, who proceeded with his battered and bloodied force toward Nashville where 55,000 Union troops awaited him. He encamped south of the city, where in mid-December General Thomas began his assault. The soldiers in blue were able to sweep over the dug-in Confederates and their earthworks, forcing a two-mile withdrawal. 

Another fierce attack the next day forced the Confederates into a hasty retreat. Only an effective rear guard action saved Hood’s men from total destruction. The successive losses at Franklin and Nashville virtually put an end to the only remaining mobile Confederate army in the South.

Travel on the Civil War: Rivers, Rails and Mountains Tour

“This tour fills an important need in the study of the Civil War—a most welcome addition to the Ambrose offerings!” – G. Bowles

Explore the rivers and ridges from Atlanta to Chattanooga to Nashville and the battles that raged there with Parker Hills, one of the best Civil War historians you will find anywhere.

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