Dade County: On the Path to Chickamauga (Part 1)

January 7, 2019

 When Union General William Rosecrans headed this way from Middle Tennessee with his three army corps, it was already late summer. He was pursuing the next part of the Union plan for ending the war devised by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and others. The previous part of the plan, already successfully completed, was to chop the Confederacy in half by taking control of the entire length of the Mississippi River.


It is hard for us to understand today how damaging this was to the South as we are not so dependent on rivers now for transportation and commerce, but in the 1800s, when there were almost no paved roads and not many railroads relative to the size of the area, rivers were terribly important for travel and shipping as well as for providing water for farming--and in those days, almost everybody farmed. Even though there were railroads in and out of Chattanooga, heavy boat and barge traffic still clogged the Tennessee River throughout the city and far outside its borders. Even rivers that we don’t think of today as major waterways, such as the Coosa, at Rome, bristled with steamboat and barge traffic as farmers loaded on their cotton and other produce to take to market and looked for deliveries from faraway places to supply them with things they couldn’t make at home.


All this to say that, when the Union troops headed for a battle at Chattanooga via Dade County, things were already critical for the Confederacy and it was imperative that the South carry out the war efficiently and effectively in order to survive.


General Braxton Bragg was in charge of the Confederate Army in this area and had already begun concentrating his troops at Chattanooga. General Bragg was a troubled man--he had a number of health problems and he utterly lacked those personal qualities which are necessary to those who successfully lead others and which Robert E. Lee had in such quantity. He was grouchy and quarrelsome and tended to listen to no one’s opinions but his own. His subordinates, on whom he had to depend for the carrying out his orders, in general detested him. These personal troubles and failings would come back to haunt him during the operations around Chattanooga.


His opponent, Rosecrans, was coming at him with more than 40,000 men, but first, the troops had to get there and that was no easy feat. Rosecrans decided to follow the “divide and conquer” principle in his campaign to take Chattanooga. He separated his huge army into three parts thinking that he could use this method to strike Bragg in his front, center and rear all at about the same time.


If you think only of marching and mounted men, this doesn’t sound so hard--only tiring--but armies travel with huge amounts of baggage, supplies and equipment and ammunition, which in those times were hauled in wagons pulled by horses and mules. and all this had to make the trip, too. To get to the field of battle near Chattanooga (which turned out to be Chickamauga by sheer happenstance) all this stuff had to get across Sand Mountain, then called Raccoon Mountain, and worse, Lookout Mountain, to get where it needed to be.


Rosecrans wrote a description of Lookout Mountain at the time based on the intelligence he had received, which remains pretty accurate even today. He called it “a vast palisade of rocks rising 2,400 feet above the level of the sea, in abrupt, rocky cliffs from a steep, wooded base. Its eastern sides are no less precipitous.” He added that “the only practicable wagon roads across it are one over the nose of the mountain, one at Johnson’s Crook, 26 miles distant, and one at Winston’s Gap, 42 miles distant from Chattanooga.” (Winston's Gap is near Valley Head, Alabama).


Charles Dana, a civilian assistant to the army, sent back to Washington a report with a similar take: “This region is composed of long mountains with few practicable passes. It is about 30 miles from the head of Lookout Mountain to the first gap, for instance.” (Note: He is referring here to Stevens’ Gap which is located about where GA Highway 136 arrives at the top of the mountain from the east nowadays.) “The roads are worse than those over any other mountains in the country; not impassable, but very destructive to wagons. The valleys are narrow, irregular, and bare of corn and cattle.”


In spite of all this, the move to Chattanooga had to be made and Dade County was squarely in the path.


One of the three subgroups of Rosecrans’s troops was led by General George Thomas, who would later become one of the heroes of the Battle of Chickamauga. By September 4, 1863, one of Thomas’s divisions had marched off Sand Mountain and reached Brown’s Spring on what is now Back Valley Road. Another subgroup, under General Alexander McCook, was already in camp at Trenton, probably about where the high school is now. A third group reached the base of Johnson’s Crook by September 6.


Their arrival was not without excitement. At the crook, they “met the enemy’s pickets and dispersed them.” This was referred to as the “Battle of Johnson’s Crook” although it occurred about halfway up the mountain. About a half-dozen shots were fired and one Union soldier was severely wounded in the leg. So Dade County became part of the official lead-up to the Battle of Chickamauga.


Next time: What the Union troops did while in our county and the move on to Chickamauga.


Note: Don’t forget to purchase your 2019 Dade County Historic Photographs Calendar either at the Library or at the County Commission office. The cost is ten dollars ($10) and proceeds will go toward the repair and restoration of the Dade County Courthouse.

--Joy Odom


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