Robertson on Powell, 'The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga'

David A. Powell
William Glenn Robertson

David A. Powell. The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. The World of Ulysses S. Grant Series. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020. Illustrations, maps. 264 pp. $34.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8093-3801-6.

Reviewed by William Glenn Robertson (Combat Studies Institute) Published on H-CivWar (March, 2021) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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Following his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, William Rosecrans gathered the remaining elements of the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There he was besieged by Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee. With his normal supply line interdicted by Confederate troops occupying the left bank of the Tennessee River and Lookout Mountain, Rosecrans’s command, both men and animals, soon found themselves slowly starving. Something had to be done to save the Army of the Cumberland, and the Lincoln administration finally acted decisively. First it sent two army corps from the eastern theater under the command of Joseph Hooker to bolster Rosecrans’s supply hubs at Stevenson and Bridgeport, Alabama. More important, it directed Ulysses S. Grant to bring large elements of the Army of the Tennessee to Chattanooga to relieve the Army of the Cumberland.

Upon his arrival, Grant was given command of the combined force. Unwilling to retain Rosecrans, with whom he had long been at odds, Grant replaced him with George Thomas as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Over the next two months, Grant would devise a plan to amalgamate Thomas’s command, Hooker’s troops, and the units from Mississippi led by William Sherman into a fighting force strong enough to break the Confederate siege. Grant’s task was complicated by the situation facing Ambrose Burnside’s command in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Confederate forces under James Longstreet were besieging the town. The Lincoln administration had long been fixated on freeing the loyal citizens of east Tennessee from Confederate rule and therefore kept Burnside’s plight always before Grant in its messages to him. Thus, Grant’s task was to build and supply a powerful force that would relieve both Chattanooga and Knoxville, thereby liberating most of east Tennessee from the Confederacy. With a few missteps and delays along the way, and materially aided by unforced Confederate mistakes, Grant ultimately succeeded in doing just that, winning the fights at Wauhatchie, Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge.

David A. Powell’s The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga is a volume in The World of Ulysses S. Grant series, edited by John Marszalek and Timothy Smith. It purports not to be a definitive account of this most complex campaign but instead to provide a focus on Grant in the context of a readable summary of the campaign informed by current scholarship. With a few exceptions where Grant recedes into the background, the book succeeds remarkably well in that goal. Powell’s writing style is clear and concise, describing the various personalities and complex movements in forceful prose, reinforced by Hal Jesperson’s excellent maps. There is probably no better work currently extant from the federal perspective if the reader desires a full account not overly burdened by detail. The controversial episodes in the federal campaign, most notably, the question of who ordered the unexpectedly successful assault on Missionary Ridge, are described in a generally evenhanded fashion. Logistical matters, often overlooked by historians as critical drivers of events, are well covered.

Firmly in line with the current historical homage to all things Grant, Powell concludes that the Chattanooga Campaign represented just another step forward in Grant’s march to greatness as a commander. He rightly lauds Grant’s ability to placate the Lincoln administration as delays mounted, a skill utterly absent in Rosecrans. He also highlights Grant’s flexibility of mind, accepting changes in plans necessitated by adverse circumstances. On the other hand, he clearly but somewhat reluctantly delineates some of Grant’s less admirable traits. Foremost of these was Grant’s strong dislike of the federal officers who had not come with him from Mississippi. He banished Rosecrans, was impatient with Thomas, dismissed Hooker’s achievements, and fired Gordon Granger, Thomas’s primary subordinate. The long-suffering Army of the Cumberland never seemed to please him and was frequently denigrated, even though its staff and technical capabilities would form the foundation for the subsequent successful campaign to Atlanta. In contrast, Grant completely overlooked the multiple failings of Sherman during the campaign, erasing them from his own account of operations. Sherman was slow to arrive at Chattanooga, made a gross terrain error by attacking an unoccupied Billy Goat Hill, failed to carry his end of Missionary Ridge (the linchpin of Grant’s battle plan), and made an inadequate pursuit, all facts that Grant swept under the historical rug. Grant himself was responsible for much of the inadequate pursuit, shifting his focus to the relief of Burnside before completing the destruction of Bragg’s army, which would live to fight again. Had Grant been opposed by an army of equal size, one not wracked by fatal divisions among its senior leaders, a federal victory might indeed have merited the high praise Powell gives Grant in his conclusion. Yes, Grant won a resounding if incomplete victory, but he was mightily assisted by Confederate errors and the stellar performances of Hooker, Thomas, and the much-maligned Army of the Cumberland. A great commander would have given credit where it was due and honestly apportioned blame, but Grant seemingly could not do this. That less than admirable personality trait would be seen again in Virginia in the Overland Campaign of 1864 and unnecessarily cost precious lives.

In keeping with the aims of his series editors, Powell praises Grant’s genius fulsomely, but he also exposes a side of Grant that tarnishes that assessment. Even so, given its relatively narrow parameters, Powell’s work is a welcome contribution to studies of the western theater in the American Civil War.

Citation: William Glenn Robertson. Review of Powell, David A., The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL:

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