Lookout Mountain rises 1700 feet above the Tennessee Valley, its steep sides protruding to the sky. On the northern end the mountain is surrounded on three sides by a near vertical rock wall that has afforded protection to the occupants of the top for hundreds of years.
The mountain is known for a weather phenomenon that occurs from 3-5 times a year. A layer of fog forms around the bottom of Lookout Mountain then begins to rise, sometimes engulfing the entire mountain. This rising fog has been written about since the first settlers visited the area before 1735. It was on a fateful day, November_24, 1863, that this weather anomaly set in, creating the most poetic name for any battle in the American Civil War, The Battle Above the Clouds.
"Clouds enveloped the entire mountain" wrote Union General John Geary before the attack. Confederate General Edward Walthall, whose Mississippians made up part of the Rebel line would write that he detected Geary's movement at about 7:30am but before he could tell where the Union commander was headed "a mist obscured the valley" at about 8:00am.
Geary was headed to the site of an old dam, where his engineers would build a bridge. By 8:00am the bridge was complete enough to send about 20 Union soldiers from 3 companies across to form a bridgehead. Their stealth and the fog was on their side as they captured 42 Confederate pickets without firing a shot. At 9:30am the Geary's attack began in "thick fog" on the mountainside. The Union commander also noted that the fog in Lookout Valley had risen.
The fog prevented Hooker's artillery from joining the fray. Around 11:00 the clouds lifted to the point that the artillery could tell Rebel from Yankee and opened fire, even though the cloud bank was returning. One Union artillery man later compared it to "...a fire and cloud capped Sinai."
Joseph Hooker's report on the battle notes that "...the enemy threw grenade and shell over the cliffs, and the fire of their sharpshooters was so galling that we must inevitably have lost many men but for a dense cloud that enveloped the mountain top about noon."
Heavy fighting took place at Cravens House, a rocky ledge in the sheer north slope of the mountain shortly after 2:00pm. Three brigades of Rebels (about 1200 men) successfully formed a line against three Federal brigades (about 2400 men) and actually launched a counterattack. The counterattack ran into heavy federal resistance as the clouds lifted and General George Thomas' men, including James Walker, saw the resumption of the federal advance at Cravens House through a "hole" in the clouds and 20,000 men ready to attack Missionary Ridge the following day let out a cheer for their comrades on Lookout Mountain. Before nightfall various versions of the name "Battle Above the Clouds" were used to describe the encounter.
General Braxton Bragg ordered Carter Stevenson, commander of the Rebel forces on Lookout Mountain to withdraw and join him on Missionary Ridge for the battle to come in the morning. Hooker took the mountain with 629 causalities and only 81 deaths.
From the New York Times on Nov. 30, 1863 - Quartermaster Gen. Meigs, ...mentions the notable fact that in Gen. Hooker's fight up the slopes of Lookout Mountain, "much of the battle was fought above the clouds, which concealed him from our view, but from which his musketry was heard."
In 1864 artist James Walker completed a painting commissioned by the federal government of the action of November 24, 1863, which he called "The Battle of Lookout Mountain." In 1870 General Joseph Hooker commissioned Walker to paint a much larger version (13 feet by 30 feet) of his original painting for $20,000. Walker returned to Chattanooga and studied the landscape. He paid a photographer to take pictures as well. After Walker presented the painting to Hooker it toured the United States and remained in Hooker's family until 1970, when it was donated to the National Park Service. Today the painting hangs in the Visitors Center near the entrance to Point Park.
Ulysses S. Grant would write in his memoirs: The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.
The city of Chattanooga used the name in many post-war celebrations. In 1913 a fireworks show from the top of Lookout Mountain, dubbed the "Battle Above the Clouds," was billed as "one of the greatest firework shows ever assembled" and "will be visible for 100 miles."
Some northern papers referred to the Scopes trial as the "battle above the clouds"
During World War II some airplane engagements were called a "battle above the clouds."
Between 1961 and 1963 (during the Civil War Centennial) the city of Chattanooga promoted the fighting on Lookout Mountain as the Battle Above the Clouds.