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Old Time Kentucky: Old Glory raised atop Lookout Mountain inspired Union to victory at Chattanooga

By Berry Craig
NKyTribune columnist

One of the most famous photos from World War II shows five U.S. Marines hosting the Stars and Stripes over Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

No photographer preserved it for posterity, but there was a similar scene during the Civil War. The heroes were six Estill County Yankees who obligingly staged the event for the camera a few days later.

Early on Nov. 25, 1863, Capt. John C. Wilson and five other blue-clad soldiers from the Eighth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment raised Old Glory atop the rocky, 2,225-foot crest of Lookout Mountain during the battle of Chattanooga, Tenn. Below, thousands of victory-hungry Union troops cheered.

“Those who have seen the awe-inspiring precipice at the top of the great mountain can realize what a serious undertaking was before us,” Wilson remembered.

The Lookout Mountain flag-raisers are, from left. Sgt. Joseph Wagers, Pvt. Joseph Bradley, Sgt. Harris H. Davis, Pvt. William Witt, Sgt.  James Wood and Capt. John C. Wilson (holding the flag) (Photo Provided)

The Lookout Mountain flag-raisers are, from left. Sgt. Joseph Wagers, Pvt. Joseph Bradley, Sgt. Harris H. Davis, Pvt. William Witt, Sgt. James Wood and Capt. John C. Wilson (holding the flag) (Photo Provided)

It was still dark when the Kentuckians started for the mountaintop. “We crept cautiously upward, clutching at rocks and bushes, supporting each other, using sticks and poles and such other aids as we could gather. At every step we expected to be greeted with deadly missiles of some sort from the enemy.

Unknown to Wilson and his men, the Rebels had just abandoned Lookout Mountain.

The captain added, “But fortune favored us, and before sun-up I, in front, reached the summit and planted the flag on top of Lookout Mountain. It was the highest flag that was planted during the war.”

Wilson dubbed the sextet “the lions of the day in the Union army.”

An olive-green historical marker on Ky. Highway 52 in West Irvine hails Wilson as a “Lookout Mountain Hero.” After leading his men to the summit, the 41-year-old officer “stepped out on the projecting brow of Lookout Mountain, and unfurled to the morning breeze that dear old emblem of light and liberty,” according to History of the Eighth Regiment Kentucky Vol. Inf. by Capt. T.J. Wright.

“As the sight of the flag met the upturned gaze of our vast army below, cheer after cheer echoed and re-echoed from camp to camp, from mountain to mountain, until the bosom of the placid, broad Tennessee River and the beautiful valleys appeared to shout for very joy.”

Capt. John C. Wilson

Capt. John C. Wilson

The Eighth Kentucky, mostly recruited in Estill and nearby counties, was part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army that was trying to hold strategic Chattanooga against Gen. Braxton Bragg’s besieging Confederate forces. On Nov. 24, the regiment joined an attack against the Rebels on Lookout Mountain, which looms over the southeastern Tennessee city that was a vital railroad hub. Fog shrouded the combatants in what was dubbed “the battle above the clouds.”

The attackers swept up the mountainside, braving a hail of Rebel bullets and cannon fire. The Union soldiers also had to dodge boulders the enemy rolled down at them. But there was to be no rest for the weary Capt. Wilson.

That night, the brass sought volunteers to carry the regiment’s colors to the mountaintop as a morale booster.

Wilson stepped forward. So did Sgts. Harris H. Davis, Joseph Wagers and James Wood and Pvts. Joseph Bradley and William Witt. Estill County women sewed the flag, according to the marker, which also says that Wilson is buried in Station Camp Cemetery four miles away.

The Confederates lost the battle of Chattanooga. Bragg retreated into Georgia on Nov. 25, opening the Peach State to Union invasion, which came in 1864.

Organized in October, 1861, the Eighth Kentucky fought in most of the major battles of the war’s western theater, including Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. The regiment mustered out in February, 1865.


Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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