Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.
On the afternoon of November 25, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant stood on Orchard Knob east of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and pondered what to do next. It was just over a month since he had arrived at the town where the Army of the Cumberland, in the aftermath of its defeat at Chickamauga on September 20, found itself besieged by the victorious Army of Tennessee under the command of Braxton Bragg. Grant’s job was to break the siege and defeat the enemy.
It was a daunting task. The Confederates looked down upon their beaten foe from defensive positions along Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The Rebels had also moved westward along the Tennessee River to sever the Yankee supply line, leaving the Army of the Cumberland in a perilous situation. The Lincoln administration labored to relieve the beleaguered army, dispatching two corps from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and one from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in Mississippi to do what they could to pry open the Confederate grip on Chattanooga. Having lost faith in the ability of William S. Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland’s commander, to salvage the situation, President Lincoln turned to the victor of Vicksburg to save the day. Elevated in mid-October to a command that spanned the area from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River valley, Grant took advantage of an option provided in his orders to replace Rosecrans with George H. Thomas, who promised Grant that he would hold Chattanooga until his men starved.
By the time Grant arrived at Chattanooga on October 23, the Union forces were ready to take action. Rosecrans and his chief engineer William F. Smith had already framed a plan to reopen a supply line along the Tennessee River. Grant ordered that it be implemented. Meanwhile, he hurried forward William T. Sherman’s troops from the Army of the Tennessee, intending to entrust the key blow of the upcoming battle to Sherman instead of Thomas or Joseph Hooker, who had come westward with the Potomac soldiers. It was not until November 23 that Grant could set his plan in motion. That day Thomas undertook a reconnaissance in force that easily captured Orchard Knob. The result was more than Grant expected. Still, one observer noted that he was “well pleased at what had been accomplished. He seems perfectly cool, and one could be with him for hours, and not know that any great movements were going on. Its a mere matter of business with him.”1
That night there was a near total eclipse of the moon. Major James A. Connelly of the 123rd Illinois Infantry noted that “it was ominous of defeat, but not for us; we concluded that it meant Bragg because he was perched on the mountain top, nearest the moon.”2 As noon came on November 24 “the fiercest and most tremendeous roars of both cannon and musketry” broke out along Lookout Mountain. Hooker’s men scrambled up its slopes, driving the enemy away. That night Union observers could see “Camp fires and flashes of musketry” illuminate the mountain’s slopes: the following morning Grant’s headquarters discovered that Hooker’s men had planted a United States flag at the summit.3 Meanwhile, Sherman had moved into place opposite the Bragg’s right on Missionary Ridge, ready to smash the Confederate flank and drive the Rebels off the ridgeline.
On the morning of November 25 Sherman attacked, only to discover that he has misjudged the terrain in front of him. Patrick Cleburne’s division repelled several Union assaults, and by early afternoon it was clear that Sherman was getting nowhere. On the Union right Hooker’s men found it tough going to make progress against the Confederates, in part because they needed to replace destroyed bridges. At Orchard Knob, Grant, Thomas, and several officers stood in a cold wind and contemplated what to do next as Confederate shells “whizzed past” every few minutes.4
By mid-afternoon Grant knew he had to do something. He directed Thomas to order his four divisions to move forward and capture, the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, and then await further orders. When the moment was right, he would order them to resume their advance.
It didn’t quite work out that way. After Union artillery commenced shelling the ridge, Thomas’s men “moved forward at the rifle pits of the enemy as if they knew they were going to succeed,” as Smith described it. The Confederates “broke from behind their protection and up the hill, our men following with chear upon chear and the cannon and musketry on top of the hill pouring shot and shell upon them.”5
In truth, the advancing Yankees had no choice. Having taken the rifle pits with relative ease, they discovered that they were now vulnerable to deadly fire from the ridge above them. Withdrawal would only expose them to more fire. The only option was to advance without waiting for orders from headquarters. Some commanders thought that the crest of the ridge was the ultimate objective; others thought the advance was to stop at the rifle pits. That confusion no longer mattered. “The line ceased to be a line,” Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs recalled. “The men gathered towards the points of least difficult ascent” and streamed up toward the crest. Although Confederate artillery fired away, Major Connolly later explained that “they couldn’t even scare us, as they couldn’t depress their guns to reach us, but had to blaze away far over our heads.” As Smith described it, “Regiment after regiment gained the top and planted their colors—most of them gaining it by the many roads that passed from the valley to the top of the ridge.”6
That was not how Grant had planned it. Meigs recorded how Grant declared that “it was contrary to orders, it was not his plan—he meant to form the lines and then prepare and launch columns of assault, but, as the men[,] carried away by their enthusiasm had gone so far, he would not order them back.” What had seemed at first akin to suicide had turned into a smashing success.7
That evening no one could quite believe what they had seen, although it did not take long for the assault on Missionary Ridge to pass into legend. Bragg’s “beaten and discontented army” was “in full retreat”; Tennessee and Kentucky were now safe from invasion. It was, Meigs decided, “[t]he grandest stroke yet struck for our country.… It is unexampled—Another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s Crown.”8
Years later the editors of Century Magazine suggested to Grant that Bragg had detached some of his army to attack Knoxville in early November because he thought the Missionary Ridge position was impregnable. With “a shrewd look,” Grant replied: “Well, it was impregnable.”9
1 William Wrenshall Smith: Journal, November 13–25, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 576.
2 James A. Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, December 7, 1863, ibid., 593.
3 Smith, ibid., 577-78.
4 Montgomery C. Meigs: Journal, November 23–25, 1863, ibid., 585.
5 Smith, ibid., 580.
6 Meigs, ibid., 587; Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, November 26, 1863, ibid., 590; Smith, ibid., 580.
7 Meigs, ibid., 587.
8 Ibid., 589.
9 Ulysses S. Grant: Chattanooga, in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1888), vol. III, 693n.
(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)
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