- 24 Nov 2021 13:17
November 25, Wednesday
As the sky lightens over the peak of Lookout Mountain looming over Chattanooga, the delighted Federal troops on the slopes below discover that the Confederates have departed during the night; Bragg had glumly concluded that his troops had little chance of holding the contested gap, and he feared that they would be flanked—perhaps cut off and annihilated—this morning. Too, he anticipates a heavy attack from Sherman on the right flank, and so in the darkness he shifted his troops to Hardee’s command on the north end of Missionary Ridge. At first light, Captain John Wilson and five men from a Kentucky regiment climb unopposed to the summit of Lookout Mountain and stage a thrilling pangeant. Just before sunrise, carrying a furled US flag, they step out onto an overhanging rock. They wait for the sun, and just as its rays hit the peak, the men let loose the flag—to the great delight of the thousands watching from below. There are wild cheers from Chattanooga Valley, the town itself, and the Federal-held hills.
The frowning eminence of Lookout Mountain has been well publicized throughout the North during the Chattanooga siege, and news of its conquest will generate intense excitement in the Union. The event will soon become enshrined in legend as the Battle above the Clouds; and by his capture of the famous mountain, Joseph Hooker takes a step toward regaining the reputation that has been tarnished by Chancellorsville. But Lookout wasn’t a major battle—it was more like a “magnificent skirmish”—the Federal losses were remarkably light, about 480 men in all. Comfederate losses are considerably higher—totaling 1,251 men, including 1,054 captured or missing. Grant will later scoff at the mythology that will envelope the battle. He will say reports of a magnificent victory at Lookout Mountain are “one of the romances of the war,” and then add: “It is all poetry.” Still, the achievement isn’t without its rewards. Chief among these is the welcome end to the difficulties of supply. With Lookout back in Federal hands, the complicated Cracker Line is no longer necessary. Trains can run unimpeded from Bridgeport to Chattanooga, and steamers can once again follow the river all the way into the city. (They are cordelled—pulled by towlines—through The Suck.) And General Hooker’s troops are now available for further fighting, and Grant immediately orders them to set out for Rossville Gap in Missionary Ridge to find—and attack—Bragg’s left flank.
At the same first light, Sherman pushes his skirmishers toward his objective, Tunnel Hill. Sherman enjoys an overwhelming superiority of numbers. He has six divisions totaling 26,000 men against only 10,000 troops in the two Confederate divisions under Patrick Cleburne and Carter Stevenson, who arrived during the night from Lookout Mountain. But the rugged terrain, which greatly favors the defenders, helps to compensate for the Confederate deficit in numbers. In order to reach the Confederate line a half mile away, Sherman’s troops have to descend the hill that they occupy, plunge into a little valley, cross an open field under fire, then climb a steep slope against troops who are dug in behind log-and-earth breastworks.
Sherman encounters annoying problems merely in the deploying of his troops in the difficult terrain, and it isn’t until mid-morning that he is able to take the offensive. But even then his attacks are piecemeal and poorly coordinated. About 10 am, after having smoked several cigars while prowling his lines, Sherman signals the advance with a laconic word to his brother-in-law and 4th Division commander, Brigadier General Hugh Ewing: “I guess, Ewing, if you’re ready you might as well go ahead.” Ewing launches one of his brigades, under Brigadier General John A. Corse, straight at the forbidding side of Tunnel Hill while Colonel John M. Loomis’ brigade moves southward along the western base of the ridge toward the tunnel. Another division follows Ewing’s in reserve, while a third angles off toward the north to try to turn the Confederate right.
The Federals face a strong, compact line fashioned by Patrick Cleburne. Secured on the left by Stevenson’s division, which has filed into place south of the tunnel, Cleburne’s line runs north for several hundred yards, following the ridge of Tunnel Hill to its summit; then the defenses angle sharply eastward to run along a spur that descends to Chickamauga Creek. Cleburne has bolstered the line with artillery batteries at three key positions: on the ridge directly above the tunnel, in the angle at the summit, and in the north-facing leg of the line. And to man the breastworks in the crucial center position atop the hill, Cleburne has chosen the tough Texas brigade of Brigadier General James A. Smith. As the Federal advance begins, Corse’s four regiments head straight for Smith’s Texans; in quick response, all three Confederate batteries open fire on the blue line. But the Confederate infantry wait. Cleburne has decided not to contest the Federal advance with rifle fire until the enemy is upon his main line. So the soldiers watch the formations approach. Then the Federals reach the base of the ridge and disappears from view while they swarm up the rocky 600-foot incline.
Eighty yards from the Confederate breastworks, Corse’s Federals crest a lower ridge and finds a series of entrenchments that were abandoned earlier by the Confederates. There the attackers gather themselves and launch a charge straight at the angle and the four 12-pounder Napoleons of Lieutenant H. Shannon’s battery. Cleburne now gives the signal, and his troops level a volley at the approaching Federals. It slows but does not stop them. And as the Federals draw closer, it becomes apparent that the angle in the center of Smith’s line is a woefully weak spot. The Federal infantry is now able to bring the defenders in the salient under a devastating crossfire. The Confederate gunners bear the brunt of this fire, but they valiantly stand fast. Before long Shannon is wounded, and the highest-ranking survivor is a corporal. But assisted by infantrymen, the crews continue to work their guns furiously, scything great gaps in the Federal formations. Still the Federals come on, into the teeth of “a terrific storm of musket balls and canister,” until Corse’s men have pushed to within fifty steps of Cleburne’s line. Then two of Smith’s Texas regiments stand up, leap over their protective breastworks, and take on the Federals with clubbed muskets and bayonets, driving the attackers back to the trenches on the lower ridge. General Corse has been badly wounded, as has his opposite number, James Smith. Colonel Charles C. Walcutt takes Corse’s place and leads another charge against the Texans—now commanded by Colonel Hiram B. Granbury. With this attack a few Federals reach the Confederate works, but they die there, and the rest are thrown back yet again. For two hours the struggle contiunues, the Federals grimly coming on time after time, the Confederates stopping them and then countercharging, with Cleburne himself in the vanguard.
Farther south on Corse’s right, Loomis’ Federal brigade has encountered two Georgia regiments from Stevenson’s division. The outnumbered Georgians, one regiment on each side of the railroad track where it emerges from the tunnel, yield ground grudgingly as Confederate artillery pounds the advancing Federals. Soon Loomis’ troops slow under the devastating barrage; then they halt and take cover. Since Walcutt’s troops have far outdistanced those of Loomis, a gap now exists in the Federal line on the west slope of the hill. In order to close this hole and spur on his stalled offensive, Loomis calls for reinforcements. Two Pennsylvania regiments from XI Corps clamber up the slope and pitch into the battle, followed by a brigade led by Brigadier General Charles L. Matthies. Matthies’ four regiments become mixed and their line ragged, but they inch their way upward until they are tantalizingly close to the Confederate breastworks. Their ranks halt near a burning farmhouse, unable to go one step farther and utterly unwilling to take one step back.
The battle now rages all along the line. Walcutt’s men are pouring a withering fire into the center of Cleburne’s line—“a continuous sheet of hissing, flying lead,” concentrated on “a spece of not more than 40 yards.” At 2 pm Major General Carl Schurz finds Sherman seated on a stone fence overlooking the battlefield, watching the action. Sherman is in “an unhappy frame of mind,” his hopes of overwhelming the enemy’s right flank and thus striking the decisive blow of the battle dashed. It is a stinging disappointment. He gives vent to his feelings “in language of astonishing vivacity.” About 3 pm, one of Stevenson’s Confederate commanders, Brigadier General Alfred Cumming, offers to lead a bayonet charge. General Hardee approves. Cumming sends two Georgia regiments through a narrow opening in the Confederate breastworks and reassembles the troops under withering fire. Then he leads a charge that slams into General Matthies’ left flank. At that moment Patrick Cleburne leaps atop the Confederate breastworks and, with a flourish of his sword, leads Smith’s Texans in a charge on Matthies’ center. After ten minutes of savage hand-to-hand fighting, Matthies’ troops flee down the mountainside. His left flank exposed, Loomis is also forced to retreat. The Confederates capture eight flags and 500 prisoners, and the slope is littered with hundreds of Federal dead and wounded. Only Corse’s four regiments, still under Walcutt, remain on the ridge, slugging it out with the Texans and holding their ground.
At last Sherman calls a halt. His army has been stopped cold. After suffering nearly 2,000 casualties his troops are still no closer to taking Tunnel Hill than when they started. He sends word to Grant that his men can do no more. But to Sherman’s message Grant dispatches a two-word response: “Attack again.” Sherman follows orders, but he sends in only 200 men from Brigadier General Joseph Lightburn’s brigade. Lightburn’s troops fare no better than the other Federals; as they scale the slope of Tunnel Hill their ranks are cut to pieces by the Confederates’ fire, and soon the survivors are reeling back to the Federal lines. A correspondent standing near Sherman watches him light a fresh cigar, draw deeply on it twice, and then turn to an aide. “Tell Lightburn to entrench and go into position.” There will be no more attacks on Tunnel Hill today.
Grant is convinced that there is no point in sending Thomas against the center of Bragg’s line until a Confederate flank has been turned. By midmorning Sherman’s failure to make an impression on the Confederate right lends new urgency to Hooker’s advance on Bragg’s left. Hooker responds with alacrity to Grant’s 10 am order to move on Rossville Gap, and he has his command at Chattanooga Creek before noon. But the Confederates have partially destroyed the bridge over the flooded stream, and it takes Hooker three hours to make repairs on the span and get his infantry and artillery across. Hooker finally arrives at Rossville Gap and attacks the Confederate left around 3 pm.
By now Breckinridge, confident in the strength of the Confederate center but worried about his left, has determined to take personal command of the far left flank, defended by Brigadier General Hanry D. Clayton’s Alabama brigade. Meanwhile Bragg takes direct control of Breckinridge’s other two divisions. Breckinridge arrives to find a rapidly developing disaster. Hooker’s forces have driven two of Clayton’s regiments from Rossville Gap, and Cruft’s Federal division has gained a foothold on the southern slope of Missionary Ridge itself. Just as Breckinridge takes command of Clayton’s remaining two regiments, Cruft attacks again. Breckinridge is heavily outnumbered, and his line to the immediate north has been thinned to reinforce Cleburne; unable to get additional troops, he can do nothing more than fall back as slowly as possible. While Geary’s division strikes the Confederates from the west and Peter Osterhaus’ troops go around to the enemy rear through the gap, Cruft’s men drive north, onto the crest of the ridge. The Federals rout the defenders, taking hundreds of prisoners, among them Breckinridge’s son, Cabell, who is serving as an aide to his father. Finally, the destruction of the Confederate flank that Grant has been looking for is under way; but it is Hooker, not Sherman, who is accomplishing it.
Grant and his aides are still attempting to watch the unfolding events from Orchard Knob. The Confederates defending Missionary Ridge have found the range of the little hill by now, and artillery shells are landing uncomfortably close. The crest of Missionary Ridge is in clear sight. Bragg’s headquarters is in full view, and officers—presumably staff officers—can be seen coming and going constantly. Grant also thinks he can see Confederate reinforcements—“column after column”—being rushed to Cleburne. In this he is mistaken, but the prospect worries him. With darkness not far off, he decides to wait no longer but to send Thomas forward immediately to relieve the pressure on Sherman. Still lacking confidence in the Army of the Cumberland, Grant gives Thomas only a limited objective: His forces are to take the Confederate rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge and then await further instructions.
Grant has no way of knowing that the obstacle confronting Thomas is far less formidable than it appears. Bragg has left Breckinridge with only three divisions to defend four miles of line, and he has even further weakened the defenses with faulty command decisions. Unfamiliar with defensive warfare, Bragg has divided his forces along most of his line, sending half of each regiment into the rifle pits located 200 yards in front of the base of the ridge while deploying the rest on the crest. Then Bragg issued instructions for the men in the rifle pits, if attacked, to fire one volley and withdraw up the hill. Even worse for the Confederates, thanks to an incompetent engineer, the still-unfinished breastworks along the top of the ridge have been laid out incorrectly. They are sited at the geographic crest—the highest elevation—instead of being placed at the so-called military crest, which is the elevation that commands the maximum field of fire down the slope.
On the Federal side, there is a strange delay in executing Grant’s order to attack the rifle pits. The general commanding the attacking corps is Gordon Granger, one of the heroes of the Chickamauga defense; but on this day something curious happens to him. He becomes so fascinated by the artillery fire from Orchard Knob that he is completely distracted. He takes over the operation of some of the cannon himself, “sighting the guns with all the enthusiasm of a boy,” and shouting with the men whenever a shot hits. When an hour has passed and Thomas’ men haven’t yet moved, Grant discovers that Granger has never ordered the attack. Suddenly Granger attracts a good deal of notice, being rebuked by both Thomas and Grant.
When the order to advance is at last transmitted, the move forward begins “in an incredibly short time.” The men of the much maligned Army of the Cumberland, still resentful of Grant’s slights, can hardly wait to attack. Crazy to charge, in at least one brigade “all servants, cooks, clerks found guns in some way” and pushed into the ranks. Once again, the preliminary formation provides a stunning spectacle. As before, Thomas, the consummate drillmaster, forms his ranks with precision, the lines ruler-straight, bands playing, banners fluttering. The troops form up with Absalom Baird’s division on the left, then Thomas Wood’s, Philip Sheridan’s, and Richard Johnson’s. When they emerge onto the plain, 20,000 strong, they are a fearsome sight to the Confederates watching from the mountaintop a mile away. At the signal—six rapid cannon shots from the Federal artillery—the great mass of soldiers start forward, rolling toward the Confederate line with all the ponderous, relentless, menacing force of molten lava. From both sides of the field comes the thunder of artillery. Bragg’s headquarters makes an irresistible target and is riddled by shot. The Confederate guns, on their part, blast great holes in the Federal lines. But the attackers continue inexorably forward without firing, skirmishers in front. Soon the main body breaks into a ponderous run and catches up with the skirmishers. The Confederate infantry hold their fire until Thomas’ army has marched to within 200 yards. Then they loose a withering volley. Yet still the Federals press on, and most of the Confederates, obeying Bragg’s orders, scurry up the ridge. This movement proves ruinous for the Confederates: It encourages the Federals, who think they are watching their enemy take flight, and dismays the defenders higher on the ridge who don’t know that the friendly forces are retreating under orders. Furthermore, Bragg’s order wasn’t conveyed to everyone in the rifle pits—some of the Confederates stay and fight in pointless sacrifice.
The objective is taken, and taken swiftly. Many of the Confederates who stayed behind are captured. The Federal soldiers lie there, panting but exultant. As Confederate prisoners are led back toward town, a Union soldier jeers at them, “You’ve been trying to get there long enough! Now charge on to Chattanooga!” The Federal gunners cease firing to avoid hitting their own infantrymen. Moreover, the triumphant Federals find that they are now exposed to a galling rifle fire from the Confederate entranchments above them. A sudden restlessness sweeps the ranks of men milling at the base of the ridge. A moment later Grant, watching through his binoculars, sees an astonishing sight. A number of blueclad soldiers are starting up the hill. He watches in disbelief as more men follow. Soon long lines of Federal soldiers can be seen laboriously pushing their way up the slope. Grant wheels furiously on Thomas, who is standing beside him. “Thomas,” he barks, “who ordered those men up the ridge?” The impassive Thomas replies, “I don’t know. I did not.” Grant turns fiercely on Granger. “Did you order them up, Granger?” “No,” Granger denies, “they started without orders.” Then, with quiet satisfaction, he adds, “When those fellows get started, all hell can’t stop them.” His jaw set, Grant returns to his field glasses. He is watching a general’s nightmare: a battle gone out of control. He has never contemplated a major assault by Thomas’ force. All questions of morale aside, the Army of the Cumberland is probably no stronger—and possibly weaker—than the Confederate force opposing it on the mountain. Moreover, the center of Bragg’s line is presumably its strongest point; certainly the terrain there is forbidding. This unplanned attack against a near-impregnable defensive position is an invitation to disaster. At one point Grant considers calling the men back. Then he decides to wait a few minutes. “It’s all right,” he mutters, “if it turns out all right.” Then he adds, “If not, someone will suffer.”
As Grant deliberates, the Army of the Cumberland is advancing. Under heavy fire from above, the Federals have—in the felicitous phrase used later by the Comte de Paris, a French nobleman who had served on McClellan’s staff—“fled forward,” toward their tormentors. Sheridan, feeling certain that the advance is in violation of orders, has dispatched a staff officer to General Granger asking if it is the first line or the ridge that is to be taken. By the time the messenger returns, confirming that only the first line is to be held, the spontaneous assault is underway. “But believing that I could carry they ridge,” Sheridan will later recall, “I could not order those officers and men who were so gallantly ascending the hill to return.” The slope is now a scene of swarming activity. In some of the steeper spots, men are scrambling on their hands and knees. Other soldiers are “clambering over rocks and through bushes, lifting themselves by thrusting their bayonets into the ground or by catching hold of limbs and twigs.” The Federals are heavily burdened, carrying nine-pound muskets as well as forty rounds of ammunition. In addition, most of the troops are wearing overoats, for the weather has turned bitter cold. Nevertheless, they scarcely hesitate as they crawl and claw their way up the incline. A member of Bragg’s staff, watching the scene with growing incredulity, concludes that the Federals must be drunk. The ascending soldiers detect the confusion they are causing among their enemy, and are heartened by it. They see those defending the heights becoming more and more desperate as they approach the top. The Confederates shout “Chickamauga” as though the word itself is a weapon; they thrust cartridges into guns by the handsful, they light the fuses of shells and roll them down, they seize huge stones and throw them, but nothing can stop the force of the charge.
Now the Confederates on the ridge begin to suffer again from Bragg’s mistakes. The men from the bottom of the slope are racing frantically for the safety of the summit. In the process they are interfering with the defensive fire: The Confederates above are afraid of hitting their own men. Moreover, many of the riflemen on the poorly positioned works now find they cannot see the approaching enemy without exposing themselves to Federal fire. Some of the defenders maintain a savage fusillade—General Manigault, for one, had insisted on laying out his own works and had placed them far enough down the slope to be effective. But there is something unearthly about those panting climbers. Nothing seems to daunt them. The Confederates on Missionary Ridge have demonstreated their courage repeatedly in the last few months, but now, as the eerily determined Federals begin reaching the crest of the ridge, the resolution of the defenders ebbs. Men throw down their arms and flee, and their panic proves contagious. Hooker’s troops have driven Breckinridge back two and a half miles from his position on the left, almost as far as Bragg’s headquarters on the center at the ridge; Breckinridge now joins the commanding general, who is trying to stop the rout. A few moments before, when the Union advance had hesitated at the foot of the hill, he thought that the attack had been stopped. He is riding along the crest waving his hat and congratulating his men when the whole position suddenly caves in around him. Reportedly, Bragg rides up to groups of his fleeing soldiers, standing in their path and crying: “Here’s your commander!” But the soldiers only jeer and brush past. Breckinridge’s response to the chaos around them is more practical, if less soldierly: “Boys,” he shouts, “get away the best you can.” Indeed, both he and Bragg narrowly escape capture. Gray-clad men rush wildly down the hill and into the woods, tossing away knapsacks, muskets, and blankets as they run. Batteries gallop back along the narrow, winding roads with reckless speed, and officers, frantic with rage, rush from one panic-stricken group to another, shouting and cursing as they strive to check the headlong flight. In ten minutes, all that remain of the defiant rebel army that has so long besieged Chattanooga is captured guns, disarmed prisoners, moaning wounded, ghastly dead, and scattered, demoralized fugitives.
The watchers on Orchard Knob see the ragged lines of blue reach the crest—in several places at the same time—and “in a few moments the flags of 60 Yankee regiments float along Missionary Ridge from one end to the other.” A great victory cry sweeps the ridge as the Federal soldiers realize what they have done. They throw their haversacks in the air until it is a cloud of black spots; officers and men mingle indiscriminately in their joy. General Granger rides gleefully through the celebrating men, shouting, “I’m going to have you all court-martialed! You were ordered to take the works at the foot of the hill and you have taken those at the top! You have disobeyed orders!” some Federal officers manage to pull their forces together and continue the drive northward along the crest, flanking the few Confederates who are still holding their ground. Federal soldiers seize batteries and turn the guns on the fleeing Confederates. When no primers can be found, the Federals fire the cannon by shooting muskets over the vents to ignite the charge. Some artillery units attempt to escape, and the Federals shoot the horses. Philip Sheridan is seen seated triumphantly astride one of the guns that almost killed him just a few minutes before. Another officer who tries the same theatrics burns himself on the scorching barrel and is unable to sit down for a fortnight. The US Army Quartermaster General, Montgomery C. Meigs, had come out from Washington a few weeks ago to survey Chattanooga’s supply situation in the aftermath of the Confederate siege. At the start of the battle he had been standing with General Grant on Orchard Knob. Now, unaccountably, Major Connolly sees Meigs on Missionary Ridge in the midst of all the jubilation, “wild with excitement, trying himself to wheel one of those guns on the rebels flying down the opposite side of the mountain,” and furious because he can’t find a lanyard with which to fire the gun. Missionary Ridge now belongs to the Union.
But not quite all of it. At the north end of the ridge, General Cleburne is for a time unaware of the disaster that has befallen the rest of the Army of Tennessee—at that end of the line, the Confederates think the battle has all gone their way. Cleburne’s soldiers are actually cheering their victory over Sherman when their corps commander, General Hardee, rides up with word that the Confederate center has collapsed and Cleburne is in danger of being flanked. Cleburne, the only Confederate general involved in the fighting who has not been routed, is charged with protecting the retreat. Slowly and reluctantly, but in good order, he withdraws from Tunnel Hill and deploys his troops as a rearguard for the broken army.
Sheridan, soon after his arrival at the summit of the ridge, has climbed down from his cannon, rounded up his battered troops—they have suffered 1,304 casualties, more than half the Federal losses in the attack—and leads them down the hill after the fleeing Confederates, who are clearly visible on the road leading toward Chickamauga Station. Darkness is descending, but Sheridan captures a number of supply wagons and artillery pieces before he is forced to halt for the night. Grant later credits him with seizing most of the prisoners, artillery, and small arms taken this day. Despite the sometimes desperate fighting on Missionary Ridge, casualties are relatively low for a major battle: Federal engaged are put at more than 56,000 (and others available), with 753 killed, 4,722 wounded, and 349 missing for a total of 5,824; Confederate engaged around 46,000, with 361 killed, 2,160 wounded, and 4,146 missing for a total of 6,667, many of these prisoners. The road into Georgia is at least partially opened for the Federals.
This night, as Cleburne protects their rear, Bragg’s demoralized Confederates gather at Chickamauga Station and make preparations to retreat deep into Georgia. Officers spend the night trying to bring some order to the chaos. Bragg is distraught., looking “hacked and whipped and mortified and chagrined at defeat.” Captain Buck, carrying a message to Bragg, finds him curiously agitated and unlike himself—obviously suffering, says Buck, from “nervous anxiety.”
There remain the siege lines at Knoxville, where Burnside is daily becoming more hard pressed. Brigadier General Danville Leadbetter—Bragg’s chief engineer and the man that laid out Knoxville’s defenses when it was in Confederate hands, has arrived. He encourages Longstreet to consider attacking the side of town opposite Fort Sanders, an idea that will prove utterly impractical and further delay the attack.
In Virginia, General Lee receives a report from a scout that each soldier of the Army of the Potomac on the other side of the Rapidan has been issued eight days of rations. He alerts his outposts to watch for a movement, upstream or down, and sits back to await developments. If the length of the numerical odds disturbs him, he can recall the victory he scored against even longer odds, seven months ago, on practically this same ground. “With God’s help,” a young officer writes home this night, “there shall be a Second Chancellorsville as there was a Second Manassas.”
On this day and the 26th, 517 rounds are thrown against Sumter at Charleston. Skirmishes break out in Crawford County, Arkansas; near Houston on the Big Piney and near Waynesville and Farmington, Missouri; at Camp Pratt and near Vermillian Bayou, Louisiana; Sangster’s Station, Virginia; Greenville, North Carolina; and Yankeetown, Tennessee.
From Britain the unfinished CSS Rappahannock sails to France to avoid probable detention by the British.
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.