I think most Americans know about Picket's charge in July of 1863, when 15,000 rebels attacked across a mile of open ground outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But few know that four months later 18,000 Midwestern farm boys in blue crossed half a mile of open ground to storm rifle pits filled with rebel veterans, and then clambered, grasping and panting, 500 feet up a 45 degree slope and threw themselves against even more rebel veterans and fifty cannon in what came to be called “The Miracle of Missionary Ridge”.
In late September of 1863, the 60,000 man federal Army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans, was ambushed along Chickamauga Creek in the the mountains of northern Georgia by a 65,000 man rebel army under General Braxton Bragg. The first day of the assault left Rosecrans, in Lincoln's estimation, “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.”
But through the second day a single union corps under General George Thomas (above) stood like a rock against the rebel assaults, even as Rosecrans scampered 20 miles back to the union supply base at Chattanooga.
The city of Chattanooga (above), perched on the south bank of the Tennessee River, was then placed under siege by Bragg's army .The Appalachian mountains touched the river south west of town at the 2,400 foot tall Lookout Mountain (above - background), which Bragg's left wing occupied. That closed the union supply line to the south.
The rebels also entrenched along the crest and the base of the two mile long Missionary Ridge (above), which loomed directly over the city.
And rebel artillery on three 400 foot high mounds north of the city - Alexander's Hill, Tunnel Hill and Billy Goat Hill (above) - closed the river to supply boats there as well. It looked like the Army of the Cumberland would be starved out. After the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, this was the South's “last chance at independence.”
Two men in the north saw the truth that the Army of the Cumberland (above) was trapped only if it was willing to be. The first was President Lincoln, who insisted Bragg's army could only “eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals.” The other optimist was General George Thomas. As the federals staggered back into Chattanooga, “The Rock of Chicamauga” replaced Rosecrans. In addition, fifteen thousand federal reinforcements under General George Hooker were dispatched from the Army of the Potomac, and 20,000 more under General William “Uncle Billy” Sherman were on their way from Vicksburg. And commander of all troops west of the Appalachians, General Ulysses Grant was ordered to Chattanooga as well.
By the time Grant arrived, Thomas already devised a plan to relive the besieged city. Grant gave the go ahead and a narrow switchback road across Moccasin Point, the Cracker Line, was opened to the north bank opposite Chattanooga, so basic supplies could be ferried into the city. And on 23 November, Hooker's corps pushed across the Tennessee and forced the Rebels back from Lookout Mountain. That opened the river to union supply and troop transports (above) to come up from the south.
Then on 24 November General Sherman threw his reinforced corps across the river above the city. That bold movement should have outflanked the entire rebel position. But Sherman became the goat after capturing and fortifying what he thought was Tunnel Hill at the northern end of Missionary Ridge, only to discover the next morning it was only an isolated mound, which is how it earned the name “Billy Goat Hill.” (above, center)
That night the moon rose cold and bright and clear and then darkened, as it fell into the shadow of the earth. Many of the soldiers on both sides, camping above and below Missionary Ridge (above), saw this total eclipse of the moon as a bad omen. The only question was, bad for which side?
The next morning, 25 November, the sun rose bright and clear, without a cloud in the sky. Sherman threw himself against the real end of Missionary Ridge, Tunnel Hill, with a vengeance. But the rebels under Clebourne had been reinforced over night. After a morning spent in a badly executed attack, the Union Left flack was about where it started. At 12:45 pm Sherman sent a desperate message, why were Thomas' men in the center were not attacking? Thomas was unperturbed. He replied, “I am here, my right (Hooker) closing in from Lookout Mountain on Missionary Ridge.” But Grant had seen Sherman's message, and about 2:30 with nothing still happening, suggested “General Sherman seems to be having a hard time. It seems as if we ought to go help him.” He then ordered Thomas to send two of his divisions to “carry the rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge, and when carried to reform his lines on the rifle pits with a view to carrying the ridge."
Grant saw the attack on Bragg's center as a diversion, to discourage Bragg from reinforcing the rebels in front of Sherman. But Thomas was not thinking of a diversion. He chose to wait. It was not until after 3 that afternoon when the sounds of Hooker's fight on the left flank of Missionary Ridge at the Rossville Gap were growing louder, that Thomas finally ordered all four of his divisions into woods in front of the rebel center, to attack..
Major James Connolly, the topographical engineer in General Hazen's division, noted, “The enemy could see us from the top of the ridge, and quickly...commenced to shelling us, as our long line of regiments filed along.” When his own regiment was ordered to halt and shift into line of battle, Connolly confessed he was staggered by the challenge in front of him. “We could never live for a moment in the 600 yards between the strip of woods in which we were formed and the line of rifle pits at the base of the of the mountain, exposed as we would be to the fire of the 40 cannons massed...five to eight hundred feet immediately above us.”
Nervously he rode down the line. “I found Woods division, formed on our right and facing the ridge just as we were. I rode on and came to Sheridan's Division, formed on Woods right and facing the same. Here was a line of veteran troops nearly two miles long, all facing Missionary Ridge...The purpose at once came plain to me” At about 3:30 six cannons fired in rapid succession behind Union lines. It is the agreed upon signal. “”Forward” rings out along the long line of men and forward they go...”
A rebel officer on the crest thought the union advance a “grand military spectacle.” Grant, watching from a small rise behind the attack described it as a “grand panorama”. General Sheridan, riding in front of his division, called the three deep ranks with glittering bayonets a “terrible sight.” As the rebel artillery opened up the word was given and the union soldiers broke into a run.
The 9,000 rebels in the rifle pits (above) got in one shot before the blue crowd overwhelmed them. The rebels threw up their arms or began scrambling up the slope in retreat. The union forces paused to catch their breath and reform. Five minutes after taking the rifle pits, it happened.
One historian described the beginning this way: “They came out of the trenches in knots and clusters, with ragged regimental lines trailing after the moving flags and a great to-do of officers waving swords and yelling.”
At the top, in charge of 14,000 rebel soldiers, Georgian William Hardee immediately sent for reinforcements.
Below him Union General Sheridan was waving his hat in one hand and his sword in the other, screaming, “Forward, boys, forward! We can go to the top! Give 'em hell! We can carry that line!” When he came to a narrow dirt road climbing the ridge in switchbacks, he followed it up, and his men followed him.
Some union troops found shallow ravines, which protected them from rebel fire as they climbed. A union officer remembered, “Each battalion assumed a triangular shape, the colors at the apex. ... a color-bearer dashes ahead of the line and falls. A comrade grasps the flag. ... He, too, falls. Then another picks it up ... waves it defiantly, and as if bearing a charmed life, he advances steadily towards the top “
Far below, Grant demanded to know who had ordered the attack up the ridge. Thomas said he had not, and after a moment Grant realized there was nothing to be done. He chewed on his cigar and mumbled, “Someone will suffer for it, if it turns out badly.” Grant expected a disaster, a slaughter of the advancing 18,000 federal troops when the rebel gunners on the ridge top began blasting grape shot into the faces of the clambering, out of breath union men slowly struggling up the 45 degree slope.
That did not happen for four reasons, three of which could not have been predicted or expected. First the rebels behind the breastworks could not fire down because in front of the federals were their own men, who were retreating from the trenches at the foot of the ridge. Secondly, even before the general advance, some union troops left the rifle pits they had just captured because they found shelter hugging the slope. The union brigade in the attack which suffered the highest casualty rate (22%) had been ordered back to the rifle pits, where they were easy targets. In fact the veteran union soldiers knew the closer to the crest they got, the better the slope protected them. And thirdly, the rebel commander, General Braxton Bragg, was an unpleasant and argumentative man.
Many of Bragg's (above) own subordinates despised him, and nobody liked to make suggestions to him. Back in early October, when the positions along Missionary Ridge had been laid out, they had been placed along the top of the ridge, in military parlance the “actual crest”. But the “military crest” was a few yards forward of the actual crest. Bargg's topographical engineers had left his soldiers with a blind spot directly in front of them. Most of Bragg's veterans saw this at a glance, but in almost two months that the rebel army had occupied this position, nobody had felt it worth suffering Braxton Bragg's surly insults and moral degradation to point it out..
The fourth reason for the “Miracle of Missionary Ridge” was that after being delayed by a swollen creek, George Hooker's corps had resumed its attack forward from Lookout Mountain, and was now bending back the rebel left flank. General Thomas could hear the success of that attack, which is why he finally released the assault on the rebel center. And from the top of Missionary Ridge, the rebel troops could not only hear it, they could see the smoke of battle on their flank coming closer and closer.
As the great historian Bruce Catton put it, their problem was they could see too much and not enough. The rebels on Missionary Ridge could see the union army in its many thousands, arrayed before them, and now clawing its way right at them. They could see and hear the approaching federal army outflanking them. But of their own army, they could only see the men immediately around them. Even 14,000 men, trying to cover a two mile long front, were stretched very thin, with seven to eight feet between each man. The rebel positions on Missionary Ridge, the very center of the rebel defense, suddenly felt very, very lonely.
As Sheridan's division approached the rebel lines 19 year old first Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur (above) grabbed the regimental flag from a decapitated bearer, and carried it over the crest, planting it firmly in the ground. One rebel wrote later, “The Yankees were cutting and slashing, and the cannoneers (sp) were running in every direction. I saw Day's brigade throw down their guns and break like quarter horses. Bragg was trying to rally them. I heard him say, "Here is your commander," and the soldiers hallooed back, "here is your mule." Confederate Sam Watson remembered how he “retreated down the hill under a shower of lead leaving many a noble son of the South dead and wounded on the ground...” Sheridan promoted McArthur to major on the spot, and nominated him for the medal of honor. Arthur's son Douglas would follow his father into the army, reaching the rank of general and leading American troops across the Pacific in World War Two, and then in Korea.
On the crest, with the rebel army broken and retreating, union soldiers straddled enemy cannon and cheered themselves horse. Said one Army of the Cumberland veteran, “"The plain unvarnished facts of the storming of Mission Ridge are more like romance to me now than any I have ever read in Dumas, Scott or Cooper." And a witness from the War Department in Washington said, “No man who climbs the ascent by any of the roads that wind along its front (today) can believe that men were moved up its broken and crumbling face, unless it was his fortune to witness the deed."