This Hallowed Ground

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Missionary Ridge rose 500 feet above the plain, sparse trees and underbrush littering its steep rocky slope; it ran for more than five miles, from southwest to northeast, and the Confederates had all of it. At its base, fronting the plain, they had a stout line of trenches, and on the crest they had another line, studded with cannon. Halfway up, at the proper places, there were other trenches and rifle pits, manned by soldiers who knew what to do with their rifles when they got a Yankee in the sights. To the west, a detachment held Lookout Mountain—not the crest, which rose in a straight palisade no army could scale, but the steep sides which ran down from the foot of the palisade to the edges of the Tennessee. The detachment was not large, but the mountainside was steep and the Yankees were not up to anything menacing, and it was believed that this detachment ought to be able to hold its ground. Across the flat country between Lookout and the southwestern end of Missionary Ridge, there was a good line of field works held by infantry and artillery. And at the upper end of Missionary Ridge, where the high country came down to the river a few miles upstream from Chattanooga, there was broken, hilly ground held by some of the best soldiers in all the Confederacy—the division of Irish-born Pat Cleburne, a tremendous soldier who had trained his men to the precise pattern which had been glimpsed by his pugnacious Irish eyes.

On November 23 Thomas moved his army forward. It drove Confederate skirmishers and advance guards off the plain and seized a little detached hill, named Orchard Knob, which came up out of the flat ground a little outside of Chattanooga. If Thomas wanted to order an assault on Bragg’s position he had an excellent place to take off from, but there was little reason to think that this would help very much. Missionary Ridge was still 500 feet high, and it was studded with Rebels from top to bottom.

This was the nut which U. S. Grant was expected to crack, and as he made his plans he did just what Thomas’ grumpy men had thought he would do. He gave the big assignments to Sherman and to Hooker, and to the outlanders whom these officers had brought in with them. The Army of the Cumberland would have the inglorious job of looking menacing and helping to pick up the pieces, while the men from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Potomac had the starring parts.

Grant proposed to hit the two ends of the Confederate line at once. Hooker would strike at Lookout Mountain, and Sherman—moving his army upstream, across the river from Chattanooga, and crossing over by pontoons—would hit the upper end of Missionary Ridge. While they were breaking in the Confederate flanks, Thomas’ men could attack the center. The latter attack would not accomplish anything in particular, for it would be suicide to expect troops to take that tremendous height, but if they could apply enough pressure to keep Bragg from reinforcing his flanks their job would be done. Sherman and Hooker would win the battle.

It began on November 24, after a good many delays, when Hooker sent his easterners forward from Lookout Valley to seize the mountain that looked down on the road and the river and the city of Chattanooga. At the same moment, Sherman got his army across the Tennessee, above Chattanooga, and sent it driving in on the northern end of Missionary Ridge.

Hooker’s men found their job unexpectedly easy. They outnumbered the Confederates on Lookout Mountain by a fantastic margin—five or six to one, as far as a good estimate is possible—and they clambered up the rocks and steep meadows and drove the defenders out of there with a minimum of effort and a maximum of spectacular effect. The Cumberlands (and the newspaper correspondents) were all down in the valley, watching. They saw the high ground sparkling with musket fire, and wreathed in smoke, and a mist came in and veiled the top of the mountain from sight; and then at last the mist lifted, and the Union flag was flying from the crest of the mountain, the Confederates had all retreated, and the newspapers blossomed out with great stories about “the battle above the clouds.” The left end of Bragg’s line had been knocked loose from its moorings, although actually the achievement was not as solid as it seemed. Hooker’s men still had to come down the eastern slope and crack the battle line in the plain, and that would take a little more doing.

While Hooker was at it, Sherman’s rowdies from the Army of the Tennessee attacked Pat Cleburne’s men and found that they had taken on more than they could handle.

Missionary Ridge did not run in a straight line to the edge of the Tennessee River, as Grant and everyone else on the Federal side supposed. It broke up, before it reached the river, into a complex of separated hills with very steep sides, and Sherman’s men no sooner took one hill than they found themselves obliged to go down into a valley and climb another one, with cold-eyed Rebel marksmen shooting at them every step of the way—and, occasionally, rolling huge rocks down on them. By the end of the day the Army of the Tennessee had had some very hard fighting and had not yet gained a foothold on the end of the ridge. Sherman believed (apparently mistakenly) that Bragg was drawing men from his center to reinforce CIeburne, and he called for help.