This Hallowed Ground

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When the battle was resumed the next morning, nothing went right. Sherman’s men hammered at the northern end of Missionary Ridge and got nowhere. Hooker took his troops down from the slope of Lookout Mountain and headed south, to strike the other end of the Confederate line, but he went astray somewhere in the wooded plain; there was a stream that needed bridging, the pontoons were missing, and this blow at the Confederate left missed fire completely.

On Orchard Knob, Grant and Thomas watched the imperfect progress of this unsatisfactory battle. Sherman continued to have trouble. By mid-afternoon his attack had definitely stalled, with severe losses, and Hooker’s push had not materialized. If anything was to be done the Army of the Cumberland would have to do it.

What was planned and what finally happened were two different things. Grant told Thomas to have his men attack the Confederate line at the base of Missionary Ridge, occupy it and await further orders; the move seems to have been regarded as a diversion that might lead Bragg to withdraw some of the men who were confronting Sherman. No one had any notion that the Army of the Cumberland could take the ridge itself. Thomas apparently was dubious about the prospect of taking even the first line of trenches; he was slow about ordering the men forward, and Grant had to prod him before they finally began to move.

The battle line was two miles wide, 18,000” men in four solid infantry divisions, moving toward an impregnable mountain wall that blotted out half the sky. Flags snapped in the wind, and Thomas’ carefully drilled men kept a parade-ground alignment, and the Confederate guns high above them opened with salvos that covered the crest with a ragged dirtywhite cloud; from some atmospheric quirk, each shot they fired could be seen from the moment it left the gun’s muzzle. The Cumberlands kept on going, and from Orchard Knob Federal artillery opened in support. General Gordon Granger, who had done so much to save the day at Chickamauga, was on Orchard Knob, and he was so excited that he forgot he was commander of an army corps and went down into the gun pits to help the cannoneers. Thomas stood on the hill, majestic as ever, running his fingers through his whiskers. Beside him, Grant chewed a cigar and looked on unemotionally.

The plain was an open stage which everybody watched—the generals back on Orchard Knob, and the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. Crest and sides of the ridge were all ablaze with fire now, and the Army of the Cumberland took heavy losses, but it kept on moving. Up to the first line of trenches at the base of the mountain it went, the men swarmed over the parapet, and in a moment the Confederate defenders were scampering back up the hillside to their second and third lines. The Cumberlands moved into the vacated trenches, paused for breath, and kept looking up at the crest, 500 feet above them.

The rising slope was an obvious death trap, but these men had a score to settle—with the Rebels who had whipped them at Chickamauga, with the other Federal armies who had derided them, with Grant who had treated them as second-class troops—and now was the time to settle it. From the crest of the ridge the Confederates were sending down a sharp plunging fire, against which the captured trenches offered little protection. The Federals had seized the first line, but they could not stay where they were. It seemed out of the question to go forward but the only other course was to go back, and for these soldiers who had been suffering a slow burn for weeks, to go back was unthinkable.

The officers felt exactly as the men felt. Phil Sheridan was there, conspicuous in dress uniform—he was field officer of the day, togged out in his best—and he sat on his horse, looked up the forbidding slope, and drew a silver flask from his pocket to take a drink. Far above him, a Confederate artillery commander standing amid his guns looked down at him, and Sheridan airily waved the flask to offer a toast as he drank. The Confederate signaled to his gun crews, and his battery fired a salvo in reply; it was a near miss, the missiles kicking up dirt and gravel and spattering Sheridan’s gay uniform. Sheridan’s face darkened, he growled, “I’ll take those guns for that!” Shortly after, as if it moved in response to one command, the whole army surged forward, scrambled up out of the captured trenches, and began to move up the slope of Missionary Ridge.

Back on Orchard Knob the generals watched in stunned disbelief. Grant turned to Thomas and asked sharply who had told these men to go on to the top of the ridge. Thomas replied that he did not know; he himself had certainly given no such order. Grant then swung on Granger: was he responsible? Granger replied that he was not, but the battle excitement was on him and he added that when the men of the Army of the Cumberland once got started it was very hard to stop them. Grant bit hard on his cigar and muttered something to the effect that somebody was going to sweat for it if this charge ended in disaster; then he faced to the front again to watch the incredible thing that was happening.

Up the side of the ridge went the great line of battle. It was a parade-ground line no longer. The regimental flags led, men trailing out behind each flag in a V-shaped mass, struggling over rocks and logs as they kept on climbing. Confederate pockets of resistance on the slope were wiped out. Now and then the groups of attackers would stop for breath—the slope was steep, and it was easy to get winded—but after a moment or so they would go on again.