This Hallowed Ground

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Looking down from the crest, the Confederates kept on firing, but the foreknowledge of defeat was beginning to grip them. The crest was uneven, and no defender could see more than a small part of his own line; but each defender could see all of the charging Federal army, and it suddenly looked irresistible. The defensive fire slackened, here and there, men began to fade back from the firing line, irresolute; and finally the Federals were covering the final yards in a frantic competitive run, each regiment trying to outdo the others, each man trying to beat his fellows. A company commander, running ahead of his colors, grabbed the coat tails of one of his men, to hold him back so that he might reach the crest first.

No one could ever determine afterward what unit or what men won the race, and the business was argued at old soldiers’ reunions for half a century. Apparently, the crest was reached at half a dozen places simultaneously, and when it was reached, Bragg’s line—the center of his whole army, the hard core of his entire defensive position—suddenly and inexplicably went to pieces. By ones and twos and then by companies and battalions, gray-clad soldiers who had proved their valor in any number of desperate fights turned and took to their heels. Something about that incredible scaling of the mountain side had just been too much for them. Perfectly typical was the case of a Confederate officer who, scorning to run, stood with drawn sword waiting to fight it out with the first Yankee who approached him. An Indiana private, bayoneted rifle in his grip, started toward him—and then, amazingly, laid down his weapon and came on in a crouch, bare hands extended. There was a primeval menace in him, more terrifying than bayonet or musket, and the officer blinked at him for a moment and then fled.

As resistance dissolved, the victorious Federals were too breathless to cheer. They tossed their caps in the air, and some of them crossed the narrow ridge to peer down the far side, where they saw what they had not previously seen—whole brigades of Confederates, running downhill in wild panicky rout. The Federals turned and beckoned their comrades with jubilant shouts: “My Godl Come and see them runl”

The Battle of Chattanooga was over, now, no matter what Sherman or Hooker did. With a two-mile hole punched in the center of his line, Bragg could do nothing but retreat, and as his army began to reassemble on the low ground beyond the mountain it took off for Georgia, with Cleburne’s men putting up a stout rearguard resistance. Phil Sheridan got his division into shape and took off in pursuit, figuring that it might be possible to cut in behind Cleburne and capture his whole outfit, but his pursuit was little more than a token. The Army of the Cumberland was temporarily immobilized by the sheer surprise of its incredible victory. Nobody wanted to do anything but ramble around, yell, and let his chest expand with unrestrained pride.

Oddly enough, it was a long time before the soldiers realized that they themselves were responsible for the victory. They tended to ascribe it to Grant and to his good management, and they told one another that all they had ever needed was a good leader. One officer who had shared in all of this army’s battles wrote that during the uproar of this conflict “I thought I detected in the management what I had never discovered before on the battlefield—a little common sense.” When Grant and Thomas came to the top of the ridge the men crowded about them, capering and yelling. Sherman himself was thoroughly convinced that the battle had gone exactly as Grant had planned it; to him the whole victory was simply one more testimonial to the General’s genius.

Washington felt much the same way; but Washington also remembered that Burnside was still beleaguered in Knoxville, and when Lincoln sent a wire of congratulations to Grant he added the words: “Remember Burnside.” Grant started Granger off to the rescue, with an army corps; then, figuring that Sherman would make a faster march—and feeling apparently a little disillusioned about Granger, after noticing the man’s unrestrained excitement during the battle—he canceled the order and sent the Army of the Tennessee.

Burnside, as it turned out, was in no serious trouble. Longstreet had made a night attack on his lines and had been repulsed, after which he drew his troops off and menaced the Union garrison from a distance. Sherman’s men relieved the Knoxville situation without difficulty, except that the pace at which Sherman drove them marched them practically out of their shoes. They found the Federals in Knoxville ragged and hungry—the food allowance had been reduced to a daily issue of salt pork and bran bread, so unappetizing that it took a half-starved man to eat it—but things had not been as bad in Knoxville as they had been in Chattanooga before Grant’s arrival. Sherman fumed privately over what he considered the military folly of trying to occupy Knoxville at all, and the effort to nudge Longstreet off to a safer distance involved a good deal of highly uncomfortable winter campaigning, but the danger was over. Before too long, full military communication with the Federal supply bases was opened, which meant that plenty of food and clothing could come in.

Back in Chattanooga the soldiers prepared for winter and for the spring campaign that would follow. Grant was turning Nashville into one of the greatest supply bases on the continent, and the railway connection with Chattanooga was being restored and strengthened; in the spring Grant would take Atlanta and Mobile, and he wanted everything ready.