This Hallowed Ground

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Of all the mistakes Bragg made in this fall of 1863- and he made quite a number—this was probably the worst. The move did not do Burnside any particular harm, and it fatally weakened the Confederate army for the battle that was about to be fought. But in the early days of November, when news of the move got abroad, it did give Grant some bad moments. The tone of the daily telegrams he was getting from Washington began to be very shrill.

While Grant waited for Sherman, he began to find that the situation at Chattanooga was in some respects unusual. The Confederates had been holding their dominant position for so long that they seemed to look on all of the Yankees in Chattanooga as their ultimate prisoners; regarding them so, they found little reason to make a tough war out of it. Grant went out one day to inspect the Federal lines, and he reached a point where Federal and Confederate picket posts were not far apart. As he approached the Federal post the sentry turned out the guard; Grant dismissed it, and rode on—only to hear, before he had gone fifty yards, another cry: “Turn out the guard for the commanding general!” Immediately a snappy set of Confederates came swarming out, formed a neat military rank, came to attention, and presented arms. Grant returned the salute and rode away. … A little later he got to a spring which soldiers of both armies sometimes used. On a log by the spring was a soldier in blue, his musket at his side. Grant asked him what corps he belonged to and the man, getting up and saluting respectfully, replied that he was one of Longstreet’s men. Before they went their separate ways, Union commander and Confederate private had quite a chat.

There were times, indeed, when it seemed that the Union soldiers disliked each other more than they disliked the Confederates. Here at Chattanooga there were elements from three armies—Hooker’s two corps from the Army of the Potomac, Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee (when it finally arrived; the head of the column reached Brown’s Ferry on November 20), and the Army of the Cumberland; and these armies had distinct characteristics. Each was locked in by its own pride and clannish spirit, and each looked on the others as strange and rather outlandish groups. The easterners gaped at the westerners, especially at Sherman’s men, considered them undisciplined and abominably unmilitary in appearance, and remarked that except for the color of their uniforms they looked exactly like the Rebels. Sherman’s men, in turn, whooping and yelling as they marched through camp, slouching along with shapeless black hats jammed any which way on their heads, hooted and jeered at the men from the Army of the Potomac and made remarks about “kid gloves and paper collars”—to which the easterners replied with disdainful comments about “backwoodsmen.”

It was the Army of the Cumberland that was unhappiest in all of this. The men still carried the memory of their defeat at Chickamauga as a stain on their record; they had been whipped in fair fight, they would not be at peace with themselves until they had made up for that whipping—and here were two other armies brought in to rescue them. The plain implication was that they could not get out of their difficulties without help, and the men bitterly resented it; nor did the remarks which Potomac and Tennessee men kept on dropping make the load any easier to bear. Far down underneath, their pride in themselves as soldiers had been deeply, grievously damaged.

… Under everything, the men had become soldiers. What the war itself was all about had been lost in the shuffle somewhere. All that mattered now was the army itself, the regiment or the corps or the army to which a man gave his loyalty; it was Pap Thomas or Joe Hooker or Uncle Billy Sherman, with the grim stooped figure of Grant somewhere in the background; and in the queer way of soldiers the men could be stirred by an appeal to the badge they wore on their shoulders, or the address that home folk scrawled on an envelope, rather than by the tremendous issues for which, by the books and in theory, they were risking their lives. They could be cynical about everything but their own manhood, and that was somehow wrapped up in the army itself. They were about to go into a great fight, and their pride as soldiers might be the decisive factor in it.

Maybe the real trouble was that the battle was too theatrical. People could see too much; most particularly, the Confederates could see too much. They were up in the balconies and all of the Federals were down in the orchestra pit, and when the fighting began every move down on the plain was clearly visible to the Southerners on the heights. Perhaps just watching it did something to them.

Or it may be that everybody had been waiting too long. The armies had been in position for two months, or nearly that, with nothing much to do but look at each other. Day after day and week after week the Confederates had lounged in their trenches, looking down on men who could not conceivably do them any harm, and during all of that time the Federals had lounged in their own trenches, looking up at foes who seemed to be beyond all reach. What would happen when the men finally went into action might be strangely and powerfully affected, in a quite unpredictable way, by those long weeks of waiting.