- Historic Sites
The Miracle On Missionary Ridge
The Union stood in danger of losing an entire army at Chattanooga. Then U. S. Grant arrived, and directed the most dramatic battle of the Civil War
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
On October 17, 1863, aboard a railroad car in Indianapolis, Indiana, General Ulysses S. Grant met for the first time Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The Lincoln government had suddenly come alive to the fact that one of its major forces, the Army of the Cumberland, faced imminent disaster in the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and fierce Stanton, “Old Man Mars,” had hurried west to straighten things out. He and the President had picked Grant to take charge. As commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, with jurisdiction over all Federal troops between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River, Grant was ordered to get to Chattanooga without delay, restore the situation there, and take the military initiative away from the Confederates.
The war was momentarily stagnant. In Virginia, George Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were too spent after Gettysburg to do much more than spar with each other. Along the Mississippi the edge gained by Grant’s brilliant conquest of Vicksburg was blunted by Washington’s preoccupation with military side shows and by Secretary Stanton’s rather myopic view of grand strategy. Before long Grant’s troops were scattered all over the map, garrisoning captured territory and becoming embroiled in fruitless forays west of the Mississippi.
So the focus shifted to Tennessee, and for a time the Federal situation there looked bright indeed. In late June General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland began to push southward from Murfreesboro; then, smartly outmaneuvering Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, Rosccrans chased the Confederates into northern Georgia and occupied Chattanooga, “the gateway to the Deep South.” This was a solid enough achievement, but Rosecrans got the idea that Bragg was in hopeless straits, and lie sent his army chasing headlong through the mountains south of Chattanooga to apply the crusher.
Rosecrans paid dearly for his impetuousness. Bragg picked up reinforcements, including a corps from Lee’s army in Virginia, and on September 19 and 20, along Chickamauga Creek in northern Georgia, he smashed the Army of the Cumberland and sent it reeling hack into Chattanooga. The Confederates occupied the high ground overlooking the city, snipped off all of Rosecrans’ supply routes except one wholly inadequate road, and sat back to wait for the Yankees to surrender.
All of this struck Washington like a lightning bolt. The war was lagging east and west; if an entire army was lost at Chattanooga, the repercussions were hardly to be imagined. Two corps were rushed south from the Army of the Potomac, Grant was ordered to send four of William T. Sherman’s divisions east from Memphis, and Secretary Stanton boarded the train for Indianapolis and his meeting with General Grant.
On his record, Grant was the clearly logical choice to straighten out the tangle at Chattanooga. At Shiloh, at Forts Henry and Donclson, and especially in his campaign against Vicksburg. he had proved that he could outthink as well as outfight his opponents. Abraham Lincoln, with that special perceptiveness of his, had early seen the qualities of the man. After the bloody fight at Shiloh in April of 1862, when the frightful casualty lists and the old tales of drunkenness had cast a pall over Grant, the President said simply, “I can’t spare this man: he fights.”
Now Grant held the top command in the West, and with it the job of getting the war moving again. He wasted little time disposing of Rosecrans; George H. Thomas, the one Union general who had enhanced his reputation in the Chickamauga battle, took over the Army of the Cumberland. Wiring Thomas to “hold Chattanooga at all hazards” (Thomas’ reply, “I will hold the town till we starve,” was as ominous as it was defiant), Grant set out for the besieged city, arriving on October 23 via the single road still in Federal hands: the gruelling journey was itself a grim demonstration of the problems ahead of him. — The Editors
On the morning of October 24 Charles A. Dana, a War Department special observer in Chattanooga, notified Secretary Stanton that “Grant arrived last night, wet, dirty and well.” He added that the General had just gone out with Thomas to examine what looked like a weak spot in the encircling Confederate lines. Grant had wasted no time; by ten o’clock that morning he was riding north of the Tennessee River to grapple with his most pressing command problem—the matter of finding some way to break the siege before the army became too weak to fight.
He had the right men with him on this ride: Thomas, who had already endorsed a plan to break the siege, and the chief engineer officer of the Army of the Cumberland, Brigadier General William Farrar Smith, who had devised the plan and was prepared to execute it. Smith was universally known as Baldy—not, as a friend said, because he was notably bald, but just because there were so many Smiths in the army that each one needed a distinguishing nickname—and he had had his ups and downs; he had commanded a corps in the Army of the Potomac, ranking as major general, had lost command and rank when he fell into disfavor after Fredericksburg, and now he might be on his way back up. He could be brilliant one month and torpid the next. Luckily he was in his brilliant phase just now, and today he wanted to explain geography to General Grant.