The Miracle On Missionary Ridge
The Union stood in danger of losing an entire army at Chattanooga. Then U.S. Grant arrived, and direected the most dramatic battle of the Civil War
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
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.
Geography was all-important. Chattanooga was locked in by the mountains. Looking south, the army in Chattanooga saw on its left the long diagonal of Missionary Ridge, five hundred feet high, touching the river east of town and then going south by west for seven miles. Every foot of this ridge was held by armed Confederates who had had a month to dig in, and there was no opening here no matter how long the commanding general might stare. When the army in Chattanooga looked to its right it saw something worse: the upper end of Lookout Mountain, a massive reef that came up one hundred miles out of Alabama, its axis pointing a little east of north, touching the river a few miles west of the city. Lookout Mountain rose 1,50o feet above city and river, its upper third a vertical palisade of sheer rock, with a long slope of farm and forest country sliding down from the base of the palisade to the river and the open country below. This slope, like Missionary Ridge, was heavily populated by Bragg's soldiers, and between the mountain and the ridge the Federals were imprisoned. They could see their enemies, flickering campfires by night, emplaced guns and entrenched infantry by day, but the sight gave no comfort; from Fredericksburg through Gettysburg to Vicksburg the soldiers in this war had learned that to fight uphill against a properly prepared army was very bad going indeed.
Lookout Mountain mattered most, because it controlled the routes the Federals had to use to get in or out of Chattanooga.
In ordinary times there were four of these routes. There was the railroad, coming south of the river at Bridgeport and snaking through a pass in Raccoon Mountain to come around the end of Lookout into Chattanooga. There was a highway, good enough as American country roads went in those days, running near the railroad and accompanying it around the foot of the slope at Lookout's northern end. There was also the river, usable by steamboats at most stages of the water, and the river skirted the northern tip of Lookout Mountain. Railroad, highway, and river were all blocked now, because the Confederate soldiers on the Lookout Mountain slope could lay fire on all three. For a fourth route there was a road that hugged the northern bank of the Tennessee, coming east from Bridgeport, and this one was blocked also because a good part of it lay within easy range of Confederate riflemen on the northern slope of Raccoon Mountain—a north-south ridge, much lower than Lookout, west of it, running more or less parallel to it, separated from it by the valley of Lookout Creek.
Four routes, then, all of them closed. The fifth was the one Grant had taken from Bridgeport, four times as long and ten times as difficult as the others. A small party could always get through by this road, but supply trains that had to use it could not give the Army of the Cumberland the volume of rations and forage it had to have, the chief trouble being that they could not carry the things the army needed plus the hay and grain their own teams needed to eat. The incredible number of ten thousand animals had perished on this road; the troops were on half rations, and it was perfectly clear that when winter came the road could hardly be used at all. Unless a better route could be opened soon the army was going to die, and so on this morning of October 24 Grant was out to see what Thomas and Baldy Smith had learned about geography and about Confederate troop dispositions.
They had learned a good deal, all of it encouraging.
Flowing west at Chattanooga, the Tennessee River abruptly turns south as soon as it is past the city, and it keeps on flowing south for two or three miles until it touches that northern toe of Lookout Mountain. Then it swings around in a sharp hairpin turn and goes back north again, enclosing a long finger of land known as Moccasin Point, the river's hairpin turn bearing the name of Moccasin Bend, and makes its way around the northern end of Raccoon Mountain. All of these facts, of course, were visible to anyone who examined a map or climbed a hill and looked about him, but Thomas and Smith wanted Grant to reflect on certain subsidiary facts they had uncovered.
Across the base of Moccasin Point, hidden from Confederate view by woods and hills, there was an insignificant little road that left the river opposite Chattanooga and reached the river again at a nowhere of a place called Brown's Ferry. The two generals led Grant there and showed him where opportunity beckoned.