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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
So it fell to George Thomas, after all, to open (and, finally, to win) the Battle of Chattanooga. What he was supposed to do was pure routine: advance just enough men to make the opponent show his hand. What he actually did was move up everybody be had, in a massive advance of unlimited potentialities. Not for Thomas was the business of tapping the enemy's lines lightly. If he hit at all, he hit with a sledge hammer; and on November 23 he put the better part of two army corps in line and sent them rolling forward in a movement that had a strange, unintentionally spectacular aspect—which somehow set the tone for the entire battle.
For Chattanooga, from first to last, was the most completely theatrical battle of the entire war. This seems odd, considering the fact that Grant and Thomas were two of the least flamboyant soldiers who ever wore the United States Army's uniform, but that is how it was. The battle was almost unendurably dramatic, giving rise to innumerable legends, and it stirred Grant himself, so that a week later he wrote to Congressman Elihu Washburne: "The specticle was grand beyond anything that has been, or is likely to be, on this Contenent. It is the first battle field I have ever seen where a plan could be followed and from one place the whole field be within one view." As usual, Grant was careless about his spelling; but the fearful pageantry of this battle got under his skin, just because he could see it all at once. Civil War battles mostly were like modern battles: that is, the ordinary soldier could see nothing whatever except what happened within a few dozen yards of him, and he never really knew what was going on anywhere outside of his immediate vicinity. At Chattanooga almost everybody could see almost everything. The soldier not only knew what was happening to him: he could see what his comrades were doing five miles away, he was a participant and a spectator at the same time, and in some indefinable way what he saw had a profound effect on what he did. This battle was a spectacular, and nobody knew quite what to make of it.
Thomas' lines, in front of Chattanooga, were perhaps two miles away from the foot of Missionary Ridge. Between the ridge and the town lay open country, mostly a rolling plain, and halfway across there was a chain of low hills, of which the highest was called Orchard Knob. On Orchard Knob and the modest elevations that tailed away from it, Bragg had a skirmish line, and it was this skirmish line that Thomas proposed to dislodge. To do it he put three divisions in line of battle, with a fourth massed where it could go in and help if anybody needed help. The Federals spent half an hour ostentatiously dressing their ranks, and from the top of Missionary Ridge the Confederates looked down, saw it all, and concluded that the Yankees were going to hold a review. Then Thomas sent his men forward, and the flood tide swept up over Orchard Knob and the little ridges around it, and the mile-wide line of advance, its front all sparkling with the fire of the skirmishers, flooded the plain and the higher ground and drove Bragg's out post line back to the rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge. Thomas' men dug in on Orchard Knob and on both sides of it, and when sundown came the first day's fight was over.
Considered strictly as a fight, it had been small. Thomas lost fewer than two hundred men, Confederate losses were no greater, and nothing very much had been done—except that the Federals knew Bragg was not retreating, Thomas had taken a position from which he could make a real fight whenever necessary, the Federal lines in Chattanooga were less cramped than they had been, and Bragg had been forced to reflect on the insecurity of his own battle line. A correspondent for the Richmond Dispatch, watching this affair from on top of the ridge, wrote that night that "General Grant has made an important move . . . likely to exert an important influence on military operations in this quarter," and predicted that Bragg would be obliged to weaken his force on Lookout Mountain in order to strengthen his right.
The prediction was correct. That night Bragg took one of the two divisions on Lookout Mountain and moved it far around to the upper end of Missionary Ridge, to strengthen the position which seemed to be menaced by Thomas' advance. That night, also, Sherman got three divisions in place north of the Tennessee, just across from the upper end of Missionary Ridge; and as far as anyone at Federal headquarters could see, Bragg could be hit hard on both flanks the next morning.
So much for November 23: a curtain- raiser, setting the stage, setting also the tone, giving the defenders on Missionary Ridge a long look at an army that began to seem irresistible. Next morning came in with a cold drizzle, and from Orchard Knob anyone who looked to the north saw the Tennessee River full of crowded pontoon boats as Sherman's men made their crossing. This operation took time, and by noon the people at headquarters were wondering why more of a fight was not developing there; and then, front far to the right, down on the western slope of Lookout Mountain, there came an immense crash of musketry and artillery fire, and no matter what Sherman was doing, Joe Hooker was going into action.