- 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 direected the most dramatic battle of the Civil War
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Grant, Thomas, Sherman, and Baldy Smith had gone over their maps carefully and had studied the ground as well as they could on that excursion north of the Tennessee River, and in some inexplicable way they had made a profound mistake. The high ground that Sherman occupied on the afternoon of November 24 was not the northern end of Missionary Ridge at all; it was simply a detached hill, completely separated from Missionary Ridge by a deep valley with steep sides. Far from having reached a good place from which to assault Tunnel Hill, Sherman had reached the worst spot imaginable. In effect, he would have to fight a battle just to get to the place from which he could mount his main attack. Bragg had finally seen what was coming, and had sent a division led by his best combat soldier, General Patrick Cleburne, over to hold Tunnel Hill and the knobby ground north and east of it.
The truth began to be visible at Federal headquarters around 7 A.M., when Sherman's attack failed to develop. His men found that getting down from their own ground into that unanticipated valley was bad enough, because there were Confederates on the far side shooting at them, but going up the opposite side was much worse, because Cleburne's artillery and infantry could send a vicious fire slicing all along this slope. One Confederate remembered that when a Union advance was driven back "it looked like a lot of the boys had been sliding down the hillside, for when a line of the enemy would be repulsed they would start down hill and soon the whole line would be rolling down like a ball, it was so steep a hillside just there."
As soon as he learned that Sherman was going to be late, Grant postponed Thomas' attack and sent word to Hooker to march south along the eastern foot of Lookout Mountain. After four or five miles Hooker could turn left and hit the southern end of Missionary Ridge at Rossville Gap, which would put him on Bragg's left flank in position to drive northward along the ridge, crumpling the Confederate line as he came. Then, even if Sherman's assault remained hung up, Thomas could strike his own blow at the center.
Thomas' part had always been thought of as supplementary, simply because to storm the main line on Missionary Ridge seemed impossible unless most of the Confederate army was kept busy elsewhere. At the foot of the ridge there were rifle pits, halfway up there were a few uncompleted works, and all the crest was lined with infantry and artillery. An attacking column would be under artillery fire for nearly a mile before it even reached the rifle pits, and the slope beyond the pits was so steep that one of Thomas' generals told his officers to leave their horses behind. During the night a Confederate staff officer rode the length of the crest and noticed that the line was pretty thin; there was only one rank, and the men were spaced farther apart than was usually considered advisable. He told General William J. Hardee, one of Bragg's corps commanders, and Hardee agreed with him—the line was thin, but the natural strength of the position was so great that the Yankees probably would not attack at all.
They would not . . . except that Chattanooga was a battle in which nothing was quite as it seemed. Maybe the field was under a spell. There had been dazzling moonlight, night after night, all week; then, last night, there was a total eclipse, the moon went dark and the earth went shadowy-gray, and the thousands of campfires on the sides and crest of the ridge and on the broad plain below glowed like dying embers on a lunar landscape. Many of the soldiers were wakeful, and they agreed that this was a powerful omen meaning bad luck for somebody. Nobody was quite sure which side was going to get the bad luck.
At the very least, plans would go wrong. The plan that involved Hooker gave way almost at once. Hooker had to cross Chattanooga Creek, which was more of an obstacle than the word "creek" implied. The bridge he was to use had been destroyed, and for several hours he had to wait while a new bridge was built, and while he waited Thomas waited and Sherman got nowhere, and Grant's whole battle plan was stalled. And at last—two o'clock, perhaps, or near it—Grant concluded that Thomas must attack no matter what was happening elsewhere.
So Thomas got new orders—to "carry the rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge, and when carried to reform his lines on the rifle pits with a view to carrying the ridge."
Grant was giving himself two chances, based on the belief that the Confederates were not strong enough to repulse two offensives at the same time, and it did not matter which chance worked. Grant believed that Bragg had weakened his center to defend his right, and if this was true Thomas ought to be able to break through. On the other hand, when Thomas attacked, Bragg might recall troops from his right, and if he did this Sherman could take Tunnel Hill. The advance would begin on signal from the artillery on Orchard Knob— six guns, fired at regular intervals. While preparations were being made, Grant went down behind the hill with General David Hunter, Dr. Edward Kittoe, and William Smith and sat on a log by a fire to have some lunch Smith had just brought from the headquarters cooks. After lunch they had a quiet smoke, then Grant went back up the hill to see what was happening.