- 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
Actually, these remarks prove nothing except that corps and division commanders do not always know what is going on in the combat zone. Wood had two of his brigades in front, and the commander of one of them, General August Willich, said that he had understood all along that they were to storm the crest; not until after the battle did he learn that they were supposed to stop when they had taken the rifle pits. The other brigadier, William B. Hazen, said his orders were to halt once the pits had been occupied, but the artillery fire from above was so severe that "the only way to avoid destruction was to go on up ... the necessity was apparent to every soldier of the command." So, after giving his men five minutes to get their breath, he ordered them to go on up the slope. The third brigadier in Woods's division behaved as Hazen did, sending his men forward simply because he saw they could not stop in the rifle pits.
That leaves Sheridan. When his men swept into the rifle pits, Sheridan suddenly realized that his orders were vague and that he did not know whether he was to stop here or go on. He sent an aide galloping back to Orchard Knob to find out, and during the aide's absence some of Sheridan's regiments went beyond the pits to find more sheltered ground at the base of the ridge and on the slope; whereupon Sheridan got the idea that the only solution was to keep going forward. When the aide returned, with Granger's order to halt, Sheridan cried: "There the boys are, and they seem to be getting along; stop them if you can; I can't stop them until they get to the top." Then Sheridan rode along the line, waving his hat in one hand and his sword in the other, calling at the top of his voice: "Forward, boys, forward! We can go to the top!" He came to a dirt road that went snaking its way up toward the crest, started his horse up the road, and yelled: "Come on, boys, give 'em hell! We will carry the line!" So Sheridan's men went forward, and the officers back on Orchard Knob realized that all four divisions were going straight on up Missionary Ridge.
The advance across the plain had been orderly, a broad mass of soldiers trotting ahead in trim military formation, closing ranks automatically as the Confederate gunners took their toll. The charge up the ridge was complete disorder. The men went up in groups, one regiment here and another there, the flag always at the front, and there was nothing resembling a regular battle line—on a slope so steep and broken, there could not be a formal line. A number of little roads like the one Sheridan found led up to the crest, and many of the regiments followed these. Others threaded their way up shallow ravines that furrowed the slope, taking advantage of the protection the hollow ground offered. In one way or another, most of the little columns found a good deal of shelter; their heaviest losses came earlier, down on the open ground, and though it took a brave man to make this ascent, the going was not as bad as it looked.
The general lack of order seems to have worried Grant a little, just at first. Quartermaster General Meigs was standing beside him, and as the long climb began, he said Grant told him this was not quite what he had ordered. As Meigs remembered it, Grant said that "he meant to form the lines and then prepare and launch columns of assault, but as the men, carried away by their enthusiasm, had gone so far, he would not order them back." Granger's chief of staff said that Grant asked Thomas who had ordered this charge, and when Thomas replied that he had not, Grant muttered that somebody would catch it if the charge failed; after which he clamped his jaw on his cigar and watched in silence.
It became clear, at last, that this incredible attack was going to succeed. On top of the ridge, Confederate Hardee saw the tide coming in and sent word over to Cleburne to bring all the men he could spare to the center because the Yankees were pressing hard—Grant's notion that an attack here would weaken the Confederate line in front of Sherman was not too far off, after all. Cleburne took two brigades and came down the ridge, but before he could get to the center the Confederate line had been broken and he could do no more than draw a line across the ridge, facing south, to keep the Federals from driving north to destroy his own command