- 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
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.
Astoundingly, and against the odds, the charge was a swinging success. Grant had given himself two chances and one of them had worked; the impregnable line had collapsed when Thomas swung his hammer and the Confederates had lost the battle, the mountain barrier to the deep South, and all chance of recovering Tennessee. Scribbling his story of the fight, General Meigs summed it up with breathless enthusiasm: “Invasion of Tennessee and Kentucky indefinitely postponed. The slave aristocracy broken down. The grandest stroke yet struck for our country. … It is unexampled—another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s crown.” Both victors and defeated were amazed by what had been done, and it is clear that even though the assault had not been the spontaneous, grass-roots explosion that it soon became in legend, something remarkable had happened when the officers told the men to go up the steep mountainside. Charles Dana assured Secretary Stanton that “the storming of the ridge by our troops was one of the greatest miracles in military history,” and the soldiers themselves felt the same way. On the crest of the captured ridge, Union soldiers yelled and straddled the captured cannon, “completely and frantically drunk with excitement,” hardly able to believe that they had done what they had done. Long afterward, one of them wrote: “The plain unvarnished facts of the storming of Mission Ridge are more like romance to me now than any I have ever read in Dumas, Scott or Cooper.” Dana expressed the simple truth when he said that “No man who climbs the ascent by any of the roads that wind along its front can believe that men were moved up its broken and crumbling face unless it was his fortune to witness the deed.”
That evening a worker for the Christian Commission, visiting a field hospital, asked a wounded Federal where he had been hurt. “Almost up,” replied the soldier. The Commission man explained that he meant “in what part are you injured?” The soldier, still gripped by the transcendent excitement of the charge, insisted: “Almost up to the top.” Then the civilian drew back the man’s blanket and saw a frightful, shattering wound. The soldier glanced at it and said: “Yes, that’s what did it. I was almost up. But for that I would have reached the top.” He looked up at the civilian, repeated faintly, “Almost up,” and died.