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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 directed the most dramatic battle of the Civil War
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
The unhappy truth was that the army’s whole transportation system—that is to say, the huge array of horses and mules that pulled wagons, guns, and ambulances, without which the army could not travel—had been almost ruined by the blockade, and the damage could not be set right immediately. Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the army, had come out to Tennessee to do what he could to improve matters, and on October 25 he sent a gloomy report back to the War Department: “The animals with this army will now nearly all need three months rest to become serviceable. They should be returned to Louisville for this purpose. Hard work, exposure, short grain and no long fodder have almost destroyed them.” It was quite true, as Grant pointed out to General Halleck, that steamboats now were running regularly between Kelley’s Ferry and Bridgeport, “thus nearly settling the subsistence and forage questions”; the army was not going to starve. To restore the army’s mobility would be another matter altogether.
It was at least beginning to be clear that the 25,000 men Lee was reported to be sending into East Tennessee were not coming. They never had been coming, because Lee simply did not have 25,000 men to spare. Yet even as this threat evaporated a new one appeared. On November 4, acting on a suggestion from President Davis, Bragg ordered Longstreet to take two divisions of infantry and some cavalry, leave the lines around Chattanooga, and move up the railroad toward Knoxville, with the injunction: “Your object should be to drive Burnside out of East Tennessee first, or better, to capture or destroy him.” Bragg knew that Sherman was on the way to join Grant, and he seems to have hoped that Longstreet could dispose of Burnside and then get back in time to help Bragg meet any attack Grant’s reinforced army might make. (At the very least, Longstreet’s move might compel Grant to detach troops to help Burnside.)
Longstreet, who had lost all confidence in Bragg, felt that the 12,000 infantry he would be taking were an utterly inadequate force, and he wrote bitterly that it was this army’s sad fate “to wait till all good opportunities had passed and then in desperation to seize upon the least favorable one.” With hindsight, it is easy to see that when he sent Longstreet away Bragg made a ruinous blunder; but in the first week in November, 1863, the move looked extremely ominous to the Federal authorities in Chattanooga and in Washington, partly because the size of Longstreet’s force was grossly overestimated. Grant found himself obliged to meet a new crisis.
He hoped that Hooker could clear the Confederates off the west side of Lookout Mountain and then move up Lookout Valley in such a way as to compel Bragg to recall Longstreet, but at best this was a thin hope. All Grant could promise was that a real attack would be made after Sherman arrived. To all intents and purposes the Army of the Cumberland had no transportation system whatever; it was hopelessly stalled. The infantry, to be sure, could walk, but Grant confessed that it could go only as far “as the men can carry rations to keep them and bring them back.” The artillery could not go at all. Using every expedient to provide teams, Thomas could move only one out of every six of the imposing array of cannon at his command. In midNovember the army was still paralyzed, and Grant told Halleck: “I have never felt such restlessness before as I have at the fixed and immovable condition of the Army of the Cumberland.”
Not in all the war did Grant live through a more tantalizing situation. By sending away Longstreet and two divisions of infantry, Bragg had prepared the way for his own defeat; Grant knew it, knew that a hard blow well delivered must drive the Confederate army back into Georgia—and found himself utterly unable to strike. From Moccasin Bend to the end of Missionary Ridge, the Confederate army was in plain sight, its campfires making a crescent against the sky night after night, its picket lines so close that Northern and Southern boys fraternized daily in a most unwarlike manner; but Grant and Thomas and all of their men might as well have been north of the Ohio River for anything they could do about it.
General Sherman finally reached Chattanooga on November 14, and on the day after this the generals crossed the Tennessee and rode a few miles upstream, eastward of Chattanooga, to examine the area where Bragg’s right flank could be assailed. Bragg had had Missionary Ridge all to himself for nearly two months, but up here where the northern tip of the ridge came down toward the river he did not seem to be very strong, and Grant’s plan for the battle hardened as the generals studied the scene with their field glasses.
If Sherman marched his force over from Bridgeport he could go north of the river at Brown’s Ferry and continue upstream opposite Chattanooga behind a range of hills that would shield him from Confederate view; and he could come out at water’s edge a short distance east of where the generals were now. Here Baldy Smith would have a fleet of pontoon boats, and in these Sherman’s men could cross the river and smite Bragg’s flank before Bragg realized what was afoot. To distract Bragg’s attention, Sherman could detach a brigade or so to move up Lookout Valley, over beyond the Confederates’ left, as if to make an assault on that flank. Sherman could also lend Thomas horses and mules so that Thomas could move his artillery and ammunition wagons, and Thomas could attack the lower part of Missionary Ridge while Sherman was attacking it near the river. If things were done properly, Bragg’s army should be roundly defeated.