- 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
The plan was highly flexible, so that whether it led to a big fight or an elaborate maneuver would depend largely on circumstances—on what Sherman found when he got past the northern end of Missionary Ridge, and on how Bragg responded to his appearance there. Similarly, Thomas was to mass his own men so that they could co-operate with Sherman or strike a blow of their own, as headquarters might direct; Hooker’s troops were to hold Lookout Valley, and perhaps they would be ordered to drive the Confederates off the mountain’s northern slope. On Thursday, November 19, Secretary S tan ton telegraphed to President Lincoln (who had gone to Gettysburg to make a speech) that Grant had things moving at Chattanooga and that “a battle or falling back of the enemy by Saturday, at furthest, is inevitable.”
Then it began to rain, and it kept on raining for two days, turning the roads to fathomless mud and reducing Sherman’s march from Bridgeport to a crawl. The heavy rains also caused a rise in the Tennessee River, the swollen waters carried much driftwood downstream, the driftwood battered at the pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry, and before Sherman had all his men across there the bridge was swept away. On each of three successive days Grant had to notify Thomas that the attack would have to be postponed. In the end, instead of being in position to open the battle on Saturday, Sherman could do no better than to get the head of his long column into position north of the Tennessee late on Monday, November 23.
This disturbed Thomas, who felt that with all of this delay Bragg was bound to discover what the Federals were going to do. On Sunday, accordingly, Thomas urged Grant to revert to the original plan and have Hooker attack Lookout Mountain—on the sound theory that Bragg could strengthen his right to meet Sherman only by weakening his left. Grant agreed, moved partly by a suspicion that Bragg might be preparing to retreat. On November 20 Bragg had sent a cryptic note to Grant under a flag of truce: “As there may still be some non-combatants in Chattanooga, I deem it proper to notify you that prudence would dictate their early withdrawal.” This was the kind of note a general sent across the lines when he was about to bombard and assault an occupied town, and Grant had no notion that Bragg planned to do anything of the kind; he showed the note to his visiting cousin-in-law, William Smith, grinned, and said that he had not answered it “but will when Sherman gets up.” Still, the note might be a ruse to cover a withdrawal; and two days later, when a Confederate deserter came into camp and said that Bragg’s army was beginning to retreat, Grant concluded that it was time to act. … The deserter was wrong, although he thought he was telling the truth; misguided to the end, Bragg had detached one more infantry division and sent it to East Tennessee to help Longstreet. After the war someone suggested to Grant that Bragg could have done this only in the belief that his position on Missionary Ridge was invulnerable. Grant thought a moment and then said drily: “Well, it was invulnerable.”
So orders were revised. On Monday, November 23, Thomas was told to drive in Bragg’s skirmish line, on the rolling ground in front of Missionary Ridge; if Bragg had really begun to leave, Grant said that he was “not willing that he should get his army off in good order,” and in any case a brisk demonstration would show whether he was leaving or holding his ground. At the same time Grant sent new orders to Hooker, over on the far side of Lookout. On the morning of November 24 Hooker was to take everybody he had and assault Lookout Mountain, as the original plan had contemplated. By this time Sherman would be ready to make his own attack, and Bragg would be assailed at both ends of his long line; and Thomas would be massed in front of his center, ready for anything.
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 he 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.