- 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
Then, unexpectedly, came one of the improbable, dramatic moments of this Battle of Chattanooga. The Confederate defense line on Lookout was badly outnumbered, and by midafternoon it began to give way—and at that moment the fog suddenly drifted away, the sun came out, and the whole scene was visible. The men of the Army of the Cumberland could see everything, the Confederates were in full retreat, and around the curving slope came rank after rank of Hooker’s men, flags flying, rifle barrels shining in the sunlight, victory achieved in plain view of everybody—and Thomas’ soldiers jumped up and yelled and tossed their caps in the air, regimental bands spontaneously began to play from one end of the line to the other, the artillery fired wild salutes aimed haphazardly at Missionary Ridge, and the noise of the fighting was drowned in the noise of a general jubilee. Then, just as if a stage manager knew when to close a brilliant scene, the clouds hid the sun again, the drifting fog came back, the Lookout Mountain battle lines vanished from sight; and Grant, who had been over on the left of Thomas’ line, came riding back toward the center, as leisurely and unemotional as a farmer going out to inspect his acres. He dismounted, got down on one knee, rested his order book on the other knee, and scribbled messages to make sure Hooker got any reinforcements he might need. Then darkness came, and as the mist vanished once more, Hooker’s campfires could be seen, snaking up and down the long slope, with snapping spits of light out in front where pickets and skirmishers kept up an intermittent fire. Grant’s staff stayed up late to enjoy the sight, and Grant remarked that all of the Confederate troops would be gone from Lookout by morning.
Hooker, who had his own eye for drama, sent patrols up a winding road on the eastern side of the mountain before daylight, and at dawn a party from the 8th Kentucky reached the topmost, outward-jutting crag of rock on the summit. There the men waited, and when the sun came out they unfurled the biggest flag they had and waved it in the morning air, and everybody on the plain saw it and let off a new outburst of cheers and band music. An emotional officer on the plain confessed that “the pealing of all the bands was as if all the harps of Heaven were filling the dome with triumphant music,” and after this promising beginning he added that “it is useless to attempt a description of such a scene as that,” leaving literature much the poorer. And thus a great legend was born, and the fight on Lookout Mountain became “the battle above the clouds,” thenceforward and forever, with its impossible picture of heroic soldiers scaling sheer precipices under heavy fire. The legend became so great that after the war it irritated General Grant, who called it “one of the romances of the war” and said that there had really been nothing worthy of being called a battle on this mountain: “It is all poetry.” This was going a little too far, because Hooker’s troops had done a certain amount of fighting along with all of their climbing and scrambling, but the romance had taken enduring form and there was no way to diminish it.
Meanwhile there was Sherman, who was supposed to have the principal part in the battle and who on November 24 contributed nothing to legend but something to misunderstanding. During the afternoon he began to move eastward from the river and sent a battle line up what he supposed was the northern end of Missionary Ridge. The ground was steep but there was strangely little opposition—nothing but a little rifle fire from scattered Confederate patrols—and Sherman’s men got up onto the high ground without trouble. Ahead of them, less than a mile away, was a bulging eminence beneath which the railroad that ran eastward from Chattanooga ducked through a tunnel, and this height, known as Tunnel Hill, looked like the key to Bragg’s whole position; headquarters’ advance planning had written Tunnel Hill down as the army’s principal objective in the entire battle. Sherman believed that he was in an excellent position to make an assault, and that evening he notified Grant that he had carried Missionary Ridge as far as the tunnel. Grant ordered him to make the attack in the morning, saying that Thomas would either strike Bragg’s center or come up in Slierman’s support as circumstances might make advisable. It was an excellent plan, and it probably would have worked, except that Sherman was not where he thought he was.
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.