- 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
Thomas was sending in four infantry divisions, 20,000 men or more—more men than Pickett had used at Gettysburg—and the charge was something to see. As the men marched forward, out in the open, a waiting Confederate wrote of “this grand military spectacle,” Grant remembered it as “the grand panorama,” and the mass of infantry swung forward, more than a mile from flank to flank, three double-ranked lines deep. General Phil Sheridan rode in front of his division, and he said afterward that he looked back just as the men broke into a run; the line suddenly became a crowd, all glittering with bayonets, and Sheridan was stirred by “the terrible sight” and hoped it would have a moving effect on the defenders who had to look at it. The advancing host brushed the Confederate skirmishers out of the way and kept moving on, and the long crest of the ridge ahead and above broke out with clouds of dirty white smoke slashed with flame as Bragg’s artillery went into action. A thinner haze came up along the rifle pits below as the Federals got into musket range, and now the open ground in front was all speckled and streaked with the bodies of men who had been hit. The charging mass came nearer and nearer, and here and there defenders broke from the trenches and ran back to the ridge; then the whole immense weight of the charging infantry swept into the pits and swamped them, the Confederates there either surrendered or ran, and Grant’s order to take the line at the foot of the ridge had been carried out.
And now Chattanooga produced its second immortal legend, fit to go with the tale about the battle above the clouds. Just here, according to the legend, this became the soldiers’ battle, the victory that got away from the generals and was won by the spontaneous valor of soldiers who led themselves. For instead of carefully re-forming their ranks and awaiting further word from headquarters, the men of the Army of the Cumberland stayed in the pits just long enough to get their breath and then moved on to storm Missionary Ridge itself. They came out of the trenches in knots and clusters, with ragged regimental lines trailing after the moving flags and a great to-do of officers waving swords and yelling, and then they went up the five-hundred-foot slope and broke General Bragg’s line once and for all and made his army retreat all the way back into Georgia.
The legend is that they did this on their own hook, fired up by the feeling that Grant considered them secondclass troops and needed to be shown a thing or two. In unromantic fact they made the attack for the most ancient and universal of military reasons—because their officers told them to. To be sure, the rifle pits made an unprotected target for the Confederate gunners, and as veterans these Federals could see that they would be safer climbing the ridge, where there was a good deal of dead ground, than they were here in the open. But the famous picture of four infantry divisions taking matters into their own hands and making a charge nobody had called for belongs with the picture of Hooker’s men scaling a vertical wall of rock under heavy fire: it makes a good legend but nothing more. The storming of the ridge came under orders.
The division on the left of the assault wave belonged to General Absalom Baird, and Baird reported that the staff officer who brought him Thomas’ order to advance told him that taking the rifle pits was just the first step in a general assault on the mountain, “so that I would be following his wishes were I to push on to the summit.” Next in line were Gordon Granger’s two IV Corps divisions, Thomas J. Wood’s and Phil Sheridan’s, and on the extreme right was the division led by General Richard W. Johnson. Johnson said he had been ordered to advance with the left of his division touching the right of Sheridan’s, and he was to conform to Sheridan’s movements. If Sheridan went up the slope, Johnson would go with him.
The legend seems to have been born with Granger and Wood. Granger felt that he was ordered merely to “make a demonstration,” and he said that once the rifle pits were taken, “my orders had now been fully and successfully carried out.” Wood agreed: “We had been instructed to carry the line of intrenchments at the base of the ridge and there halt.” Granger said the men went up the slope without orders, “animated with one spirit and with heroic courage,” and Wood wrote that “the vast mass pressed forward in the race of glory, each man anxious to be first on the summit.”
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.