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The Rock Of Chickamauga
Lee. Grant. Jackson. Sherman. Thomas. Yes, George Henry Thomas belongs in that company. The trouble is that he and Grant never really got along.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
But Thomas wasn’t running anywhere. As a correspondent at the time wrote, “One of those crises had now arrived, rare in the history of any country, where the personal character and power of an individual become of incalculable value to the general welfare.”
Thomas assembled a defense line along Horseshoe Ridge. It didn’t matter what regiment or brigade the men were from as long as they could handle a gun. There were no speeches and no calls for greatness, just George Thomas riding quietly among the men. If Old Reliable was sticking around, it was probably going to be all right. The only emotion Thomas evidenced was scratching his beard more than usual. He told a colonel the men had to hold their position regardless of the cost, and the colonel replied, “We’ll hold it, General, or we’ll go to heaven from it.”
Many of them did, but the rest held through the day until Thomas retired in good order. Chickamauga was a bloody defeat, but Thomas had saved the Army of the Cumberland.
In Washington President Lincoln, who began the conflict knowing so little about war he took books out of the library to read up on military tactics, had developed the strategic sense that comes with understanding what is really important. The army was beaten, but it still held Chattanooga. If it could stay there, the President noted, “the Rebellion must dwindle and die.”
First Rosecrans had to go. In Lincoln’s harsh but accurate evaluation, he was “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” Lincoln gave Thomas command of the Army of the Cumberland with orders to hold on to Chattanooga until Grant could come and rescue the Tennessee campaign.
When Grant arrived, there occurred one of those social mischances that should not matter in so serious an enterprise as war but do. Grant, wet and hungry after a long ride in the rain, got to Thomas’s headquarters around nine o’clock at night. Preoccupied, Thomas seemed not to notice that Grant was sitting by the fire with water puddling out of his uniform. Only after one of Grant’s staff asked did Thomas offered his commander quarters, fresh clothing, and food. Grant never put on any great airs, but he did not like being made to feel cheap.
Grant largely ignored Thomas in planning the battle to regain the initiative at Chattanooga. Grant also wrote off the Army of the Cumberland as an attacking force. It had been used up at Chickamauga. He wanted Sherman.
Chattanooga was yet another Civil War battle that did not go even faintly the way it was supposed to. Missionary Ridge, a six-hundred-foot escarpment defended by rifle pits at the bottom and Bragg’s marksmen with sixty pieces of artillery at the top, confronted the Federal army. Grant had in mind something very grand, a massive double end run around the ridge. Sherman would swing wide to the left and deliver the main attack on Bragg’s flank at dawn, while Joe Hooker swept in from the right to cut off the Rebel retreat. Thomas and his weary Cumberland Army, positioned in the center at the base of Missionary Ridge, were not to move until Hooker was in sight.
Grant’s plan went off the rails almost at once. On November 23 Thomas occupied Orchard Knob, high ground before Missionary Ridge, and, the day after, Hooker’s men handily drove the Confederate defenders from Lookout Mountain. But the main battle had to be postponed for a day so Sherman could get his men in place to assault the Confederate position at Tunnel Hill. Sherman moved at sunrise but, even outnumbering his opponents almost six to one, he could make no headway. By three in the afternoon Sherman was still bogged down on the left, and Hooker, who had lost five hours repairing a bridge, was nowhere to be seen on the right.
The conventional wisdom has it that Sherman was delighted when Hood replaced Johnston. But nobody said so then.
From his command post at Orchard Knob, Grant could see the battle was getting away from him. “We must do something for Sherman,” he said. Hoping a demonstration at the center would make Bragg draw troops away from Tunnel Hill, he ordered Thomas to advance on the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. The first part was easy. The Rebel riflemen, reasonably enough, retreated in the face of an approaching army. Once the Cumberland men got the pits, however, they were on their own. They had no fire support on either side. They had no orders to advance and none to retreat. Staying put was a death warrant for the troops; they were being torn apart by shortrange artillery and musket fire from the summit. And so eighteen thousand men of the Army of the Cumberland did what only trained professional soldiers can do. They advanced toward the firing.
An astonished Grant watched the men scramble up the slope “like a swarm of bees.” Sharply he asked Thomas who had ordered the charge. Thomas said he didn’t know, but Gordon Granger, commander of the IV Corps, allowed that “when those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”
Whether an accident or a miracle—and it was called both—the charge was a blow the Army of Tennessee could not survive. Bragg lost control of his men as they poured off the field in panic. By the time Hooker played his part in Grant’s plan, there was no interdicting the Southern retreat. The Union army didn’t own horses that fast.