Monday, November 25, 2013

The Battle of Missionary Ridge at 150

On today's date in 1863, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was defeated in the Battle of Missionary Ridge, the penultimate battle in the Chattanooga Campaign. My Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes* was a participant, who fought in Patrick Cleburne's Division on the north end of the ridge. His division was only one to experience any success against the onslaught of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Federal army attacking the Confederate position from the valley below.

By the night of the November 24th, Gen. Grant erroneously believed that Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had gained Tunnel Hill at the north end of Missionary Ridge in the battle earlier that day.1 Based on this supposition, at midnight he issued an order for Sherman to attack the Confederates in his front on the morning of today's date in 1863. Sherman's objective was to turn Bragg's flank, which meant seizing the position from South Chickamauga Creek to Tunnel Hill. At the same time he issued orders to Maj. Gen. George Thomas to simultaneously attack the Confederates' center on Missionary Ridge. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker would join the attack from his newly won position at Lookout Mountain, move to the south end of the ridge near Rossville, and then advance northward on Missionary Ridge.

Source: Cartography Services by Hal Jesperson

The appearance of Hooker's column was the intended signal for the advance of Thomas's troops, who were then to attack the enemy's center on Missionary Ridge. But that morning the Federals discovered that the Confederates, although they had evacuated Lookout Mountain, had concentrated their entire army on Missionary Ridge. Instead of retreating, they were prepared to make a stubborn defense. They had successfully resisted all Sherman's assaults the day before, had fortified the north end of the ridge, and had reinforced the troops at the center.

Hooker started from Lookout Mountain about 10 AM, but was detained several hours at Chattanooga Creek thanks to the Confederates having burnt the bridge in their retreat from Lookout Mountain. He was held there until about 2 PM. Consequently, Hooker's force was seriously behind schedule and did not reach the point where he was expected.

By noon on the north end of Missionary Ridge, where Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes was fighting in Mark P. Lowrey's Brigade of Patrick Cleburne's Division, the Confederates had repulsed every assault by Sherman's troops. Sherman now had 6 divisions under his command—nearly a third of the army's strength at Chattanooga. Before noon, Sherman was sent another division, Baird's, for good measure. In total, Sherman had nearly 30,000 troops concentrated on his front. Confronting Sherman were just 6 brigades of abut 4,000 troops: Smith's, Govan's, and Lowrey's of Cleburne's Division; Brown's and Cummings's of Stevenson's Division; and Maney's of Walker's Division.

By now, Bragg's entire Confederate Army of Tennessee was behind a defensive position along Missionary Ridge. Fifteen batteries, comprising about 50 guns were placed on its summit. There were also 2 siege-guns near Bragg's headquarters. The Confederate force on top of Missionary Ridge was about 1 mile from the Federal lines. The slope of the ridge, which was steep and rough, was about 600 yards in width, its average height about 400 feet. The Confederates had dug a line of rifle pits at the base of the ridge and a line of breastworks on the crest. The soldiers also had constructed breastworks at various intervals on the slope of the ridge.

During the morning, the Confederate movements seemed to indicate to the Federals that they were massing against Sherman on the north end of the ridge. Grant wrongly assumed that, in order to do this, they necessarily were weakening their center. Actually, the Confederate troops seen were those who had been withdrawn from Lookout Mountain and its adjoining valley following yesterday's loss. Grant believed that Sherman's situation on the north end of Missionary Ridge was turning critical so that an attack was required soon in order to relieve him.

Without having heard from Hooker's columns, and fearful for Sherman's situation, Grant made an spontaneous decision: He ordered Thomas to move his 4 divisions forward to take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, a near suicidal mission. That being accomplished, his men were to reform their lines, then scale the cliffs and take the top of the ridge. By 4 PM, the Federal charge had begun. and 23,000 Yankees in a 2-mile battle line rushed forward and drove the Confederates from their works at the foot of the ridge.

While the order had been to wait to reform at the base of the ridge, the attackers came under fire from Confederate fire above. Their situation was untenable. They had to either advance or retreat, or be killed by the fire from above. Without waiting for further orders, the advancing troops made their decision and at once began climbing the cliffs.

Until that moment, most of the Confederates atop Missionary Ridge could not have imagined that enemy soldiers would attempt the climb, especially under incredible cannon and rifle fire. But amazingly, that's just what Thomas's men did. The Confederates were simply shocked and overwhelmed. Batteries couldn't depress their guns enough to fire in the invaders. Bragg had no reserves to send forward to fortify the positions being overrun. Hundreds of Confederates simply surrendered while thousands fled. In less than an hour and a half from the time the advance began, the Federals were in control of most of the ridge position that the Confederates had held for the past 2 months. Neither Grant nor Thomas could have imagined that Thomas's attackwhat was designed to be secondary to Sherman'swould actually be the decisive one today. It was, in fact, the turning point of the battle.

On the south end of the ridge, Hooker had finally advanced his men from Lookout Mountain, and units began reaching Rossville Gap at the south end of Missionary Ridge. Around 4 PM, they began their attack. With little resistance from the corps of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge2 his troops moved northward along the top and both sides of the ridge until they met up with Thomas's men. By the evening of the 25th, the Hooker's and Thomas's forces held the middle and south ends of Missionary Ridge, and the Confederates were in retreat. Except for the north portion of the ridge, where Cleburne's and Cheatham's Divisions of Hardee's right wing still held on, Missionary Ridge was entirely under Federal control.

The only Confederate success of the day was with Patrick Cleburne's men fighting at Tunnel Hill, and they were beating the strongest of the 3 armies—Sherman's—attacking Missionary Ridge. If it hadn't been for Cleburne's valiant men holding back Sherman's massive force on the north end of the ridge on today's date, it would have been an overwhelming disaster for Bragg and his army. As it was, it almost didn't happen.

Just 2 days before, Cleburne had been ordered to vacate his position on Missionary Ridge to join Gen. James Longstreet in his Knoxville Campaign. While supervising the transfer of troops at the Chickamauga Station on the 23rd, Cleburne was ordered to return to Missionary Ridge immediately: Thomas had begun his attack on Orchard Knob, and Sherman was not far behind. As the Federals were winning Lookout Mountain on the 24th, Cleburne was positioned at Tunnel Hill (a point on Missionary Ridge about 250 yards north of the actual railroad tunnel) with orders to stop Sherman and ensure a secure line of retreat if that became necessary. After briefly skirmishing with the enemy on a forward, detached ridge, Cleburne's men dug in around Tunnel Hill for the night.

The Battle of Missionary Ridge opened for Cleburne's men at Tunnel Hill at 10:30 AM with a Federal artillery barrage against Brig. James A. Smith's Texas Brigade as Sherman's renewed his attack on the north end of the ridge. Historian Wiley Sword writes:
... Cleburne's duel with Sherman loomed as a classic contest of generals, arguable the best against the best. The crucial question was that of applied combat leadership. The fight on the north end of Missionary Ridge thus was a momentous collision with immense stakes. For Cleburne, it was the test of a lifetime. For Sherman, it was the best chance of his career. No wonder that it would become one of the Civil's War's most remarkable encounters.
Cleburne's after battle report of the Battle of Tunnel Hill is captivating and compelling narrative, well worth repeating here:
Up to 10.30 a.m. the enemy contended himself with severe skirmishing, and a heavy artillery fire from batteries erected by him during the night on the detached hill. About this hour he drove in Smith's skirmishers, and possessed himself of the breastworks which Smith had abandoned that morning. A heavy attack on the tunnel and on Smith's line was now imminent. General Hardee sent me directions to take my position at the tunnel, and to take charge of everything in that quarter and to the right of it. The enemy was now in sight, advancing in two long lines of battle, his right stretching far beyond my left, his left stretching beyond Smith's right, where farther view of it was prevented by the woods that covered and bordered the detached hill....
At 11 A.M. the first serious fight of the day commenced. It was heavy along Smith's whole line, and extended some distance south of the tunnel. The right of the enemy's line, exposed to the fire of several pieces of artillery planted over the tunnel, and met by a brigade sent by General Hardee to the foot of the ridge, swayed backward and forward for some time, but did not dare to advance nearer than 400 yards, and finally lay down, contenting itself with sending forward a large body of skirmishers and sending to the rear a much larger number of stragglers. The enemy's left, however, under shelter of Smith's abandoned work of the night before, and protected by the woods on that flank, and by the precipitous, heavily wooded sides of Tunnel Hill, advanced rapidly on Smith's line, and finally made a heavy charge on Swett's battery on the apex of the hill. The artillerymen stood bravely to their guns under a terrible cross-fire, and replied with canister at short range, but still the enemy advanced. When he had reached within 50 steps of the battery, Brigadier-General Smith charged him with the right of Mill's regiment and the left of the Seventh Texas, Smith's north front pouring into him from the breastworks a close volley at the same time. The enemy was routed and driven back to his cover behind the hill-side and abandoned work.
Brig. Gen. Smith and Colonel Mills were both severely wounded as they led their men in this charge. Brigade command now fell to  Col. H.B. Granbury. A half-hour later, the Federals charged again. Granbury's men held with help from the artillery (and some long-range musket fire from Lowery's men posted on an adjoining hill to the north), but they received heavy casualties. In fact, reported Cleburne, in just a few minutes so many artillery commanders were killed or wounded in succession that Grandbury was forced to draft infantry to work the guns. However, in spite of the losses, the Federal attackers were again driven back. But Cleburne's men were not finished yet.

By noon, Sherman's first attack was over. Nearly 6 hours had passed since Sherman was to have launched an attack to take Tunnel Hill. However, all he had accomplished was to invite serious damage to 2 of his attacking brigades. In the brief lull before the next attack, Cleburne rushed to make several important changes, seemingly anticipating Sherman's next move. Some additional help was sent by Hardee in the form of artillery fire and a couple of supporting regiments. Cleburne's report continues:
About 1 P.M. it was evident that another grand attack was soon to be made on my division. In a few minutes after it commenced. The enemy again lined Smith's abandoned works, and from them kept up a close, incessant fire on Smith's north front, and particularly on the artillery on top of the hill. Simultaneously a charge was made on the west face of Tunnel Hill. Warfield's regiment was thrown forward outside of the work to the crest of the hill, looking into the Tennessee Valley, to meet this charge. Key['s battery] fired rapidly into the charging line as it crossed the open ground at the west foot of the of ridge, but it was soon under shelter. At the steep the enemy's line now seemed to form into a heavy column on the march, and rushed up the hill in the direction of the batteries. Warfield's fire stopped the head of the charging column just under the crest. Here the enemy lay down behind trees, logs, and projecting rocks, their first line not 25 yards from the guns, and opened fire. Tier after tier of the enemy, to the foot of the hill and in the valley beyond, supplied this fire and concentrated the whole on a space of not more than 40 yards, till it seemed like one continuous sheet of hissing, flying lead. This terrific fire prevented Warfield's men from moving sufficiently forward to fire with effect down the hill, but otherwise it only swept over our heads. The cross-fire from Smith's abandoned work was, however, more fatal. It took Warfield in flank and was constantly disabling men near the top of the hill.
It was about 1:30, and the fierce attack had now lasted more than a half-hour, with serious damage done to the advancing Federals. Key's Battery was forced to depress its guns to the extreme, firing shell and canister down the sharp incline as the enemy returned fire. Discovering the near impossibility of reaching the enemy by direct fire, and running low on ammunition, some of Cleburne's men found hurling large rocks and rolling great boulders down the steep slope to be more effective than rifle fire.

Cleburne continues:
The fight had lasted unceasingly for an hour and a half, and the enemy seemed to be constantly re-enforcing. The First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee, of Maney's brigade, Colonel [Field] commanding, was moved in front of the work, and placed on Warfield's right, the latter officer and his gallant regiment, still nobly holding their exposed position, although the regiment was diminished in numbers and almost out of ammunition. It was at this critical period of the day that Lieutenant-Colonel Warfield suggested to me that our men were wasting ammunition and becoming disheartened at the persistency of the enemy, and proposed a charge down upon them with the bayonet. Brigadier-General Cumming gallantly proposed to lead the charge with two of his regiments. I immediately consented, and directed General Cumming to prepare for the charge and went to the left to see that a simultaneous charge was made on the enemy's right flank. I now ordered the left of Mills' (Texas) regiment, being the extreme left of my division, to make the charge on the enemy's flank the moment that Cumming charged them in front, and I remained at the breastwork myself to see the execution of the order.
In the meantime General Cumming, having placed the Fifty-sixth Georgia 10 paces in rear, moved forward to the charge; twice he was checked and had to reform. Warfield's (Arkansas) regiment with empty guns, and the gallant First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee prepared to share his next effort. At the command the whole rushed forward with a cheer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders, simultaneously leading the left of Mills' (Texas) regiment on the enemy's flank. The enemy, completely surprised, fled down the foot, the Texas troops on the left pursuing him beyond the foot and nearly across the open ground in front. Our charging columns returned with many prisoners and stand of colors; a fresh force of the enemy, attempting to follow us as we returned from this charge, was quickly met and routed by the Fiftieth Tennessee and with troops of my division. Immediately on his last repulse the enemy opened a rapid and revengeful artillery fire on Tunnel Hill from his batteries on the detached hill, and under cover of this fire he went to work felling trees and fortifying his position.
The Rebel charge began at 4:00 PM, and, along with hand-to-hand fighting, it sent the Federals running. In less than an hour, another charge was organized to drive the remaining forces from the base of Tunnel Hill. Overall, it was magnificent fighting, that resulted in halting Sherman's attempts to capture Tunnel Hill.3 For 7 hours, and against odds 7 to 1, Cleburne's men had held Tunnel Hill against determined forces.

But the Confederate success had come at great cost in terms of the brave lives lost. Cleburne's work was not in vain, although he was about to receive disheartening news from further down the line: The south and center lines had collapsed and the Confederates there had been routed. By 6:00 PM, only Hardee's and Cleburne's troops stood in the path of a complete Federal sweep of Missionary Ridge.

The consequence for Cleburne's exhausted men will mean even more sacrifice if the army is to be saved. As Cleburne reported:
Soon after the final defeat of the enemy in front of Smith's position I received a dispatch from General Hardee to send to the center all the troops I could spare, as the enemy were pressing us in that quarter. I immediately ordered Generals Cumming and Maney, with their respective brigades, to report accordingly, and went myself to push them forward. Before I had gone far, however, a dispatch from General Hardee reached me, with the appalling news that the enemy had pierced our center, and were on Missionary Ridge, directing me to take command of my own, Walker's and Stevenson's divisions and form a line across the ridge, so as to meet an attack upon my flank, and take all other necessary measures for the safety of the right wing.
In the general retreat of Bragg's army that day, Cleburne’s Division, the only organized Confederate force left, served as rear guard. Cleburne will do everything in his power to save the army. He immediately ordered Brig. Gen. States Rights Gist, commanding Walker’s division, to form his troops across the ridge. Next, he ordered all vehicles that could be spared to cross the Chickamauga Creek. He sent Lucius Polk orders to send a force to the Shallow Ford Bridge and hold it at all cost. He also sent Govan’s brigade to meet the enemy’s advance on the Shallow Ford Road.

From Cleburne's report:
Soon after night was upon us, and General Hardee ordered an immediate retreat across the Chickamauga, and that Smith’s (Texas) brigade should remain in position and bring up the rear, General Lowrey attacked and drove back the enemy’s skirmishers in his front and then retreated. By 9 P.M. everything was across except the dead and a few stragglers lingering here and there under the shadow of the trees for the purpose of being captured, faint-hearted patriots succumbing to the hardships of the war and the imagined hopelessness of the hour. I now ordered Smith’s brigade to move in retreat. Sadly, but not fearfully, this band of heroes left the hill they had held so well and followed the army across the Chickamauga.
Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey, whose brigade was the least battered from the all-day fight, was ordered to launch a counterattack to drive back the Yankee skirmishers from in front of the ridge and mask the division's withdrawal from Missionary Ridge. Then, under cover of this attack, the rest of his command fell back to the bridge behind the division. The 32nd Regiment was one of the last to fall back, and Co. D, my Great Grandfather's, took up the rear to defend it while the regiment withdrew.4 

By about 10 PM, nearly 12 hours after the first Federal assault that morning, Cleburne’s Division arrived on the northern bank of the East Chickamauga Creek. After burning the Shallow Ford Bridge to slow up Sherman's pursuit. the division joined the tattered army assembling at Chickamauga Railroad Station.

While the Battle of Missionary Ridge had been a disaster for the Confederate army, Cleburne’s actions and the bravery of his men that night surely saved Bragg’s Army of Tennessee from destruction. Trailing the army's retreat, Cleburne's men's bravery and sacrifice will again be called upon at Ringgold Gap on the 27th.

Gathering his beaten army at the Chickamauga Station the night of the 25th, a despondent Bragg wired Richmond a terse report summarizing the disaster:
After several unsuccessful assaults on our lines to-day, the enemy carried the left center about 4 o'clock. The whole ground gave way in considerable disorder. The right [i.e., Cleburne's Division] maintained its ground, repelling every attack. I am withdrawing all to this point.
1 Sherman had taken what he thought was the north end of Missionary Ridge, but actually he had taken a completely separate rise known as Billy Goat Hill. Across a deep ravine was Cleburne's Division, fortified at Tunnel Hill, the northernmost portion of the actual ridge. Sherman took no further offensive action that day, and, instead, ordered his men to dig in on Billy Goat Hill.
2 Bragg blamed Breckinridge for the disaster that resulted from the collapse of his corps. At Dalton, Bragg immediately relieved Breckinridge of command and even accused him of being drunk at the time.
In his memoirs years later, Sherman still had not come to grips with his loss at Tunnel Hill. Instead of acknowledging his assigned role as the main attack on Missionary Ridge that day, he portrayed his part as diversionary to Thomas's assault on the center: "The object of General Hooker's and my attacks on the extreme flanks of Bragg's position was, to disturb him to such an extent, that he would naturally detach from his centre as against us, so that Thomas's army could break through his centre. The whole plan succeeded admirably; but it was not until after dark that I learned the complete success at the centre, and received General Grant's orders to pursue on the north side of Chickamauga Creek… "Sherman's close friend and commander, U.S. Grant, covered for his subordinate by recasting the attack as secondary to Thomas's main attack in the center of Missionary Ridge.
4 Capt. F.S. Norman of Co. D wrote in his report: "... built rudeworks of logs under fire of the enemy during the morning of the 25th, was by these works during the day was thrown out as skirmisher at night to hold the enemy in check, while the regiment marched off..."

Sources: Civil War times, 1861-1865, Daniel Wait Howe; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; ChattanoogaA Death Grip on the Confederacy, James Lee McDonough: The Shipwreck of Their Hopes; Peter Cozzens; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Mountains Touched With Fire, Wile Sword; Muster Roll of the 32nd Mississippi Infantry, Tommy Lockhart; Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman; Official Records, Vol. 31, Pt. 2


* To view my blog about my great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, and the
32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in which he served in the Army of Tennessee,

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