November 23, 1863 (Monday)
Across the still morning, Confederate General Patrick Cleburne oversaw the first of his two divisions entraining at Chickamauga Station, behind the lines. A multitude of trains were utilized, but only enough to load all of Bushrod Johnson’s Division, and part of Cleburne’s own. By the mid afternoon, the former would be loaded and en route, while the rest of the latter was to leave the day following. They were en route to reinforce James Longstreet’s Corps before Knoxville.
Braxton Bragg, commander of the Confederate forces, had dispatched Cleburne to Longstreet believing that while there was some threat from General Grant’s once-besieged Federals in Chattanooga, it wasn’t imminent. Bragg wagered that with the reinforcements, Longstreet could swiftly oust Ambrose Burnside’s Union troops from Knoxville and return in time to beat back Grant’s assault and ultimately recapture Chattanooga. If there was any threat at all, believed Bragg, it was on his left.
But Grant pondered another way, desiring to hit Bragg beyond the Confederate right. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops had arrived, and he wished to shift them to a position from which they could get behind the Rebels, cutting off Bragg from Longstreet.
With the sun came strange reports from the front. Union pickets heralded the news that General Cleburne’s Confederate division to their front had retreated with seemingly no cause. Rumors gathered from Rebel deserters further held that Bragg’s entire army was falling back.
“The truth or falsity of the deserters,” wrote Grant, “should be ascertained at once. If he is really falling back, Sherman can commence at once laying his pontoon trains, and we can save a day.” But Sherman was still not yet ready. The deserters and reports had come from General Thomas Wood, and so word went to him to push forward a “reconnaissance in force.”
Before General Wood loomed a stark and rocky knoll known locally as Orchard Knob. Across it, the Rebels had stretched rifle pits and before them, picket posts. Between Wood’s Division and Orchard Knob was but a small patch of trees and nothing more. It was not until noon when they stepped off.
But Wood’s Division was not alone. On his right, Phillip Sheridan’s Division would advance to lend support, as on his left O.O. Howard’s XI Corps would do the same. Another division, under Absalom Baird, would ride upon Sheridan’s right. All told, nearly 14,000 Union troops advanced as one upon a knoll held by a mere scattering of Confederate pickets.
From vacated Missionary Ridge, situated behind Orchard Knob, Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and John Breckinridge witnessed the display. Bragg admitted that it was curious, but dismissed it as a mere review, as the host was moving across a wide plain that must have reminded him of a parade ground. Breckinridge, however, knew the score. “General Bragg,” he spat, “in about fifteen minutes, you are going to see the damnedest review you ever saw. I am going to my command.”
Breckinridge’s troops were scattered all along the Rebel line. The two closest divisions were upon a lower run of Missionary Ridge, while another held Lookout Mountain on the left. Still another, Cleburne’s Division, remained at Chickamauga Station.
It was near this time that Bragg’s first message to Cleburne was sent. Arriving with little urgency, it only ordered Cleburne to “halt such portions of your command as have not yet left at Chickamauga.” Others were to stop at Charleston, forty miles up the line. After reading it, he allowed another train to leave, still following orders. Soon, another message would follow.
The Federals dashed toward Orchard Knob, leaping into the rifle pits and capturing scores of Rebels, many of whom never fired a shot. Elsewhere and nearby, skirmish fire was augmented by the artillery of both sides. Holding the knob were only two Confederate regiments – not even 600 men. Obvious that they would soon be overwhelmed, one of the regiments fired several volleys and beat a hasty retreat. The other, however, held their works as long as possible. The Union troops would soon flood in, but it would be at a dear price.
Two Northern regiments spearheaded the attack. The first lost nearly a quarter of their men, but by 3pm, Orchard Knob and the Rebel works about it, were in Federal hands. As it stood, General Wood held the knob with Sheridan on his right. Somewhere beyond his left, Howard’s Corps had wandered too far, stumbling onto unseen Rebel rifle pits. Nearly his entire corps was pinned down.
By now, Braxton Bragg’s second message must have reached Cleburne. Unlike the previous, this dripped with panic. “We are heavily engaged,” scrawled Bragg. “Move rapidly to these headquarters.” Before Cleburne could move, the dusk had settled, and they would not reach Bragg’s headquarters, atop Missionary Ridge, until well after dark. Johnson’s Division had already left, sapping Bragg’s forces of at least 5,000. But at least Cleburne remained.
Bragg had made no effort to hold Orchard Knob, but now General Patton Anderson, who commanded the nearest division, wanted to retake it. The two regiments that had been thrown back from the knob belonged to Arthur Manigault’s Brigade, and he wanted them to lead the assault. They would be accompanied by two additional brigades.
Manigault believed it was suicide, but prepared his men. If he were supported, perhaps the carnage might be less. Soon, however, he was informed that the two supporting brigades would not be advancing in full – only skirmishers would be lent to the attack. Manigault rode to General Anderson’s headquarters and berated his commander for issuing such “reckless stupidity.” In turn, Anderson accused him of cowardice. But it was not cowardice. Manigault, who had been up at the front, saw that his lone brigade would be up against an entire enemy corps.
Now screaming, Manigault relented, but also protested, “the rashness and recklessness of his order, which would cost so many lives and men.” He spun around and rode back to his troops, fully ready to order them to their certain deaths. But just as he was about to send them forward, word came from Anderson. The attack was called off. Manigault’s Brigade would live to fight again.
At the start of day, Braxton Bragg believed that the Federal attack would come on his left. But now, he knew his right was where it would hit. Through the night, he shifted troops to meet the new threat. Had Grant waited but one more day, not only would Bushrod Johnson’s Division been away, but Cleburne’s as well. Bragg stripped his left upon Lookout Mountain, leaving only a brigade to hold it. But he felt it would be enough. The true threat was now on the right.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 2, p41, 42; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; The Shipwreck of Their hopes by Peter Cozzens; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat Vol. 2, by Judith Lee Hallock; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. [↩]