The Imagined Hopelessness of the Hour – The Battle of Missionary Hill

November 25, 1863 (Wednesday)

Well boys, maybe you know best.
Well boys, maybe you know best.

As General Sherman was quickly discovering, Missionary Ridge was not one long line of hills. It had appeared to be so when viewed from across the river, but when you were in the thick of it, the ridge devolved into a long cluster of tiny mountains. The day previous, he had set forth to capture the northern tip of Missionary Ridge, called Tunnel Hill. This would greatly outflank the Rebels under Braxton Bragg. By dark, he believed he had done it. But through the night, he became less convinced. Come the dawn, he could see that his men had secured only a smaller rise adjacent to Tunnel Hill. And now, the Rebels had arrived in force.

Sherman held the left of the Federal line. On the right, General Joseph Hooker had wrenched Lookout Mountain away from the Confederates, and by morning was descending the slopes into the Chattanooga Valley. The center of the Union line was held by George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, which was keeping still for the time being.

While Hooker’s ground on the right was simple enough, Sherman’s on the left was anything but. His troops skirmished here and there while he organized some kind of offensive. This was not open ground – it was a mass of confusing ridges and swails evolving into greater ridges, and then disappearing altogether into Missionary Ridge. For Sherman, his focus was clear. He was to capture Tunnel Hill, and sent a brigade to attempt it. More troops would have been better, of course, but the skinny ridge over which they trod was hardly wide enough to accommodate. Led by John Corse, the brigade advanced, but could not move the Rebels.

Tunnel Hill was easily and superbly defended by Patrick Cleburne. It was nearly the perfect hill to hold. Only a very small number of Sherman’s men could attack at once, and this allowed Cleburne to shift his own troops as needed. In this way, a small number of Rebels held back Sherman’s entire army.

Battle of Missionary Ridge
Battle of Missionary Ridge

Through the morning, Sherman launched various assaults, trying to peck away at Cleburne’s hill. Frustrated by noon, Sherman examined the ground again, and shifted his own troops, sending them at the hill from another direction. But this too failed, though the fighting grew vicious and swirled up and down the slope as Cleburne ordered a counter attack. Finally, after a series of Rebel offenses to dislodge Sherman entirely, the Confederates proved unmovable from Tunnel Hill.

To General Grant, commanding the Union forces, this was also clear. With Sherman halted on the left, he looked to Hooker on the right. They had fallen into the valley, but could not cross Chattanooga Creek as the retreating Rebels had burned the bridge the previous day. He was a mile from his destination: Rossville Gap and Braxton Bragg’s left flank. It was looking to Grant like it might be a three hour delay.

Originally, Grant had wanted to simultaneously drive the Rebels from Tunnel Hill on their right and hit the Confederate left at Rossville Gap. With the enemy’s flanks crushed, Grant would then unleash Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland upon the center. But nothing was working.

This is a really fine detailed map that is worth a few minutes perusal.
This is a really fine detailed map that is worth a few minutes perusal.

Rather than give up, he decided to move forward with his plan. The flanks were not driven in, but they were, perhaps, occupied. It wasn’t quite the same, but maybe Thomas could do something more. He concluded that Bragg must have sent troops to strengthen his flanks. This wasn’t really true, but in this line of thought Grant continued.

Around 3pm, Grant ordered Thomas to make a demonstration in order to relieve the pressure upon Sherman. But Thomas, who believed the original plan was much better than the one before him now, had no desire at all to follow, and seemingly ignored Grant, issuing no orders to his corps or division commanders to move. Incredibly vexed, Grant growled his way to Thomas’ side and effectively took the reigns.

Soon enough, 23,000 troops stepped off as if on the parade ground. In four divisions they came, two miles long and skirmishers to the front, with artillery booming behind. The flags snapped in the crisp autumn air, and from atop and at the base of Missionary Ridge, the Rebels were struck dumb in awe. But quickly they were shaken from their reverie, and the Confederate artillery exploded over them. The deafening roar of sixty guns was mere punctuation, as the shots went long or short.

nov25missionaryridge1

Braxton Bragg had arranged his defense of Missionary Ridge in a strange manner. He divided his forces, placing half at the crest and half on a ridge below. As the Federals stormed to the first line, the Rebels were quickly overcome as there was little way for the upper line to lend any kind of support to the lower. The Confederates in the lower lines, in the rifle pits, scrambled as they could up the slope to their comrades, and Thomas’ troops had their foothold.

But it was only a foothold. Here is where Grant’s orders became muddled. Some believed that they were only to take the rifle pits, while others took their commander to mean the ridge in its entirety. Grant had actually meant the rifle pits, which, as the troops were now discovering, was an incredibly bad idea. They were trapped, pinned against the ridge by the Rebels above.

This was no place to be, and before long, whole regiments were clawing their way up the slope, while others tried to fall back to their original lines. For the most part, however, the troops climbed forward. When one regiment or brigade saw their neighbors making the ascent, they would join, and shortly most of the Army of the Cumberland were scaling the ridge.

Grant looked on in horror. “Who ordered those men to take that ridge?” he bellowed to Thomas. But Thomas did not know. Neither did his subordinates. Nobody seemed to give the order – the men strove for the crest themselves. And to the amazement of all, they were about to attain it.

nov25missionaryridge2

It was here and there at first, with small units piercing the Rebel line. But as they chipped, more and more Confederates fell back, until a flood of blue poured up and over Missionary Ridge. And the Rebels were routed.

On the left, Sherman could do nothing, but Hooker finally got his men across Chattanooga Creek and had bested a Confederate division on his own. Along the line, Braxton Bragg rode, trying as he could to steady his men. But it was too late. His battle was already lost, their spirits as broken as their lines.

“A panic which I had never before witnessed seemed to have seized upon the officers and men,” reported Bragg, “and each appeared to be struggling for his personal safety, regardless of his duty and his character.”

With the Confederate left and center gone, General Cleburne could no longer hold Tunnel Hill. He received orders to retreat to Chickamauga Station. “By 9pm,” wrote Cleburne, “everything was across, except the dead and a few stragglers linger 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.”

And now came the night. Bragg’s Army suffered 361 killed, 2,180 wounded and 4,146 captured or missing. General Grant lost 752 killed, 4,713 wounded, and 350 captured or missing. Grant would pursue, but it would be Cleburne who would act as Bragg’s rear guard, ensuring that the Rebels would make good their escape southeast to Dalton.1



  1. Sources: Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; 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; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. []
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The Imagined Hopelessness of the Hour – The Battle of Missionary Hill by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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