Battle of Missionary Ridge, 25 November 1863

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Introduction
The Plan
Sherman Alone
The Miracle of Missionary Ridge
Aftermath
Books

Introduction

Battle during the American Civil War that ended the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. The city had fallen to Union forces on 9 September after a skilful campaign commanded by General William Rosecrans, but he had gone on to defeat at the battle of Chickamauga (19-20 September), just to the south of Chattanooga. A large part of his army had fled back to the town, while General George Thomas had managed to rally enough men to prevent a total rout and had inflicted enough damage on Braxton Bragg's Confederate army to take the shine off the Confederate victory.


Battle of Missionary Ridge, 25 November 1863

In the aftermath of the battle, Rosecrans's army was besieged in Chattanooga. The town is overlooked by mountains, and by occupying Lookout Mountain to the west and Missionary Ridge to the east, Bragg had blocked almost all supply routes into the town. He was convinced that the Union forces in the town would soon be started into surrender.

The Union response to events at Chattanooga was immediate and overwhelming. Even before Chickamauga it had become clear that Rosecrans was vulnerable, and reinforcements were being rushed towards him. General Sherman was ordered to march east from the Mississippi, while another force was dispatched west from the Army of the Potomac and put under the command of Joe Hooker, only recently removed from command of that army.

General U. S. Grant was placed in overall command of all Union forces in the west. His first move was to replace Rosecrans with Thomas, and then he also headed to Chattanooga (arriving on 24 October). Once there he discovered that Rosecrans's chief engineer, General W. F. Smith, had already worked out a plan that would open a new supply route. All that had been lacking was the will to try it out, and Grant supplied that.

Two days after his arrival, the plan was put into place. By the end of October the 'cracker line' was firmly in place. The supply situation improved immediately. Now Grant could turn to his second problem - the Confederate army that still surrounded Chattanooga.

That army held a very strong position. From the foot of Lookout Mountain their front line crossed the Chattanooga Valley, before turning north to run along the foot of Missionary Ridge to the Tennessee River. The ridge itself was heavily fortified, with three lines of trenches - one at the base, one halfway up and one at the top. Missionary Ridge was the key to the position. As long as Bragg could maintain his line on the ridge he could easily protect his lines of communication, based on Chickamauga Station on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, and would threaten Federal control of Chattanooga and east Tennessee.

The Plan

Grant decided that the centre of Bragg's position on Missionary Ridge was far too strong to be assaulted. Instead he planned to attack both flanks of Bragg's line at the same time, forcing him to weaken the centre. Only then would an attack be launched up the front of Missionary Ridge.

These flank attacks were to be launched by Sherman and Hooker's armies. Neither of these armies were in Chattanooga. Having established the 'cracker line', Hooker's men had remained in Lookout Valley. A small Confederate force still held Lookout Mountain. Grant had to decide whether Hooker should fight his way through this army, or use the bridges of the cracker line to bypass them. His choice was made for him by the Tennessee River. Heavy rain caused the river to rise, making the pontoon bridge unsuitable for a large army. On 24 November Hooker fought his way around the northern edge of Lookout Mountain. On the morning of 25 November he was in place to march across Chattanooga Valley to attack Bragg's left flank at Rossville Gap.

Sherman's army only began to arrive in the vicinity of Chattanooga on 20 November. As they reached Brown's Ferry, they crossed over to the northern bank of the Tennessee River, and set up a hidden camp behind the hills north of Chattanooga. This faced Bragg with the possibility that Sherman's men were marching north to the relief of Knoxville, then being besieged by Longstreet. Instead, they were preparing to cross the Tennessee to the north of Bragg's line on Missionary Ridge and attack along the line of the ridge. These two attacks would force Bragg to reinforce his flanks, at which point Grant's final army, Thomas's Army of the Cumberland, would be ordered to attack Missionary Ridge.

The preparations for this plan went well. The first moves took place a day early, on 23 November (Battle of Orchard Knob), after a Confederate deserter suggested that Bragg was about to withdraw. This moved the Federal front line about a mile closer to Missionary Ridge, and gave Grant a better position from where to observe the battle. The following day saw Hooker's men make contact with the rest of the army (Battle of Lookout Mountain, 24 November). They were now in place for their march across the Chattanooga valley.

That just left Sherman. He first had to get a force across the Tennessee River, then build a pontoon bridge to allow his cavalry and artillery to cross over, and then attack Bragg's right flank. To get the troops across and the bridge built, Sherman had 116 pontoon boats, each capable of ferrying thirty men across the river before becoming part of the pontoon bridge. These boats were concealed in the North Chickamauga river, which flows into the Tennessee river from the north, a little upstream of Missionary Ridge.

Sherman began to move at 2.00 a.m. on 24 November. The first wave of boats surprised the Confederate pickets on the south bank of the Tennessee, and by daylight two complete divisions (8,000 men) had been ferried across. Between daylight and noon the pontoon bridge was completed and the rest of his force crossed over. Finally, at 1.00 p.m. Sherman ordered the advance.

His aim was to assault the northern end of Missionary Ridge in preparation for the main assault on the following day. For some time it appeared that his force had achieved an almost bloodless victory. The same fog that restricted the view on Lookout Mountain also prevented Bragg from seeing what was happening beyond his right flank.

Unfortunately, Sherman's maps were not accurate. They showed Missionary Ridge as being continuous, but in fact the ridge ends in a series of hills. The most northerly of these stands higher than the nearby ridge, and with a 200 foot drop between itself and the main ridge. It was this hill that Sherman's men captured at around 3.30 p.m. Now finally Bragg realised what had happened, and made two unsuccessful attempts to drive Sherman off. Sherman was now in place to launch his part of the following day's attack.

Sherman Fights Alone

The events of 25 November did not follow Grant's plan. As the Confederates had evacuated their positions in the Chattanooga Valley they had blocked the roads and destroyed the main bridge over Chattanooga Creek. Even though Hooker left his positions on Lookout Mountain early in the morning, he had to rebuild the bridge and it took him four hours to cross the creek. His army didn't reach Missionary Ridge until very late in the day.

Meanwhile, Sherman had launched his attack on time. From his position on Orchard Knob Grant could see Confederate reinforcements being sent along the ridge to reinforce their right flank. Sherman's attack straddled the ridge - one column attacked along the summit of the ridge, another along the eastern base and a third along the western base. The attack on the eastern flank made the most progress, threatening Bragg's railroad supply line, but otherwise the attack made little progress. It was being opposed by Major General Patrick Cleburne's division, probably the strongest in Bragg's line, and the last to leave the line at the end of the battle.

By mid-afternoon, it was clear that Grant's plan was not working as expected. Hooker had still not appeared at the southern end of Missionary Ridge. Sherman's attack had now stalled, and he was in imminent danger of being pushed back.

The Miracle of Missionary Ridge

Grant's response was to order a general attack by Thomas's men, who had spend the day waiting for just that order. Grant's order was for an attack on the first line of Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge (although Sheridan at least was not clear as to which line of rifle pits being referred to, and sent a messenger to ask for clarification).

Woods and Sheridan's divisions, the veterans of Orchard Knob, were to play a key part in the assault, with two more divisions protecting their flanks. The order was sent at 3.30 p.m. and the attack was launched soon afterwards.

What happened next has become known as the ‘miracle of missionary ridge'. The Federal divisions swept up to the first line of Confederate trenches, sending their defenders fleeing up the hill. Without waiting for any orders, regiment by regiment the soldiers of Thomas's army of the Cumberland began to advance up the ridge!

Their officers were briefly left behind by this move, but quickly caught up and began to organise the attack. Back on Orchard Knob, an angry Grant wanted to find out who had ordered the attack, but it quickly became clear that nobody had issued any such orders. Now the attack had begun, Wood and Sheridan were ordered to continue with it if they felt they could capture the ridge.

They could and did. After an hour of very heavy fighting, Federal troops reached the top of Missionary Ridge in at least six positions, one of which was very close to Bragg's own headquarters. Once on top of the ridge, they were able to seize Confederate guns and used them to fire along the line. All along the Confederate line Bragg's men panicked and fled. Only Cleburne's division did not join in the collapse, retreating in good order once it was clear that they would otherwise be cut off.

Although the success of this attack was extraordinary, any idea that it was easy can be dispelled by looking at the casualty figures. Between them Sheridan and Wood lost 2,337 killed and wounded in the hour it took to capture Missionary Ridge. This represents close to half of the total Union losses in the battle, and was more men than Sherman lost in two full day's fighting (1,697 killed and wounded). The miracle was that the assault succeeded at all.

Why it succeeded has been the subject of endless debate. Bragg himself suggested that his men's morale had suffered as a result of their superb viewpoint. From the top of Missionary Ridge they had been able to see a vast Federal host preparing to attack, and that sight had unnerved them. Grant though that Bragg's biggest mistake was sending Longstreet with 15,000 men to attack Knoxville, leaving the army at Chattanooga vulnerable.

Bragg probably placed too many men at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they retreated up the slope, they helped shield their attackers from further up the hill. Bragg's lines may not have been placed in the best positions along the ridge, creating blind spots that allowed the Federal attacker to reach close to the summit in relative safety. However, the high Federal losses on the slopes of Missionary Ridge suggest that the Confederate positions were perfectly acceptable. A more credible suggestion is that Grant's plan had not entirely failed. Sherman's attack had forced Bragg to move large numbers of men north to protect his right flank. This left the positions on the top of the ridge critically weakened when the final assault began. Although Bragg ordered troops back from his right to his centre, they couldn't reinforce the entire line in time to prevent some Union forces reaching the summit.

Aftermath

Just enough of Bragg's army remained intact to protect the retreat of the rest. Cleburne's division finally halted the pursuit at Ringgold, Georgia on 27 November. Grant turned back and sent men to the relief of Knoxville, where Longstreet's siege was about to end in failure.

Union losses were 752 killed, 4713 wounded and 350 captured or missing (many from Sherman's command), out of a total of 60,000 men. Confederate casualties were reported at 361 killed, 2180 wounded and 4,146 missing or captured from around 40,000 men (although Grant himself reported taking 6,000 prisoners).

The battle of Missionary Ridge secured Union control of Chattanooga. With that came control of east Tennessee. Worse, one of the few rail links between Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy had run through East Tennessee and Chattanooga. Finally, from Chattanooga Union army could march into Georgia and threaten the heart of the Confederacy. Coming at the end of a year that had seen the fall of Vicksburg and defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate failure at Chattanooga handed the initiative for 1864 to the Union.

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Books

Battle Cry of FreedomBattle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more] cover cover cover

A Great Civil WarA Great Civil War, Russel F. Wiegley, Indiana University Press, 2004, 648 pages. This is a superb account of the civil war years. Weigley has produced a book that combines a good understanding of the military aspects of the war with a clear grasp of the wider issues at stake. [see more] cover cover cover
Roll Call to Destiny, Brent Nosworthy. This book takes a very different approach to the Civil War battlefield, looking at a number of well known incidents from the point of view of one or more of the individual units involved. This book will be of value to anyone with an interest in the Civil War battlefield. [see more] cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 May 2006), Battle of Missionary Ridge, 25 November 1863 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_missionary_ridge.html

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