Missionary Ridge--Triune Disaster
Reminiscences Of The Civil War (Chapter XV)
John B. Gordon, Maj. Gen., CSA

       GENERAL LEE was not a believer in the infallibility of newspapers as arbiters of military movements. With full appreciation of their enormous power and vital agency in arousing, guiding, and ennobling public sentiment, his experience with them as military critics of his early campaigns in the West Virginia mountains had led him to question the wisdom of some of their suggestions. In a letter to Mrs. Lee he once wrote, in half-serious, half-jocular strain, that he had been reading the papers, and that he would be glad if they had entire control and could fix matters to suit themselves, adding, "General Floyd has three editors on his staff, and I hope something may be done to please them."
       General Bragg had been subjected to a somewhat similar fire from the rear for not following General Rosecrans, after the battle of Chickamauga, and driving him into the river or across it. That he did not do so, and thus make the battle of Missionary Ridge impossible and save his army from its crushing defeat there, was a disappointment not only to the watchful and expectant press, but to the Southern people, and to some of the leaders who fought under him at Chickamauga. A calm review of the situation, and the facts as they existed at the time, will demonstrate, I think, that his failure to follow and assault General Rosecrans in his strong works at Chattanooga was not only pardonable, but prudent and wise. The Confederate victory at Chickamauga, which was the most conspicuous antecedent of Missionary Ridge, was achieved after two days of desperate fighting and at tremendous cost. While the Confederates had inflicted heavy losses upon the Union army, they had also suffered heavy losses. Of the thirty-three thousand dead and wounded, practically one half wore gray uniforms. For every Union regiment broken and driven in disorder from the field, there was a Confederate regiment decimated and shattered in front of the breastworks. The final retreat of the Union army was immediately preceded by successful repulses and countercharges, and by the most determined stand against the desperate and repeated Confederate assaults on Snodgrass Hill. General Bragg's right wing had been partially shattered in front of the Union field works in the woods at Chickamauga, and his left wing held in check till near nightfall at Shodgrass Hill. It seems to me, therefore, that these facts constitute almost a mathematical demonstration--at least a moral assurance--that his army must have failed in an immediate march across the open plain through the network of wire spread for Confederate feet, in the face of wide-sweeping Union artillery, and against the infinitely stronger works at Chattanooga. In whatever other respects General Bragg may be regarded by his critics as worthy of blame, it seems manifestly unfair to charge that he blundered in not pursuing Rosecrans after Chickamauga. Far more just would be criticisms of General McClellan for his refusal to renew the attack in the open after Sharpsburg (Antietam), or of General Meade for not accepting the gauge of battle tendered him by Lee after the repulse of Gettysburg; or of General Lee himself for not pressing Burnside after Fredericksburg, Hooker after Chancellorsville, and Pope after the rout at second Manassas.
       These reflections are submitted in the interest of truth and in justice to General Bragg's memory. They are submitted after the most patient and painstaking investigation, and I must confess that they are in direct conflict with the impressions I had myself received and the opinions which I entertained before investigation.
       One other remark as to General Bragg's halt after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga. His beleaguering of the Union army for a whole month in its stronghold at Chattanooga is by no means conclusive evidence that he blundered in his failure to immediately assault General Rosecrans in his intrenchments. While admitting that, however shattered the ranks of the victor, the ranks of the beaten army are always in still worse condition, it must be remembered that assaults against breastworks, as a rule, are most expensive operations. Pemberton had been beaten in a series of engagements before he was driven into his works at Vicksburg; yet with his small force he successfully repelled for months every assault made upon those breastworks by General Grant. General Lee's hitherto victorious veterans recoiled before the natural battlements of the Round Tops and Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. On June 27, 1864, General Sherman assaulted with tremendous power the strong position held by General Joseph E. Johnston's retreating army; but General Sherman's loss was nearly ten for every Confederate killed or wounded. The experience of General Nathaniel P. Banks in his assault upon the Confederate forces behind their breastworks at Port Hudson furnishes possibly a still more convincing proof of this truth. Page after page of similar illustrations might be taken from the records of our Civil War. It may be true that Chickamauga had brought temporary demoralization to portions of Rosecrans's army; it may be true that General Grant did say to General Sherman at Chattanooga, "The men of Thomas's army have been so demoralized by the battle of Chickamauga that I fear they cannot be got out of their trenches to assume the offensive." But when he witnessed their superb assault upon Missionary Ridge he must have changed his opinion. It may be true -- it is true--that had General Bragg assailed the Union army after Chickamauga, he would have had the advantage of the momentum and ardor imparted to a column in a charge; but he would also have been compelled to overcome the feeling of security imparted to troops protected by heavy breastworks and the increased effectiveness of their fire. General Longstreet assailed the breastworks at Knoxville after the Chickamauga battle; but his superb battalions were powerless before them.
       General Bragg's mistake, therefore, it seems to me, was not his decision to besiege rather than assault the Union army in Chattanooga, but it was the weakening of his lines by detaching for other service such large bodies as to reduce his army to a mere skeleton of its former strength. While Bragg was reducing his troops to an estimated force of about 25,000 men by sending off Longstreet and Buckner and the Confederate cavalry, General Grant, who had displaced Rosecrans and assumed command at Chattanooga, was increasing his army in and around that city to 100,000 or more. By his official report it seems that after the arrival of his two corps from the East and General Sherman's army from the West, he had on the 25th of November, when the advance was ordered, about 86,000 men, armed and equipped, ready for the assault. I recall no instance in the history of our war, and few in any other war, where, on so contracted a field, was marshalled for battle so gigantic and puissant an army.
       More than two thousand years ago occurred a scene which Missionary Ridge recalls. On the plains of Marathon, Datis, under the orders of King Darius, assembled his army of Persian warriors, whose number did not differ widely from those commanded at Chattanooga by General Grant. Confronting Datis was the little army of the Greeks under Miltiades, the great Athenian, in whose veins ran the blood of Hercules. Posted along the Attican range of mountains, this little army of Athenians looked down upon the vast hosts assembled against them on the Marathon plain below as Bragg's small force of Confederates stood on Missionary Ridge and the slopes of Lookout Mountain, contemplating the magnificent but appalling panorama of Grant's overwhelming legions moving from their works and wheeling into lines of battle. The two scenes -- the one at Marathon, the other at Chattanooga--present other strikingly similar features. The ground on which the respective armies under Datis and Grant were assembled bore a close resemblance the one to the other. Crescent-shaped Marathon, washed by the winding bay, had its counterpart in that crescent formed at Chattanooga by the Tennessee as it flows around the city.
       The Greeks at Marathon and the Confederates at Missionary Ridge were each moved by a kindred impulse of self-defence. The Athenian Republicans under Miltiades, as they stood upon the bordering hills around Marathon, realized that the spirits of departed Grecian heroes were hovering above them, and resolved not to survive the loss of Athenian freedom or the enslavement of their people. They were the foremost men of their time. The mountain on which they stood was sacred ground; every stone and scene was an inspiration.
       The American Republicans of Southern birth and training who stood with Bragg on Missionary Ridge were imbued with an ardor none the less strong and sacred. At this point, however, appear vast contrasts. The Grecian commander was to fight Persians: the Southern leader was to meet Americans. The hireling hordes which swarmed on the plains of Marathon served not from choice but from compulsion. The Persian array was a vast conglomeration of incohesive elements, imposing in aspect but weak in determined battle: the army which Bragg was to meet was composed of patriotic volunteers, every man impelled by a thorough belief in the righteousness of his cause. At Marathon it was the resolute, compact, and self-sacrificing Grecian phalanxes against the uncertain, disjointed, and self-seeking hordes of Persian plunderers. It was heroes against hirelings, the glorious sons of Athenian freedom against the submissive serfs of triumphant wrong and of kingly power. At Missionary Ridge it was patriot against patriot, inherited beliefs against inherited beliefs, liberty as embodied in the sovereignty of the States against liberty as embodied in the perpetuity of the Union. The Persians represented organized vindictiveness. The haughty monarch Darius had resolved to wreak his vengeance on the free people of Athens. In his besotted pride and blasphemy, he implored the gods to give him strength to punish these freemen of Greece. His servants were instructed constantly to repeat to him as he gorged himself with costly viands, "Sire, remember the Athenians!" The army and commanders whom he sent to Marathon were fit agents for the execution of so diabolical a purpose. Numbers, therefore, did not count for much in the conflict with such men as Miltiades led against them. The Federals and Confederates, however, who met each other at Missionary Ridge, were of the same race and of kindred impulse. They gathered' their strength and ardor from the memories and example of the same rebelling fathers. In such a contest numbers did tell, and gave to General Grant the moral assurance of victory even before the battle was joined.
       The Union assault on Missionary Ridge was heralded by the "Battle above the Clouds," as the fight on Lookout Mountain is called. Important events had transpired which precipitated that conflict amidst the heavy vapors around Lookout Mountain. These events rendered the capture of that citadel of strength possible, if not easy. Nearly 10,000 Federals under General Hooker had forced a passage of the Tennessee below Lookout Point, driving back the two Confederate regiments, numbering about 1000 men, commanded by the gallant Colonel Oates, of Alabama, who fell severely wounded while making a most stubborn resistance. The night battle at Wauhatchie had also been fought and the small Confederate force had been defeated. It was in this fire in the darkness that the brave little Billy Bethune of Georgia made his dťbut as a soldier and his exit on an Irishman's shoulder. The Irishman who was carrying Billy off the field was asked by his major, "Who is that you are carrying to the rear?" "Billy Bethune, sir." "Is he wounded ?" "Yis, sir; he's shot in the back, sir." This was more than Billy could endure, and he shouted his indignant answer to the Irishman, "Major, he's an infernal liar; I am shot across the back, sir."
       The Hon. John Russell Young, in his book "Around the World with General Grant," states that this great Union general once said: "The battle of Lookout Mountain (the 'Battle above the Clouds') is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle, and no action worthy to be called a battle, on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry."
       I shall not enter into the controversy as to the rank which should be assigned to that brief but noted conflict. Whatever may be its proper designation, it was a most creditable affair to both sides. Reared among the mountains, I can readily appreciate the peculiar atmospheric conditions and the impressive character of the scenes which met those contending forces on the rugged mountain-side. Many times in my boyhood I have stood upon those mountain-tops in the clear sunlight, while below were gathered dense fogs and mists, sometimes following the winding courses of the streams, often covering the valleys like a vast sea and obscuring them from view. As stated in another chapter, General Hooker was probably not apprised of the fact that there confronted him in the forenoon only Walthall's Missis-sippians,--less than 1500 men against 10,000,--and in the afternoon only the shattered remnants of this brave little brigade, joined by three regiments of Pettus and the small brigade of Moore, in all probably not more than 2500 men. The conception of moving upon an unknown force located in such a stronghold was bold and most creditable to the high soldierly qualities of General Hooker and the gallant men who moved at his command through the fogs and up the steeps, where gorges and boulders and jutting cliffs made almost as formidable barriers as those which opposed the American soldiers at Chapultepec. General Walthall, who commanded the little band of resisting Confederates, was compelled to stretch them out along the base and up the sides of the mountain until his command covered a front so long as to reduce it practically to a line of skirmishers. Far beyond the west flank of this attenuated line, Hooker's plan of battle for this unique field had placed a heavy force under enterprising and daring leaders. Up the mountain-side the troops worked their way, clutching bushes and the branches of trees in order to lift themselves over the rugged ledges, firing as they rose, capturing small bodies here and there, and driving back the stubborn little band of Confederates. The Union lines in front and on Walthall's right threatened to make prisoners of his men, who retreated from ledge to ledge, pouring their fire into Hooker's troops and directing their aim only at the flashes of the Union rifles as they gleamed through the dense fog.
       The resistance of Walthall's Mississippians was pronounced by the distinguished Union leader, General George H. Thomas, "obstinate "; by General Bragg, the Confederate commander-in-chief, as "desperate," and by the brave Steedman, of the Union army, as" sublimely heroic." More emphatic than all of these well-merited tributes was the eloquent fact that but 600 were left of the 1500 carried into the fight.
       General Grant's arrival at Chattanooga with his reŽn-forcements was as timely a relief for Thomas and his troops as the coming of Buell's forces had previously been for the succor of General Grant's army at Pittsburg Landing or Shiloh.
       The interchange of courtesies which became so common during the war at no time interfered with the stern demands of duty. As General Manderson, one of the most gallant officers of the Union army, rode near the Confederate picket-lines in front of Chattanooga, he received a salutation almost as courteous as they would have given to one of their Confederate generals; yet they were ready to empty their deadly rifles into the bosoms of his troops when they moved in battle array against them. General Manderson himself in these words gives account of the Confederate courtesy shown him: "A feeling of amity, almost fraternization, had existed between the picket-lines in front of Wood's division for many days. In the early morning of that day, being in charge of the left of our picket-line [Union], I received a turnout and salute from the Confederate reserve as I rode the line." This was on the very day of the great battle. On the river below, the Confederates would gladly have divided their own meagre rations with any individual soldier in Thomas's army, yet they were attempting to shoot down every team and sink every boat which sought to bring the needed supplies to the beleaguered and hungry commands suffering in the city.
       Major Nelson of Indiana, who, like all truly brave soldiers, has exhibited in peace the same high qualities which distinguished him in war, gave me the following incident, which occurred at another point, and admirably illustrates the spirit of the best men in the two armies. Major Nelson was himself in command of the Union picket-lines. The Confederate officer who stood at night in the opposing lines near him called out:
       "Hello there, Yank! Have you got any coffee over there ?"
       "Yes," replied Major Nelson. "Come over and get some."
       "We would like to come, but there are fourteen of us on this post."
       "All right, Johnny; bring them all along. We'll divide with you. Come over, boys, and get your coffee."
       The Johnnies accepted. At two o'clock in the morning they sat down in the trenches with the boys in blue, and told war jokes on each other while drinking their coffee together. Looking at his watch, the major said:
       "It's time for you Johnnies to get away from here. The inspector will be along soon, and he will put every one of you in prison, and me, too, if he catches us at this business."
       The Confederates at once sprang to their feet and left with this salutation:
       "Good night, Yanks; we are greatly obliged to you. We have had a nice visit and enjoyed your coffee very much. We hope you will get a good rest to-night; we are going to give you hell tomorrow."
       When General Grant arrived at Chattanooga and had surveyed the field, he sent an order to General Sherman, who was rebuilding the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, to stop this work and move his army rapidly eastward toward Chattanooga. This order, it is said, was carried in a canoe down the Tennessee River, over Muscle Shoals, and for a distance of probably two hundred miles. The daring soldier who bore it was Corporal Pike, a noted scout. On the very day of Sherman's crossing the Tennessee at Chattanooga, Grant ordered the advance upon Missionary Ridge. To this ridge the Confederates had been withdrawn from their eyry on Point Lookout, and the forces of Hooker swept down upon Bragg's left flank. Against Bragg's other flank General Sherman's army was concentrated. In General Grant's admirable plan of the battle, the movement by Hooker against the Confederate left, and the attack by Thomas upon its centre, were intended as mere demonstrations, while the heavy columns of Sherman were to turn its right flank and completely envelop it, thus making the capture of the bulk of Bragg's small army probable, or rendering his retreat extremely hazardous. But, as is often the case in battle, the unexpected transpired. Across the line of Sherman's advance, from which the greatest results were expected, was a railroad cut and tunnel from which the Confederates suddenly rushed upon the head of the Union column, checking, breaking, and routing it. In the meanwhile, Grant, who stood on Orchard Knob opposite the Confederate centre, had ordered Thomas to move at a given signal and seize the Confederate rifle-pits at the base of the ridge. As the six shots from Orchard Knob sounded the signal for the advance, the blue line of Thomas swept across the plain and into the rifle-pits, making prisoners of many of the advanced Confederate skirmishers. This movement, as above stated, like Hooker's upon Lookout Mountain on the previous day, was intended by General Grant only as a "demonstration," the purpose being only to take the rifle-pits as a diversion to aid Sherman in his attack upon Bragg's right. The seasoned veterans of Thomas, however, were wiser in this instance, or at least bolder, than the generals. Was it a misapprehension of orders, was it recklessness, or was it the habit acquired in battle of never halting when ordered forward under fire until their lines were broken against the solid fronts of opposing forces? General Grant was amazed when he saw those lines pass the rifle-pits in furious charge toward the crest of Missionary Ridge. Both Thomas and Granger denied having given the order for such a movement. It was, however, too late to halt the troops; and most fortunate was it for the Union army that the movement could not be recalled. Those brave men, without orders, mounted to the summit of Missionary Ridge, leaped into Bragg's intrenchments, piercing his lines in the centre, doubling them to the right and left, and forcing the front in confusion to the rear. The capture of 6000 Southern prisoners, several pieces of artillery, and many thousand stands of small arms was an irreparable loss to the Confederacy. In its exhausted condition these could not be replaced by new levies and new guns. Infinitely greater, however, was the loss of the prestige which Bragg's army had gained by the brilliant victory at Chickamauga just two months and five days before. Still greater was the loss which Missionary Ridge inflicted upon the Southern cause by opening the way to Atlanta. The bold and successful stand made after Missionary Ridge by Bragg's forces at Ringgold was but a temporary check to the advance of the Union forces.
       As Hooker's forces moved from the mountain-top up Bragg's left, a Confederate officer, on his Kentucky thoroughbred, galloped into this portion of the Union line. It was young Breckinridge, looking for his father, General John C. Breckinridge, who was commanding a division of Confederates. Instead of his father, he found General James A. Williamson commanding Union troops. He lost his Kentucky racer and exchanged his staff position for that of prisoner of war.
       General Bragg, with patriotic purpose, and with the hope that some other commander might serve the cause more efficiently, asked to be relieved from the command of the army, and his request was granted. General Rosecrans had perhaps a still more pathetic fate. He had inaugurated and conducted against General Bragg during the summer a strategic campaign, pronounced by General Meigs "the greatest operation in our war." During the progress of this campaign General George H. Thomas and the corps commanders of the Union army seemed unanimous and enthusiastic in the commendation and support of it. Yet after its culmination General Rosecrans was removed from the command of his army. From the standpoint of unbiassed criticism the future historian will probably have some trouble in finding sufficient reasons for this removal. It is not my province to participate in the discussion of this interesting question. As a soldier, however, who fought on the Southern side, and who has studied with much interest this campaign of General Rosecrans, I wish to leave upon record two or three inquiries which it seems to me history must necessarily make.
       First, how was it possible for the transfer of Longstreet's troops from Lee to Bragg to have escaped the attention of Secretary Stanton or General Halleck ? This movement was reported to General Rosecrans by General Peck of the Union army stationed in North Carolina. It was suggested as probable by the Hon. Murat Halstead in the columns of his paper. General H. V. Boynton states in the most positive terms that Colonel Jacques, of the Seventy-third Illinois, tried in vain for ten days to gain admittance in Washington to communicate the fact of Longstreet's movements to Halleck and Stanton, and then, without accomplishing it, returned in time to fight with his regiment at Chickamauga.
       Another question which history will probably ask is why no reŽnforcements were sent to the Union army while Rosecrans was in command and when Longstreet was moving to strengthen General Bragg, and yet after Rosecrans's removal immense reŽnforcements were sent, although both Longstreet and Buckner had then been detached from that immediate vicinity.
       The heavy concentration of Union forces at Chattanooga, and the consequent defeat of Bragg's army at Missionary Ridge, was a master stroke; but justice to General Rosecrans seems to demand the above reflections. In the light of his previous strategic campaign and of his fight at Chickamauga, where, without re-enforcements, he so stubbornly resisted Bragg's assaults while both Longstreet and Buckner were present, history will surely ask: "What would General Rosecrans probably have accomplished with his own army heavily reŽn-forced, while Bragg's was reduced by the absence of both Longstreet's and Buckner's commands ?"
       Missionary Ridge had added its quota of cloud to the Confederate firmament, and intensified the gloom of the succeeding winter. It had laid bare the Confederacy's heart to the glistening points of Union bayonets, and vastly increased the sufferings of the Confederate armies. Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Missionary Ridge! Distinct defeats to different armies in distant sections, they nevertheless constituted a common, a triune disaster to the Confederate cause. The great crevasses in the Mississippi's levees constitute one agency of ruin when they unite their floods and deluge the delta. So these breaks in the gray lines of defence constituted, I repeat, one common defeat to Southern arms. There is, however, this noteworthy defect in the completeness of the simile: The Mississippi levees could be rebuilt; the material for reconstructing them was inexhaustible; and the waters would soon disappear without any human effort to drive them back.
       The Confederacy's lines, on the contrary, could not be rebuilt. The material for reconstructing them was exhausted. The blue-crested flood which had broken those lines was not disappearing. The fountains which supplied it were exhaustless. It was still coming with an ever-increasing current, swelling higher and growing more resistless. This triune disaster was especially depressing to the people because it came like a blight upon their hopes which had been awakened by recent Confederate victories. The recoil of Lee's army from its furious impact against the blue barrier of Meade's lines at Gettysburg was the first break in the tide of its successes. Beginning with the marvellous panic and rout of McDowell's troops at Bull Run in 1861, there followed in almost unbroken succession wave after wave of Confederate triumph. The victory of Joseph E. Johnston over General McClellan at Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks; the rapidly recurring victories of Lee in the seven days' battles around Richmond over the same brilliant commander; the rout of General Pope's army at second Manassas, or second Bull Run; the bloody disaster inflicted by Lee upon Burnside's forces at Fredericksburg and upon Hooker's splendid army at Chancellorsville, together with Stonewall Jackson's Napoleonic campaign in the Valley of Virginia, had constituted a chain of Confederate successes with scarcely a broken link. Even at Sharpsburg, or Antietam, in 1862, the result was of so indecisive a character as to leave that battle among those that are in dispute. The Federals claim it as a Union victory on the ground that Lee finally abandoned the field to McClellan. The Confederates place it among the drawn battles of the war, and base their claim on these facts: that McClellan was the aggressor, and declined to renew his efforts, although the Confederates invited him to do so by flying their flags in his front during the whole of the following day; that although the battle-tide swayed to and fro, with alternate onsets and recoils on the different hotly contested portions of the field, yet in the main the Federal assaults were successfully repelled; that McClellan failed to drive Lee from his general line, and that whatever advance he made against Lee was more than counterbalanced by Jackson's capture of the entire Union forces which held the left of the Union army at Harper's Ferry.

This page last updated 02/03/02