Part five in a series.
The changing leaves fell slowly to the ground from the trees atop Lookout Mountain. Overlooking Chattanooga, Tennesee, this great giant peered down on the Union lines around the city. Inside, the Army of the Cumberland had remained relatively idle during the fall of 1863. To many, this inactivity seemed destined to change in the middle of October.
On October 23, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the newly formed Military Division of Mississippi, arrived to begin preparations to break Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s stranglehold on the city. However, Grant was suspicious of the Cumberland army’s new commander, Maj. Gen. George Thomas. He felt that Thomas lacked the proper motivation to execute in warfare. In other words, Thomas was “slow”. The recent defeat at Chickamauga in September also did not bode well for Thomas’ army. A black pall hung like a fog over the Cumberlanders and not suprisingly, Grant’s plans did not include them in a primary role.
The first order of business was to open the lines of supply running into the city. For this task, Grant chose Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Newly arrived from the eastern Army of the Potomac, elements from Hooker’s XI and XII Corps opened the famous “Cracker Line” late in the month. With the logistics restored, Grant could turn his attention to Bragg’s Confederates. To assist in this endeavor, two corps from Grant’s old Army of the Tennessee were on the way, under the command of his old friend, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Due to poor weather conditions, these veterans of Shiloh and Vicksburg would be delayed in joining their comrades at Chattanooga.
While Grant prepared and planned, the men of Brig. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s division continued to occupy their lines southeast of the city, under the glare of Missionary Ridge. Sheridan’s men had occupied this position since the end of September, when their division had become part of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s IV Corps. Little Phil wrote afterwards “The new position to which my division had been moved…required little labor to strengthen it, and the routine of fatigue duty and drills was continued as before, its monotony occassionally broken by the excitement of an expected attack, or by amusements of various kinds that were calculated to keep the men in good spirits”.
Sheridan shared a tent with an actor named James Murdock. Murdock’s son had been killed at Chickamauga and he had come to Chattanooga in an effort to retrieve his body. Sheridan remembered that Murdock did much to help raise the morale of the Union soldiers. “He spent days, and even weeks, going about through the division giving recitations before the camp-fires, and in improvised chapels…Suiting his selections to the occasion, he never failed to excite intense interest in the breasts of all present”. It would not be long before these moments of solitude would have to be put away and Sheridan’s men would focus on the heavy tasks before them.
For the last few weeks, Grant had been planning an offensive that would break Bragg’s lines and lift the siege. The delays encountered by Sherman had forced Grant to postpone his projected attack. On November 23, the Federals received intelligence that seemed to indcate that Bragg was abandoning his lines on Missionary Ridge. Such an event would force Grant to rethink his strategy. To determine if the reports were indeed true, Grant ordered Thomas to launch a reconaissance in force.
Missionary Ridge was a long, low eminence that commanded Chattanooga from the southeast. Its upper end rested near South Chickamauga Creek and the lower was separated from Lookout Mountain by Chattanooga Creek. Bisected by a number of creeks and ravines and rising at a forty five degree angle, Bragg’s Confederates had utilized its natural contours to turn it into a veritable bastion. It was also the object of Thomas’ reconaissance.
For the mission, Thomas chose Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood’s division. Sheridan would lend his support. He remembered “I was notified that Wood’s divisin would make a reconaissance…and that I was to support it with my division and prevent Wood’s right flank from being turned by an advance of the enemy…I marched my division out of the works about 2 P.M. and took up a position on Bushy Knob. Wood’s [division] took possession of Orchard Knob easily and mine was halted on a low ridge to the right of Knob, where I was directed by General Thomas to cover my front by a strong line of rifle-pits”. The Yankees advanced as if on parade through the valley between the city and Chattanooga. With relatively light casualties, Wood seized a hill known as Orchard Knob that rested roughly halfway between the Union lines and Missionary Ridge. This reconaissance set the stage for the next and final phase of fighting at Chattanooga.
Orchard Knob would become Grant’s command post for the upcoming battle. Rather than using Thomas to launch a direct assault, he planned to swing Sherman’s divisions around to the north and attack the upper end of Missionary Ridge. At the same time, Hooker would move against Lookout Mountain. On November 24, in what has become known as “The Battle Above the Clouds”, Hooker stormed and carried Lookout Mountain. By neutralizing the Confederate left, Fighting Joe is was in a prime position to manuever against the southern end of Missionary Ridge while Sherman assaulted the northern end.
Sherman’s veterans began their assault early on the morning of November 25. Much to his as well as everyone else’s suprise, Sherman was out of position. Believing that he had occupied the northern end of Missionary Ridge the day before, Sherman actually sat astride Billy Goat Hill, a separate hillock. In turn, he would have to fight his way to Missionary Ridge. Standing in his way were Confederates commanded by Bragg’s best subordinate, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne positioned his men atop Tunnel Hill, where the Chattanooga and Cleveland Railroad passed through Missionary Ridge. Throughout the day, in savage fighting, Cleburne beat back Sherman’s piecemeal attacks.
Atop Orchard Knob, Grant witnessed the fighting. With him were Thomas, Wood and Granger. With his offensive grinding to a halt, Grant asked Granger to advance Wood’s division, along with Sheridan’s, toward Missionary Ridge and carry the enemy works at its base. The divisions of Brig. Gens. Richard Johnson and Absalom Baird would also participate in the demonstration. Such a movement might force Bragg to move men currently opposing Sherman to reinforce his center.
That morning when he awakened, Sheridan put on his full dress uniform. Rather than join Wood and Granger on Orchard Knob, he remained with his division. He received the order to advance from a staff officer. Galloping up and down his lines on a black charger named Rienzi, Sheridan yelled to his men to “Remember Chickamauga” as they prepared to advance. With flags unfurled and bayonets fixed, the Union soldiers began their advance. Sheridan rode with an orderly between the line of skirmishers that had deployed in front of the main line and the brigade of Col. Charles Harker. He wrote later “Under a terrible storm of shot and shell the line pressed forward steadily…and as it emerged on the plan took the double-quick and with fixed bayonets rushed the enemy’s first line. Not a shot was fired from our line of battle, and as it gained on my skirmishers they melted into and became one with it, and all three of my brigades went over the rifle-pits simultaneously…at the rifle-pits there had been little use for the bayonet, for most of the Confederate troops, disconcerted by the sudden rush, lay close in the ditch and surrendered, though some few fled up the slope”.
The Federals had reached their objective and accomplished their orders. As they were milling about, his orderly handed Sheridan a flask. Raising it to a group of retreating Rebels, Sheridan offered a toast “Here’s at you.” Seconds after uttering these words, an exploding shell showered him with dirt. Regaining his composure, Little Phil looked up the ridge and said “That’s damn ungenerous! I’ll take those guns for that.” The threat was not far off. Suddenly, collectively and in small V shaped groups, the Yankees continued their advance. With the bitter stain of Chickamauga still fresh in their minds, the Cumberlanders sought their redemption: they would charge up Missionary Ridge.
Back on Orchard Knob, Grant looked on in horror. The four divisions were continuing onward without orders. Angrily, he turned to Thomas for an explanation on who ordered the charge. Thomas replied that he did not know. The Ohioan then turned his cold gaze to Granger and said “Did you order them up?” “No” Granger replied, “when those fellows get started, all hell can’t stop them”. Up Missionary Ridge the Cumberlanders went. The attack itself became a race between the individual regiments to see who could make it to the top and plant their colors first. Riding in their midst was Sheridan.
Upon reaching the top and overcome with joy, he dismounted, ran to a cannon, jumped atop the barrel, removed his hat and cheered. The celebration was short lived, as Sheridan immediately ordered a pursuit of the retreating rebels. His division was the only one of the four that continued the battle after the ridge had been carried and the Confederates retreated. Darkness brought an end to fighting and around 2 a.m. on November 26, Sheridan finally called a halt. As he rode back to his own lines that night, Little Phil could not have known that the previous day’s fighting would change the course of his life.