ECW welcomes back guest author Ed Lowe
“No satisfactory excuse can possibly be given for the shameful conduct of our troops on the left in allowing their line to be penetrated,” lamented Confederate Army of Tennessee commander General Braxton Bragg after the Union breakthrough at Chattanooga’s Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. Panic ensued with the jubilant Union soldiers turning the Confederate guns back onto Bragg’s retreating soldiers. Bragg quickly recognized he must put space and time between his deteriorating command and what would undoubtedly be the pursuit by Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s soldiers.[i] With an almost impossible and perhaps suicidal task in holding back Union forces, Bragg needed a commander cool under pressure and tenacious in his decision-making. He had such a man in the Irish-born Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne. Just days prior, Cleburne proved himself at the northern end of Missionary Ridge, denying attacks by Union soldiers and preventing a Confederate collapse on that part of the battlefield.
During the movement out of Chattanooga, Cleburne demonstrated why Bragg held this division commander in such high regard. A young staff officer from Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s command approached Cleburne with a message directing him to push his infantry forward to Graysville, south of Chattanooga. Not hearing sounds of battle to his front, Cleburne questioned the tired officer if he had written instructions. Receiving a negative reply, Cleburne rightly understood such a move jeopardized the army’s artillery and transportation assets if he hurried ahead. Further prodding by Cleburne unmasked the staff officer’s exhaustion and apparent misunderstanding of the directive. Even the soldier was uncertain of the exact instructions given. Cleburne elected to disregard the instructions until he could verify with Hardee himself. It turns out Cleburne was correct in disobeying the order and “that abandonment of the train had not for an instant been contemplated.” Historian Wiley Sword stated Bragg received distressing word that part of Hardee’s command had been routed; thus, he urged that Cleburne hold his position at all hazards and hold back the enemy. As Craig Symonds indicated in his biography of Cleburne, “[his] decision to ignore [the orders] may have saved Bragg’s army from destruction, and it also demonstrated both Cleburne’s self-confidence and his willingness to make hard decisions.”[ii] Cleburne would make his stand at Ringgold, Georgia.
Following the strong blow delivered on Missionary Ridge, Grant, now commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, directed the pursuit of Bragg’s forces. Elements under the command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker took part in following the Confederates. Receiving reports from citizens friendly to the Union cause and confirmed by contrabands in the area, Hooker ascertained “that the enemy had passed through Ringgold, sorely pressed, his animals exhausted, and his army hopelessly demoralized.”[iii] With increased confidence given the latest intelligence reports on Bragg’s command, Hooker and his men pressed on, eager to finish the job.
In the growing darkness and plunging temperatures of November 26th, Cleburne’s command reached the north bank of the East Chickamauga Creek. Always placing a body of water between yourself and a pursuing enemy was the preferred course of action. In this case, unfortunately, the bridge was destroyed, requiring soldiers to ford the cold waters. A staff officer from Bragg’s command awaited Cleburne. Bragg desired for Cleburne to quickly cross the creek and bivouac on the south side of the creek, assuming the march toward Ringgold Gap at 4:00 AM. Once again, Cleburne elected to ignore the order, fearing having soldiers cross the creek and then attempting to sleep in wet clothes in cold weather would greatly diminish his numbers due to sickness. He chose to remain on the north side of the creek, despite the increasing threat of Union forces suddenly coming upon him. To Cleburne, it was a risk worth taking and it proved correct once again.[iv]
In the early morning hours of November 27, 1863, another staff officer from Bragg’s headquarters reached Cleburne, this time with orders Cleburne knew he must obey. “The general desires that you will take [a] strong position in the gorge and the mountain and attempt to check pursuit of the enemy.” The directive went on, “He must be punished until our trains and the rear of our troops get well advanced.”[v] Arousing the soldiers a few hours after midnight to prepare for the creek crossing, Cleburne moved ahead to scout out the terrain and the position he’d have to defend. “Here we had to wade across it. Here we had a bitter pill for it was very cold,” described one soldier from the 33rd Alabama Infantry about the crossing, “the ground was froze. However, we took off our shoes and socks, and pants and drawers and into it we went.”[vi] Cleburne had fires burning on the opposite bank to warm the soldiers as they exited the cold water, forging admiration for their commanding officer. Once across and after warming as much as they could, Cleburne’s 4,000-man division marched to establish their defenses in Ringgold.
Two to three thousand residents occupied the sleepy little town of Ringgold, resting gently between the East Chickamauga Creek and a series of hills known as Taylor’s Ridge. Twenty miles southeast of Chattanooga, the Western and Atlantic Railroad pierced the narrow gap, along with a wagon road, and a tributary of the Chickamauga Creek. The gap itself runs a half mile wide, opening out to the west with 100 yards of fairly open, level ground. To the rear, however, the land is interspersed with the winding creek, including three bridges or fords. “It will be perceived at once that this was a most dangerous position to be caught in if the enemy should succeed in turning either flank,” Cleburne pointed out in his after-action report.[vii] “The foot of the ridge,” added a correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, “is thickly covered with evergreens and underbrush.”[viii] As historian and author Dave Powell pointed out, “If held in force, the position [at Ringgold] offered an opportunity for a powerful defense.”[ix]
Even attaching the name Cleburne to the defenses somehow, mystically, added to its stoutness and determination. “But all who ever fought in the Army of the Cumberland knew that when Cleburne’s division was opposed to his command,” confessed an officer with the 4th U.S. Infantry, “very hard fighting had to be done in order to avoid a repulse.”[x]
Time was of the essence for Cleburne to organize his defenses as the sun peeked over the horizon, the Union forces right on the heels of his division. Col. Daniel Govan, commanding St. John Liddell’s brigade, approached first, taking a position at the gap’s entrance and to the rear, a layered defense. Col. Hiram Granbury’s brigade took up defenses right (north) of the gap and high ground to the rear. Brig. Gen. Lucius Polk guarded the road networks to the south and Cleburne also directed him to communicate with the 7th Texas Infantry, if the Union forces attempted to turn Cleburne’s right flank. Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey’s brigade arrived last and provided three regiments behind Govan’s men and the 16th Alabama Infantry left (south) of the gap. As historian Craig Symonds pointed out, “Barely half an hour had transpired between the time the first Confederate troops arrived and the appearance of the Federals.” Cleburne also had two artillery pieces under the command of Lieut. Richard Goldthwaite, which he camouflaged until he gave the order to open fire.[xi]
Informed to remain quiet as the Union soldiers approached, Cleburne’s men waited, apprehensive as before any engagement. “Men never get over it,” reflected one Confederate soldier on the moments before a battle, “the thrill of it, no matter how many battles they have been in. The solemnity of it may pass away, for men get hardened, but the tax on patience and on nerves remains.” Lieut. Goldthwaite stood ready, anxious to open up the rendezvous with his guns. But still, Cleburne waited patiently as the Union soldiers drew nearer. Cleburne’s light cavalry screen, pressed by advancing Union soldiers, retreated toward the gap, the time around eight in the morning. Bragg’s immense train of wagons was still in view, heading south through the gap. “My division,” Cleburne said afterward, “silent, but cool and ready, was the only barrier between it and the flushed and eager advance of the pursuing Federal army.”[xii]
Hooker weighed risk versus reward in advancing toward Ringgold Gap, especially given his artillery was not yet up. “The only way to ascertain the enemy’s strength,” Hooker resolved, “was to feel for him, and, as our success, if prompt would be crowned with a rich harvest of material, without waiting for my artillery, the skirmishers advanced.” Brig. Gen. Peter Osterhaus recalled no more than 200 Confederate cavalry posted in advance of Cleburne’s main line, a back-and-forth engagement taking place before Cleburne’s men sought refuge back at the main line of Confederate defenses.[xiii] Hooker’s men continued to move forward. Waiting impatiently for Cleburne to give the order to commence firing, William Bevens of the 1st Arkansas Infantry recollected the Union forces came on in seven columns, concluding in a battle that comprised both “strategy and bravery.”[xiv]
Col. John Murray of the 5th Arkansas Infantry remembered how confidently the Union soldiers approached the gap, oblivious to what lay ahead of them. To Murray, they “seemed to think that they had nothing more to contend with than a few scattered cavalrymen.”[xv] Finally, when the soldiers came to within 150 yards, Cleburne shouted to Lieut. Goldthwaite, “Now, Lieutenant, give it to ‘em!” The artillery officer quickly removed the brush in front of his two guns and opened with both shell and canister fire. For Col. Murray observing, he said Union soldiers “scattered…. like chaff before the wind” from the Confederate artillery fire. Union soldiers dispersed and took shelter behind the railroad embankment. With this advance thwarted, Hooker’s left flank continued to move and start its ascension up the mountain, which constituted Cleburne’s right flank and where he had placed the 7th Texas Infantry. This side of Cleburne’s defenses steadily received Confederate reinforcements as the Union threat became apparent.[xvi]
Union Soldiers found the steep climb difficult to navigate, having to avoid the rocks and brush that impeded their forward movement. As Col. Thomas Ahl of the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry detailed, climbing up the mountain was hard enough “let alone in the face of double his own numbers pouring down heavy volleys of musketry on him.” Another officer from the 4th Iowa Infantry observed some regiments climbed the mountain “as if on parade where the men could barely have gone up by clinging to the rocks and bushes.”[xvii] Brig. Gen. Osterhaus commented that up and down the line, Cleburne’s men introduced “a most galling fire of artillery and musketry” to the advancing regiments. Still, his men kept up the forward movement, shifting even further left in an attempt to turn Cleburne’s right flank.[xviii]
Gaining the crest of White Oak Mountain first, the Confederates developed a robust and unmovable defense. Brig. Gen. Lucius Polk noted the Union soldiers “continued to oblique rapidly to the left.” As a consequence, Polk continued to shift forces to his right to meet that ever-increasing threat. Quickly coming to Polk’s assistance were the soldiers of Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey’s brigade. Restored confidence of Polk’s pressed soldiers was renewed when Lowrey’s men took their place and unleashed a devastating fire on the surging Union lines. Consequently, “The enemy went down the ridge in great confusion” as Cleburne stated in his official report. Polk was so ecstatic at the timely arrival of Lowrey and his men that Polk gripped his fellow brigade commander’s hand in silent gratitude.[xix] As the Union soldiers drew back from the ridge’s crest, with Cleburne’s once-again splendid defense at Ringgold Gap, Dave Powell quantified, “This fight would not be a repeat of Missionary Ridge.”[xx]
Denied along the steep ridges that composed White Oak Mountain, Hooker now turned his attention in mid-morning to Cleburne’s left. Cleburne’s defense in depth, however, once again deprived the Union soldiers of any significant gains. Col. David Ireland of the 137th New York Infantry remembered how his regiment was under a murderous continuous “fire of musketry and artillery” from 10:40 am to noontime. Confederate Col. Daniel Govan recollected how the Union line “reeled and staggered and was finally driven back in confusion.” During this time the Union attacks remained without artillery support, making it even more challenging to make headway against Cleburne’s defenses. Soon, however, that changed as Hooker finally got his artillery up. Almost simultaneously with the Union artillery arriving, Cleburne received instructions that the Confederate trains were safe, through the gap, and he could withdraw.[xxi]
Once the Union artillery began targeting Cleburne’s forces, the enthusiasm of Union soldiers revived, many “wanted to rise up and cheer and charge.”[xxii] With Confederate counterfire receding, Union soldiers expected to meet Confederate fire as they scaled the . “There was a death like stillness,” remembered one soldier from the 26th Iowa Infantry, “in the ranks and bayonets were fixed, and we waited the coming storm.”[xxiii] However, Cleburne had quietly moved out, taking up a position “on some wooded hills one mile in rear.”[xxiv] As Union soldiers scaled the crest of the mountain, they could see the rear guard of Cleburne’s forces about a mile distant. They celebrated by planting the U.S. flag on top of the mountain. The question now was, would Union forces continue the pursuit? Grant’s arrival answered that question.
Arriving at the depot in Ringgold, Grant directed any pursuit be discontinued. He simply directed Hooker to conduct a reconnaissance “for the purpose of observation, and to convey to the enemy the impression that we were still after him” noted Hooker in his official report.[xxv] Adding to Grant’s reasoning, President Lincoln reminded him that Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio around Knoxville still needed attention, the pro-unionist part of East Tennessee that Lincoln continually emphasized to his trusty commander. Just a few days later, Union soldiers took to firing anything in Ringgold that was of any military value to the Confederacy, “mills, tanneries, manufactories, railroad buildings, and other structures.”[xxvi]
Remarkably, Cleburne’s division sustained 20 killed, 190 wounded, and 11 missing. On the other side, Hooker’s Union soldiers had over 500 casualties. But Cleburne’s men had performed well, and had allowed Bragg’s wagon trains to get safely through the gap and into Dalton, Georgia. This, of course, paved the way for Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s advance toward Atlanta beginning in May 1864. But Patrick Cleburne had saved Bragg both time and resources. As Dave Powell concluded, “For the Army of Tennessee, Ringgold Gap proved to be a small bright spark in a sea of otherwise unrelieved gloom.”[xxvii]
Col. (ret) Ed Lowe served 26 years on active duty in the U.S. Army with deployments to Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Haiti, Afghanistan (2002 & 2011), and Iraq (2008). He attended North Georgia College and has graduate degrees from California State University, U.S. Army War College, U.S. Command & General Staff College, and Webster’s University. He is an adjunct professor for the University of Maryland/Global Campus & Elizabethtown College, where he teaches history and government. He is currently working on two books for Savas Beatie. The first covers Longstreet’s First Corps from Gettysburg to East Tennessee, and the second is an Emerging Civil War Series book on Longstreet’s East Tennessee Campaign. He is married with two daughters and lives in Ooltewah, Tennessee. He serves as President of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga Civil War Round Table, reconstituted in September of 2020.
[i] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 Vols. (Washington, D.C, 1880-1901), Vol. 31, Series I, Pt 2, 666. All references are to Series 1 unless otherwise noted. Hereafter cited as OR 31/1:666.
[ii] Excerpt Irving Buck “Cleburne and His Command.” Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (CCNMP); Craig L. Symonds, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & The Civil War (Lawrence, Kansas, 1997), 170-171; Wiley Sword, Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863 (New York, 1995), 334.
[iii] OR 31/II, 321.
[iv] Symonds, Stonewall of the West, 171; Buck, “Cleburne and His Command,” 189.
[v] OR 31/II, 754.
[vi] Diary of John Henry Smith, Co. H, 33rd Alabama, Regimental files, CCNMP.
[vii] OR 31/II, 754.
[viii] “The Battle of Ringgold” Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1863. CCNMP.
[ix] David P. Powell, All Hell Can’t Stop Them: The battles for Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge and Ringgold, November 24-27, 1863 (El Dorado, CA, 2018), 99.
[x] WM.P. Carlin, “Military Memoirs: Pursuit of the Rebels After Mission, Ridge.” The National Tribune, May 21, 1885. CCNMP.
[xi] Symonds, Stonewall of the West, 172-173.
[xii] Excerpt, Memoirs of Philip Daingerfield Stephenson, CCNMP, 145; OR 31/II, 755.
[xiii] OR 31/II, 321, 603.
[xiv] Bevens, William E. Reminiscences of a Private, 1st Arkansas Infantry. Excerpt found at CCNMP (Fayetteville, NC, 1992), 147-149.
[xv] OR 31/II, 765.
[xvi] Symonds, Stonewall of the West, 173; OR 31/II, 765.
[xvii] OR 31/II, 414, 616-617.
[xviii] OR 31/II, 604.
[xix] Symonds, Stonewall of the West, 173-174.
[xx] Powell, All Hell Can’t Stop Them, 102.
[xxi] OR 31/II, 438, 763.
[xxii] OR 31/II, 438.
[xxiii] Civil War Memoirs of William Royal Oake, 26th Iowa Volunteers. CCNMP.
[xxiv] OR, 31/II, 757.
[xxv] OR, 31/II, 322-323.
[xxvi] In Memoriam Henry Warner Slocum, 1826-1894. CCNMP.
[xxvii] Powell, All Hell Can’t Stop Them, 105.