“The Battle of Missionary Ridge is one of those odd pages in Civil War history that should be required reading in every classroom, but tends to end up a minor footnote because it’s just too awesome.”
–Jacopo della Quercia, “The 10 Greatest Uses of Trash Talk in the History of War” (Cracked, 5 September 2011)
On this day in 1863, the United States Army—mainly George Thomas’s beleaguered Army of the Cumberland, with elements of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee—assaulted the heights of Missionary Ridge during the American Civil War’s three-day Chattanooga Campaign, overcoming sustained Confederate fire to drive Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee back from the ridge and into Georgia, thereby setting the stage for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea.
The Army of the Cumberland had been effectively besieged in Chattanooga since their disastrous defeat at Chickamauga in September, and morale had plummeted before their partial relief by Ulysses S. Grant, his own troops flush with victory after their historic triumph at Vicksburg in July. Grant replaced their disgraced former commander, William Rosecrans, with Thomas, the Unionist Virginian and “Rock of Chickamauga” whose conduct during said battle had been one of its only silver linings for the Union. Despite the replacement, Grant still viewed the army (and Thomas) with suspicion and planned to use the Army of the Tennessee in a primary role during the battle, flanking Bragg on either side of Missionary Ridge as the Army of the Cumberland held their fire in the center.
The Rock of Chickamauga.
As so often in Civil War historiography and myth, there are a number of different explanations for what happened next. Whether it was a garbled order, a fit of pique from Philip Sheridan, commanding a brigade—hence Cracked’s take—or simply the Army of the Cumberland’s wounded pride, the Army began slogging their way up the hill much to Grant’s—and the Confederates’—surprise, taking inch by inch of ground under heavy fire until they were in a position to directly engage with the rebel troops at the top of the ridge (including my great-great-granduncle Robert W. Pitman, in command of the 13th Tennessee Infantry). By the end of the day, Bragg’s troops were in exhausted retreat. Grant soon left in the wake of the victory for Washington to take the initiative in the east against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, with Sherman taking charge of the Army of the Tennessee for his fateful March to the Sea.
Thomas—whose lack of statues in the South (let alone those of, say, Harriet Tubman or Andre Cailloux) belie any horseshit claims about “Southern heritage”—remained in Tennessee to protect Sherman’s rear (in eventually spectacular fashion the next year at Franklin and Nashville), but saw his troops redeem their reputation (though at the cost, apparently, of Grant’s continued distrust), and many of their commanders followed suit. One of the more colorful Union brigadiers, August Willich—a Prussian aristocrat and “Forty-Eighter” exile who had been an associate, rival, and attempted duelist of Karl Marx—could barely contain himself on ascending the ridge, exclaiming “ach, boys, you kills me vit joy!” The incident and a number of others can be found in Wiley Sword’s (his real name) excellent book on the campaign, 1997’s Mountains Touched With Fire.
I was born exactly 111 years later. Happy Monday!