» Orchard Knob
Retracing the route to Lookout Mountain back down into Chattanooga’s south side, the tour continues east along Main Street. Once a hallowed-out industrial zone, re-development and re-imagination have come to this area. Life now breathes from its once dead-and-abandoned rows of warehouse spaces. Continuing east, it is solidly residential by the time you arrive at the side-street leading north to Orchard Knob, an abrupt hill that is one of the key reservations of the Chattanooga NMP. The immediate area was a woods-studded plain on the outskirts of a small, if strategic transportation hub in 1863. The modern-day incarnation is a series of working-class neighborhoods, the houses surrounding Orchard Knob’s square plot mostly early 20th century. Not even a mile to the east, the spine-like Missionary Ridge runs across the entire view.
* * *
On November 23, 1863, the eager U.S. Army of the Cumberland took their first step towards restoring a reputation destroyed by their crushing defeat at Chickamauga. Grant ordered their new commander, George Henry Thomas, to advance and secure the strategic Orchard Knob about halfway between the Union trenches surrounding what was then the small footprint of the city’s downtown and the Confederate-held Missionary Ridge. Thomas, a Virginian having sided with the Union cause, had earned the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga” after leading a defense of the left of the otherwise routed Union line on the final day of that battle, the only sector to hold. Anchoring this northern-most position in an arc around a rise called Snodgrass Hill, the men under Thomas’ command repelled countless furious assaults throughout that bloody afternoon. This, in turn, allowed retreating comrades to escape and in the process saved the army from complete destruction. Thomas, commanding a corps at Chickamauga, had soon after been promoted to lead The Army of the Cumberland outright. His reputation amongst the men of his army was not a question. But to Grant—having fought the entire war to date on the far-west / Mississippi River side of the theatre—Thomas and his command were still an unknown quantity, their fighting worth yet to be proven.
The Cumberland ranks were ordered forward in force on November 23, engaging an advanced line of C.S. defenders around Orchard Knob. In what was described as a short “spirited” fight, the Confederates offered stiff resistance, but ultimately fell back into rifle pits lining the base of Missionary Ridge. The desired elevation taken, Grant now had a position from which to direct the assault everyone knew was coming. The Union forces were set to move on Missionary Ridge, the last Confederate stronghold surrounding Chattanooga.
By the morning of November 25, 1863, the tide had turned. And as the Stars and Stripes flew triumphantly atop Lookout Mountain, the next in a long line of characters was introduced into the fight for Chattanooga. With Grant’s ascension to theatre command in the west, William Tecumseh Sherman was an easy choice for him to make in promoting a replacement. And right then, Sherman was on hand at the helm of The U.S. Army of the Tennessee preparing to bring this proven fighting force to bear.
* * *
Orchard Knob is one of my very favorite Civil War sites, resting as it does in the midst of actual neighborhoods, commercial districts and Americans going about their days. The actual hill—the most significant rise between the city and the ridge on what is mainly a low valley plain—is now surrounded by residential streets. And though its walls and the few gates that lead to cracked and uneven walking paths all show the wear of years, the memorial-studded grounds speak directly to the past in our midst: a country and a culture forever on the move, yet with historical milestones within view wherever and whenever one takes the time to look … At the apex of Orchard Knob sites the centerpiece of the memorials spread around the entire several-acre plot: the Illinois monument. It is a walk-though structure listing all units from Lincoln’s home state who fought for The Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga. It is flanked by cannon (the knob itself a key artillery position during the battle). All of these guns are aimed towards the east, Missionary Ridge still carrying the look of being dominant and unconquerable.
* * *
Orchard Knob would be Grant’s HQ for the Union assault set to go at Missionary Ridge. With Lookout now under U.S. control, Grant put a “pincer” strategy in motion: The assaulting forces were to break each flank of the Confederate line then set atop the 800 foot high ridge, making the center of that line untenable and forcing the Confederates to retreat. To do this, Hooker’s force would move east from Lookout across its valley and assault the far left of the C.S. line on the ridge, while Sherman’s forces from The Army of the Tennessee would go against the north-end, or far right of the C.S. line. Thomas was to stand in position before Orchard Knob, aligned against the very center of Bragg’s defenses atop the ridge. If Hooker could break the weak C.S. left, and Thomas’s men could perform a convincing “demonstration” against its center so as to lock up reinforcements that could be sent off to shore up the C.S. right, Sherman should have an “easy go” up the ridge in route to flanking the Confederate defenses to the east. But the right flank of the Confederate line would have nothing of this plan. Both Grant and Sherman had grown accustomed to success and the ability of their fighting men to carry out their plans. But as the day progressed, this plan was upset by a soldier either had yet to encounter in the war: Patrick Cleburne, a man many called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West.”
In descending Orchard Knob on its west-face, you can see the National Cemetery spread out in a grand solemn way along Holtzclaw Avenue to the immediate southwest. It is said that prior to the battles on the afternoon of November 25, 1863, George Thomas had taken a long look at the acreage, then just an open rolling rise. Knowing of the casualties to come, he claimed it would make for a good burying ground. When a staff member asked if the dead were to be laid out in plots by state, Thomas is said to have replied: “No, mix them up. I’m tired of states’ rights.”
» Tunnel Hill
A series of surface-streets—East 3rd-to-Dodson-to-Glass—heads the tour north x northeast from Orchard Knob and up to a series of hills sloping down to the Tennessee River. This is the north-end of Missionary Ridge. Passing by the small and all but forgotten 73rd Pennsylvania NMP parcel, the tour-route winds around onto the ridge’s end, pulling off the main Crest Road (which runs the entire spine of Missionary Ridge to the state lines of Tennessee and Georgia) and up to the sizable Sherman Reservation. This was known during the Civil War era as Tunnel Hill for a railroad tunnel having once run under the mentioned hills. On the kind of cool clear days in November that have synced with my many tours—the gild of low-tracking autumn sunlight, cloud-layers spanning deep cyan skies and all of it accentuating the gentle roll of terrain—the probability of ideal photographic conditions is next to certain. Since my very first visit in 1993, one view in particular has captured my eye. It is of a hook-limbed aging oak, a 12-pounder brass Napoleon (a Civil War artillery standard) displayed at its base, the abrupt ledge of Lookout Mountain visible in the distance. Capturing this view and the subtle changes that occur year-to-year is my first stop each time I visit Tunnel Hill.
* * *
Grant had planned Sherman’s assault to begin at daybreak on the 25th. So, Grant grew more and more frustrated as the morning passed and Sherman’s sector remained silent. Unknown to Grant, Sherman had had major problems deploying his troops due to the difficult hilly terrain. But by 10 a.m., Sherman, somewhat nonchalantly, decided it was time to go in.
The attack began with a single brigade, which was aimed for a salient in Cleburne’s defenses atop the north side of Tunnel Hill. Cleburne’s men were greatly outnumbered on this day. Some accounts put the disparity at 4-or-5 to 1. But the extreme Confederate right flank would have several advantages in its favor: the difficult terrain over which the attackers had to advance and the piece-meal nature of the attacking waves. The latter would rob Sherman of his numerical superiority and allow Cleburne’s men to mass their strength and defeat the separate attacks in detail. It all began with the mentioned vanguard U.S. brigade marching up the north slope of the hill and directly into the boiling volleys of Confederates in the salient, Texans mostly. The Union attack faltered at first, but then stabilized, and continued up the hill. They got to within 50 paces of the C.S. works—located in a ring around the highest point of the actual Sherman Reservation parcel—before the Texans answered this contemptuous act of courage by leaping from their breastworks and charging. This broke the first U.S. assault. But another brigade had moved up in support and the Texans were just as quickly pushed back into their salient. This second Union wave got even closer, a few even reaching the salient before dying there. Once again, the Texans poured over their works and charged the assaulting columns. A fierce hand-to-hand struggle erupted. The Union attackers wavered, but then solidified—the two sides settling down in place.
The fighting wrapped around the west side of the hill along the general trace of the entrance road into the reservation (which has been closed since the late ‘90s). A Union brigade moved up under a pounding artillery barrage, reaching only the foot of the hill before reeling for cover. Another brigade moved up on their left. A particularly determined Illinois regiment pushed part-way up the slope before being pinned down in a deadly crossfire from a regiment of Arkansans defending the C.S. line. Cleburne’s men were soon raining deadly fire down upon this U.S. lodgment and another stalemate ensued … By 2 p.m., it seemed increasingly clear that these assaults were bound to fail in their objective to drive up over and beyond The C.S. Army of Tennessee’s right flank. Given the stiff casualties already suffered, Sherman was growing skeptical of continuing on. Grant thought otherwise, angered at this failure to crush the C.S. flank. But the frustrated strategizing of Union generals would be no match for one general in particular, Cleburne using the advantage of terrain and initiative to full effect on this day.
The fight for Tunnel Hill had resolved on a bloody stalemate by mid-afternoon of November 25, 1863. The Confederates brought what little reinforcements they had to bear and pinned Union troops in their stalled positions on the north, northwest and west sides of the hill. Sherman could now see that he had miscalculated the force of the initial assaults on the salient. He had significant reinforcements at his disposal and throwing them forward might have broken the line atop the hill. But the casualties for any attacking force would have been galling, as evident by those having already attacked. It would have also required perfect timing to pull it off over uncooperative rolling terrain, the very terrain that Cleburne had been sharp to leverage to his own advantage—having out-generaled his adversary despite the lopsided numbers.
Seeing that the Union thrust had completely stalled before the Confederate salient on the north side, Cleburne, at the urging of keen subordinates, shifted his attention to that west face. The Union troops there had been reinforced, their strength now at 3 brigades; but the integrity of this line was failing. In a moment of extreme—if mad—bravery, a group of Iowans decided not to retire but charge up the hill. They did press the Confederates to their front only to realize their poorly timed bravado, two regiments of Georgians having filed down through a concealed fold in the hill and having emerged on their left. Seeing this, the Confederates charged. Sensing the kill, Cleburne emphatically ordered a concerted charge along the west slope. Cleburne’s men poured from their works in a wave. The Iowans and most of the rest of this attacking force on the west-face was overwhelmed. Savage hand-to-hand fighting ensued and two-of-the-three U.S. brigades were dislodged. The final U.S. brigade on the far right of Sherman’s attack force, the first one to reach the hill, was forced to hastily evacuate their position as a result.
The element of surprise had made the attack, some enterprising Mississippians having snuck through the actual railroad tunnel to get in behind the panicked Union retreat. Those elements of Sherman’s attack that had advanced far up the north side of the hill towards the salient stuck precariously to their positions. But the hill—and the fight for it—belonged to Cleburne and his Confederates.
Sherman sent Grant a report, updating his commander of the grim situation. Grant’s terse reply was: “attack again.” Dutifully, Sherman sent a half-brigade up the hill and watched on as it was decimated, its survivors sent reeling. With this, Sherman called off any further attacks and ordered his troops to entrench wherever they were.
There would be no more fighting on Tunnel Hill, Cleburne and his men having held. But as the sounds of battle grew quiet along this north end of Missionary Ridge, it gave way to the horrible cries and moans of the wounded and dying—a dark chorus soon overshadowed by the din of battle to the south.
» Missionary Ridge
From Tunnel Hill, the tour turns south onto the main unbroken stretch of the ridge itself. Lining its spine, Crest Road runs along at a modest height. Though the road never rises higher than three hundred yards, it is nonetheless a spectacular drive. All views drop off dramatically to the west in revealing the city of Chattanooga. From here it is obvious that despite the low height, it is a commanding position …
The Civil War history is also obvious at all points, the road lined by the heavy aluminum turn-of-the-(20th)-century troop marker plaques indicative of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga NMP—our first National Military Park. There are a number of reservations and stops along the way that go a level deeper in interpreting the epic afternoon of November 25, 1863. The first is the monument to U.S. Colonel Edward Phelps. It is precarious, resting as it does atop a sheer cliff; Phelps, commanding a unit on the far left of the assaulting column, having been killed at that spot. He is believed to be one of the first Cumberlanders to reach the crest. Next is the De Long Reservation and its monument to the 2nd Minnesota, one of the first full regiments to reach the crest. Over the years, I have discovered that the steep wooded inclines before this plot provides perhaps the best modern-day example of the formidable terrain that the impromptu Union assault would have to traverse. The third stop marks the point where John Turchin’s mostly Ohio brigade swarmed up and over a Confederate battery, putting its crew and the supporting infantry to flight—a scene repeated all along the route where the Crest Road now runs. Just beyond the Turchin Reservation and on the way to the striking martial monument dedicated to the Cumberland’s Ohioans (having played an integral role in the storming of the ridge), lay some of the more memorable views of Lookout Mountain across the valley—Orchard Knob also visible, if difficult to pick out within the neighborhood surrounding it … On that late-afternoon in 1863, this scene would have looked down at 20,000 Union troops moving with menacing resolve towards the abrupt slopes falling away into the valley below.
* * *
Grant’s plan was not coming off as it had been planned. Hooker’s command, having begun their move into the valley between Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge at about 10 a.m., had literally bogged down in the swamps there. Further, bridges crossing the creek in the valley had been burned by the retreating Confederates and constructing replacements took considerable time and effort.
By early afternoon, Hooker had finally gotten his force to their objective, the Rossville Gap in Missionary Ridge (a natural pass straddling the Tennessee-Georgia border), and was beginning to move north along the ridge against the weak Confederate left flank commanded by a one-time vice-president of the United States, C.S. General John C. Breckenridge. But despite this success, Hooker was far behind schedule. With Sherman’s futile attacks on Tunnel Hill having gained nothing and the late-year daylight waning, Grant was unable to wait on Hooker any longer. He ordered George Thomas to send his army forward. It was just past 4 p.m. and The Army of the Cumberland’s “demonstration” was about to begin.
Thomas sent word to his commanders, some more prompt in carrying out the order’s relay than others; the usually capable Corps commander Gordon Granger having received a harsh rebuke from both Grant and Thomas for his lack of alacrity, having been seen sighting artillery fire instead of seeing to his columns. But once word reached the men, by all accounts their alignment was sharp. A soldier in the ranks later said: “we were crazy to charge!”
For The U.S. Army of the Cumberland, here was an opportunity to atone for the disaster at Chickamauga, put to rest the continued slights of Grant and prove they could whip anyone before them. The four divisions of Baird, Wood, Sheridan and Johnson were aligned from north to south (left to right) before Missionary Ridge. Their line extended over 2 miles, the stated objective: occupy The C.S. Army of Tennessee’s center lined up along the spine of the ridge and keep Bragg from reinforcing either flank of his line. By doing this, they would allow time for Sherman and Hooker to complete their pincer attacks and rout either flank.
The Cumberlanders moved out towards their first objective: a line of thinly-held Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge and in advance of the main line atop the ridge; orders that would soon enough prove unclear to the field commanders in the four divisions then moving forward, leaving ample room for interpretation of the ‘real’ objective.
Their march forward was described by Union and Confederates alike as a near parade-ground formation: an impressive spectacle that this terrible war had not seen on that scale before. At 20,000 men, the better part of an army, it may have been the largest mass advance of the war—larger than both Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and Hood’s assault at Franklin (Tennessee), and on par with Hancock’s massive stacked assault at The Battle of Spotsylvania in Virginia the following year.
The pageantry was short-lived. Artillery rounds began to land in and amongst the marching troops. Their pace was set to “double-quick,” some breaking into a flat out run. As U.S. guns began to duel with the C.S. batteries atop the ridge, the whole thing began to intensify. It was about a mile from the kick-off point to the base of the ridge. Baird’s division (including Colonel Phelps) on the far left was the first to cover it. Confederates skirmishers all along the rifle pits line at the base of the ridge had been ordered to fire a volley and backtrack up the slope to the main line at the ridge-crest. And as Wood’s division came up on Baird’s right, and Sheridan’s men soon thereafter on Wood’s right to the south, the thin line of Confederates pulling out of the rifle pits before them seemed to be retreating not in an orderly way, but in a wild panic. (Johnson’s division farther south would have trouble traversing a heavily-thicketed area and was unable to keep pace with the main assault, coming up on the ridge last.) The order to fire and withdraw, having been given by C.S. commander Bragg himself and of militarily sound strategy, was simply “stirring the blood” and determination of the Cumberland soldiers.
It was at this point that Union field commanders, from division-level down, began to question their orders: Were they to take the rifle pits at the base of the ridge, or those at the top? Word was sent back to clarify the order as a hail of Confederate bullets began peppering the exposed Union ranks then crowding into the abandoned rifle pits. As this excruciating wait for word continued, the death toll began to mount. To stay in the rifle pits was suicidal, soldiers dying by the heap for no viable gain. The ranks watched what they deemed to be an enemy retreating madly before them; and yet were compelled to wait like sitting ducks. A survivalist instinct began to take hold: Keep moving or be killed. Individuals then squads then whole companies took matters into their own hands and began pushing up the ridge. It was infectious, the whole line feeding off this redemptive energy. An all-out unordered charge quickly gathered steam. Regiment-by-regiment, brigade-by-brigade, the Cumberland soldiers began surging up the steep forested slopes of Missionary Ridge. The soldiers were to decide this day.
* * *
In the vicinity where modern-day Main Street begins to ascend the ridge, U.S. General Phillip Sheridan watched on with astonishment that late-afternoon as the spirit of this impromptu assault caught like wildfire. His division, of its own accord, was pushing up the ridge. Sheridan dismounted, his blood rising as he watched hundreds, then thousands of his men charge up the steep slope towards the bristling Confederate line atop it. Whatever the actual orders, he sensed right then that his men could take the ridge. Sheridan decided against ordering his men back and instead borrowed a flask from a nearby officer. He hoisted it in a mock toast to a group of Confederate officers visible atop the ridge and took his drink. A C.S. battery having sighted Sheridan’s taunt, aimed and fired down at his group. The shell burst near enough to shower Sheridan with dirt. As it has come down, he proclaimed: “That was ungenerous! I will take those guns for that!” Within the half-hour, he would indeed claim those guns.
» The Bragg Reservation
Beyond the Ohio Reservation and its monument, Crest Road continues on to the final tour stop just south of the cut I-24 makes in the ridge. Following the drive up from Atlanta, most of my tours have begun by entering Chattanooga through that very same cut. This final stop at the Bragg Reservation completes the circle. Given that it usually coincides with late-afternoons in November, daylight receding to a pixelated dusk, I am more often than not granted the bonus of a sunset pouring through the ridge’s tree line and beyond the city to the west.
* * *
Down on Orchard Knob, Grant peered through his binoculars in astonishment at the scene of blue-clad men rapidly ascending Missionary Ridge late on the afternoon of November 25, 1863. What seemed an isolated event had spread into an all-out charge, as individual regiments and then whole brigades swarmed up the slopes of the ridge. Grant turned to Thomas and then to Granger, demanding to know who had ordered those men forward. But both commanding generals stood by as dumbfounded as Grant, all those watching from Orchard Knob in disbelief as this improbable assault over impossible terrain gained momentum. The fight was beyond Grant’s control and he knew it; which is almost certainly why he decided to let it play out. He backed off an order to recall the men then clawing and huffing their way up the ridge and instead made it clear that if this spontaneous attack failed, heads would roll.
But there was no hint of failure. The charge was only gaining steam and inciting alarm down the length of the Confederate line atop the ridge—a position the defenders had long thought impregnable. It was only now becoming obvious that Confederate engineers had positioned their works poorly—at the very crest of the ridge—as opposed to further down the slope where a wider field of fire could have been established (what is referred to as the “military crest”). Add to it, the Southerners on the crest were still continuing to hold back from an all-out fire against the assault for fear of shooting their own comrades. Still racing frantically up the hill from the advanced rifle pit lines at the base of Missionary Ridge, many were only a few dozen paces ahead of the attackers.
Confederate artillery had not waited and had begun to open up with canister (its charges when fired like that of a giant sawed-off shotgun). Some C.S. artillerymen lit the fuses of cannonballs and rolled them down the slopes at the oncoming Union attackers then scratching and crawling over boulders and rock outcrops, weaving inclines and thick underbrush. But nothing seemed to slow the incline charging Cumberlanders. The Confederates began to chant: “Chickamauga, Chickamauga,” in the hopes the very mention of that stinging disaster would be demoralizing enough to halt this improbable attack. But if anything, it had the opposite effect.
Groups of Union soldiers began to reach the crest. The first to the top were from Baird’s and Wood’s divisions on the left. As they gained the crest, they plunged into the Confederate lines causing a ripple-effect disruption that sped its way down the length of the ridge defenses. The fighting was thick bloody work and often hand-to-hand; but the C.S. line as a whole began to waver, whole regiments soon melting before the wild adrenalized (if exhausted) waves of Union troops. U.S. regimental and national banners began crowding the crest of Missionary Ridge, as thousands of blue-clad soldiers pulled themselves to the top screaming and firing and yelling and continuing the fight. Many Confederates defenders threw down their arms and ran. The panic spread; and in an instant, the scene turned into a chaotic rout of the entire C.S. line atop the ridge. Staunch Southern units held fast; but most broke and ran, often having to flee past saber-wielding commanders desperately—and unsuccessfully—attempting to stave off a complete collapse.
Nearly the whole of Sheridan’s division had emerged in and around the area now preserved by the Bragg Reservation (which marks the site of Bragg’s HQ during the battle, the commander himself having narrowly avoided capture). Sheridan, sensing the kill, dispatched a wing of his command to pursue Bragg’s reeling disjointed forces. They would collect Confederate artillery pieces by the dozen and prisoners by the thousand. Johnson’s division, having finally come up the ridge, advanced in force on the broken left flank of the Confederates then retreating before Hooker’s forces—the pincer to the south move having finally closed in.
And as this bitter cold day gave way to dusk, a new line stood atop Missionary Ridge. A mass of demoralized men fleeing to the east was all that remained of the Confederate force that had held this city under siege for over two months. The Battles for Chattanooga were over.
Within a half hour’s time, the improvised Cumberland charge had swept up and over the ridge, the victorious troops rejoicing, madly. An emphatic Granger, having watched on from Orchard Knob as the men put Grant’s worries to rest, rode over to the ridge crest and was seen yelling in jest: “I’m going to have you all court-martialed! You have disobeyed orders and taken the enemy’s works at the top, not the base of the ridge!” Sheridan was seen riding, as if a horse, one of the cannon he proclaimed he would make his own, men of all ranks cheering and dancing about in triumph … “a great victory cry sweeping the ridge as the Federals realized what they’d done.” Here was vindication for The U.S. Army of the Cumberland, their troubled (mostly unlucky) past having been redeemed on November 25, 1863.
In the rout’s aftermath, a disbelieving Patrick Cleburne began the extrication of his stout force from their successfully defended lines on and around Tunnel Hill. They filed into the retreat as the rear-guard for the broken C.S. Army of Tennessee. Two days later, this division would tap their own anger and decimate a Union force in pursuit at Ringgold Gap in north Georgia. But this would prove a footnote.
Fighting in this region of the western theatre came to a close for the year. Both sides settled into winter encampments knowing full well that with the spring would come renewed fighting, killing and dying.
The Shipwreck of their Hopes, by Peter Cozzens (University of Illinois Press)
Storming of the Gateway, by Fairfax Downey (McKay Publishing Co.)
The Fight for Chattanooga, The Civil War Time-Life Series
Chattanooga, “Voices of the Civil War” Time-Life Series
The Battle for Chattanooga, Eastern Acorn Press / NMP Publication
This Hallowed Ground, by Bruce Catton (Simon & Schuster)
The Civil War, A Narrative (Vol. 2), by Shelby Foote (Vintage-Random House)
The Army of Tennessee, by Stanley Horn (University of Oklahoma)
Autumn of Glory (The Army of Tennessee), by Thomas Connelly
Nothing But Victory (The Army of the Tennessee), by Steven Woodworth
This Grand Spectacle, by Steven Woodworth