From: Los Angeles
150 Years Ago Today:
It could be argued that the successes of the previous two days meant that it was only a matter of time before Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee had to fall back from Chattanooga. But Grant was never happy to wait it out, and Washington was still nearly frantic over the situation of Ambrose Burnside and his force:
The next day the President replied: "Your dispatches as to fighting on Monday and Tuesday are here. Well done. Many thanks to all. Remember Burnside." And Halleck also telegraphed: "I congratulate you on the success thus far of your plans. I fear that Burnside is hard pushed, and that any further delay may prove fatal. I know you will do all in your power to relieve him."
--The Personal Memoirs of General U. S. Grant
Both Grant and Bragg believed that the Southern position along Missionary Ridge was impregnable to direct assault. Therefore, Grant's plan was to roll up both flanks, with Sherman's corps going to the Confederate right, and Hooker's troops from the Army of the Potomac hitting the left. The Army of the Cumberland, commanded by George Thomas, would make a careful attack on the center to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the flanks, but would not press its assault.
The attack on the Confederate right quickly ran into trouble. There was another slope crowned by defensive entrenchments to be overcome. And this one was defended by a division commanded by Patrick Cleburne, very likely the best division in Bragg's army. Sherman's men tried several assaults, but were driven back with heavy losses. And here the Army of the Cumberland's part in the center failed, for reinforcements were pulled from Missionary Ridge to hold the Yankees back. Especially, the Rebels wheeled up artillery and began pounding the Federal infantry.
Meanwhile, Hooker and his force were encountering slow going, not from Confederate resistance, but from natural obstacles. The line of advance had to cross Chattanooga Creek, and the one bridge usable for an army had been burned. The Yankee engineers improvised a replacement, but found it would take too long to reinforce it to the point where it could bear the weight of cannons. Hooker decided to advance with just infantry:
Hooker . . . was detained four hours crossing Chattanooga Creek, and thus was lost the immediate advantage I expected from his forces. His reaching Bragg's flank and extending across it was to be the signal for Thomas's assault of the ridge. But Sherman's condition was getting so critical that the assault for his relief could not be delayed any longer.
I now directed Thomas to order the charge at once. I watched eagerly to see the effect, and became impatient at last that there was no indication of any charge being made. The centre of the line which was to make the charge was near where Thomas and I stood, but concealed from view by an intervening forest. Turning to Thomas to inquire what caused the delay, I was surprised to see Thomas J. Wood, one of the division commanders who was to make the charge, standing talking to him. I spoke to General Wood, asking him why he did not charge as ordered an hour before. He replied very promptly that this was the first he had heard of it, but that he had been ready all day to move at a moment's notice. I told him to make the charge at once. He was off in a moment, and in an incredibly short time loud cheering was heard, and he and Sheridan were driving the enemy's advance before them towards Missionary Ridge. The Confederates were strongly intrenched on the crest of the ridge in front of us, and had a second line half-way down and another at the base. Our men drove the troops in front of the lower line of rifle-pits so rapidly, and followed them so closely, that rebel and Union troops went over the first line of works almost at the same time. Many rebels were captured and sent to the rear under the fire of their own friends higher up the hill. Those that were not captured retreated, and were pursued. The retreating hordes being between friends and pursuers caused the enemy to fire high to avoid killing their own men. In fact, on that occasion the Union soldier nearest the enemy was in the safest position. Without awaiting further orders or stopping to reform, on our troops went to the second line of works; over that and on for the crest...
--The Personal Memoirs of General U. S. Grant
Grant had not intended that the advance go all the way to the top of Missionary Ridge. In fact, he asked Thomas sharply who had given the orders. "I don't know," Thomas replied, "I did not." But Grant decided not to issue a recall. The soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland had chafed under having to be rescued from a siege, and being assigned a secondary role in the battle. Now, they were determined to wipe out their previous defeat, and cries of "Chickamauga! Chickamauga!" rang out as they went up the slopes.
And now the problem of the geographic crest versus the "military" crest become very real and practical. From their unwisely placed entrenchments, the Rebels could not bring their full firepower against the Federals heading towards them. In minutes a stream of Northern soldiers poured over the top of the ridge, and the outnumbered Confederates broke and ran. The entire center of Bragg's army gave way, and about then Hooker's attack on their left flank began in earnest as well.
From this position, the only alternative to destruction was retreat, and the Southerners knew they would have to fall back for miles before they could make a stand. (Eventually they would go 30 miles or 48 km.) That meant abandoning both their headquarters and their main supply depot. The orders went out to burn the depot, and those orders meant the end of Braxton Bragg's command of the army.
When we arrived at Chickamauga Station, our brigade and General Lucius E. Polk's brigade, of Cleburne's division, were left to set fire to the town and to burn up and destroy all those immense piles of army stores and provisions which had been accumulated there to starve the Yankees out of Chattanooga. Great piles of corn in sacks, and bacon, and crackers, and molasses, and sugar, and coffee, and rice, and potatoes, and onions, and peas, and flour by the hundreds of barrels, all now to be given to the flames, while for months the Rebel soldiers had been stinted and starved for the want of these same provisions. It was enough to make the bravest and most patriotic soul that ever fired a gun in defense of any cause on earth, think of rebelling against the authorities as they then were. Every private soldier knew these stores were there, and for the want of them we lost our cause. Reader, I ask you who you think was to blame? Most of our army had already passed through hungry and disheartened, and here were all these stores that had to be destroyed. Before setting fire to the town, every soldier in Maney's and Polk's brigades loaded himself down with rations. It was a laughable looking rear guard of a routed and retreating army. Every one of us had cut open the end of a corn sack, emptied out the corn, and filled it with hard-tack, and, besides, every one of us had a side of bacon hung to our bayonets on our guns. Our canteens, and clothes, and faces, and hair were all gummed up with molasses. Such is the picture of our rear guard.
--Sam R. Watkins, "Co. Aytch" Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regiment
Both the officers and men under Bragg had resented his authoritarian style, but had been willing to follow his orders as long as he seemed to know what he was doing. As the word spread of the tremendous waste, that opinion changed. The Army of Tennessee would never again believe in the competence of Braxton Bragg.
Over the three days of fighting, the Union had sustained 5,824 casualties (753 killed, 4,722 wounded, 349 missing), while the Confederates lost 6,667 (361 killed, 2,160 wounded, 4,146 prisoners or missing). Though the losses indicate only a minor advantage for the North, strategically the battles were a decisive victory. The rail and river lines to Chattanooga were now clear to build a stockpile of supplies and a mass of troops, and the gateway to Georgia was open. First, however, there was the matter of Burnside's force at Knoxville.
Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com
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