Historically Speaking: Missionary Ridge at 150

By Brown, John S. | Army, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Historically Speaking: Missionary Ridge at 150


Brown, John S., Army


November 25 marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Battle of Missionary Ridge, the climactic event in the hard-fought Chattanooga Campaign. July's "Historically Speaking" flagged up the course and significance of the Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns. As fate would have it, on July 4, 1863-the very day that Confederate GEN Robert E. Lee retreated from Gettysburg and Confederate LTG John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg-Confederate GEN Braxton Bragg retired to Chattanooga, Tenn., after having been outmaneuvered by Union MG William S. Rosecrans in the Tullahoma Campaign. Chattanooga was a vital river port and railroad junction athwart lines of communication running east to west and north to south. In Union hands, it would turn the Allegheny Mountains into a barrier and open the gates into Georgia and beyond.

MG Rosecrans' victory in the Tullahoma Campaign through central Tennessee was convincing but hardly flawless. It was marred by excessive periods of delay and procrastination between occasional bouts of movement and activity. After forcing GEN Bragg to withdraw from the Battle of Stones River, as discussed in January's "Historically Speaking," Rosecrans found one excuse after another not to advance until June 26, despite repeated admonitions to do so from Washington, D.C. Then, in nine days of artful maneuvering, Rosecrans turned Bragg's positions three times and sped more than 80 miles to the Tennessee River. Rosecrans followed these exploits by lapsing into another six weeks of preparation, procrastination and fulmination.

When MG Rosecrans did move in early September, he skillfully brought his Army of the Cumberland across the Tennessee River downstream from Chattanooga and turned on a broad front to threaten GEN Bragg's lines of communication to the south. Bragg withdrew from Chattanooga and concentrated 20 miles farther south for a counterblow. Opportunity presented itself to Bragg when Rosecrans sent one corps into Chattanooga and forced the other two through passes 20 miles apart crossing the formidable spine of Lookout Mountain. Confederate deception had convinced Rosecrans that Bragg was in full retreat, and he pressed his widely separated subordinates to speed ahead with minimal reconnaissance and gaping holes in their cavalry screen. Bragg fumbled two opportunities to pick offfragments of Rosecrans' army, then concentrated to attack at Chickamauga, Ga., with a considerable advantage.

Fighting along West Chickamauga Creek on September 19 was confused and bloody as Bragg forced his way across, Rosecrans hustled in reinforcements, and units from both sides lost orientation in the heavily wooded terrain. Fighting on September 20 was dominated by the success of troops under the command of Confederate LTG James Longstreet, who had brought in a reinforcing corps by rail from Virginia in a brilliant strategic movement. Benefiting from Rosecrans' desperate shuffling to meet attacks elsewhere, Longstreet struck the flanks of three divisions marching in column, sweeping them away. Rosecrans and two of his corps commanders, convinced that the battle was lost, leftthe field, leaving orders to follow. MG George H. Thomas, commander, XIV Corps, gathered as many remaining Union soldiers as he could, stemmed the rout and averted Union disaster. His gallant defense through the rest of the day earned him the nickname the "Rock of Chickamauga." That night, Thomas brought out his embattled forces in good order.

Defeated and now defeatist, Rosecrans withdrew into Chattanooga. Flush with success, Bragg invested him there, effectively securing the surrounding high ground of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Siege conditions prevailed. The supply situation became problematic, then desperate. Artillery horses starved. Union troops, on minimal rations, became listless and discouraged. President Abraham Lincoln intervened. In search of energy and unified effort, he appointed MG Ulysses S. Grant as overall commander between the Mississippi River and the Alleghenies. …

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