The Battle of Missionary Ridge: Tunnel Hill

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series The Chattanooga Campaign

The Battle of

Missionary Ridge:

Tunnel Hill

The earlier movements and assaults on the Confederate center and left by the troops of Maj. Gens. George H. Thomas and Joseph Hooker forced General Braxton Bragg to reevaluate his tactics for the defense of Missionary Ridge at the Tunnel Hill end of his line. Bragg knew that if he lost that end of Missionary Ridge, it would cut his army off from their railroad supply line.

Bragg assigned Col. Warren Grigsby‘s brigade of Kentucky cavalry to picket the Tennessee river northeast of Chattanooga and ordered Brig. Gen. Marcus Joseph Wright to bring his brigade of Tennessee infantry from Cleveland, Tennessee, by train to Chickamauga Station. He recalled all of his units that were within a day’s march. Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne‘s division, who were in the process of boarding trains for Knoxville, returned after dark from Chickamauga Station.

Map of the Battle of Missionary RidgeBragg ordered the withdrawal of Maj. Gen. William H. T. Walker‘s division from the base of Lookout Mountain and positioned them on the far right, just south of Tunnel Hill. He placed Lt. Gen. William Hardee in overall command of the right end of his line.

Click Map to enlarge.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered his men to cross the Tennessee River in the pre-dawn hours of November 24, 1863. The lead brigade was led by Brig. Gen. Giles A. Smith whose men very quietly scooped up all of the Confederate pickets along the river, without raising an alarm. Smith’s Brigade was quickly followed by successive units that crossed the river and entrenched on the other side. By the time that the sun rose on November 24th, two entire divisions, 8,000 men, were across the river and securely entrenched.

The Union engineers continued to ferry troops across the river while they began to build a pontoon bridge. The steamer Dunbar arrived from Chattanooga and took over ferrying. By noon, Sherman’s third division was across and the 1,350 foot long bridge was complete and Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’ Army of the Cumberland division was across. Sherman had put his entire force of four divisions across the river with nary a casualty, a spectacular feat of engineering skill and logistics.

Between the mist, the fog and the rain, the defenders had no idea that the operation had taken place. It would be some time before they reacted to the Union amphibious landings. Sherman prepared to advance across the plain and seize the high ground at the far end of Missionary Ridge.  Leaving Davis to hold the bridgehead, Sherman ordered his other three divisions to begin to advance at 1:00 PM.

Anticipating a defensive struggle with the enemy, they were surprised to find little resistance. The area was defended by a few enemy skirmishers but few other troops. By 3:30 PM they arrived at the what they thought to be the end of Missionary Ridge, only to find that it was separate hill. Billy Goat Hill was separated from the adjacent ridge by a 150 foot deep saddle or valley. Crossing the saddle, the Union troops found that the next hill was also followed by a deep saddle.

When the advancing Union soldiers moved across the second saddle, they immediately encountered a heavy Confederate skirmish line. General Giles SmithSkirmishers from the other two Union divisions began to converge on the point of contact and began a heavy crossfire. The Union crossfire forced the Confederates to fall back across the saddle and up the slope. This was the foot of Missionary Ridge. The advancing Union units halted at this point, on orders from Sherman.

The Union troops dug in as a heavy fog moved him and reduced the visibility. Just before nightfall, Union troops from Thomas’ XI Corps moved up from Chattanooga and linked up with Sherman’s right flank. On Sherman’s left flank, Confederates made an unsuccessful attack against Giles Smith’s Brigade. In this action, Smith was severely wounded and replaced by Col. Nathan Tupper of the 116th Illinois.

Facing Sherman’s troops on Tunnel Hill were the men of Cleburne’s Division. Cleburne was perhaps the most superior division commander in the Southern army and his division was the best trained. He had about 4,000 men, organized in 3 small brigades. Bragg entrusted Cleburne to hold the right flank of the line.

Grant intended for Sherman to attack “at early dawn” on November 25th and sweep down the crest and back slope of Missionary Ridge. His objective was to roll up the Confederate army and drive it away from its railroad supply line. He prepared orders for Thomas to simultaneously advance against the Confederate center and maneuver as “the presence of the enemy may require.” Hooker was ordered to secure the summit of Lookout Mountain.

On the face of it, it appeared that Sherman’s task was a simple one, roll up the enemy line from the flank. The reality of the situation was much more complex. Sherman was faced with a difficult terrain through which his army needed to maneuver. The narrow ridge only allowed him to position a single regiment in line of battle on it.  In combat, defenders behind breastworks had a 3-to-1 advantage over attackers. On top of everything else, General Patrick Cleburnethese defenders were from the best brigade of the best division in the enemy’s army.

Sherman assigned the attack to the division of his brother-in-law Brig. Gen. Hugh Ewing. Brig. Gen. John M. Corse‘s Brigade would attack from the north along the crest of the ridge. Col. John M. Loomis’ Brigade would move across the open fields on the west of the ridge while Brig. Gen. Giles A. Smith‘s brigade would move through the valley on the east side of the ridge.

Almost immediately, the Union attack began to encounter coordination problems. A 200-man contingent of Ohio and West Virginia troops that were sent to strengthen Corse were able to drive Confederate skirmisher’s from Missionary Ridge itself. Finding themselves in possession of a set of abandoned enemy earthworks. They were about 250 yards from Tunnel Hill but it was still occupied by Confederate with artillery.

Corse’s brigade had gotten a late start and were conspicuously absent. Attempting to take Tunnel Hill the 200-man force was driven back by concentrated rifle and artillery fire. Calling for reinforcements, they returned to the breastworks. By the time that the reinforcements arrived, Corse’s Brigade was also on the hill. Restricted by the narrowness of the field, the Union force tried to flank the position but they found additional Confederate brigades along the crest of the hills.

After three successive attacks, the Union attackers returned to their starting point in the captured defensive works. Corse was wounded after the third attack, which he personally led, and was carried from the field. After several hours of intense close-quarter combat, the fighting was at a standstill in this area of the ridge.

Col. John M. Loomis ran into the same problem that Corse had: the narrowness of the field. Loomis had advanced to the railroad in front of the General John Corseridge where he skirmished with Walker’s division. Col. Adolphus Buschbeck‘s brigade from the XI Corps, followed by the brigades of Brig. Gen. Charles L. Matthies and Col. Green B. Raum were sent up the west slope of Tunnel Hill between Loomis and Corse.

Cleburne’s Division was forced into a salient and came close to breaking but Hardee reinforced him sufficiently with troops from Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson’s Division, and Cleburne ordered a general counterattack down the hill at 4:00 PM. The Confederates routed Sherman’s men, who werre too tired and low on ammunition to resist, and captured numerous Federal prisoners. Sherman’s force sustained almost 2,000 casualties and his attack was a tactical failure.

Their are differing opinions on Sherman’s attack. Military historian David Eicher called this Sherman’s “worst experience as a commander, first miscalculating the terrain and then stumbling through a prolonged, unsuccessful, and needless attack.” On the other hand, Steven E. Woodworth judged that “Cleburne was in fine form today, deftly shifting troops around his hilltop position and skillfully judging when and where to launch limited counterattacks—often leading them himself.”

 

 

 

 

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