What happened on November 25, 1863, remains one of the most mysterious events of the American Civil War. That afternoon four divisions of the Army of the Cumberland advanced against the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, overwhelmed the Confederate defenders there, and then, after assessing their rather perilous situation, continued up the slope and overran the main Confederate battle line.
For years to come this would be known, and not without reason, as the miracle on Missionary Ridge. But it was hard to ascertain exactly what happened. What was Ulysses S. Grant’s plan? What orders did George H. Thomas issue? Did the men act on their own in storming the crest of the ridge? What happened on Orchard Knob?
As best as I can make it, this is what people intended, and what happened:
1. Grant’s plan on the morning of November 25, 1863, was simple. William T. Sherman would attack the Confederate right flank on the northern slope of Missionary Ridge, while Joseph Hooker, fresh from taking Lookout Mountain, would move east across Chattanooga Creek and attack the south end (the left flank) of the Confederate line. Thomas’s divisions would be held in reserve just east of Orchard Knob and would be used to support the other attacks (mainly by keeping the Confederates on the ridge looking at them) or to exploit an opportunity. Grant’s attack plan looked to Sherman to land the decisive blow.
2. Sherman proved unable to deliver that blow. His attack on the Confederate right was stymied by a combination of terrain, an outstanding Confederate defensive action, and his own limitations as a combat commander. That said, enough observers on Orchard Knob saw a shift of Confederate forces to support the right flank that it was reasonable to assume that Confederate commander Braxton Bragg was thinning his center to strengthen his right, although it now seems evident that this did not happen. What’s important, however, is what the Union commanders on Orchard Knob thought was happening at the time.
3. Hooker’s movement against the Confederate left (a movement in which Thomas was more interested) stalled for a number of reasons, including issues of terrain and rebuilding bridges.
4. By midday it was clear that things were not going well, and Grant began to consider his options, featuring a new mission for Thomas’s divisions. Thomas was not eager to mount an assault of any kind, and the strained relations between commanders meant that Grant’s ideas came across as suggestions, not directives or orders. Things were not going well on Orchard Knob, either.
5. By early afternoon (if not earlier) Grant had decided upon his plan. He would have Thomas order forward his four divisions to take the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, then regroup and await orders to storm the crest. Thomas did not concur with the plan, and would not act unless given a direct order. Eventually an increasingly frustrated Grant gave that order. Several people on the knoll, including staff officer James H. Wilson, understood the complete plan and commander intent, while others only understood the orders as issued separately. The resulting confusion as to what was intended–some officers thought the ultimate goal was to assault the crest, while others simply recall orders to take the rifle pits at the base of the ridge and wait–offer telling commentary on how orders flowed down through Thomas’s chain of command. It’s clear that Thomas never conveyed commander intent but confined himself to implementing orders as they were issued and no more … in part because he thought the assault unwise.
6. Grant’s plan was, in fact, unwise (which is far different than arguing that he did not have one). It would be easy enough to take the rifle pits, but holding them for a prolonged period of time simply put Union soldiers in harm’s way, and the longer they stayed in place the more harm would come to them. Thus local commanders decided to implement on their own the second stage of Grant’s plan (to storm the crest) without waiting for Grant’s orders to do so (or Thomas’s rendering of them). Not everyone knew of Grant’s intent, although some did, so other commanders were acting on their own. As some units started to advance, others decided to join the movement, and the assault began.
7. Grant thought the assault up the ridge to be premature, explaining reports of his unhappiness when he saw it commence. Thomas quickly disavowed any responsibility for the advance and expressed concern that it would fail.
8. For a number of reasons (faulty Confederate fortification of the ridge; low Confederate morale; the inability to fire around Confederate comrades fleeing up the slope from the rifle pits; the drape of the terrain; and sheer Yankee doggedness) the attack succeeded. One contributing factor was the appearance of Hooker’s men on the Confederate left, the timing of which seems to have been a product of circumstance rather than intent.
This is, as best as I can figure out, what happened. It’s a narrative based upon working for some time with primary sources, including reports filed at the time and recollections offered at various times. By the 1870s what had happened became an issue of dispute, shaped in large part by the continuing clashes of people who tended to embrace a narrative that elevated George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland (and to a lesser extent Joe Hooker) versus those folks who hailed Grant (and that included Sherman). Thus the battle of Missionary Ridge continued, but in a different way, with the sharpest comments reserved for those in the Thomas/Cumberland/Hooker camp who declared that the Grant/Sherman camp (and the people assumed to be members of it) were intent on depriving Thomas, Hooker, and the Cumberlanders of their claims to greatness. Thus I’ve heard that a sign of Thomas’s greatness was that he timed Hooker’s arrival; that he both resisted Grant’s plan as insane and yet provided for its success by indicating that the crest should be the objective; and so on. That the documentary evidence for these claims is shaky and that it fails to explain the confusion among Thomas’s subordinates as to what to do is of little consequence to these folks, who see a conspiracy against their heroes at every turn.
That noted, what questions would you raise about the narrative offered above, and what actual evidence would you cite in support of your claims? I’ve offered my version, complete with an analysis of the evidence, in a volume of essays about Chattanooga edited by Steve Woodworth and Charles Grear. I direct your attention there if you want to see how I evaluated what was before me and how I treated the evolution of the contending narratives.