Chatfield heroes at Missionary Ridge

On the morning after the battle of Chickamauga, the 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry was bloodied but still on the battlefield. That day, 222 officers and soldiers answered the roll call. Before Chickamauga, they numbered 384. The battered Army of the Cumberland was entrenched on the south and east sides of Chattanooga and, with its back to the Tennessee River, braced for renewed rebel attack.

Col. Judson Bishop, of Chatfield, wrote on Sept. 22, 1863, that "we expect an attack perhaps today but probably tomorrow. We are outnumbered but I think we can hold this place until reinforced."

At noon that day, the 46,000 men of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee reached Chattanooga, but the rebels did not attack. They occupied the heights overlooking the town — Lookout Mountain southwest and Missionary Ridge to the east and south. Bragg announced he had the Federals where he wanted them, stranded deep in Dixie, with winter coming.

His plan: Starve the 45,000 Yankees into surrender.

'The center of the war'


Because Confederate artillery on Lookout Mountain could hit Union supply trains approaching along the Tennessee River, the Union army had to bring all provisions to Chattanooga over a 60- mile, mountainous wagon trail from Bridgeport, Ala. An eight-day trip in ideal conditions, rain and axel-deep mud increased it to 20. Worse, Confederate cavalry raided the trains. The supplies that got through could not feed the army.

The 2nd Minnesota was soon on less than half rations, each man receiving "six small crackers a day with about an ounce of salt pork and a small piece of fresh beef." Soldiers began stealing corn from the mules' feed boxes.

Chattanooga was now the center of the war. "All public interest is concentrated on the Tennessee," said U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who launched a colossal effort to save the besieged army. On Sept. 23, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was ordered to start his 20,000 Vicksburg veterans, including the 4th Minnesota Infantry, on the march from Memphis to Chattanooga. Two days later, 20,000 soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, led by Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, were put on rail cars and sent 1,200 circuitous miles from northern Virginia to Bridgeport.

Union Gen. William Rosecrans' reports from Chattanooga worried President Abraham Lincoln. "We have no certainty of holding our position here," Rosecrans telegraphed. "Our fate is in the hands of God, in whom I hope."

Lincoln wanted a plan, not prayers. On Oct. 17, he appointed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant overall commander of three Union armies west of the Appalachians, including the Army of the Cumberland, and he replaced Rosecrans with Gen. George H. Thomas . Grant wired Thomas that Chattanooga must be held.

"We will hold the town till we starve," Thomas replied.

When Grant arrived in Chattanooga on Oct. 23, his first priority was a better line of supply. In the early morning darkness on Oct. 27, 1,500 Union soldiers staged a daring assault to seize a Tennessee River crossing beyond the range of rebel guns. The Union supply line was shortened to eight miles. Food and ammunition began to reach Chattanooga in quantity.

Now, Grant planned an attack. To lead it, he tapped his trusted friend Sherman, who just arrived from Memphis. Grant didn't trust Thomas' Army of the Cumberland. Beaten at Chickamauga and then starved, they resembled scarecrows. Grant told Sherman he feared the Cumberlanders would not come out of their trenches to fight. Grant did not think much of George Thomas or Thomas' troops, and the troops knew it.


To break the siege, the Yankees had to capture 8-mile-long, 500-foot-high Missionary Ridge. At its base were log and earth breastworks. The crest, where Bragg's army was dug in, bristled with cannons. The position seemed impregnable, and Grant did not intend a frontal assault. He would use Hooker's and Thomas' forces to divert Bragg's attention to the south and center, while Sherman delivered the main attack on the north. Once atop the ridge, Sherman would roll south, pushing Bragg's army off the crest.

Death trap below the ridge

The battle began on the afternoon of Nov. 23, when Thomas' 25,000 Cumberlanders left their entrenchments to test Bragg's center. Flags flying, drums and bugles sounding, the sight brought admiring Confederates out to watch the Yankees drill. Suddenly the rebels realized the blue line was charging. The fight was brief. At a cost of 1,100 men killed or wounded, Thomas' troops overran the Confederate outpost at Orchard Knob. The Army of the Cumberland had come out to fight after all.

The next morning, Hooker's 12,000 Federals attacked fog-shrouded Lookout Mountain in an engagement that newspapers called the "battle above the clouds." Bragg already had moved most of his troops off Lookout, and by 2 p.m., the Yankees were halfway up the mountain. There, Hooker halted for an assault on the summit the next day, but after midnight, the last rebels slipped off the mountain and joined Bragg's main force on Missionary Ridge.

The opening rounds were over. The main event was about to begin.

At daybreak on the 25th, Sherman's 26,000 men attacked the north end of the ridge. Patrick Cleburne's 4,000 Confederate soldiers were waiting for them. Cleburne, a slavery-hating Irishman, was the toughest fighter in the Confederacy. Sherman's bloody, eight-hour assault got nowhere. His army had come to Chattanooga to rescue Thomas' Cumberlanders. Now, someone needed to rescue Sherman. Grant turned reluctantly to George Thomas.

The plan was for the Cumberlanders to divert rebel troops from Sherman's sector by attacking the Confederate fortifications at the base of Missionary Ridge. But they were to attack only those lower works, not to climb Missionary Ridge.

At 3:40 p.m., 23,000 Chickamauga veterans, in a line 2 1/2 miles long and six rows deep, cheered and stepped off toward the ridge.


The 2nd Minnesota led its brigade toward breastworks held by two Southern regiments. More than a hundred Confederate cannons, "like a thousand thunderclaps," opened fire. "The top of the ridge was one sheet of flame and smoke from the enemy's batteries," Pvt. William Bircher recalled. Shells "tore up the ground around us," and musketry blazed from the Confederate breastworks. "Our boys moved stubbornly forward in the face of the fire," Col. Bishop wrote later. One hundred paces from the breastworks, the Minnesotans cheered and "made a rush for it, and the enemy broke and ran."

'All hell can't stop them'

The works were taken, and Grant's orders were carried out. But now, Thomas' men were in trouble. The captured fortifications became deathtraps: The Federals were fish in a barrel for the 16,000 Confederates shooting down at them. The Yankees couldn't stay where they were and live, but retreat was unthinkable.

There was only one thing to do: A handful of soldiers, then companies and whole regiments, began to climb. Officers who ordered their men to stop were ignored, so they followed the men. The Army of the Cumberland was clambering up Missionary Ridge.

Grant, watching from headquarters, was stunned. The Cumberlanders' improvised and apparently suicidal ascent invited disaster. "Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?" Grant demanded. "I don't know," replied Thomas. "I did not."

Grant turned to Gen. Gordon Granger: "Did you order them up, Granger?"

"No," said Granger. "They started up without orders. When those fellows get started, all hell can't stop them."

The 20-minute ascent, Sgt. Timothy Pendergast remembered later, "was no picnic." The ridge was steep; handholds were necessary to make the climb. "We would charge forward as rapidly as possible," Pendergast recalled, "until becoming too tired to continue, we would take position behind a tree and rest, until gaining breath we would again advance."


Bishop recalled that "the infantry on top hailed down in our faces a perfect storm of lead" as "our men toiled bravely and patiently up." "Within a few yards of the summit," Sgt. Pendergast remembered, the men "halted for our last rest before attempting to dash over the works."

Regimental organization broke down, Bishop recalled, as "every man had to find or clear his own way in the face of a terrible fire of musketry and artillery." In the final rush, as the brigade swarmed over the breastworks, Minnesotans were side-by-side with Ohioans and Hoosiers. Shouting "Chickamauga," they "charged on the astonished Rebels with the bayonet."

A Confederate recalled that "the Federals ran over us like a herd of wild cattle." The rebel line broke but soon regrouped for a furious counter-attack. The fighting was hand-to-hand. For 10 desperate minutes, the battle hung in the balance. But there was room for only one army on Missionary Ridge, and outnumbered and out-fought, the Army of the Tennessee buckled. Gen. Bragg himself, waving a battle flag, tried to rally his men. They ran right past him.

As darkness fell, part of Missionary Ridge belonged to the 2nd Minnesota. The Army of the Cumberland was exultant. "My God, come see them run!" an Indiana soldier shouted. Gen. Granger was in the mood for some fun. "I'm going to have you all court-martialed!" he exclaimed to the men. "You were ordered to take the works at the foot of the hill, and you've taken those on top! You have disobeyed orders, and you ought to be court-martialed!"

Death knell of the Confederacy

Five men of the 2nd Minnesota were killed, and 34 were wounded, four of whom later died. In a cold wind atop the ridge, the Minnesotans lit their campfires. When Gen. Thomas rode up, the regiment cheered. Under "Pap" Thomas, these Minnesotans had seen their first combat at Mill Springs. They had stood their ground at Chickamauga, and they went hungry and then triumphed at Chattanooga.

That night, Thomas joked with the boys and promised to "fatten [them] up now."

The odds, which had always been against the Confederacy, became impossibly long with defeat at Chattanooga. "Captain, this is the death knell of the Confederacy," a young rebel soldier told his commander as they retreated. "If we cannot cope with those fellows with the advantages we had on (Missionary Ridge), there is not a line between here and the Atlantic Ocean where we can stop them."

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