Murray: Remembering the Battle of Ringgold Gap

Murray: Remembering the Battle of Ringgold Gap

December 15th, 2013 by By Smith Murray in Opinion Columns


Dr. Smith Murray is a retired urologist. Visit or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.

On Nov. 23, 1863, the troops under Confederate General Patrick Cleburne spent the day repelling the army of Federal Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman from the north end of Missionary Ridge.

Cleburne's troops were celebrating a victory when word arrived that the Confederate center had broken.

The entire Confederate Army had to take flight. Their commander, Gen. Braxton Bragg, directed his broken and disjointed army toward Dalton. The soldiers could get away fast enough but not so the baggage train. If the pursuing Federal army under Gen. Fighting Joe Hooker could capture the baggage train, it could mean the death-knell of Bragg's army.

Bragg designated Cleburne's division as the rear guard to protect the baggage train.

At 10 p.m. on Nov. 26th, Cleburne arrived at the East Chickamauga Creek opposite Ringgold, Ga. It was a cold night and Cleburne, not wanting his men to have to sleep in wet clothes, camped short of the creek.

At this same hour Hooker's army was camping only 2-1/2 miles away.

Also at 10 p.m. Cleburne was given a verbal order to defend Ringgold Gap until the baggage train got away. Cleburne felt this might be a suicide mission, and he wanted a written order.

Close to midnight on Nov. 26-27 he got the written order. By this time he had forded the creek and was inspecting Ringgold Gap. At 2 a.m. Cleburne sent his adjutant to Bragg to see if Bragg could offer further instructions, but none were given. However, Bragg grabbed the adjutant and said, "Tell Cleburne he must hold on no matter the cost; the salvation of the army depends on him."

At 4 a.m. Cleburne's troops waded across the creek. On the opposite shore Cleburne built bonfires to warm the men and then headed them into Ringgold Gap and laid out his defense.

Ringgold Gap lies just east of downtown Ringgold. The gap is the only break in a continuous ridge that runs from north to south. The northern hill (to Cleburne's right) is called White Oak Mountain while the southern hill is called Taylor's Ridge. Running through the gap is the road to Dalton plus a railroad track and a continuation of the East Chickamauga Creek.

In the gap Cleburne placed his two cannons and supported them with four regiments of Govan's brigade. To his right, Grandbury's brigade stood in the wooded slope of White Oak Mountain. Cleburne placed only two regiments across the creek since any attack around his left would be impeded by the creek. Polk's and Lowry's brigades were in reserve behind White Oak Mountain.

Cleburne astutely placed one regiment of Granbury's brigade on top of White Oak Mountain. This regiment would signal Polk's and Lowry's brigades to ascend the mountain to blunt any attempt by Hooker's army to flank Cleburne on his right.

By 8 a.m. Hooker's army poured into Ringgold. First they tried to get by Cleburne by sending men to Cleburne's right, where Granbury's men stopped them. At almost the same time, the 13th Illinois tried to force its way through the gap. Cleburne's cannons blasted them back.

As the morning wore on, Hooker desperately tried to flank Cleburne's right. These flanking attempts extended to a mile beyond the gap itself. As the Federals came up the mountain, Polk's and Lowry's brigades came up and extended the Confederate line along the crest. The Federals came close to the top but were beaten back all along the line.

Hooker also tried Cleburne's left. There the crossfire from the two regiments across the creek plus Govan's rifles in the gap and the two cannons held them at bay.

Shortly after 12:30 p.m. the baggage train was safely away, and Cleburne could withdraw his men from the gap. The battle had lasted about five hours. It had been Cleburne's lone division against Hooker's army group of about 16,000 men.

The criticism of Hooker is two-fold: 1) Rushing into the gap piecemeal instead of first consolidating his whole army. 2) Attacking before his artillery was brought onto the field.

Rushing in piecemeal and without his artillery is explained by haste. If Hooker were to whip a fleeing army, he had to proceed ahead of his artillery, and he thought he was up against a fleeing, disorganized army. He had easily walked through Confederate resistance on Lookout Mountain and on Missionary Ridge. He expected these Confederate troops would be no match.

He was in for a surprise. He had not faced Cleburne's division before.