Read more Chattanooga History Columns
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The quick collapse of the Confederate center in the Battle of Missionary Ridge on Nov. 25, 1863, surprised both sides. The Rebels had occupied the ridge for two months and should have had enough time to make their position impregnable.
But they didn't.
Historian James McDonough said, "The chance of the Confederates making so many mistakes, particularly fighting on the defensive, is unlikely, and yet it happened." So, what went wrong?
For starters the Southern commander, Gen. Braxton Bragg, was more concerned with battling his subordinates than dealing with Federal capabilities and intentions.
The deployment of the Confederate troops was deplorable. In the center, the South had 14,000 troops opposing the Federals' 23,000. With the Confederates fighting on the defensive, this should not have been a problem. However, the poor Rebel deployment diminished its fighting strength. At least one-fourth of their troops were posted in rifle pits at the base of the ridge, but this wasn't sufficient to stop a Federal attack. In fact, it hardly slowed the North down.
This also meant there were fewer Confederates on top of the ridge, the best defensive position. Placing troops at the base was a waste of manpower and interfered with the defense of the ridge. When the Yankees attacked the Confederates at the base, the soldiers in gray were supposed to fire a volley and then scramble up the ridge. Some knew to do this, and some did not.
The Confederates who stayed at the base were quickly killed or captured. Those soldiers who fled up the ridge blocked the fire of their fellow fighters on top. In addition, seeing their comrades flee was demoralizing to the Confederates on top. At the same time, it was a boost to the Yankee impulse to pursue those in retreat.
The steepness of the ridge sheltered the Yankees from descending Confederate fire. And most of the Confederate brigades posted on the geographic crest were unable to see the Yankee soldiers until they reached the top.
There, too, the geography of the ridge worked against the Confederates, who hardly grasped the difficulties it created. The narrowness of the ridge top was a problem. The South's troops were placed on the geographic crest instead of the military crest, which was on the downslope of the front portion of the ridge's top. By being placed on the geographic crest instead of on the forward slope, Confederates had no place to retreat and re-form in case of a Yankee breakthrough.
What the Rebels needed were several packets of reserve corps. The lack of reserves was more critical than appreciated. Once the Yankees cracked through a brigade on the crest, they could spread out and hit the adjoining Confederate brigades on their flanks, breaking the South's defenses on both the right and the left.
Since the top of the ridge undulates, moving along the top was like moving up and down a series of small hills. These elevations blocked views of the adjacent sections of the crest. Hence, several packets of reserve corps were needed to serve various sections of the ridge.
The narrow crest impeded the Confederates in other ways. In most places, the ridge was barely wide enough to allow a single brigade in line. Any troops placed behind the front line nearly fell off the back of the ridge.
Furthermore, the narrow top made it nearly impossible to shift troops from one section to another. To have made this easier would have required the construction of a path or a ditch along the backside of the ridge. The Confederates had occupied the ridge for two months but had not considered plans of this sort.
Once the battle on Missionary Ridge started, the Confederate center broke within one and a half hours. Meanwhile, the South's troops under Gen. Patrick Cleburne on the north end held off the Yankees all day. So, properly handled, the ridge could have been better defended.
In addition, there were minimal Confederate defenses on the south end at Rossville Gap. So even if the Confederate center had held, there would still have been a terrible problem since Federal troops under Gen. Joe Hooker were hitting the south end at about the same time as the assault on the center commenced.
Regardless, one wonders how the battle would have gone if the Confederates had not sent 15,000 men off to Knoxville three weeks before the Battle of Missionary Ridge.
Dr. R. Smith Murray is a retired urologist and a past president of the Chattanooga Area Historical Association. For more information, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.