Thursday, September 28, 2023

Myths of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge

My early reading about these 1863 battles included some frequently repeated myths. The Union victory at Lookout Mountain was attributed to the steep slope – so steep that guns wouldn’t bear properly on attacking troops. Likewise, the equally rugged Missionary Ridge was said to have fallen because the Confederate works were on the geographic crest, rather than the military crest, stifling the field of fire. Last, Sherman’s attack on the west end of the ridge was said to have stalled. We’ll see about these. 

Missionary Ridge

A trip to these battlefields some years back made me take a fresh look. Both positions looked like they could be held by boy scouts armed with rocks. I then read two modern books about the campaign, “The Shipwreck of Their Hopes” by Cozzens and “Mountains Touched with Fire” by Sword. Both determined that the Confederate defeats at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge were due to serious errors by the deeply unpopular General Braxton Bragg, compounded by the errors of some of his subordinates.


First, we will set the stage. Having won the battle of Chickamauga at great cost, the first victory of size in his theater, Bragg took the opportunity to savage his enemies – his own generals. This allowed the Union Army of the Cumberland to recover somewhat and dig in around Chattanooga. They were still in trouble because the Confederates soon interdicted their rail and river supply lines. The Yankees were reduced to half rations while their horses and mules died from starvation. The long route over the mountains north of the city was unable to support the army. Bragg deployed on the mountains overlooking the enemy from the south, assuming he would starve them out. He began to settle feuds with his restive generals, who had asked Jefferson Davis to sack Bragg. They had previously asked this in 1862. Davis came out west to mediate. He backed Bragg, kicking the can down the road, as he often did with the western theater. 

                                                             Braxton Bragg

Having won Davis’s approval, Bragg exiled his main critic, corps commander Polk. The Louisiana general was no great military talent, but was popular among the troops. Bragg, styling himself a sophisticate, looked down on Tennessee officers and troops he considered ruffians. This was bad policy since the largest contingent in his army, called the Army of Tennessee, was from that state. And they returned the favor. He broke up Cheatham’s all-Tennessee division, angering that general and lowering morale among the troops. Cheatham wasn’t brilliant but was a fighting division commander when sober. (He didn’t perform well at Stones River and was rumored to have been at the bottle that day.) Cheatham was so furious that he took a leave, missing the battle. His division was left in the hands of his less than heroic senior brigade CO, derisively known to his troops as Mudwall Jackson (instead of Stonewall Jackson). This division guarded Lookout Mountain. This will figure later in our story.


Many other units were shifted around, ensuring that no division contained too many restive Tennessee units. While no division remained a center of opposition, it spread malcontents throughout the army. Bragg seems not to have considered the effect on army morale. Bragg also had a feud going with Longstreet, whose sledgehammer attack on the second day of Chickamauga had seized victory from the jaws of defeat. It takes two to tango; Longstreet bears some blame for the feud, as did so many of the general officers in that army for their feuds with Bragg and others. Bragg decided to get Longstreet out of his hair by sending him and his two veteran divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia off to besiege Knoxville. This weakened his infantry by nearly a third. Meanwhile the looming disaster saw Grant, fresh from his triumph at Vicksburg, promoted to overall command of the west. He was calling in reinforcements from the western Army of the Tennessee and the eastern Army of the Potomac (northern armies being named for rivers, southern armies named for regions). Longstreet’s departure assured Grant an even larger numerical advantage. Also sent off with Longstreet was the major who was the chief engineer officer of Bragg’s army. This affects our story later.


Bragg was in position for nearly two months before Grant began his counter-offensive. In addition to putting his army into a state of uneasy change, he assumed that the enemy would not attack his lines. He dug in his infantry at the base of Missionary Ridge with artillery on top.


The Knoxville expedition put pressure on Grant, since Lincoln feared Burnside would lose the city, turning over the loyal East Tennesseans to the vengeful Confederates. Grant also had problems getting his troops set for the offensive due to muddy roads. Once things were ready, he ordered Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland to storm the outpost of Orchard Knob before Bragg’s center. Thomas did it with ease and style, stunning Bragg. Realizing he faced an attack out of Chattanooga, Bragg now had his remaining engineer officer, a captain, to select positions for fortifications along the top of the ridge. With very little time, the captain laid out a line along the highest ground, the geographical crest. Finding the line with the best fields of fire, the military crest, would require more time than was available. Bragg hadn’t thought to have this done during the preceding two months. He’d been too busy with his vendetta against the internal critics in his own army. But it would take yet another error to lose the ridge.


                                                 John K. "Mudwall" Jackson

First, we return to Lookout Mountain. Cheatham was away. Mudwall Jackson was in charge, opposed by Joe Hooker. Hooker had genuine skill, marred by his getting flustered at times (like Chancellorsville) and his self-promotion. He figured that the Confederate left must only go so far on Lookout Mountain and guessed right when he picked a spot beyond it. His 3,500+ soldiers advanced towards the imposing mountain, fearing a trap. Their mood changed to exaltation as they reached almost to the summit without a shot fired and faced left, advancing along the slope. They struck the single Rebel brigade in the flank, as other Union troops probed the Rebel front. The Confederates collapsed and fled around the northern edge of the mountain. The few troops on the summit could only get shots at the Yankees below by exposing themselves to return fire. They made little impact on the cheering bluecoats. Mudwall stayed back, well out of the line of fire. He finally sent one of his 3 other brigades to face the Yankee attack. This brigade stopped the victorious Yankees, who were disordered by their rapid advance. Elements of a third brigade joined the fight on their own, without orders. Hooker now became flustered and called for help, fearing a counterattack. But no other Rebels appeared and in time the outnumbered Confederates fell back, low on ammo. When the mist cleared, the sight of Old Glory on the mountain brought wild cheers from the assembled Yankees below and gloom to the Rebel troops. It was more important as a morale event than anything else. The battle was lost because Hooker out-thought and outfought Mudwall Jackson. It is hard to imagine that Frank Cheatham wouldn’t have put up a sterner fight.


The next day, Sherman was tasked with smashing the Confederate right flank while Thomas’ troops in the center looked on. His attack came to grief; more on that later. Grant thought reinforcements were being sent against Sherman and ordered Thomas to storm the works at the foot of Missionary Ridge to fix the Rebels’ attention. Along with the hastily sited works atop the ridge, there was a critical flaw in the Confederate defense plan. Sources vary on which corps commander was responsible for the order, Hardee or Breckinridge. In any case Bragg should have been overseeing matters. Half of the troops were deployed in the works at the base of the ridge and the other half in the poorly sited works on top. The troops at the foot of the ridge were told to make a brief fight and then fall back up the ridge to join the troops at the summit. This order was poorly relayed; some troops weren’t aware of it. When over 20,000 Union troops moved forward, all could see this massive attack, while many on the ridge could only see a few hundred friends to either side. Firing broke out and then many of the troops at the base took to their heels, spooking the ones who didn’t know of the order. Flanks exposed, these soon fell back too and the whole bunch began climbing the ridge. The Yankees who had stormed the works at the foot realized they were exposed to fire from the crest. These soldiers from the Army of the Cumberland had been on short rations for two months and been taking abuse from Hooker’s and Sherman’s reinforcements about having run at Chickamauga. Seeing the backs of their enemies, they started up the ridge without orders, chasing the retreating Rebels. A long, steep climb while being shot at by a swarm of pursuers took the starch out of those Rebels. They reached the top exhausted and in a state of panic. They ran right through the upper line and kept going, shaking the morale of the troops on top. With that, half of the defenders were out of the fight. Union troops swarmed after them, aided in places by dead ground in front of the works where they could catch their breath without being shot at before making a final rush. In other places the field of fire was open and Yankees there took heavy losses. One such regiment saw young Arthur MacArthur (who would sire Douglas) win the Medal of Honor leading his men while bearing the regimental colors. The whole Rebel line collapsed, yielding many prisoners and guns. The poorly sited line was indeed part of the reason the ridge fell. But the ill-conceived decision to split the troops between ridge top and base with the lower troops giving way immediately was certainly more important. And then there’s Bragg’s war on the morale of his army. 

                                         The Charge up Missionary Ridge

On to the final myth, that Sherman’s attack was held up. Sherman had dawdled away the morning waiting for Howard’s two eastern divisions to come up. With at least five divisions, he launched a piecemeal attack with elements of two divisions against the north end of Missionary Ridge. Sherman was not a great battlefield commander. His skills lay more in the moves before and after battles, the sort of thing our tactical games don’t account for. This was one of his worst performances. His 9 year old son Willie had recently died of fever caught in an army camp. Some histories maintain Sherman didn’t buckle under the grief. I think this day’s fighting says otherwise. He also was facing Patrick Cleburne’s division. The Irish immigrant was undoubtedly the best division commander in Bragg’s army. He had just taken up position and hadn’t had time to follow the botched plan. He likely would have ignored it. All his troops were atop the ridge, poorly sited works or not. The troops from the Union Army of the Tennessee, used to victory, came on strong and a desperate fight ensued.  At the critical moment Cleburne ordered a bayonet charge by several regiments and the Union line collapsed, routing down the ridge and losing hundreds of prisoners. Some of the rout could be seen from Grant’s headquarters. The order for Thomas to advance came soon afterwards. It should be noted that Cleburne’s earthworks weren’t better sited than the rest on the ridge, just much more competently defended. 

                               Patrick Cleburne and his charge on Missionary Ridge

Years later someone asked Grant about his troops attacking what seemed to be impregnable defenses. Grant smiled and said, “Well, they were”.


Three myths, each with some kernel of truth.


Troops on the summit of Lookout Mountain didn’t have a good field of fire down the steep slopes. The inept deployment of one brigade of the four available to Mudwall, with a single brigade sent to help after the first was routed combined with Hooker’s flash of inspiration flanking that lone brigade were much more important.


The poor, hasty siting of the Confederate line atop Missionary Ridge (after two months in residence) was less a factor than the bungled defense plan. Throw in the monkey wrench to his army’s morale of Bragg’s vindictive reorganization.


Sherman’s attack wasn’t “held”, it was whipped. By troops fighting from the same hasty, poorly sited works, against an attack that used less than a third of the troops Sherman had available, on a position he could have flanked.


And those are three myths about the Chattanooga battles. A very pretty town. We had some excellent barbeque at Shuford’s Smokehouse, north of the town.


PS: an amusing minor myth: in the days before Grant’s offensive, Hooker’s easterners marched north up a road on the western flank of Lookout Mountain after other troops reestablished the river supply line. Bragg ordered Longstreet to make a nighttime attack on Hooker. As often happens in night battles, confusion reigned and little was accomplished aside from more dead and wounded soldiers. In the aftermath of the battles, a rumor made the rounds of the Union armies. A herd of army mules was said to have stampeded into Confederate troops who broke and ran, thinking it was a cavalry charge. This amusing tale has no basis in fact but went viral, over a century before the internet. One anonymous wag penned a ditty modeled after Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”.

The Charge of the Mule Brigade


Half a mile, half a mile,

Half a mile onward,

Right through the Georgia troops

Broke the two hundred.

'Forward the Mule Brigade!

Charge for the Rebs,' they neighed.

Straight for the Georgia troops

Broke the two hundred.


Many more such stanzas before it ended with:


When can their glory fade?

Oh, what a wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honor the charge they made!

Honor the Mule Brigade,

Long-eared two hundred!


Fake history, great doggerel.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Crossfire: Small Threat to the Flank

Saturday afternoon Carl and I played Steven Thomas’ Small Threat to the Flank scenario. 

It was a small threat indeed, and a slightly larger one to the front. June 1941 and a Soviet company is trying to hold out till nightfall against 4 German platoons. The Germans break when 11 squads (tanks counting 2 each) are knocked out. The Soviets break at 9 squads. The table is shown below.

Carl decided to take the Soviets. He deployed two hidden platoons, his left flank platoon deployed in the open. I deployed as shown below. Due to a mistaken idea about the power of heavy artillery, I eschewed deploying infantry on the rough hill, instead setting up a column of platoons on my left. You may wonder what I was thinking. So do I.

An early attempt to flank the enemy on my right came to naught, under tank, 82mm mortar and infantry fire.

By my fourth initiative I sent two platoons on my left onto that hill I could have deployed on. Most were pinned by Soviet fire, some suppressed. Yellow markers indicate pinned squads, red markers denote suppressed. One of my platoons, though pinned, fired crossfires, aided by their attached HMG. As my artillery generally failed to accomplish much, this platoon began to work over the Soviets opposite. From time to time I would rally suppressed squads but had trouble rallying pinned ones.  Sudden burst of hits by German artillery and my killer platoon put paid to the Soviet platoon in the woods south of the large hill. I discovered later that they had deployed in an area out side their deployment zone. It didn’t help them since they were wiped out, all save the platoon commander.


As the sun grew low in the sky, I suddenly remembered smokescreens. The heavy artillery and the 75mm were out of ammo, so I began laying smokescreens with the 50mm mortar. Then attempts to unpin infantry often failed. I guess the troops were loath to advance after seeing the mess their CO was making. My Pz III (yes, it was a Pz IV, I don’t have that many tank models) tried a couple shots at the T 26. The first two missed by a mile. I returned to trying to get my infantry platoon on their feet. After that failed, I took a shot with the Pz III again. Direct hit, through the thin front armor and the T 26 blew up.

By now my 50mm mortar was out of ammo, so no more smoke screens. There weren’t that many Soviets left to contest an advance, but everyone was pinned or worse. When the tank tried to go forward, it bogged.

In the picture below, there is one more Soviet squad hidden behind the house at the top of the photo. Not that many, but they still have a HMG (which had knocked out mine). And my foot soldiers could not get up and advance.

An overhead shot of my left flank and center at game end.

Carl’s Soviets achieved their goal. Bad German CO, no doughnut. (Actually, Carl brought some doughnuts before the game.) My dice, which run either hot or cold were distinctly cold most of the game and refused to haul my chestnuts out of the fire. Once, when Soviet artillery managed not to get a single hit, Carl remarked that his gunners were following the German example. Next time I’ll sacrifice some small animals to the dice gods. Maybe even a big one. And use smokescreens earlier in the game.