As clouds enshrouded the mountains on the morning of Nov. 23, 1863, a few hundred gray-clad soldiers stood atop Orchard Knob peering into the besieged city of Chattanooga. For weeks, Confederate pickets kept watch over the beleaguered city from the knob, a small hill that lay between the city and their main line along Missionary Ridge.
To the soldiers, it certainly appeared to be a "no man's land" as they found themselves wedged between two great struggling armies. Unknown to them, the fight for control of the city would begin that afternoon with the main Union assault directly targeting Orchard Knob.
Like any other day, Confederate sentinels walked their rounds, men hunkered in their trenches reminiscing about their homes and families, and officers watched the movements of Union soldiers in the distance. The artillery boomed from Union occupied Fort Wood, the shells screeched over the heads of the men stationed on and around Orchard Knob, and ensuing explosions could be seen and heard along Missionary Ridge. As sieges go, everything seemed normal in and around Chattanooga.
Around 1 p.m., the calm suddenly broke across the valley as bugle calls pierced the air and drums "rat-a-tat-tatted" amidst the concussion of the artillery.
The dust began to rise as thousands of Union soldiers scurried into line, then filed over the breastworks east of the city. From atop one of the ramparts at Fort Wood, one observer noted that "flags were flying, the quick earnest steps of thousands beat equal time. The sharp commands of hundreds of company officers, the sound of the drums, the ringing notes of the bugle, companies wheeling and countermarching, and regiments getting into line, the bright sun lighting up 10,000 polished bayonets until they glistened and flashed like a ...shower of electric spirits -- all looked like preparations for a peaceful pageant, rather than for the bloody work of death."
About 2,100 yards in front of the dust-coated lines of blue-clad soldiers, stood the 100-foot high knob and a low, rocky, brush-infested ridge to its southwest. However, in order to close the expanse between the lines, Union troops needed to cross open farm fields, move over the tracks belonging to the Western and Atlantic Railroad and maneuver through a belt of timber before reaching their destination.
Back on the knob, just over 600 soldiers from the 24th and 28th Alabama Regiments stood between the Union troops and the main Confederate line on Missionary Ridge.
Col. Newton Davis of the 24th Alabama received word from the picket line that Union soldiers were forming in his front. He quickly snatched the message and sprinted to the top of the knoll.
As he looked out upon the sea of blue, he recalled that his first impression "was that they were preparing for a review." It was not until he heard "load at will" shouted in the distance, that he knew he was not witnessing a mere parade.
Davis quickly sent word to Missionary Ridge, but no help came. Around 1:50 p.m. the colonel's intuition was reinforced as the shrill call of the bugle mingled with Union officers shouting the orders "Forward!"
Then, like a great blue wave, the Union lines lurched forward, driving and scattering the outnumbered Confederates into the timberline not far from Orchard Knob. Davis, frustrated that he could not see the advancing enemy through the trees, ran to a small rise. He had not gone far when he heard the shouts of men. As he whipped around, he witnessed the Union line emerge and crash around his men, forcing them to retreat toward the ridge.
With the 24th Alabama falling back, members of the 28th Alabama found themselves alone, facing well over 2,000 Union soldiers. After a brief fight, they too were engulfed. In a matter of minutes, fighting subsided and victorious Union soldiers planted their colors upon Orchard Knob.
Confederates not captured found safety within their lines along Missionary Ridge.
Once the knob was secure, Union Gen. George Thomas sent a signal to the officers now in possession of the hill and ridge spur. Standing upon the fortified, earthen walls of Fort Wood, a signalman sent the following message: "Hold on, don't come back; you have got too much, intrench [sic] your position."
Federal soldiers followed the order and began readying themselves for what was to come.
The next day, Union soldiers would assault another seemingly impregnable position: Lookout Mountain.
Christopher Young is a park ranger at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. For more information, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or telephone LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.