published Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Murray: Sherman's secret attack on Missionary Ridge

By R. Smith Murray

Most people are familiar with the Union's secretive amphibious attack on Brown's Ferry in October 1863 which opened the "cracker-line" to bring supplies to the Union's besieged troops in Chattanooga.

Less familiar to most is a second secretive amphibious operation launched a month later by Union Gen. William T. Sherman to support an attack on Missionary Ridge.

Both raids were planned by Gen. W.F. "Baldy" Smith. For Brown's Ferry, Smith collaborated with Gen. William S. Rosecrans -- before Rosecrans was relieved of command by Gen. U.S. Grant. For Missionary Ridge, Smith and Grant did the planning.

Once in command in Chattanooga, Grant became alarmed when Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg dispatched Gen. James Longstreet's corps to confront the Union army in Knoxville. Grant hoped he could force Bragg to recall Longstreet by having Union Gen. George Thomas' army cross on a pontoon bridge north of Chattanooga on the Tennessee River and attack Missionary Ridge.

Much to Grant's disgust, Thomas demurred stating that his Army of the Cumberland was too weak for such a task. Grant would have to wait until Sherman's army arrived.

On Nov. 14, ahead of his army, Sherman arrived in Chattanooga. From the west shore on the Tennessee River (near today's Harrison farm) he and "Baldy" Smith scouted the north end of Missionary Ridge. After viewing the topography Sherman slammed his telescope shut and said, "I can do it." Remembering their successful raid on Brown's Ferry, Smith and Grant concocted a similar plan for Sherman.

In Chattanooga, the Union engineers constructed 116 pontoon boats, which were then hauled eight miles up to the mouth of North Chickamauga Creek (just below today's Chickamauga Dam.)

There were several roads leading to the creek, but not all of them were hidden from the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. So the Union engineers constructed an additional three miles of road, thereby keeping the transport of the boats from view.

To add to the secrecy of the movement of the pontoon boats, Col. Dan McCook was put in charge of arresting all civilians who lived between Chattanooga and North Chickamauga Creek. The number of civilians was not huge, but the arrest was still a major undertaking. It's possible that not all the civilians were gathered in. If any escaped arrest, none got to Gen. Bragg to warn him of the Union movement. The excuse for the arrest was to protect Union troops from being bushwacked.

On Nov. 23 around midnight, 3,000 Union troops boarded the pontoon boats. Sherman was on hand for the loading. Gen. Giles Smith was in command of the boats.

From North Chickamauga Creek, the boats, with their oars muffled, drifted downriver hugging the bank of the Tennessee River. They kept their guns unloaded to avoid an accidental firing, which might alert the Confederates.

A lantern on the west shore signaled where the boats were to veer off to the east bank to unload the troops just downriver from the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek.

Before landing, the lead boat broke off and landed north of the creek's mouth. About 25 Union soldiers quickly subdued the Confederate pickets along the eastern shore of the river. A single Confederate rifle shot was fired, but it alerted no one.

Once ashore, the 3,000 Union troops established their beachhead. The pontoon boats were sent back across to the west bank of the Tennessee River to transport more of Sherman's army. The pontoon boats were then used to form a bridge across the river.

As it turned out, the 116 boats didn't quite reach across the river. However, "Baldy" Smith had stashed an additional 25 boats on the west shore, and they were used to plug the breech.

By daylight on Nov. 24, Sherman had two divisions across the river and a third on the way. His units had met no opposition except from a Quaker farmer, who was irritated about soldiers tearing up his land.

Until midmorning Bragg's Confederates had failed to detect Sherman's presence. By then, Sherman had all three of his divisions across the river.

It was midday on Nov. 25 when Bragg sent Gen. Patrick Cleburne's division to contest the north end of Missionary Ridge.

Sherman's secret amphibious attack had been a brilliant maneuver. All was near perfection until Sherman assaulted the wrong hill.

Dr. R. Smith Murray is a retired urologist. For more, visit www.chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.

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