On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

The Rescue of Two Armies

The defeats and disappointments of the various campaigns in Virginia had gradually convinced the authorities at Washington that too many people were trying to direct the Union forces. With Lee there was practically no interference; but the commanders who opposed him were subject to the orders of the General-in-Chief at Washington, who was, to some extent, controlled by the Secretary of War, whose superior was the President, and after almost every engagement a Congressional Committee, known as the "committee on the conduct of the war," held a solemn investigation in which praise and blame were distributed with the best intentions and worst possible results. All these offices and officials were accordingly more or less responsible for everything that occurred, but not one of them was ever wholly to blame. This mistake, however, was at last fully realized and a careful search began for some one man to whom the supreme command could be entrusted. But for a long time no one apparently thought that the Western army contained any very promising material. Nevertheless, Grant, Sheridan, Sherman and Rosecrans were then in that army and, of these four; Rosecrans was regarded by many as the only real possibility.

Indeed, at the moment when Grant was closing in upon Vicksburg, and Lee and Meade were struggling at Gettysburg, Rosecrans, who had been entrusted with the important duty of conducting a campaign to drive the Confederates out of Tennessee, was fully justifying the high opinions of his admirers. Between June 24, 1863, and September 9th of that year he certainly outmaneuvered his opponents, occupying the all-important position of Chattanooga, and forcing the able Confederate General Bragg to fall back with more speed than order.

During all this time the North had been insisting that the army should be placed in charge of some commander who could master Lee, and this demand had found expression in a popular poem bearing the refrain "Abraham Lincoln! Give us a Man!" To the minds of many people Rosecrans had clearly demonstrated that he was "the Man," and it is possible that his subsequent acts were prompted by over-eagerness to end his already successful campaign with a startlingly brilliant feat of arms. At all events, he determined not to rest satisfied with having driven the Confederates from the field, but to capture or destroy their entire force.

With this idea he divided his army and rushed it by different routes over the mountains in hot pursuit of the foe. But the trouble with this program was that Bragg had not really retreated at all, having merely moved his army aside waiting for an opportunity to strike. Indeed, Rosecrans had barely plunged his troops into the various mountain passes on their fruitless errand before the whole Confederate force loomed up, threatening to destroy his widely-separated, pursuing columns, one by one, before they could be united.

This unexpected turn of affairs utterly unnerved the Union General, and although he did manage by desperate exertions to collect his scattered army, he completely lost his head when Bragg attacked him at Chickamauga, Georgia, on the 19th of September, 1863, and before the savage battle of that name had ended he retired from the field, believing that his army had been totally destroyed.

Such, undoubtedly, would have been its fate had not General Thomas and his brave troops covered the retreat, by holding the whole Confederate army in check for hours and even forcing it to yield portions of the bloody field. From that day forward Thomas was known as "The Rock of Chickamauga," but the heroic stand of his gallant men barely sufficed to save the Union army, which reached the intrenchments of Chattanooga only just in time, with the Confederates hot upon its trail.

Had Bragg overtaken his flying opponent, he would doubtless have made an end of him then and there, but it was not altogether with regret that he saw him enter Chattanooga, for with the roads properly blocked he knew the place would prove a perfect trap. He, accordingly, began a close siege which instantly cut off all Rosecrans' communication with the outside world, except by one road which was in such a wretched condition as to be impossible for a retreating army. Indeed, the heavy autumn rains soon rendered it impracticable even for provision wagons, and as no supplies could reach the army by any other route, it was not long before starvation began to stare the besieged garrison in the face.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans, almost wild with anxiety and mortification, sent dispatch after dispatch to Washington describing his condition and imploring aid, but though he still had an effective army under his command and plenty of ammunition, he made no attempt whatever to save himself from his impending doom. Day by day the situation grew more and more perilous; thousands upon thousands of horses and mules died for lack of food and the men were so nearly reduced to starvation that they greedily devoured the dry corn intended for the animals.

All this time the authorities in Washington were straining every nerve to rescue the beleaguered army. Sixteen thousand men under General Hooker were rushed to its relief, provisions were forwarded within a day's march of the town, awaiting the opening of new roads, and finally, when the stream of frantic telegrams from the front showed that the army had practically no leadership, hurried orders were forwarded to Grant, authorizing him to remove Rosecrans, place Thomas temporarily in control and take the field himself at the earliest possible moment.

This unexpected summons found Grant in a serious condition, for some weeks earlier his horse had fallen under him, crushing his leg so severely that for a time it was feared he might be crippled for life, and he was still on crutches suffering intense pain when the exciting orders were placed in his hands. Nevertheless, he promptly started on his desperate errand, traveling at first by rail and steamer and then in an ambulance, until its jolting motion became unbearable when he had himself lifted into the saddle with the grim determination of riding the remainder of the way. Even for a man in perfect physical condition the journey would have been distressing, for the roads, poor at their best, were knee deep in mud and a wild storm of wind and rain was raging. Time and again his escort had to lift the General from his horse and carry him across dangerous washouts and unaffordable streams, but at the earliest possible moment they were always ordered to swing him into the saddle again.

Thus, mile after mile and hour after hour, the little cavalcade crept toward Chattanooga, Grant's face becoming more haggard and furrowed with pain at every step, but showing a fixed determination to reach his goal at any cost. On every side signs of the desperate plight of the besieged garrison were only too apparent. Thousands of carcasses of starved horses and mules lay beside the road amid broken-down wagons, abandoned provisions and all the wreckage of a disorganized and demoralized army.

But if the suffering officer noted these ominous evidences of disaster, his face afforded no expression of his thought. Plastered with mud and drenched to the skin, he rode steadily forward, speaking no word and scarcely glancing to the right or left, and when at last the excruciating journey came to an end, he hastened to interview Thomas and hear his report, without even waiting to change his clothes or obtain refreshment of any kind.

It was not a very cheerful story which Thomas confided to his Chief before the blazing headquarters' fire, but the dripping and exhausted General listened to it with no indication of discouragement or dismay. "What efforts have been made to open up other roads for provisioning the army?" was the first question, and Thomas showed him a plan which he and Rosecrans had worked out. Grant considered it in silence for a moment and then nodded his approval. The only thing wrong with the plan was that it had not been carried out, was his comment, and after a personal inspection of the lines he gave the necessary authority for putting it into immediate operation. Orders accordingly began flying right and left, and within twenty-four hours the army was busily engaged in gnawing a way out of the trap.

Additional roads were essential for safety but to gain them the Confederates had to be attacked and a heavy force was therefore ordered to seize and hold a point known as Brown's Ferry. This relieved the situation at once and meanwhile the new commander had hurried a special messenger to Sherman, ordering him to drop everything else and march his Vicksburg veterans toward Chattanooga without an instant's delay. The advance of this strong reenforcement was promptly reported to Bragg, who saw at a glance that unless it could be stopped there was every prospect that his Chattanooga victims would escape.

He accordingly determined upon a very bold but very dangerous move. Not far away lay General Burnside and a small Union army, guarding the important city of Knoxville, Tennessee, and against this the Confederate commander dispatched a heavy force, in the hope that Grant would be compelled to send Sherman to the rescue.

But the effect of this news upon Grant was very different from Bragg's expectations, for realizing that his adversary must have seriously weakened himself in sending the expedition against Burnside, he ordered Hooker, whose 16,000 men were already on hand, to make an immediate attack with a force drawn from various parts of the army, and on November 24, 1863, after a fierce engagement known as the battle of Lookout Mountain, the Union troops drove their opponents from one of the two important heights commanding Chattanooga.

In this success Sherman had effectively cooperated by attacking and holding the northern end of Missionary Ridge and Grant determined to follow up his advantage by moving the very next morning against this second and more formidable range of hills. Therefore, ordering Hooker to attack the Confederate right on Missionary Ridge and get in their rear at that point while Sherman assaulted their left, he held Thomas's troops lying in their trenches at the front awaiting a favorable opportunity to send them crashing through the center.

The main field of battle was plainly visible to the silent commander as he looked down upon it from a hill known as Orchard Knob, and he watched the effect of the attacks on both wings of the Confederate line with intense interest. Reenforcements were evidently being hurried to the Confederate right and left and Hooker, delayed by the destruction of a bridge, did not appear at the critical moment. Nevertheless, for some time Sherman continued to advance, but as Grant saw him making slower progress and noted the heavy massing of troops in his path, he ordered Thomas's waiting columns to attack the center and carry the breastworks at the foot of Missionary Ridge.

With a blare of bugles, 20,000 blue-coated men seemed to leap from the ground and 20,000 bayonets pointed at Missionary Ridge whose summits began to blaze forth shot and shell. Death met them at every stride but the charging troops covered the ground between them and the rifle pits they had been ordered to take in one wild rush and tore over them like an angry sea. Then, to the utter astonishment of all beholders, instead of halting, they continued charging up the face of Missionary Ridge, straight into the mouths of the murderous cannon.

"By whose order is this?" Grant demanded sternly.

"By their own, I fancy," answered Thomas.

Incredible as this suggestion seemed, it offered the only possible explanation of the scene. No officer would have dared to order troops to such certain destruction as apparently awaited them on the fire-crowned slopes of Missionary Ridge. Spellbound Grant followed the men as they crept further and further up the height, expecting every instant to see them hurled back as Pickett's heroes were at Gettysburg, when suddenly wave upon wave of blue broke over the crest, the Union flags fluttered all along the line and before this extraordinary charge the Confederates broke and fled in disorder.

Setting spur to his horse, Grant dashed across the hard-fought field and up the formidable ridge, issuing orders for securing all that had been gained. An opening wedge had now been inserted in Chattanooga's prison doors, and by midnight the silent captain had thrown his whole weight against them and they fell. Then calmly turning his attention to Burnside, he ordered him to hold his position at every hazard until he could come to the rescue and, setting part of his victorious veterans in motion toward Knoxville, soon relieved its garrison from all danger.

With the rescue of two Union armies to his credit Grant was generally regarded as the most fitting candidate for the chief command of the army, but by this time it was fully realized that the man who held that position would have to be invested with far greater powers than any Union general had thus far possessed. Halleck expressed himself as only too anxious to resign; Congress passed a law reviving the grade of lieutenant-general with powers which, up to that time, had never been entrusted to anyone save Washington, and responded to the cry, "Abraham Lincoln! Give us a MAN!" the President, on March 1st, 1864, nominated Ulysses Grant as Commander-in-Chief of all the armies of the United States.