By COL (Ret) Ed Lowe
Grant sensed a complete victory, having breached the Confederate lines along Missionary Ridge at multiple locations, scolding them into a hasty retreat towards Dalton, Georgia. Grant quickly unleashed Sherman and Thomas, with Hooker’s command, plus Palmer’s XIV Corps to pursue Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Accompanied by Phillip Sheridan’s command, Gordon Granger would head north to assist Ambrose Burnside around Knoxville. For Bragg and his dispirited army, he needed to gain time, time to allow his army to escape through the gap at the small town of Ringgold, Georgia to the more comfortable natural settings that made up Dalton, Georgia further south. For this, he turned to his dependable Irish commander Patrick Cleburne and his division, a division that had performed solidly against repeated attacks by Sherman along the northern end of Missionary Ridge.
As Cleburne and his 4,000+ man-division snaked its way south, Cleburne received a set of instructions from Bragg’s staff. Finding himself on the northern bank of the East Chickamauga Creek, a Bragg courier informed the division commander that he was to take a position at Ringgold Gap and “to hold his position at all hazards, and to keep back the enemy until the transportation of the army is secured, the salvation of which depends upon him.” Sensing the urgency of the situation with the US troops in probable pursuit yet the bridge before him down, Cleburne’s soldiers would have to ford the river, a daunting task given the bitter cold that enveloped the area. In the very early morning hours and calculating the risk, Cleburne elected to remain on the northern side of the creek for his soldiers to rest for a few hours. Once it was time to move, Cleburne had volunteers cross over and build fires so his soldiers might warm and dry off after crossing. For the crossing, the water was painfully cold. One soldier describing, “thin sheets and crystals of ice were dancing over the water.” Meanwhile, Cleburne had moved forward to Ringgold to assess the situation.
Roughly twenty miles south of Chattanooga, Ringgold housed about 2,000-3,000 residents. Serving as a guardian of the town, towering over its population, White Oak Mountain and Taylor’s Ridge stood. The Western & Atlantic Railroad, South Chickamauga Creek, and a small wagon trail split between the two, leaving a gap as Cleburne highlighted about “a half mile through.” The meandering creek behind the gap that leads to Dalton is covered by “three bridges, or three fords” that led Cleburne to conclude, “A most dangerous position to be caught in if the enemy should succeed in turning either flank.”
Not wanting to expose his position until the last minute, Cleburne arranged his defenses accordingly. Keeping a strong force within the gap, Cleburne covered both sides to his left and right, and two Napoleon guns of Semple’s battery within the gap, screening their position with bushes and shrubs for concealment. “Silence reigned, for Cleburne wanted to lay a trap,” as one soldier described it. He had forward troopers from the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry and Thirty-Third Alabama Infantry to help warn of US approaches into the area. By some estimates, it was less than thirty minutes before the appearance of US troops prompted a hasty withdraw of his Kentucky screening force, a single volley fired before they turned back through town.
With a local resident having informed Joseph Hooker that the Confederates were in full retreat, in complete disarray, Hooker elected to move forward, even though he lacked any artillery that still lingered far behind, many hours before they could arrive onto the scene. As Hooker wrote, a quick movement “would be crowned with a rich harvest of material, without waiting for my artillery, the skirmishers advanced.” Leading the way was Brigadier General Peter Osterhaus’s division, described by one artillery officer as advancing “with the beautiful order and precision characteristics of well-drilled troops.”
Meanwhile, Cleburne watched and waited. Closing to within 150 yards, Cleburne turned to his officer commanding his two artillery pieces and confidently stated, “Now, Lieutenant, give it to em!” Pushing aside the brush and shrubs, the two Napoleons unleashed a devastating fire upon the stunned US forces to their front. Some five or six quick discharges left the US right-wing practically shattered. US forces began also to approach the steep incline that was White Oak Mountain, defended by Cleburne’s 7th Texas.
Quick thinking and timely reinforcements by Cleburne and his subordinate commanders helped stabilize the situation on the mountain, causing one Confederate commander to state, “the most glorious triumph I ever witnessed on a battlefield.” US force after US force made their way up the mountain, as one Confederate soldier exclaimed, “…only to be shattered and hurled back into the valley.” Colonel James Williamson commanded the Second Brigade of the First Division in the XV Corps, attached to Hooker’s Corps, grew frustrated with the lack of support to his left or right said that “I found it would be folly to try to carry the hill until I should be re-enforced.” One regiment in Charles Wood’s First Brigade of the same division, Thirteenth Illinois, fired over 100 rounds of cartridges per man. As the attack on White Oak Mountain petered out, Hooker attempt to assail Cleburne’s left.
With a layered defensive belt by Cleburne, the US attack against this portion of the Confederate line failed to achieve any notable success; it too was thrown back. One of the US regiments left a stand of their colors near an apple tree, a very tempting object for the Confederate soldiers that observed. One officer of the 2nd Alabama requested from Cleburne an attempt to retrieve this valuable prize. Cleburne firmly indicated, “As it promised no solid advantage to compensate for the loss of brave soldiers, I would not permit it.”
With no expectation for success without any artillery support, the US forces called off any further attacks and waited for the guns to arrive. Once they did make an appearance, they had little effect on operations. Grant made his presence at Ringgold and assessed the situation. The day before, November 26, Grant had received a message from President Lincoln congratulating his victory in Chattanooga; however, the president closed with two words, a strong reminder to Grant: “Remember Burnside.” Grant directed Hooker to call off any further assaults into the gap.
Around noon, Cleburne had received a positive message from Hardee that the army’s trains were safely through the passage, and out of danger, Cleburne could begin his withdraw from Ringgold Gap. Moving the guns first, then the infantry, the skirmishers were the last to leave. At around 2:00 Cleburne ordered the last bridge burned as the last of his soldiers crossed over. Cleburne’s division, according to his report, had sustained only “20 killed, 190 wounded, and 11 missing.” US casualties were reported at 500. Reflecting on Cleburne’s defense at Ringgold Gap, Author/Historian Peter Cozzens concluded, rarely “was a unit commander in the Army of Tennessee better served by his subordinates than was Cleburne here at Ringgold gap.”
Cozzens, Peter (1994) The Battles of Chattanooga: The Shipwreck of Their Hopes. Urbana & Chicago, Ill: University of Illinois Press.
Powell, David A. (2018) All Hell Can’t Stop Them: The Battles for Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge and Ringgold, November 24-27, 1863. El Dorado, CA: Savas Beatie
━ (2020) The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press.
Spruill, Matt (2003) Storming the Heights: A Guide to the Battle of Chattanooga. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press.
Symonds, Craig L. (1997) Stonewall of the West; Patrick Cleburne & The Civil War. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
US Congress (1894-1922) War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Series 4, 128 Volumes. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.