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For want of a guide: William T. Sherman at Missionary Ridge

It perhaps overstates the obvious, but good intelligence is vital to effective military performance (or almost any other human endeavor, for that matter.) Be it the tactical, operational, strategic or grand strategic level of war, information drives decision-making. And decisions made with bad intel often go terribly awry.

Our American Civil War has had relatively few works devoted exclusively to the professional use of intelligence in war, though lurid tales of “Scouts and Spies” abound. Females—be they femme fatales, damsels in distress, or even seemingly crazy old crones—are a special subcategory of this genre. Belle Boyd, for example, or Pauline Cushman spring to mind. Emma Sampson, who helped Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Elizabeth Van Lew (the Crazy Bet of Richmond) also represent architypes. Another category might fit into the dashing cavalier image, of daring cavalrymen (Usually Confederate) riding around enemy armies or uncovering vital information at a crucial moment. Those stories have been common in the literature for many years.

Fortunately for the study of military operations, we are also beginning to see more sober, judicious examinations of intelligence operations, ranging from Edward Fischel’s now venerated The Secret War for the Union (pub. 1996) to Thomas Ryan’s excellent recent work, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets of the Gettysburg Campaign, which appeared in 2015. Such works offer us a more analytical view of the uses and importance of intelligence gathering. But we need more work in this area.

The conflict is also replete with tales of intelligence failures: Lee missing Stuart at Gettysburg being the most infamous example. It is one such event that I want to explore more fully here.

On November 15, 1863, William T. Sherman arrived in Chattanooga. He was there at Ulysses S. Grant’s behest, where Grant expected Sherman and those elements of the Army of the Tennessee who arrived with him to do the heavy lifting in breaking the siege of Chattanooga. Grant ordered Sherman to strike the northern end of Missionary Ridge-a plan he had been nurturing for some time-turn Braxton Bragg’s flank and drive the Rebels south, away from East Tennessee and James Longstreet’s detached force. Sherman was to accomplish this as much by stealth as by fighting; he was to march his men in secret up the north bank of the Tennessee and make a surprise dawn amphibious crossing on pontoon boats to the south bank, reprising the successful stratagem used at Brown’s Ferry the previous month. Once ashore, Sherman’s force was to move inland, seizing the undefended northern extension of Missionary Ridge, from where they could easily move against Bragg’s main supply depot at Chickamauga Station.

Grant’s plan, as students of the war know, did not come off seamlessly. Sherman certainly achieved all the surprise he could ask for during the crossing in November 24, but then he moved tentatively towards Missionary Ridge that afternoon, and, to both Grant’s and Sherman’s later chagrin, failed to occupy the ridge. Instead, he found himself on a detached hill (known as Goat or Billy Goat Hill) with Patrick Cleburne’s Confederate infantry division occupying the key terrain. Despite several assaults launched on November 25, Sherman never took the ridge. Fortunately for Grant’s plans (and subsequent career) George Thomas’s and Joseph Hooker’s troops were far more successful, producing one of the more spectacular battles of the war, the storming of Missionary Ridge.

Why did Sherman fail? More specifically, why did he not have any real understanding of the terrain he was supposed to occupy?

Sherman, of course, had only recently arrived. The Army of the Tennessee had no previous experience in the area. Unlike the detailed, highly accurate maps produced by Union engineering officers after the battle of Missionary Ridge, the maps at the time were often vague or missing key details. But this was often true for Civil War armies; and such lapses did not always lead to failure.

For some reason, neither Sherman nor his senior officers turned to a common solution for terrain uncertainty: local knowledge. The Army of the Tennessee, perhaps out of arrogance, or perhaps just out of plain neglect, failed to secure local guides or members from the Army of the Cumberland who could help them understand the details of the ground they were to capture. To name one example, the 59th Ohio Infantry in Thomas’s army had occupied and fought over this ground on September 22 and 23, in the immediate aftermath of Chickamauga. The defended Boyce’s station against Rebel cavalry on the 23rd, and conducted a fighting retreat back into Chattanooga. They could have provided the local knowledge Sherman so desperately needed.

The most interesting part of this story, however, revolves around two civilians. The first was Thomas Crutchfield, Jr. A 33-year-old gentleman farmer, Crutchfield was the son of one of the founding fathers of Chattanooga. He once managed the hotel he inherited from his father, Crutchfield House, at the time the best and largest hotel in Chattanooga. Both Thomas and his older brother William were staunch Unionists: In January of 1861, William had a heated exchange with future Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the hotel dining room, over secession, which nearly led to violence. By 1863, William was a known Union asset, providing intelligence and guidance to Union commanders. In August of that year, William swam the Tennessee River to elude arrest, joining John T. Wilder’s mounted infantry on the north bank. William was credited with advising Generals John Turchin and William B. Hazen during the operation to secure Brown’s Ferry.

Thomas was equally helpful to the Union cause, if not quite so flamboyant. By 1863, he had sold the hotel and was managing his estate on the south bank of the Tennessee upstream from the city, called Amnicola. It was a large property. It was, in fact, the very place that Sherman’s amphibious column was aiming for on the morning of November 24, 1863, when they crossed the river near the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek to secure a bridgehead for the rest of Sherman’s force. By noon, the bridge was complete and something like 20,000 Federals were entrenching across Amnicola’s fertile fields. Had Thomas Crutchfield been at home, he would have been able to provide Sherman with detailed intelligence on the nature of the terrain to the east.

But Crutchfield wasn’t at home; he was in Kentucky, transported there by the Union authorities. On October 27, based on a message from General Henry Halleck, Grant hastily arrested Thomas Crutchfield for being a “pretended Union” man, and actually spying for Bragg. Crutchfield and one other man, Dean Thompson, were both sent to Louisville under guard. Of course, Crutchfield was in fact an actual Union man, not pretend. He had been of great help providing intelligence to General Rosecrans during the Chickamauga Campaign.

George Thomas should have known Thomas Crutchfield well. Perhaps Thomas tried to vouch for him, though I have found no evidence of this being so. Interestingly, upon hearing news of the arrest, Halleck immediately backtracked, rebuking Grant for acting too hastily: “I have no evidence against Crutchfield and Thompson, only a rumor. I did not desire their arrest . . . but merely to put you on your guard against them.” Still, though the recently-arrested Crutchfield wasn’t at home, his family was in residence. However, the men of the XV Corps apparently treated the farm as if its owner were a confirmed Rebel. At the end of the year, Crutchfield described his property as “a perfect barren waste, farm implements all destroyed, not a rail left, [and] the farm all cut up with rifle pits. . . . Not content with the destruction of everything on the farm, but they plundered all the houses, save the one my family was in.” This devastation was unfortunate, as was Crutchfield’s arrest. As a local, no one had a better knowledge of the surrounding terrain than he did. Had he been available, his input could have proved invaluable to William T. Sherman.

Whether through arrogance in assuming that they didn’t need any help, distrust of the Crutchfield family, or a simple failure of elementary staff work, neither Sherman, his staff, nor any of the subordinate commanders in Sherman’s column secured any local guidance. This was unusual, for reliance on locals for information was routine in most Civil War armies. Both Rosecrans and Braxton Bragg, for example, secured local guides for themselves and their subordinates during the battle of Chickamauga; the most famous of these being Private Tom Brotherton, who was attached to James Longstreet’s command on September 20, 1863 – Brotherton, it was said, “knew every pig trail through [the] woods” of Chickamauga.

So why didn’t Sherman have a similar guide at Missionary Ridge? It was a question asked by members of the Army of the Cumberland and others associated with Grant, after the battle. George Thomas and General Gordon Granger apparently had the services of William Crutchfield that day on Orchard Knob. Perhaps guidance was offered, and refused; perhaps Sherman simply never thought of it. There is no good answer.

However, that lack of guidance proved disastrous for Sherman’s operations, and, by extension, nearly disastrous for Grant’s plans. Sherman proved completely clueless about the terrain on Missionary Ridge. On November 24, after he seized Billy Goat Hill, he informed Grant that he was on Missionary Ridge north of the Railroad Tunnel. Of course, he wasn’t on the ridge at all. The next morning, he discovered his error, at least once the early morning fog cleared, and he was astounded at the steep valley separating his forces from Cleburne’s defenders. His attacks were poorly coordinated and executed. He continued to display ignorance concerning the terrain in his messages to Grant that morning, which at one point indicated that he had seized the north end of the ridge as far as the railroad tunnel. He had accomplished nothing of the sort.

Eventually, of course, Thomas and Hooker triumphed, routing Bragg’s army and forcing the Rebels to retreat. That victory allowed Sherman’s mistakes to go overlooked, especially by Grant. But any student of the war has to wonder how that battle might have progressed had Sherman secured a good local guide.

For Thomas Crutchfield, matters were eventually put right. By the following Spring Grant described Crutchfield as “a Tennessean of undoubted loyalty . . . [who] has made large sacrifices of property on account of his opinions and has been of great service to the [U]nion cause.” But by then the war was moving south, leaving Chattanooga in its wake.

Further Reading: David A. Powell, The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020).

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