On October 3rd, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “the last Thursday of November next” to be set aside as “a day of Thanksgiving.” Much has been said and written about Lincoln’s proclamation, no more need be said here.
That last Thursday of November – the 26th – proved especially memorable for the men of the Army of the Cumberland, at Chattanooga.
Since Chickamauga, the Cumberlanders had been trapped in Chattanooga, enduring almost constant rain, cold, and considerable hunger. Chattanooga was a sea of mud. Thousands of horses perished, rendering the army nearly immobile. Things improved somewhat in early November, when the Cracker Line opened and restored better rations to the troops, but for many soldiers that fall would remain their most miserable experience of army life.
All that changed in the days leading up to the first Thanksgiving. General Ulysses S. Grant, with all his forces now at hand, was at last ready to move against Braxton Bragg’s encircling Rebels.
On November 23rd, The Army of the Cumberland marched out onto the broad plain between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, some two miles distant. They were there to seize Orchard Knob and Indian Ridge, intermediate heights between the city and the ridge; lightly held as outposts by the Rebels. Facing 20,000 troops in full martial array, those 600 or so Confederates had little choice but to fall back, leaving the Knob in Union hands and fulfilling Grant’s expectations; mainly to provide a diversion for William T. Sherman’s crossing of the Tennessee River some 6 miles upstream, all with an eye towards striking Bragg’s right.
On the 24th, two days before the new holiday, the second part of the plan unfolded when Joseph T. Hooker’s men (newly arrived Easterners mainly, but with a good mix of Chickamauga veterans included) attacked and captured Lookout Mountain. This fight was short, successful, and dramatic enough for any theater critic. Most of the action was obscured by clouds, but at the last the Union flags floated above all, in full view of both armies.
November 25th dawned, clear and cold. The rains were gone. Sherman attacked the north end of Missionary Ridge, while Hooker moved off of Lookout towards the south end of the ridge. The bulk of the Army of the Cumberland, those same divisions who marched out to seize Orchard Knob, had no role in the coming fight. They were to watch, holding the center. Grant had no intention of sending 20,000 men to storm the main Rebel line on Missionary Ridge, which by all evidence looked impregnable. Better to let the flanking efforts lever Bragg into ruin and retreat.
Things did not go as planned. Sherman fumbled, Hooker took much longer than expected. In response, Grant ordered Thomas to make a “demonstration” against the foot of the ridge, merely to draw Bragg’s attention and keep the Rebels from reinforcing the fight against Sherman.
At 4:00 p.m., Four Union divisions advanced. They captured the first line of Confederate works at the foot of the ridge easily, for the Confederates were undermanned here. For weeks Bragg had been sending troops away from Chattanooga on other missions, decisions which now would come home to roost with a vengeance.
Holding on at the foot of the ridge, however, proved difficult. There was no cover. Rebels atop the ridge could fire right down into the new Union position. Besides, there were scores to settle.
Grant, Thomas, their staffs, and other Union commanders watched in amazement and no small amount of unease as those 20,000 Cumberlanders kept right on going. Flags and regiments were suddenly scrambling up the steep slopes. Orders sent to stop them went unheeded. Suddenly, the flags were at the crest, and the Confederates were breaking. It was victory. unplanned, but no less of one for all that. 40 cannon and more than 4,000 prisoners were taken. As far as the Army of the Cumberland was concerned, Chickamauga was redeemed.
November 26th, then, was a day of Thanksgiving indeed. The rest of the week was clear, the rains seemingly having been stopped on command. A 34 gun salute was fired from Orchard Knob, marking the day. Bragg’s army was in retreat, and being pursued. Even the losses had been comparatively light for such a signal success: 5,800 Federal casualties, of which 753 were killed, vastly better than the more than 16,000 who fell the previous September.