There was one battle of the Civil War that is often cited by military historians and strategists around the world as one of the rarest and most brilliant examples of what happens when underdogs are overwhelmed with sudden and glorious enthusiasm; enough to disobey orders and soar above and beyond expectations into stunning and unexpected victory.
It is called the Battle of Missionary Ridge. There were Richland County boys right at the heart of the incident, and it is quite possible that they were the instigating spark that ignited and inspired the historic surprise charge.
Theater of War
This event took place with the Army of the Cumberland, which defines it as the western branch of the Union Army, as opposed to the eastern force that had earlier that summer pulled off Gettysburg and, thereby, swung the balance of the war to the North for the first time. It was starting to look like there was a light at the end of that long dark tunnel.
But the Army of the Cumberland had just suffered a staggering defeat at Chickamauga, and hope was draining away once more like sand through the hourglass as winter was setting in early.
The setting for this battle was at Chattanooga, a place about which the headlines up north never seemed to get any more hopeful.
Yet this event took place right before Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, which any history book will affirm was nothing but good news for the Union newspapers.
So if you look at the awful, sad, frustrating months of struggle on one side of the timeline, and all of the romping momentum of gathering victory on the other end, it is clear that those two ends balance precariously, teetering on one critical moment when the weight shifted and the tide of the war turned.
That moment of critical change was Missionary Ridge.
Nothing was the same after that. Everything seemed wholly tenuous before that.
It was perhaps the defining moment of the entire four years of the War Between the States. Nothing else in the Civil War compared to it. Very few events in the annals of Earth’s military history can be held up next to it as comparably electrifying accomplishments.
The Field of Battle
The Union Army was trapped and besieged in Chattanooga, and starving enough to eat mules. They were still seriously limping from the disastrous loss at Chickamauga one month before.
The Confederate Army was firmly dug in along a high ridge with cannon aimed down the length of the valley. The war was not going to move on until somehow those cannon were silenced at the top of that rocky steep called Missionary Ridge.
It was a nearly impregnable position. Grant himself said, before and after the battle, that it was impregnable.
There was a plan for taking Missionary Ridge but it wasn’t working. General Sherman, who was riding a wave of invincible power, had just recently shown up on the scene with his whole army and they were supposed to take the Ridge from the end.
That wasn’t happening—they were spinning their wheels and grinding up mud but totally stymied.
So the other Union force, under General Thomas, was supposed to make some noise along the length of the Ridge in order to draw attention away from the Sherman end. This army was lined up down the valley facing the steep heights.
There were 23,000 men in that line, ranked in rows 2 or 3 deep. Down toward the southern end of the line were the boys from Richland County—the 64th and 65th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, popularly known as the Sherman Brigade.
General Grant stood on a little knoll in the center of the valley watching the action, issuing commands, and directing traffic.
From where he stood he could see the Rebel Army dug in with tons of cannon pointed at him from both the top and the bottom of the ridge.
He ordered the men to take the cannon pits at the bottom of the ridge.
It is helpful to understand at this point that Grant was not eager to engage those 23,000 men in the action at all. They were the ones who had gotten their tails kicked at Chickamauga a month earlier, and he assumed they were either shell-shocked and battle-wary, or simply not very good fighters, or both.
The men on the ground, now rushing across the valley toward the base of Missionary Ridge, were very much aware that Grant thought they were a bunch of pansies.
At the Bottom, In the Pits
It took no time at all for the Sherman Brigade and their 22,600 comrades to easily claim the cannon pits at the base of the ridge.
It was a tough spot to hold though, because the cannon at the top of the ridge were showering tons of killer shrapnel down on them.
But a rare and unique opportunity suddenly presented itself. As the displaced Rebels from the base of the ridge were escaping up the hill, the cannon at the top had to pause in their firing or risk blasting their own men.
Col. Harker and his 65th OVI could see very plainly that if they stormed up the steeps right behind the Rebs they stood a chance of getting to the top to silence the cannon up there.
So they took off straight up the rocky slope. Then the entire army took off up the rocky slope. Nobody waited for orders to do so.
Grant was watching from his perch and he was aghast. “Who ordered those men up the hill?” he demanded, and all he could see was a disaster unfolding before his eyes because his entire army was about to get chopped up by the superior force of cannon pointed down at them.
Grant was sputtering. The other generals were all demurring and rolling their eyes. The Brigade wasn’t exactly disobeying orders, they were simply charging.
The Rebels were astonished. It all happened so quickly, so spontaneously.
The fight began in earnest when Harker and his Richlanders were nearing the top of the ridge, and suddenly the unnerved Rebels were fighting for their lives.
But the 65th was not afraid of a scrap, and they knew how to face fire after their devastating experience at Chickamauga.
They just kept racing ahead. They were really anything but pansies. They were inspired, and totally inspiring.
The man who carried the Brigade’s regimental flag dropped from exhaustion, so his buddy took it, like the passing of the torch, and charged all the way up the mountainside right at the forefront of his pals. He was the first one over the top, and he planted the flag right on top of the cannon where everyone could see.
At the Top, In the Clouds
At that point the Rebels ran, and the Yankees owned the high ground. The Sherman Brigade screamed and yelled and hollered and leaped and hooted and cried.
When they looked around at where they had landed, the Richlanders were standing right at the headquarters of the General who commanded the Confederate forces. It was deserted.
For the Record
From that moment on, for the rest of their lives, for the next 60 years, everyone who was there that day thought they were the first ones to reach the top of Missionary Ridge.
Read the regimental histories—every one tells a different end of the story at the top of the ridge.
The 64th & 65th had a very good claim to the honors. Independent observers from across the valley documented that the first regiment to reach the top emerged into the skyline at the site where the Confederate army headquarters stood.
In assigning honors however, it is right to attribute to the entire 23,000-man army the sentiment expressed in words from a report written by the officer who commanded the Sherman Brigade:
“My regiment, to a man, did its full duty. To mention those who acted gallantly would be but to furnish you with a muster-roll of my regiment.”
In telling this story I don’t want to seem to be glorifying the war, or making the heroics of men with rifles seem like a valid end in itself.
I am very much aware that for every winner in competition there must be a loser; and that in the game of war those who lose pay prices for their loss beyond all compensation—their lives, their loved ones, their limbs, the very innocence and faith in a trustworthy universe we need to sustain credible will to go on.
But there is one aspect to this history that empowers the tale to a higher level above the simple polarity of victory and defeat, or dignity and humiliation. It is the element of enthusiasm.
The word enthusiasm derives from the Greek ‘enthousiasmos,’ which consists of the root words “theos” (god) and “en: (in); literally “god within.”
To be enthusiastic is to be actively channeling the source of all being.
In considering that those young men faced insurmountable odds and incalculable peril with “enthusiasm,” suggests by the very language that they were, at that moment, embodying the power of the universe.
That’s why historians and military strategists all over the world for the last 150 years have gazed on this tale with wonder and envy.