On Nov. 25, 1863, the cold autumn day was about to give way to rain on Missionary Ridge, Tenn. Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne had just repulsed repeated attacks by Federal forces under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on the extreme Confederate right when he received orders to retreat. The Confederate center had broken.
Pat Cleburne, at 35, was the commander of the shock troops of Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. His division of 4,000 comprised mostly men from the trans-Mississippi states but also counted among its ranks many Irishmen. Like Cleburne himself, they had come to America from a famine-ravaged and oppressed country seeking a better life. Instead, they had found war.
At dawn on the 26th, Cleburne’s division was in full retreat as the rear guard to Bragg’s fleeing army and supply trains. If Federals pursued, the only Southern army between Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico would be destroyed, leaving the deep South open to invasion.
All day Cleburne’s men followed lumbering wagons, harassed by Yankee cannon fire. By evening, they had reached the swollen waters of Chickamauga Creek, 17 miles south of Chattanooga. Faced with the decision to cross or risk being overtaken, Cleburne considered his jaded troops and ordered them to camp on the banks of the rushing creek and cross at dawn.
At first light, they made it across, and an aide-de-camp arrived with verbal orders from Bragg. The peevish commander wanted Cleburne to make a stand, a last-ditch effort to buy time for the wagon trains to cross the mountains and stagger into the safety of Dalton, Ga., where the army could regroup.
What Bragg wanted would be considered an impossibility by most commanders, and Cleburne’s already antagonistic relationship with his commanding general forced him to consider the consequences to himself should the stand fail. Thus, Cleburne demanded written orders.
While the courier rode off to comply with Cleburne’s request, the Irishman galloped toward the gap’s high ground. Duty drove him. Dedication to his command steeled him. He decided he would face the Union Army at this mountain gap.
Cleburne had orders to hold the ground, but how he would accomplish this was strictly his responsibility. Riding his horse up the slopes of White Oak Ridge, off the gap wagon road, he undertook a personal reconnaissance of the ground by moonlight.
A quick assessment revealed a steep ridge with a narrow crest about 400 yards long before it dropped off into a ravine. Cleburne had a sweeping panoramic view of the road running alongside the Western & Atlantic Rail Road, and of the town of Ringgold, whose 2,000 souls had mostly fled at the signs of an impending battle. The terrain was identical to the ill-fated ground at Rossville Gap on Missionary Ridge, and the possibility of a second failure haunted him.
Descending the ridge, Cleburne crossed the narrow wagon road and explored Taylor’s Ridge, a steep, unassailable slope that could withstand an onslaught even if lightly defended. Cleburne immediately saw how to deploy his small force.
He faced a daunting task. He assessed the situation quickly. He had half an hour at most to deploy his division and mount a defense. What went through his mind? Did visions of Thermopylae and disaster loom before him? Or did he fall back on his British army legacy and Wellington’s tactics? His decisions point to the latter.
The terrain of Ringgold Gap — and Cleburne’s defense of it — is remarkably similar to that of Busaco, where Wellington defeated the forces of Napoleon in 1810. Using tactics of defensive positions and concealment, Wellington held a ridge against overwhelming French forces. There is evidence that Cleburne modeled his defenses on this action.
Laying the trap
As the last elements of Confederate cavalry rode toward the gap, leading on the Federal troops of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s corps, Cleburne assembled his commanders in the wagon road. He drew a hasty battle plan in the dirt with his finger. The most vulnerable point of attack was his right flank, which came to an abrupt end at a ravine on White Oak Ridge. He entrusted this part of the line, about 1,226 troops, to Texans under the command of Col. Hiram Granbury.
The left flank butted against the steep slope of Taylor’s Ridge, and he assigned this to the 16th Alabama and three companies of the 6th and 7th Arkansas. The gap, which afforded Cleburne his only means of retreat if things went wrong, was the most vital, and there Cleburne placed his most trusted regiments — the shock troops of his division, the Irishmen of the 5th and 13th Arkansas under the popular Irish-born Col. John E. Murray, followed by four additional regiments — to create a formidable wall in the gap.
To entice Union forces as close as possible to inflict maximum damage, Cleburne ordered the men to lie down along the front of the ridge in the timberline and sent Brig. Gen. Lucius Polk’s and Brig. Gen. Marcus Lowrey’s brigades to the rear behind the ridge with orders to wait in the ready to receive orders in case of a Union breakthrough.
As the Irish filed into a small ravine traversing the mouth of the gap, they were reinforced by a section of two 6-pounder Napoleon cannons under command of Lt. Richard Goldthwaite, the only artillery at Cleburne’s disposal. Cleburne would direct the action from this desperate point. A load of solid shot was rammed home in one gun and a load of canister in the other as men scattered to positions on the firing line. The cannons were wheeled into place.
Capturing a flag
“Two minutes more would have been too late,” recalled one private, for no sooner than had the army settled in the trap than the enemy appeared. Brig. Gen. Charles Woods’ 17th and 31st Missouri were the first of Hooker’s 15,190 troops to spring Cleburne’s trap. One hundred and fifty yards from the timberline, the woods blazed into a single volley of musket fire as Granbury’s Texans found their marks.
Thrown back in surprise, the Missourians wavered until the 29th Missouri rushed in. They provided the first trophy of the day when Granbury’s men rushed them, capturing their flag and 100 prisoners.
When Union commanders recovered enough to realize what was happening, they surmised that the chink in Cleburne’s armor might be his right, where White Oak Ridge dropped off. Thinking to pierce through there and get in the Confederate rear, with a simultaneous attack at Cleburne’s center in the gap, they struck. Granbury, however, was ready.
Hooker watched confidently from the Stone Depot of Ringgold Station at the foot of the ridge as Illinois and New York troops aimed for the center. Fifty yards away, Cleburne gave the order to Goldthwaite, and the two Napoleons belched. The packed blue ranks reeled, setting off three hours of deadly close-range fighting, while Missourians marched into the meat grinder of Granbury’s men on the steep slope.
However, on the Confederate right, Granbury was threatened. The 76th Ohio successfully got around the flank. It was a short-lived thrill and a fatal mistake. The 7th Texas, lying in wait like a spider, out of sight behind the crest, sprang forward and fanned out.
Cleburne had been keeping watch. He rushed orders to the waiting Polk and Lowrey. Within minutes, the two brigades, descending seemingly from nowhere, hit the Illinois troops clinging to victory and dispersed them back down the slopes. It could not have been timed more critically, as Granbury’s men had been out of ammunition and reduced to throwing rocks before deliverance. Among the rock throwers was Cleburne’s 23-year-old half-brother, Christopher.
As the mauled Union troops trickled back down the slopes of White Oak Ridge, the battle ground to an uneasy stalemate. It was only 9 a.m., but Hooker was fuming and determined. He knew Cleburne had no more tricks to play, and when reinforcements under Col. David Ireland arrived, they were sent double-quick into the gap. Hooker intended to move Cleburne by sheer weight of numbers. It was a disaster, as the Alabama troops on the flank of Taylor’s Ridge laid down an enfilading fire.
The standoff at Ringgold’s Gap became a sharpshooters’ war between Union troops sheltered in farm buildings and along the creek banks. Cleburne ordered the gunners manning the Napoleons to open fire again, putting an end to Ireland’s advance. The battle fell into a quiet lull as Gen. St. John Richardson Liddell arrived from Bragg’s headquarters with the order for Cleburne to fall back.
The wagons had reached Dalton and safety. Stealthily, Cleburne ordered the retreat. By 2 p.m., Ringgold was in Union hands.
The armies camped for the winter, and operations resumed in May 1864 with Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. However, because of Cleburne’s stout, five-hour stand at Ringgold Gap, the Confederate army survived to fight on another nine months in the north Georgia hills.
Mauriel P. Joslyn is chairman of the Georgia Civil War Commission and past president of the Patrick Cleburne Society.