It’s September 1863, and the American Civil War has been raging for nearly two and a half years.
On a road in southeast Louisiana... General Ulysses S. Grant rides on horseback, followed by a group of his fellow generals. They’ve come from an event in nearby Carrollton, a suburb of New Orleans. There, Grant was honored for his service in the war and given a gift: a wild, untamed horse.
When Grant first saw the animal, he wasn’t worried. He’s an expert rider and looked forward to the challenge of breaking the horse. But now, as Grant and his fellow officers ride back to New Orleans, Grant is doing his best to keep his new mount in line.
The General tries to spur the horse into a controlled canter… when the shrill whistle of a nearby train pierces the air.
Grant’s horse rears up… and breaks into a frantic gallop. Grant grips the reins tight as his horse picks up speed. He peers up ahead to make sure the road is clear and his eyes flare when he sees a carriage coming from the opposite direction…
He tries to steer the horse away, but the frightened steed careens wildly… and collides with the carriage. Grant is unable to get free of the saddle as the horse topples over and lands on its rider, knocking the General unconscious.
General Grant’s accident leaves him bedridden for weeks, with serious injuries to his leg and hip. Not long after, rumors begin to swirl that Grant’s tumble was not the result of his wild, untamed horse but rather his ongoing struggle with alcohol.
Shortly after the accident, one of Grant’s fellow officers writes to his wife: “I am frightened when I think that he is a drunkard. His accident was caused by this, which was… manifest to all who saw it.” But it’s not clear to what extent alcohol actually played a role in the incident. Still, stories like these contribute to the idea that Grant’s relationship with alcohol makes him an unfit leader.
While Grant recovers from his injuries in bed, the tides of the war begin to turn. And soon, Confederate forces set out to recover lost ground in the nearby state of Tennessee. In the face of this threat, General Grant is called upon to take up a new command and beat the rebels back. The ultimate test of Grant’s leadership will come when he attempts to lead his armies to victory at the legendary battle of Missionary Ridge, which takes place on this day, November 25th, 1863.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 25th, 1863: The Civil War Battle of Missionary Ridge.
Act One: Grant Recovers
It’s October 1863, about a month since his accident.
And General Ulysses S. Grant and a handful of his fellow officers are sitting in a train car about to depart for Louisville, Kentucky. As they wait for the train to leave the station, Grant sets his crutch to the side and gently massages his aching leg. Even though he’s in pain, he’s grateful to be back on his feet again after weeks in bed. But he’s also anxious. While Grant was recuperating, the war took a turn for the worse.
Last month, the Union army gained control of Tennessee, by taking several rebel cities, including Chattanooga, a strategically important river and railway town. But in retaliation, Confederate General, Braxton Bragg, launched an incursion into the eastern part of the state to take it back.
Union General William Rosecrans, the head of the Army of the Cumberland, rode out to meet Bragg. And the forces clashed at Chickamauga Creek, near Chattanooga. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. But it was the Union that lost the battle. Their lines broke and the rebels took more than 8,000 Union men prisoner. The rest of General Rosecrans’ men were forced to flee back to Chattanooga where they’re now under siege.
General Grant’s orders are to head to Louisville before proceeding to Nashville where he will oversee the reallocation of troops in the region in a desperate attempt to keep the state. So Grant leans back in his seat, eager for the train ride to begin moving. But before it departs, a hurried messenger informs him that a surprise visitor is going to be riding with him to Louisville.
Before long, Grant and his fellow officers are joined in the rail car by a portly, bearded, and out-of-breath, Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s war secretary. Grant has heard all about Stanton. But the two men have never met before in person.
Today, Grant watches with silent amusement as Stanton walks up to the wrong person, extending his hand and saying, “How do you do, General Grant? I recognize you from your pictures.” The confused man cuts his eyes over at the real Grant, unsure of how to respond.
Grant uses his crutches to rise to his feet, wincing slightly. Then he politely informs Stanton that he is Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton sputters apologies, and shakes the General's hand, clearly embarrassed. Then the train finally begins to pull out of the station, and eventually, Grant and Stanton are allowed to get down to business.
First, Stanton thanks Grant for his service, and his many military victories, most recently at the Battle of Vicksburg. But the country needs him once again. Stanton explains that the situation in East Tennessee has caused him and President Lincoln to make a big change. They have consolidated all of the armies west of the Alleghenies Mountains collecting them into one larger force, now known as the “Military Division of the Mississippi”. And they want Grant to take command.
The General is flattered and surprised. But Stanton has even more news. He and Lincoln are dissatisfied with William Rosecrans, the general who led the Army of the Cumberland to a crushing defeat at Chickamauga Creek. If Grant wants to remove Rosecrans from command, Stanton and President Lincoln will support the decision.
But Grant doesn’t want to dismiss his old friend. He wants to help the beleaguered general. Grant knows the situation in Tennessee is dire. General Rosecrans and his army are pinned down at Chattanooga. The rebels have seized the mountains on all sides of the city, making escape virtually impossible. General Rosecrans is running out of supplies, and the only way to get food and weapons into the city is through a single, narrow road through the mountains that’s too slim, and rocky, to serve as an adequate supply line. With winter coming, Grant fears Rosecrans and his men will starve if something isn’t done.
So Grant humbly accepts the command Stanton has offered him and vows to do everything in his power to secure a Union victory. After their train arrives in Louisville, Grant hobbles to the Galt House hotel to rest from the long journey. That night, he tries to enjoy a relaxing evening by taking his wife, Julia, out on the town. But their date is interrupted when Grant receives an urgent message from Edwin Stanton summoning him back to the hotel for an emergency meeting.
When Grant returns to the Galt House, he finds Secretary of War, Stanton pacing wildly, clearly agitated. When Grant asks what’s wrong, Stanton thrusts a telegram into his hands. It’s a message from a trusted source who says General Rosecrans is planning to abandon Chattanooga.
Immediately, Grant understands this would be a terrible blunder. Rosecrans would be handing the rebels a strategically important river and railway hub, not to mention invaluable artillery the Union forces will leave behind. Besides, if Rosecrans were to try to lead his troops out of the city, the Confederate forces surrounding the town will attack, easily killing or capturing them.
In that moment, Grant makes the agonizing decision; to remove Rosecrans from command. He sends word to the pinned-down Union soldiers and instructs them to hold the city at all costs. Next, Grant makes preparations to travel to Chattanooga himself, determined to rescue the army there, and beat the rebels back.
Act Two: Lead up to the battle
It’s a rainy night in late October 1863, at the Union’s military headquarters in Chattanooga.
General Grant shivers by a crackling fire. His leg still seizes with pain and he’s weary from the long journey he has just completed.
After assuming command of the new Military Division of the Mississippi, Grant traveled countless miles by train to get here to Chattanooga. But he made the last leg of the trip on horseback in the pouring rain. Now, he sits by the fire, silently smoking a cigar and trying his best to get dry and warm.
But Grant can’t help but feel the cold stare of the officer sitting opposite him: General George Thomas, the man he tapped to replace General Rosecrans. Since Grant walked in the door wet and starving, Thomas has not offered him food, or a warm bed to sleep in. And Grant knows why. General Thomas feels Grant treated his colleague, Rosecrans, with disrespect. So tonight, Thomas is returning the favor.
Finally, another officer breaks the silence in the room and suggests that Thomas fetch Grant some food and dry clothes. Begrudgingly, Thomas agrees.
But Grant ignores the obvious snub and thanks Thomas for his hospitality. He has no time to worry about petty disputes. Grant is here to save Thomas and his men and to hold Chattanooga. Grant intends to do it, with or without Thomas’ support.
Weeks later, in mid-November 1863, General Grant is again on horseback, leading a handful of Union officers along the edge of a Tennessee River, near Chattanooga. As Grant bounces in the saddle, exhausted, his spirits are nonetheless high. The pain in his leg is nearly gone, and even better, the situation on the ground in Chattanooga has improved.
Upon his arrival, Grant’s first order of business was taking care of the soldiers in the city. He knew they were starving and short on provisions and ammunition, so he set out to open a dependable supply route.
Grant seized control of a poorly defended Confederate outpost on the Tennessee River, not far from the city. Then he ordered his men to build a pontoon bridge over the waters, thus opening up a proper route, well out of range of the Confederate cannons.
Now, the forty-five thousand soldiers inside the city are all well-fed, well-equipped, and ready for a fight. And now with a viable route to the outside Grant also sent for reinforcements. Weeks ago, General Joseph Hooker arrived with sixteen thousand more men. And just yesterday, General William T. Sherman showed up with 17,000 more, bringing Grant’s total forces to roughly 80,000.
Grant leads General Sherman and the other officers to the top of a high bluff looking over the Tennessee River. He’s brought them here to give him a clear view of the tactical situation below.
Grant sits in his saddle and chews on a cigar as Sherman peers out over the water to the terrain surrounding the city. Grant knows what Sherman must be thinking. Things don’t look good.
Chattanooga sits in a valley that backs up to the Tennessee River. And the city is bottled in further by mountains on all sides. The rebels have taken up elevated positions on Lookout Mountain to the southwest, and Missionary Ridge to the east. Even from this remote viewpoint, Sherman can see rebel flags and soldiers littering the mountains.
After taking in the sobering sight, Sherman turns to Grant and says, “My General, you are besieged.” With a cigar still clamped between his teeth, Grant replies, “It is too true.” The rebels do have the high ground, and thus, a distinct advantage. Plus, the rebel’s commander is a worthy opponent.
Grant knows General Braxton Bragg is a sharp military strategist. But, Grant believes, Bragg has made a mistake in this case. He’s left the northern end of Missionary Ridge vulnerable to an attack.
Grant explains his plan for exploiting this weakness. It's simple but ingenious. In a few days’ time, General Hooker and General Sherman will attack Bragg’s flanks, while General Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland strike the center.
Grant fully understands the stakes of this battle and knows what will happen if he fails. If the rebels whip him here and beat him back, the Union might lose more than just Chattanooga. They could lose their entire Western armies, then possibly the war.
Act Three: The Battle
It’s November 25th, 1863, at Orchard Knob, a patch of elevated ground in Chattanooga.
General Grant peers through a pair of field glasses. As he observes the ongoing battle, his face flushes red with frustration. So far, the assault on Missionary Ridge is not going to plan.
Two days ago, Grant ordered General Thomas to lead the Army of the Cumberland out of the city and toward Missionary Ridge. Thomas’ men succeeded in capturing a series of hills at the foot of the ridge, including Orchard Knob, which Grant is currently using as his field headquarters. Then yesterday, while General Sherman moved his men into position at the north end of Missionary Ridge, General Hooker captured Lookout Mountain from the rebels.
But earlier this morning, things started to sour. After Grant launched his three-pronged assault, General Sherman was intercepted by rebel forces as he marched on the ridge. General Hooker was delayed several hours because rebels burned down a bridge and blocked his path.
Still, even as Grant watches his plan fall to pieces, he refuses to abandon his objective. With Sherman and Hooker delayed, Grant still orders General Thomas to advance and take the base of the ridge. But Thomas doesn’t follow his orders. He stays where he is. Grant waits a full hour, and still, Thomas hasn’t moved.
Soon, Grant sees Thomas conferring with an underling, a commander named Wood. Furious, Grant summons Wood to his side and barks, “I ordered your attack an hour ago. Why has it not been made?” Wood replies, “I have been ready, and can attack in five minutes… after receiving the order.” Grant seethes. Once again, General Thomas is treating him with disrespect. But this time, Grant returns the favor. He supersedes Thomas’ authority and directly orders Wood to advance.
Within a matter of minutes, thousands of Union soldiers charge Missionary Ridge. They quickly overtake the rifle pits at the base. But they don't stop there. The soldiers continue their charge. Grant watches through his field glasses, amazed, as waves of men in Union blue swarm up the ridge and push the rebels back until they reach the top.
With this victory at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, General Grant breaks the siege of Chattanooga and the spirit of the enemy. One rebel soldier wrote after the fact, “This defeat is the death knell of the Confederacy."
And indeed, the battle sets the Union on a path to greater victory, and Grant on a path to the top. His success at the Battle of Missionary Ridge helps put to rest the notion that Grant’s relationship with alcohol impairs his ability to lead.
In a matter of months, President Lincoln elevates Grant to the rank of lieutenant general, making him the commander in chief of the Armies of the United States - a rank not given since President John Adams bestowed the title on former president George Washington in 1798. It was a high honor and a display of trust that the President knew that despite his many personal struggles, General Ulysses S. Grant secured his legacy as a leader when he won the Battle of Missionary Ridge on this day, November 25th, 1863.
Next onHistory Daily.November 28th, 1925. A radio station in Nashville, Tennessee launches the first live broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry, giving rise to the popularity of country western music across the United States and making Nashville the "capital of the country music world."
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.