A German Regiment’s Charge Helps Win Victory at Chattanooga’s Missionary Ridge

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The battle to push the Confederates back from Chattanooga was fought on the steep slopes of Missionary Ridge.

The Union Army of the Cumberland had been cooped up in Chattanooga ever since it was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga in September, 1863. The arrival of Major General Ulysses S. Grant to command the forces in the city, followed by a massive transfer of William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee and two corps from the Army of the Potomac from Virginia gave the Cumberlanders hope of deliverance. The once-besieging Confederate army was now outnumbered, but they still held the high ground south of the city.1

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After 60 days of bad news, a soldier of the 32nd Indiana, signing his letters “Z”, wrote to a German-language newspaper at the end of November that “The Siege of Chattanooga has ended, our communications are secure, and the Rebel army under Bragg…was put to flight with terrible loss.” The story of this reversal of fortunes is still remarkable 155 years later.2

Z told the story of the role of the 32nd Indiana, a nearly all-German regiment, in the historic Battle of Missionary Ridge that threw the Confederates back into Georgia. The 32nd had been commanded in its early days by the German socialist revolutionary August Willich. He had been promoted to Brigadier General and was now the 32nd’s brigade commander. At 2 PM on November 23 the regiment formed a line of battle and began to move towards the enemy. “We formed the center and Missionary Ridge was to our front. The enemy picket line…gave way after they fired only a little at us…”3

On the next day, November 24, the men of the 32nd sat in the captured rebel works while other Germans joined in the assault on Lookout Mountain. In the famous Battle Above the Clouds, Union divisions captured the mountain. This still left the main Confederate force spread out along Missionary Ridge.4

The ridge was anchored on the Confederate right by Tunnel Hill and on the left by Lookout Mountain. It presented a seemingly daunting natural defensive line running for several kilometers. The ridge soars as much as 300 feet above the surrounding countryside.  The Confederates had two months to fortify it, but had done a surprisingly poor job of locating their defenses.5

On the morning of November 25, August Willich’s Germans heard the sounds of cannon to their left from the Confederate defenses on Tunnel Hill. Major General William T. Sherman was attacking the troops of Irish Confederate Patrick Cleburne there. Sherman’s men were supposed to spearhead the effort to drive the Confederates back into Georgia, but Cleburne was putting up such a stout defense that the much larger Union force was stymied.6

Cleburne had spent the previous evening carefully positioning his men, moving them in a total darkness that resulted from a lunar eclipse. Throughout the night and on the day of battle, Cleburne was tireless in rallying his men and directing arriving reinforcements to the exact places in his line where they were most needed. In the end, his actions would save the Confederates from complete annihilation at Chattanooga.7

On November 25, 1863 the brigade commanded by August Willich was located at A, almost in the center of the Union line (blue units). Irish Confederate Pat Cleburne stymied William T. Sherman at B. During the afternoon, Willich’s Brigade played a major role in pushing the Confederate forces off Missionary Ridge at C. 

With more and more of the Confederate firepower being concentrated on Sherman, a detachment of men from the 32nd began to tentatively press forward against the Confederates in their front to see how strong their defenses were. To their surprise, the Confederates barely put up any resistance. The detachment returned  back to the rest of the regiment, but in the mid-afternoon a general advance was ordered and, according to the letter from Z, “in an instant our column advanced.” As the men began to move forward, he wrote, a young soldier Joe Bernhardt, was “shattered by a cannon ball.” The German immigrants moved quickly to attack the first line of Confederate defenses, forcing their defenders to leave “in a hurry.” According to the leading historian of the battle Peter Cozzens, to Willich’s Brigade “went the honor of reaching the rifle pits [at the base of Missionary Ridge] first.”8

The German immigrant soldiers had only rested briefly when General Willich gave them the order to continue to press the attack. Willich saw that the position his men were in left them vulnerable to Confederate rifle fire from the top of Missionary Ridge. He later reported that “It was evident to everyone that to stay in this position would be certain destruction and final defeat; every soldier felt the necessity of saving the day and the campaign by conquering, and everyone saw instinctively that the only place of safety was in the enemy’s works on the crest of the ridge.”9

The soldier-correspondent Z wrote that the regiment “rose as one man [and] stormed toward the mountain, slowly but surely, hardly paying attention to the murderous crossfire of the rifles and cannons of the Rebels.” All along the Union line, regiments followed suit. After the battle, Willich wrote in his report that he did not know that he was supposed “to take only the rifle pits at the foot of the ridge.” He wrote, “By what accident, I am unable to say, I did not understand it so; I only understood the order to advance.” Another officer recalled asking Willich where the men were to stop and remembered him answering “I don’t know, at Hell, I expect.”10

As Willich’s regiment advanced, the Confederate fire grew thicker. Willich’s men could not pause, because they would be exposed to being shot from above. They had to press on. According to Z’s letter it was either “victory or death.” The advance uphill, he wrote, was “not checked until we arrived in front of the Rebels’ breastworks, whose ranks broke, and we planted our flag on the ridge at the strongest position of the enemy.” Another member of Willich’s Brigade recalled that the Confederates were completely “routed and we had more fun laughing over it than we have had since the battle of Pea Ridge. They ran like sheep, and threw their guns, knapsacks and everything that would hinder them from running and lots of them ran downhill and gave themselves up.” An officer of the brigade wrote of the Confederates that “They, many of them, threw down their arms and gladly surrendered.”11

Missionary Ridge looking West towards Lookout Mountain as the Union assault reaches the crest.

The Confederates, Z wrote, “did not receive our mercy here,” and they “ran away in a hurry from there in order to get out of the range of our bullets.”12

The Confederates all along the line soon broke and Z wrote that the “whole Rebel army retreated in the greatest hurry.” The army that had defeated the Confederates was an army filled with immigrants from a dozen different countries. One Confederate soldier from Florida summed up the international character of the Union army. Floridian Charles Hemming was in the middle of the disintegrating Confederate forces when he heard Union officers yelling out commands in German. He wrote later: “Right then flashed across my mind: ‘We are fighting the world! Here on this battlefield are foreigners who do not speak English and yet are fighting for the American flag.’” The Confederates were beaten in twelve languages.13

Video: The Struggle for Chattanooga

A Note on Sources:

August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) is my indispensable source for this article. Joe Reinhart generously allowed me to use his translation of Z’s letter.

Sources:

  1. The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994); The Chattanooga Campaign (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland) edited by Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear published by Southern Illinois University Press (2012); Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity by Brooks Simpson published by Zenith Press Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865 by Brooks Simpson published by UNC Press (1999); August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006); Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War) by Steven E. Woodworth published by University of Nebraska Press (2009); The Battle Above the Clouds: Lifting the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (2017); Mountains Touched With Fire by Wiley Sword published by St. Martin’s Press (1994); Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee by Steven Woodworth 1861–1865 published by Alfred A. Knopf (2005); Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume 3 [Chattanooga by Ulysses S. Grant, SHERMAN’S ATTACK AT THE TUNNEL BY S. H. M. BYERS, THE ARMY’ OF THE CUMBERLAND AT CHATTANOOGA BY JOSEPH S. FULLERTON].

2.  August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 161.

3. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 161.

4. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164.

5.  The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994)

6.  August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164, The Chattanooga Campaign (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland) edited by Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear published by Southern Illinois University Press (2012) Kindle Locations 1260-1270 [essay by John Lundberg].

7. The Chattanooga Campaign (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland) edited by Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear published by Southern Illinois University Press (2012) Kindle Locations 1260-1270 [essay by John Lundberg].

8.  August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994) Kindle Locations 5345-5346.

9. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994) Kindle Locations 5354-5356.

10. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994) Kindle Locations 5119-5121. According to Brooks Simpson in Ulysses Grant Triumph Over Adversity Grant had expected the men to pause after their initial success to regroup and demanded to know who had ordered the Army of the Cumberland to take the crest of the ridge. Kindle Location 4938.

11. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994) Kindle Locations 5743-5745.

12. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164.

13. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Translated and Edited by Joseph R. Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 161-164; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: THE BATTLES FOR CHATTANOOGA by Peter Cozzens University of Illinois Press (1994) Kindle Locations 6520-6522.


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