Thursday, 2 December 2010
A Civil War Thanksgiving
Dear Reader, as our 2010 Thanksgiving feast fades into memory, let us not forget that thousands of men and women of our armed forces remain in harm’s way. And although the various services all valiantly attempted to make turkey and trimmings available everywhere our troops are stationed, it was not always that way. You may recall from a Gray Matter last month that President Abraham Lincoln, following the example of our first president, on 3 October 1863 called for a day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on 26 November 1863. But celebration was far from the minds of the Union soldiers confined to Chattanooga, TN, since the Battle of Chickamauga by Confederate forces under GEN Braxton Bragg, Class of 1837, that occupied Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
A few weeks after President Lincoln’s proclamation, GEN Ulysses S. Grant, Class of 1843, arrived to attempt to break the siege, and on 27 October 1863 Union forces attacked Brown’s Ferry, opening up the river and allowing relief boats to reach Chattanooga with much-needed supplies of food and ammunition. Then, on 24 November, Union forces under MG Joseph Hooker, Class of 1837, approached Lookout Mountain, their movement shrouded by heavy fog. The climb was made relatively easily by the 12,000 attackers, who faced about a tenth of their number of defenders because the bulk of Confederate forces were defending against an attack in the center. Confederate artillery was useless, and the defensive positions were poorly situated—the attackers could not be seen or fired upon as they climbed. The Confederates eventually abandoned their positions by late afternoon.
Then, on the day before the first Civil War Thanksgiving was to be celebrated, GEN William T. Sherman, Class of 1840, attacked Confederate forces under Patrick Cleburne at an extension of Missionary Ridge called Tunnel Hill but could not overcome the defenders in the difficult fighting. MG Hooker, advancing slowly from Lookout Mountain on the opposite flank, had little immediate impact. In the center of Missionary Ridge, both attackers and defenders had received confused orders. Some Confederates believed that they were to hold the pits at the base of the mountain at all costs; others thought that they should offer token resistance and then retreat to better positions atop the mountain. Some Union soldiers thought that their objective was to seize the rifle pits at the bottom; others believed that they were expected to continue the attack all of the way to the commanding heights. The poor placement of the Confederate positions atop the mountain made it difficult to fire on the advancing Yankees without hitting their own retreating troops. Thus the Union attack in the center became a major victory as the blue-clad units swept up Missionary Ridge to the surprise of all.
One of the soldiers participating in the attack later was known as the “boy colonel.” He was 1LT Arthur MacArthur, adjutant of the 24th Wisconsin Infantry and father of Douglas MacArthur, Class of 1903. LT MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor when he “seized the colors of his regiment at a critical moment and planted them on the captured works on the crest of Missionary Ridge.” Fifteen such medals were awarded at Missionary Ridge, including one to SGT George L. Banks, color bearer of the 15th Indiana Infantry, for carrying his flag up to the works atop Missionary Ridge, although twice wounded. There, 2LT Thomas N. Graham, of Company G, seized the colors from the wounded sergeant and carried them forward through “terrible fire” and planted them in the enemy breastworks, also receiving a Medal of Honor, presumably because it was the first of eight regimental colors to be planted in the captured defensive positions. Finally, there is the heroic action of PVT James C. Walker, Company K, 31st Ohio Infantry, who “After two color bearers had fallen, seized the flag and carried it forward, assisting in the capture of a battery. Shortly thereafter he captured the flag of the 41st Alabama and the color bearer.” He did not, however, receive his medal until 15 November 1895.
By the next day, 26 November 1863, the first Thanksgiving proclaimed by President Lincoln, Bragg pulled his forces away from Chattanooga (and later resigned his commission), thereby lifting the siege and giving Grant’s army much for which to be thankful. There probably was some celebrating and definitely many prayers of thanks, but no grizzled Union mess sergeants prodded food wagons with turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to the top of Missionary Ridge, and there were no contractor dining facilities either. That all would come much later, but for the moment the siege had been lifted, Gettysburg had been won the previous July, but Appomattox was over a year away.
Remember all the members of our armed forces in harm’s way across the world and those who have gone before and made the ultimate sacrifice. Cartoonist Milt Caniff of Terry and the Pirates fame perhaps said it best in his comic strip for one Christmas Eve during the Viet Nam War: “This holiday season and all it entails i, in itself a gift, from thousands of men and women around the world, most of whom you will never meet.” The illustration featured a Christmas wreath, a Soldier, a Sailor, a Nurse, an Airman and a Marine.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org
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