Civil War Wednesday: Ringgold Gap

Alfred Waud sketch of Ringgold Gap, Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-14334

Alfred Waud sketch of Ringgold Gap, Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-14334

The Battle of Chattanooga played out on November 25, 1863 as Federal troops continued to scale the heights of Missionary Ridge, forcing the Confederates holding the high ground to break – a rout ensued! However, one Confederate officer and his men continued to hold firm – Major General Patrick Cleburne. General Joe Johnston, who worried over his ability to withdraw the Army of Tennessee away from the untenable position, and maneuver into northwest Georgia, would once again depend upon Cleburne, or as many people had started calling this officer – the “Stonewall of the West.” Cleburne did not disappoint; he seldom did when rallying his brave Arkansans, Alabamians, Tennesseans, and Texans!

Major General Patrick Cleburne, Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-107446

Major General Patrick Cleburne, Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-107446

One often reads in the annals of military history of units engaging in a rearguard action. Ringgold Gap, or as most soldiers referred to the high ground flanking the Western and Atlantic Rail Road and Chickamauga Creek passage – Taylor’s Ridge – exemplified the best of protecting an army on the fly, ensuring their ability to gain safe haven in order to refit and regroup. Cleburne’s quick reconnaissance of the terrain, and expert deployment of his brigades, enabled the outnumbered (one gray division against three in blue) Confederate troops to hold-off the advancing force of Major General Joe Hooker. Hooker acted quickly, perhaps too hurriedly, as he threw each arriving brigade into the attack in piecemeal fashion instead of waiting for a massing of his force, and his artillery. He believed he faced a Confederate army on the run, opening a path for him to move in for the knockout. Hooker’s hunch proved as false as his punch!

Each Federal advance met with a repulse, as Cleburne’s Brigadier Generals Polk, Lowrey, Granbury, and Govan masterfully maneuvered their troops into position to thwart the approaching Federals. When ammunition ran low, the Southerners threw rocks down upon the men attempting to scale the ridge. Hooker’s guns finally arrived around noon, and the resultant shelling made life along the ridge a little hotter for Cleburne. Soon, he began withdrawing his brigades; a move made in confidence after he received a dispatch notifying him of the Army of Tennessee’s safe departure from the area. Cleburne’s actions did not escape notice, as the Confederate Congress issued a Joint Resolution of thanks “…for distinguished service at Ringgold Gap.”[1] Southern newspapers also praised the rising star of the west; The Confederate Union recounted the affair in their December 8, 1863 edition, proudly proclaiming, “The whole command behaved well, and especially that model solder, Maj. Gen. Cleburne, a true son of Emerald Isle, and his heroic division.”

Federal artillery at Ringgold Gap, Courtesy National Archives

Federal artillery at Ringgold Gap, Courtesy National Archives

Private Sam Watkins with the 1st Tennessee Infantry described what he witnessed on the slopes of Taylor’s Ridge. “The scene looked unlike any battlefield I ever saw. From the foot to the top of the hill was covered with their slain, all lying on their faces. It had the appearance of the roof of a house shingled with dead Yankees.”[2] Many in the North criticized Hooker for failing to await the arrival of his artillery. A December 11, 1863 account from an Ohio newspaper, The Jeffersonian Democrat, typified the response to Hooker’s actions. “It was important to dislodge them, but madness to attempt to do it without the assistance of artillery to cover the assault.”

The fighting along Taylor’s Ridge lasted four hours, with each side suffering over 400 casualties, yet Cleburne performed his assigned task, and afforded Johnston the opportunity to move his army into winter quarters in Dalton.


[1] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, vol. 31, pt. 2 (1890; repr., Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1985), 758.

[2] Sam Watkins, COMPANY AYTCH or a SIDE SHOW of the BIG SHOW: A CLASSIC MEMOIR of the CIVIL WAR, ed. M. Thomas Inge (New York City: Plume, 1999), 99.

Andersonville Trip 2013 068Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center , a Civil War historian, newspaper columnist, and author of ‘Washington County, Virginia in the Civil War.’ He is a member of the Society of Civil War Historians, Historians of the Civil War Western Theater, Georgia Association of Historians, and the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta. Michael also serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and as a Civil War consultant for the Friends of Camp McDonald.

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