Matters Looked Terrible: A Confederate atop Missionary Ridge

The assault by the Army of the Cumberland upon Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863 is remembered as one of the most dramatic episodes of the Civil War, and today’s blog post features an account from an eyewitness of this assault, a Confederate staff officer serving with General William J. Hardee.

The letter, written the day after Missionary Ridge, never made it to its intended recipient. The author, Major John W. Green (1827-1914) who was Hardee’s military engineer, addressed the letter to his wife Fanny in Macon, Georgia after proving unable to send a telegram at Chickamauga Station. “To relieve all anxiety on my account, I will tell at once I am well and unhurt,” he assured her. Green then gave a sketch of the Battle of Missionary Ridge and describes the reaction of General Hardee to the disaster. However, Green’s wife never received the letter; it was inadvertently left behind, or the mail was captured by the Federal army once they moved into Ringgold. 

Ironically, it was another staff officer, First Lieutenant Allen Ellsworth (1836-1906), serving as aide-de-camp on the staff of Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus commanding the First Division of the 15th Army Corps, who picked up the letter from the battlefield at Ringgold. Lieutenant Ellsworth sent the letter home to the editor of the Bloomington, Illinois Daily Pantagraph newspaper who published it in its December 12, 1863 issue.

Lieutenant General William J. Hardee

Ringgold, Georgia

Thursday afternoon, November 26, 1863

My own darling wife,

          I used every effort last night at Chickamauga [Station] to induce the telegraph operator to send a dispatch to Macon [Georgia], but owing to the limited time he was to remain and the press of official business, he would receive no personal messages. To relieve all anxiety on my account, I will tell at once I am well and unhurt.

          The papers have prepared you for the unfortunate issue of yesterday’s battle of which I can give you now a hurried sketch. The enemy, instead of sending aid to the relief of Burnside as supposed and General [Braxton] Bragg felt convinced of, quietly waited until we were shorn of more than one-third of our strength in attempting the east Tennessee expedition, when on Monday they began operations by attacking in tremendous force and carrying by assault the Lookout Valley slope of the mountain. Our men, much inferior numbers, had to fight their way down at night and unite with the balance of the army on Missionary Ridge.

          The following morning, owing to our reduced strength, General Hardee advised falling back until Longstreet and other forces sent to east Tennessee could unite, but it was determined otherwise. On Monday morning, the enemy twice attempted to carry our position on the right but on each occasion was repulsed with great slaughter. Having given a full share of attention to that part of the line, the enemy massed heavily on our center (immediately under the command of General Patton Anderson of Hardee’s corps) and moved against the single line that defended it in overwhelming force, but our artillery and musketry mowed their advance line down, but another was ready to take their place. With the aid of the fourth line he took the position cutting the two wings asunder.

Missionary Ridge

          At this juncture, matters looked terrible and I will never forget the look of anguish written on poor General Hardee’s face. He sent me hurriedly to make some changes in his other divisions yet intact, and to hurry one forward to stem the tide of defeat that was rapidly assuming dreadful proportions. On returning, I found him with a fragment of the broken division attempting to rally them and a hard task we found it while the leaden hail of the exultant Yankees showered around us. It is most remarkable how he or those of his staff with him escaped so easily. Just before I arrived, Major [D.G.] White [assistant adjutant general] had his horse killed under him and I had found the General but a little while before his horse was wounded. Dr. [A.L.] Breysacker [medical director] had his cap cut while [Thomas Linn] Hunt [acting assistant adjutant general] and myself escaped entirely unhurt. At the juncture I spoke of the balance of the staff were off at other points executing various orders.

Captured Confederate cannon from Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain under guard by a Federal sentry in Chattanooga after the battle. 

          I cannot approximate our loss, perhaps from 3,000-4,000 killed, wounded, and missing, which I fear too plainly desertion. Our loss in artillery is heavy as Hardee’s corps lost 12 pieces and Breckinridge’s 26 pieces. I cannot tell when or where the next battle will be fought. I am not sure that the enemy will come out as far as Dalton where I think a stand will be made. I sent a note on Tuesday and will continue to keep you constantly informed. God has been so kind to me, darling, and I will try better to deserve his goodness.

          I must now say goodbye as I have but a few moments to send a note to mother.

As ever, your affectionate husband,

John W. Green

P.S. I would send a dispatch from this place, but the wires are down.

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