A Perfect Storm of Bullets: The 104th Illinois and the Taking of Missionary Ridge

     The triumph of the Union army at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863 marked one of the high points in the service of the 104th Illinois, but for two of its officers, it also presented a chance to put aside a long-standing personal enmity. First Lieutenant Moses Osman of Co. A and Captain Joseph Fitzsimmons of Co. K had barely spoken to each other in months, but when they climbed to the top of the ridge at the head of their respective companies, they decided it was time to “bury the hatchet.”

“Captain Fitzsimmons of Co. K leading the left wing of the regiment and your humble correspondent in command of Co. A on the right wing claim the honor of first reaching the top of the ridge. For the past few months on account of a personal difficulty, Captain Fitzsimmons and I have not been on very intimate terms. Our intercourse extended no further than our official duties rendered necessary. But on reaching the top of Mission Ridge at about the same time and being alone, we took advantage of the occasion and by a hearty shake of the right hand buried the hatchet and sealed forth its tomb with three hearty cheers for the Union,” Osman wrote his brother after the battle.

Lieutenant Osman wrote frequent letters to his brother back in Ottawa, Illinois providing a detailed account of the services of the 104th Illinois. His brother in turned published them in his newspaper, the Ottawa Free Trader, in which this account of the struggle for Chattanooga was originally published.

 

A Federal guard stands watch over some the captured Confederate guns taken from Missionary Ridge. No doubt some of these same guns had been captured from the Army of the Cumberland at Stones River and Chickamauga earlier in the war. 

Chattanooga, Tennessee

December 4, 1863

          You have no doubt already a full account of the utter rout of the Rebel army from Lookout Mountain and in front this place. It was a brilliant achievement on the part of our troops and a lesson to the Rebels which time cannot efface from our memories. The 104th Illinois performed a conspicuous part in the great tragedy. We are now in the First Brigade, First Division of the 14th Army Corps. General John Palmer is our corps commander, General Richard Johnson commands the division, and General William Carlin the brigade.

          At early dawn on November 23rd, a fully supply of cartridges was again distributed among the men and four days’ cooked rations ordered to be taken in their haversacks. At 12 o’clock our division was ordered in the trenches immediately in front of town. Howard’s 11th Army Corps has passed up to the left the night before and partly engaged the enemy’s right. Sherman had gone up Sunday and Sunday night on the other side of the river with pontoons and by daylight had affected a crossing near the mouth of the Chickamauga at the north end of Mission Ridge. General John Geary with three divisions of Hooker’s forces was sent to the west side of Lookout Mountain with orders to storm it at all hazards and thus open the ball. This disposition of the forces occupied al of Monday.

          That night we lay in line of battle fronting Mission Ridge. General Geary, however, could do but little more on Monday night than get his men into a good position. But on Tuesday morning, the dance commenced on the west side of Lookout. For hours, the incessant roll of musketry and artillery could be heard in the distance. But a heavy mist had gathered around the mountain which veiled it from our view. Gradually the sounds grew louder, and the discharges were heard more distinctly. It was evident our forces were approaching the north end of the mountain. Now our batteries on the side of Raccoon Mountain and Moccasin Point opened. All the Rebel batteries on Lookout bristled up and belched forth their loud thunders. The surrounding hills and the plains below seem to tremble as the deep-toned echoes come rolling down through the dense mist that enveloped the whole scene in sublime mystery. It seemed as if old Lucifer had come forth from his infernal regions and with his martialed legions had again assailed the battlements of heaven.

          Of course, down in the valley the excitement was intense. The only evidence we had that our forces were gaining on the Rebels was the fact that the sound of the musketry seemed to grow more distinct. And as the only route for the Rebels to retreat was around the north end of the mountain, it was evident the struggle was nearing that way. About 10 a.m., a south wind raised the veil which up to this time had obscured the scene from our view and never did the wind blow more opportunely for, just as the mist rose over the mountain, the Rebels came rushing in wild confusion around the north side of the mountain. Through the clearings in full view of both armies as they lay in battle array in the valleys and on the ridges over 1,500 feet below. Close on the heels of the fleeing Rebels came our gallant boys cheering as they swept along. And loud and long were the answering cheers that swelled up from our lines below.

          Nearly at the top of Lookout Mountain on the north end fronting Chattanooga is a large farm on a plateau and through the fields of this farm the Rebels had constructed strong earthworks. But as our troops came around the point of the mountain, they charged these works endways, thus rendering them useless as a means of protection to the foe. So close were out troops on the enemy here that before they could get across the fields over 600 prisoners were captured.

          General Bragg had, however, a large force encamped along the east side of the mountain. There were at once thrown forward and as the broken Rebel lines again disappeared in the timber, our lines were brought to a halt by the enemy’s reinforcements. Here a furious conflict ensued and what a few moments before appeared to be a glorious triumph on our side now began to threaten disaster and defeat. Reinforcements from below were signaled. And our brigade was at once dispatched. But between us and Lookout Mountain lay Chattanooga Creek wide and deep- a perfect barrier heretofore between the two belligerent armies. But it proved a small obstruction now. A boat was procured and, in a few hours, our whole brigade of seven regiments was winding its way up the steep declivities of the mountain. By 7 o’clock, we were on the disputed ground. The sky had cleared off and the moon was full. And by the silvery light of the moon the fury of battle raged. About 11 o’clock the enemy again gave way. But the ground was so rough and rocky that pursuit was impracticable, and we laid down to rest.

By morning, every Rebel except the killed and wounded and a few stragglers had left the mountain. And as the sun cast forth his early rays on the lofty peak of Lookout Mountain, they fell upon the gorgeous folds of the Star-Spangled banner triumphantly waving in the heavens. Then rose a shout such as falls to few men’s lot to enjoy. The forenoon of Wednesday was devoted to gathering up the trophies of victory consisting of arms and munitions of every kind which lay scattered along the route taken by the retreating enemy.

Private Alonzo H. Larkin
Co. A, 104th Illinois
Killed in action July 20, 1864
Peach Tree Creek, Georgia

About noon, most of the forces were marched down the mountain. We were again sent back to our division which still lay in line of battle in front of Mission Ridge. The troops under Geary and Hooker bore up the ride side of Chattanooga Creek in the direction of Rossville. As we had now been two nights without any sleep, it was hoped we would get repose on rejoining our division, but in this we were sadly disappointed. No sooner had we conjoined with the line of battle when a general movement was made on Mission Ridge in two lines of battle.

The position of the 104 was on the left wing of the first line of our brigade which brought us directly in front of the most formidable works the Rebels had on the ridge. Five distinct lines of breastworks filled with sharpshooters stared us in the face. These had to be stormed. Mission Ridge is about 600 feet high, very steep, and covered with loose quartz rock about the size of ordinary macadam. The Rebels had also cut away the timber and the whole surface was covered with treetops and loose brush. Their first line of works was about 600 yards in advance of the foot of the hill and were abandoned before we got near them. The second line was about 300 yards further on; these also offered no resistance. The third line was along the foot of the hill and were occupied by a strong picket outpost who delivered their fire then fell back. In this line was posted the 4th Florida. The fifth line was on the crest and consisted of a continuous line of well-constructed rifle pits and four batteries arranged at convenient intervals. The whole of Breckinridge’s division was posted in these works in our immediate front. The formation of the ground was such that to approach this part of their line we came directly in range of their batteries. Under those circumstances, much solicitude was felt by all the commanding generals as to this portion of the line.

 

Before the 104th Illinois charged the ridge, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Hapeman gave them a short speech. “Now men, if you love your God and your country, and I know you do, I want you to do your duty. We must have possession of those Rebel works and build our campfires on Mission Ridge tonight! I had a thousand times rather see a man shot down while bravely fighting to sustain the glorious stars and stripes than to see him go back home a living coward! Fix bayonets! Forward, march!” 

 

Colonel Douglas Hapeman, 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor for rallying his regiment under fire July 20, 1864 at Peach Tree Creek, Georgia

About 3 o’clock, the order to move on the enemy’s works was given. The column started forward with a quick pace which was soon exhilarated into a run and amid shell, grape, canister, and rifle balls with deafening cheers on we swept until we reached the third line of their defenses. Here, under the cover of the embankment, a brief rest was taken. At the word forward another cheer rent the air and on to the fourth line we rushed and as we neared it, the terrified Rebels rushed up the hill in wild confusion, casting away guns, cartridge boxes, blankets, and everything that impeded their speed. But many a poor grayback was made to bite the dust while struggling up that hillside. On reaching the fourth line, a perfect storm of bullets came from the top of the hill. But we sheltered ourselves again under the embankment to breathe and regain strength.

While thus pausing for a moment, to our consternation we beheld the extreme right of our line give way and fall back in confusion. An enfilading fire had been concentrated on the 33rd Ohio regiment from two batteries and although doing but little damage had the effect of producing a temporary panic which came well-nigh resulting in disaster. But the 88th Indiana to the left of the 33rd Ohio stood their ground nobly and when the final word was given to storm the crest of the hill, all moved forward with a rush.

Now commenced the hardest part of the work. The side of the ridge was so steep that it was with difficulty that men could get up without seizing hold of the scattered underbrush. But still up they came and before half the distance between the fourth and fifth lines of the enemy’s defenses, the graybacks could be seen breaking all along our front from their rifle pits on the crest of the ridge. Cheer after cheer went up as we pushed forward until after a desperate struggle, we gained the top and delivered our fire after the panic-stricken hordes of the enemy as they fled down the opposite side. Our flag was the first displayed on the top of the ridge.

Captain Joseph Fitzsimmons, Co. K, 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry
Killed in action August 7, 1864 near Atlanta, Georgia


Captain Fitzsimmons of Co. K leading the left wing of the regiment and your humble correspondent in command of Co. A on the right wing claim the honor of first reaching the top of the ridge. For the past few months on account of a personal difficulty, Captain Fitzsimmons and I have not been on very intimate terms. Our intercourse extended no further than our official duties rendered necessary. But on reaching the top of Mission Ridge at about the same time and being alone, we took advantage of the occasion and by a hearty shake of the right hand buried the hatchet and sealed forth its tomb with three hearty cheers for the Union.

While standing on the ridge watching the fleeing enemy, I noticed a portly-looking officer riding up and down the scattered lines of the Rebels as if endeavoring to rally them. I seized a rifle in the hands of one of our men and leveled it at him, taking as good aim as I could. When the gun cracked and I noticed him throw up his arms and start off in great speed, but almost simultaneously with my shot, over 50 others shot at him. But he escaped into the woods; that man was John C. Breckinridge and citizens and refugees who have since come into our lines assure us that he was severely if not mortally wounded by this fire.

First Lt. Orrin S. Davidson
Co. H, 104th Illinois
Wounded November 25, 1863
Died of wounds December 5, 1863

When our troops reached the top of the hill, many were so exhausted and out of breath that they threw themselves upon the ground and for hours scarcely able to move around. By sundown, the whole of the ridge was cleared. Hooker’s forces stripped it clean at Rossville on our right while Sherman and Howard drove the enemy off from our left and we again laid down on the battlefield to rest.  In storming Mission Ridge, we captured a large number of prisoners, small arms, and nearly all of the enemy’s artillery, some 40 pieces. Our loss was exceedingly light considering the desperate nature of the fight. No man can see the herculean effort required to make the top of that range of hills until he passed over the ground.

Sources:

Letter from First Lieutenant Moses Osman, Co. A, 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Ottawa Free Trader (Illinois), December 19, 1863, pg. 1

 “Incidents of the Battle of Chattanooga,” Ottawa Free Trader (Illinois), December 19, 1863, pg. 2

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