Library of Congress
Union troops about to overrun the Confederate center on Missionary Ridge. A detail from a Battle of Mission Ridge lithograph by Cosack & Co., 1886. Click on the image to see the full print.

Cleburne: The Defense of Ringgold Gap

By Mauriel P. Joslyn
Special to TheWildGeese.com

on November 25, 1863, the cold autumn day was about to give way to rain on Missionary Ridge, Tennessee. Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne had just repulsed repeated attacks by Federal forces under Maj. Gen. Willliam T. Sherman on the extreme Confederate right, when he received orders to retreat. The Confederate center had broken.

Pat Cleburne, at 35, was the commander of the shock troops of Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. His division of 4,000 was comprised mostly of men from the Trans-Mississippi states, but also counted among its ranks many Irishmen. Like Cleburne himself, they came from a famine ravaged and oppressed Ireland to America seeking a better life. Instead they found war.

At dawn on the 26th, Cleburne's Division was in full retreat as the rear guard to Bragg's fleeing army and supply trains. If Federals pursued, the only


Military Graphics
The Chattanooga to Atlanta theater of operations, showing the importance of holding Ringgold Gap, near the top left, during the Confederate withdrawal. For a larger view, click on the map.

Southern army between Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico would be destroyed, leaving the deep South open to invasion. All day Cleburne's men followed lumbering wagons, harassed by Yankee cannon fire. By evening they had reached the swollen waters of Chickamauga Creek, 17 miles south of Chattanooga. Faced with the decision to cross, or risk being overtaken, Cleburne considered his jaded troops, and ordered them camp on the banks of the rushing creek and cross at dawn.

At first light, they made it across, and an aide-de-camp hastily arrived with verbal orders from Bragg. The peevish commander wanted Cleburne to make a stand, a last ditch effort to buy time for the wagon trains to cross the mountains and stagger into the safety of Dalton, Georgia, where the army could reform. What Bragg wanted would be considered an impossibility by most commanders, and Cleburne's already antagonistic relationship with his commanding general forced him to consider the consequences to himself should the stand fail. Thus, Cleburne demanded written orders.

While the courier rode off to comply with Cleburne's request, the Irishman galloped toward the gap's high ground. Duty drove him. Dedication to his command steeled him. He decided he would face the Union Army at this mountain gap.

Pat Cleburne faced a daunting task, with the odds stacked against him.

Cleburne had orders to hold the ground, but how he would accomplish this was strictly his responsibility. Riding his horse up the slopes of White Oak Ridge, off the gap wagon road, he undertook a personal reconnaissance of the ground, by moonlight. A quick assessment revealed a steep ridge, with a narrow crest about 400 yards long before it dropped off into a ravine. He had a sweeping panoramic view of the road running alongside the Western & Atlantic Rail Road, and the town of Ringgold, whose 2,000 souls had mostly fled at the signs of an impending battle. The terrain was identical to the ill-fated ground at Rossville Gap on Missionary Ridge, and the possibility of a second failure haunted him here.

Descending the ridge, Cleburne crossed the narrow wagon road and explored Taylor's Ridge—a steep, unassailable slope that could withstand an onslaught even if lightly defended. Cleburne immediately saw how to deploy his small force.

Pat Cleburne faced a daunting task. He assessed the situation quickly. He had half an hour at most to deploy his division and mount a defense.


Military Graphics
The troop positions at the battle of Ringgold Gap. Click on the map for a larger view.

What went through Cleburne's mind? Did visions of Thermopylae and disaster loom before him? Or did he fall back on his British-army legacy, and Wellington's tactics? His decisions point to the latter.

The terrain of Ringgold Gap and Cleburne's defense is remarkably similar to Busaco, a battle fought in Spain by Wellington against the forces of Napoleon. Using tactics of defensive positions and concealment, Wellington held a ridge against overwhelming French forces. There is evidence that Cleburne modeled his defenses on this action.

As the last elements of Confederate cavalry rode toward the gap, leading the Federal troops of Hooker's Corps on, Cleburne assembled his commanders in the wagon road. He drew a hasty battle plan in the dirt with his finger. The most vulnerable point of attack was his right flank, which came to an abrupt end at a ravine on White Oak Ridge. He entrusted this part of the line to Texans under the command of Col. Hiram Granbury, about 1,226 troops.

The left flank butted against the steep slope of Taylor's Ridge, and he assigned this to the 16th Alabama and three companies of the 6th and 7th Arkansas. The gap, which afforded Cleburne his only means of retreat if things went wrong, was the most vital, and Cleburne placed en echelon his most trusted regiments—the shock troops of his division, the Irishmen of the 5th and 13th Arkansas under the popular Irish-born Col. John E. Murray, followed by four additional regiments to create a formidable wall in the gap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Jefferson Davis, he was the "Stonewall of the West"; to Robert E. Lee he was "a meteor shining from a clouded sky"; and to Braxton Bragg, he was an officer "ever alive to a success". He was Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, one of the greatest of all Confederate field commanders. Now WGT offers a line of merchandise featuring the graphic seen above, commemorating this Irish Confederate hero. Check them out HERE.

To entice Union forces as close as possible to inflict maximum damage, Cleburne ordered the men to lie down along the front of the ridge in the timber line, and sent Polk's and Lowrey's Brigades to the rear behind the ridge with orders to wait in the ready to receive orders, in case of a Union breakthrough.

"Two minutes more would have been too late"

As the Irish filed into a small ravine traversing the mouth of the gap, they were reinforced by a section of two 6-pounder Napoleon cannon under command of Lt. Richard Goldthwaite, the only artillery at Cleburne's disposal. Cleburne would direct the action from this desperate point. A load of solid shot was rammed home in one gun, and a load of canister in another as men scattered to positions on the firing line. The cannon were wheeled into place.

"Two minutes more would have been too late," recalled one private, for no sooner than the army settled in the trap than the enemy appeared. Brig. Gen. Charles Woods' 17th and 31st Missouri were the first of Hooker's 15,190 troops to spring Cleburne's trap. One hundred and fifty yards from the timber line, the woods blazed into a single volley of musket fire as Granbury's Texans found their marks. Thrown back in surprise, the Missourians wavered until the 29th Missouri was rushed to turn the tide. Instead they provided the first trophy of the day when Granbury's men rushed them, captured their flag and took 100 prisoners.

When Union commanders recovered enough to realize what was happening, they surmised that the chink in Cleburne's armor might be his right, where White Oak Ridge dropped off. Thinking to pierce through here and get in the Confederate rear, with a simultaneous attack at Cleburne's center in the gap, they struck. But Granbury had refused his line. He was ready.

Gen. Hooker and his staff watching the action at Ringgold Gap from the Union side in a contemporary engraving by A.R. Waud.

Hooker watched confidently from the Stone Depot of Ringgold Station at the foot of the ridge, as Illinois and New York troops aimed for the center. Fifty yards away, Cleburne gave the order to Goldthwaite, and the two Napoleons belched. The packed blue ranks reeled, setting off three hours of deadly close range fighting, while Missourians marched into the meat grinder of Granbury's men on the steep slope.

But on the Confederate right, Granbury was threatened. The 76th Ohio successfully got around the flank. It was a short-lived thrill and a fatal mistake. The 7th Texas, lying in wait like a spider, out of sight behind the crest, sprang forward and fanned out. Cleburne had been keeping watch. He rushed orders to the waiting Polk and Lowrey. Within minutes, like descending angels from nowhere, they hit the Illinois troops clinging to victory, and dispersed them back down the slopes. It could not have been timed more critically, as Granbury's men had been out of ammunition and reduced to throwing rocks before deliverance. Among the rock throwers was Cleburne's 23-year-old half-brother, Christopher.

Historical Art Prints
A Confederate infantryman of the Army of the Tennessee, as painted by Don Troiani.

As the mauled Union troops trickled back down the slopes of White Oak Ridge, the battle ground to an uneasy stalemate. It was only 9 a.m., but Hooker was fuming and determined. He knew Cleburne had no more tricks to play, and when reinforcements under Col. David Ireland arrived, they were sent double-quick into the gap. Hooker intended to move Cleburne by sheer weight of numbers. It was a disaster, as the Alabama troops on the flank of Taylor's Ridge laid down an enfilading fire.

The standoff at Ringgold's Gap became a sharpshooters' war between Union troops sheltering in farm buildings and along the creek banks. Cleburne ordered the Napoleons to open fire again, putting an end to Ireland's advance. The battle fell into a quiet lull, as Liddell arrived from Bragg's headquarters with the order for Cleburne to fall back. The wagons had reached Dalton and safety. Stealthily, Cleburne ordered the retreat. By 2:00 p.m. Ringgold was in Union hands. The armies camped for the winter and operations resumed in May 1864 with Sherman's advance in the Atlanta Campaign. But because of Cleburne's stout, five-hour stand at Ringgold Gap, the Confederate army survived to fight on another nine months in the North Georgia hills. WGT

A STATUE FOR CLEBURNE

By Mauriel P. Joslyn

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — In 2001, the Patrick Cleburne Society began raising money for a bronze statue commemorating Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, the venerated division commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Currently the only memorial to General Patrick Cleburne is an obelisk on his grave in Helena, Arkansas. There are no statues on battlefields where he fought, so such an honor is long overdue.

Courtesy of Robert F. Rossa
The gravestone of Patrick Cleburne, Confederate Cemetery, Helena, Ark.

Ron Tunison, one of America's premier historical sculptors of military art, has been working on the 8-foot cast bronze for about two years. The sculpture depicts Cleburne, with field glasses in hand, on the battlefield at Ringgold Gap, Georgia. He is leaning forward and gazing in the direction of Col. David Ireland's advancing New York regiment. As a testament to Mr. Tunison's artistry, several organizations have commissioned his talents for battlefield art at Gettysburg National Military Park, Antietam National Battlefield, and Pamplin Historical Park in Virginia. The Irish Brigade bas reliefmonument at Antietam is among his best-known projects.

The statue of Cleburne will be located at the site of his greatest independent action, Ringgold Gap, in the North Georgia mountains south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The site is in a wayside park on U.S. Highway 41 in Ringgold, very near the actual spot from which Cleburne directed the battle. After the Confederate retreat from Missionary Ridge in November 1864, Cleburne's Division was ordered to delay the Federal pursuit and make a stand at the gap. At stake was the survival of the Army of Tennessee. Outnumbered four to one, Cleburne's Division of 4,000 soundly defeated the principal elements of Joseph Hooker's Union Army corps. The gallant defense of the gap saved Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's supply wagons and artillery trains, and earned Cleburne the official thanks of the Confederate Congress.

Alice Tunison
Ron Tunison and his bronze tribute to Patrick Cleburne.

Some people ask why we aren't pushing to place the statue in Franklin, Tennessee since that is where he was killed. But Franklin is nearly obliterated due to real estate development, and besides, it evokes such sadness. At Ringgold, we can portray Cleburne at a victorious moment in his career. The statue will also enhance battlefield interpretation and not get lost in the busy environment of a cityscape.

The Patrick Cleburne Society has raised nearly half the needed $90,000. Though the sculpture is complete except for casting, the work must cease unless the additional funds are raised soon. Hopes of dedicating the statue on its site in November 2005, for the battle's 142nd anniversary, may not materialize. A limited edition of 25 statuettes were sold as initial fundraisers. Small bronze busts are also being cast as a fundraiser, and will be available in April.

The Patrick Cleburne Society is a non-profit organization, and all donations are tax-deductible. For more information please e-mailinfo@patrickcleburne.com or write to the Society at P.O. Box 157, 1113 Murfreesboro Rd., Ste. 106, Franklin, TN 37064. More information about Cleburne, as well as commemorative items, may be obtained at the society's website, at www.PatrickCleburne.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mauriel P. Joslyn is the president of the Patrick Cleburne Society and author of a biography on Cleburne.

Copyright © 2005 by GAR Media LLC and the author. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

This feature was produced by Joseph E. Gannon, and edited by Gerry Regan.

For further information:

 

 

Copyright © 2003, GAR Media.
All rights reserved.

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