Lieutenant Colonel Porter Olson’s Report on the 36th Illinois Infantry at the Battle of Missionary Ridge
After his army was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, Major General William Rosecrans retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Confederate General Braxton Bragg then laid siege to Chattanooga, occupying the high ground of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. With Rosecrans unable to do anything effective about the siege, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to command of the western Union armies, including the besieged Army of the Cumberland. Grant relieved Rosecrans on October 17th, replacing him with Major General George H. Thomas. After taking a roundabout way over poor roads and mountainous terrain, Grant arrived at Chattanooga on October 23rd.
The War Department sent large numbers of reinforcements to Chattanooga. The 11th and 12th Corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major General Joseph Hooker reached Chattanooga in late October and three divisions from the 15th and 17th Corps under Major General William T. Sherman arrived from Vicksburg, Mississippi, in mid November. The Federals were also able to open up a supply line on the Tennessee River after Grant’s arrived and took action.
With the army reinforced and resupplied, Grant was ready for offensive operations. Hooker attacked Lookout Mountain with three divisions on November 24th, and was successful in forcing the Confederates out and taking the mountain.
The stage was now set for an attack on Missionary Ridge. The plan was to have Sherman attack the Rebel right flank on the northern end of the ridge at Tunnel Hill. Hooker would threaten the left from Lookout Mountain, while Thomas would attack the center.
Early on the morning of November 25th, Sherman attacked the right. The Union attacks were successfully repelled, despite reinforcements, and Sherman was stopped. Hooker had been unable to immediately advance upon the left, as retreating Confederates had burned the bridge over Lookout Creek, causing delays. Grant then ordered Thomas to attack the Confederate center to take some of the pressure off Sherman.
Thomas put four divisions in two lines and prepared to attack Missionary Ridge. These divisions were under the commands of Brigadier General Absalom Baird, Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood, Major General Philip Sheridan, and Brigadier General Richard Johnson. Grant wanted Thomas’ 23,000 men to attack and take the Confederate works at the base of the ridge and then halt. However, many of the commanders on the ground got incomplete or unclear orders, and were unsure if they were to stop at the base of the ridge or continue on up. Before they could receive clarification, the signal to advance was given and the men moved forward.
The Union troops advanced under fire over open ground and took the Confederate works, capturing many defenders while others tried to scramble up the slope of the ridge to the main Rebel lines at the top. While the Federals had achieved the objective of taking the rifle pits, they were also taking heavy fire from the Confederates on top of the ridge,
It was a dangerous and untenable position. The troops on the ground decided to act, and without orders, continued up the slope of the ridge. Grant observed this, and questioned his generals as to who gave the order to advance. Thomas and the other generals were just as surprised as Grant, and the high command watched events unfold.
The Union troops pressed on uphill despite the Rebel defenders raining down musket and cannon fire. The Confederate line was breached in the center, and as more regiments reached the top, some units turned left or right and attacked the flanks. To the south, Hooker had crossed Lookout Creek and was attacking the Confederate far left. As more Confederate units were driven out of their defensive positions, Bragg ordered a withdrawal from Missionary Ridge, ending the Confederate threat to Chattanooga.
One of the regiments that stormed Missionary Ridge was the 36th Illinois Infantry. This regiment had fought at the Battles of Pea Ridge, Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga, and would see action in several other major battles before the war was over. The unit was in the 1st Brigade (under the command of Colonel Francis T. Sherman) of Sheridan’ s 2nd Division of the 4th Corps. The regimental historian remembered that “as the charges of canister poured over the heads of our men, they sounded like flocks of wild geese sweeping past, while from behind rocks, logs and earthworks, poured an incessant stream of musketry fire…Through such a storm and against such odds, our men pressed forward”.
The 36th was under the command of Colonel Silas Miller. Miller had been given temporary command of a group of four regiments, and Lieutenant Colonel Porter C. Olson had immediate command of the 36th. Miller was in the thick of the action with the 36th anyway; the regimental historian remembered that Miller “rode through the storm to the summit of the ridge at the head of his regiment, like a veteran, inspiring his men” and that Miller did not dismount from his horse the entire time.
Olson filed the 36th Illinois’ after action report for the Battle of Missionary Ridge:
HDQRS. THIRTY-SIXTH REGIMENT ILLINOIS VOLS.,
Chattanooga, Tenn., November 28, 1863.
SIR: In compliance with orders from brigade headquarters, to furnish a statement of the part taken by the Thirty-sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteers in the late action near Chattanooga, Tenn., I have the honor to make the following report:
At 12 m., November 23, 1863, the Thirty-sixth Illinois took position to the left of the Ringgold road, the right resting at the well of Warner’s house; the left joining the right of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin, and fronting east. I took this position by order of Colonel Miller, he being assigned to the command of four regiments of the first line. At 2 p.m. I moved the regiment forward with the rest of the line 200 yards. At 5 p.m., in compliance with orders from Colonel Sherman, the Thirty-sixth Illinois went forward into the timber, our right joining the left of the Seventy-third Illinois. Details from the regiment were set to work erecting barricades, and here we remained during the night.
At 3 o’clock on the morning of the 24th November, as directed by General Sheridan, the Thirty-sixth Illinois was moved about 500 yards to the left of the road, and joining Colonel Harker’s brigade. Colonel Barrett reported to me that he had been directed to take command of the three regiments of the First Brigade that were in the front line, the Thirty-sixth being one of them.
We were not engaged with the enemy during the day; remained here through the night. On the morning of the 25th November, at 10 o’clock, as ordered by Colonel Barrett, I sent forward three companies to be deployed as skirmishers (A, B, and F). These companies were placed under command of Major Sherman of this regiment. At 1 p.m., in compliance with orders from Colonel Sherman (my brigade commander), the Thirty-sixth was advanced to the first line of the enemy’s works, about three-fourths of a mile from the foot of Missionary Ridge, my regiment forming a part of the front line.
At 2.30 p.m. Colonel Sherman directed that at a given signal I should move forward, as the whole line would advance at that time. The signal was soon given; the Thirty-sixth advanced with the front line; at the distance of one-fourth of a mile we emerged upon an open field stretching to the foot of the ridge. We moved across this field on the double-quick, our ranks meantime being plowed by shot and shell. Upon our approach the enemy fled in hasty retreat to the top of the ridge, from which place it was now evident they intended to make their defense. Upon reaching the first line of the enemy’s works, near the foot of the hill, we halted for a minute or so to catch breath. I then ordered the regiment forward to the second line of works. The hillside was now being swept with a merciless storm of grape and canister. Showers of musketry were hurled through our ranks, to which our men replied with great vigor and accuracy. Having reached the second line of works on the hillside (being the third from where we started), again we halted for a short time. These moments of rest were faithfully employed in delivering the enemy a deadly fire. Again I ordered the regiment to advance. They obeyed with alacrity; thus we ascended the hill, halting occasionally a moment to deliver our fire and obtain a little rest, for the speed with which we had made the long charge–the men carrying 80 rounds of ammunition with accouterments of a soldier–had nearly exhausted them.
The hill was steep and rugged; the fire from the enemy was incessant; in many places they were strongly posted behind barricades of logs, rails, or stones; but, notwithstanding all the difficulties under which we labored, we reached the summit of the hill in less than an hour and a half from the time the charge commenced. As we arrived at the summit of the hill the enemy fled in great confusion; the rout was complete. In connection with other regiments of this brigade, we assisted in capturing several pieces of artillery, a number of caissons, and a great quantity of small-arms, for which I am sure that my superior officers will award a full share of credit to the gallant officers and men under my command. We went into bivouac upon the ridge near the house known as Bragg’s headquarters.
At 1 o’clock on the morning of the 26th November, by order of Colonel Miller, the Thirty-sixth Illinois moved in pursuit of the enemy with the rest of the brigade upon the road toward Chickamauga Station. On the afternoon of the same day we returned with the brigade to Chattanooga.
Throughout the entire engagement the officers and men under my command behaved with the greatest gallantry and coolness. Though they have conducted themselves bravely and nobly on former fields, it seems to me that on this occasion the regiment has added a new and brighter luster to their already good name and well-earned laurels. I do not know that they exceeded the men of other regiments in this action, for all seemed to vie with one another in deeds of daring; but this I do believe, that their conduct for bravery and almost superhuman exertion has never been surpassed in any army. Their names will be held in remembrance by a grateful country.
It is impossible to mention specially, within the short space allowed for this report, the names of all who behaved nobly. I cannot, however, omit to mention the gallant conduct of
Maj. George D. Sherman; much is due to the bravery with which he exposed his own life wherever he was needed. I desire also to thank Adjt. Charles T. Case for the efficiency with which he assisted me in managing the regiment; his conduct was exceedingly praiseworthy. The line officers conducted themselves in the most praiseworthy manner. I mention the names of the company commanders: Captain Merrill, Company I; Captain McNeal, Company C; Captain Biddulph. Company K; Captain Cass, Company D; Captain Mossman, Company F; Lieutenant Clark, Company E; Lieutenant Beebe, commanding Company H; Lieutenant Salisbury, Company A; Lieutenant Barstow, Company G; Lieutenant Hazelhurst, commanding Company B; their bravery and coolness were manifested in every part of the regiment.
Of the conduct of the enlisted men the facts stated in this report form a more brilliant compliment than any other that could be given. I must, however, mention the name of the flag bearer, Private William R. Fall, of Company C, for bravery. He can have no superior; he was among the first to reach the summit and wave the Stars and Stripes in the face of the enemy.
It is not for me to comment upon the conduct of my superiors, but I desire to state that the conduct of Colonel Miller, of this regiment, was especially conspicuous for gallantry; he rode along the line exposing himself with the most perfect coolness, directing, encouraging, and urging forward the exhausted men of whatever regiment he found. I make this statement as an acknowledgment of his assistance, not that anything I could say would add to his high reputation.
To this report I append a list of casualties.
Your obedient servant,
PORTER C. OLSON,
Lieutenant-Colonel Thirty-sixth Illinois Vols., Comdg. Regt.
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.
The 36th Illinois listed 3 killed and 26 wounded in the battle. Though both Miller and Olson emerged unscathed, neither would survive the war. Miller was mortally wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and Olson was killed at the Battle of Nashville.
The Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga by Joseph S. Fullerton. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Chattanooga by Ulysses S. Grant. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III
Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick Dyer
History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteers During the War of the Rebellion by L.G. Bennett and William M. Haigh
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXI, Part 2.
The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga by Peter Cozzens