Herman Melville’s Poem “Chattanooga” is a Reflection on the Battle of Missionary Ridge

Herman Melville in 1861

In 1866, writer Herman Melville published a book of poetry on the just completed Civil War called “Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War”. Melville’s Civil War poems paid tribute to the bravery of the soldiers and sailors who fought, and the victories achieved, but he also recalled the human cost of those victories.

Melville wrote many of his poems about individual battles. One of these was “Chattanooga”, written about the Union assault and capture of Missionary Ridge at that Tennessee city on November 25th, 1864. General Ulysses S. Grant’s issued orders to capture the Confederate rifle pits at the base of the ridge and halt there. But the commanders in the field received unclear or conflicting orders regarding halting or continuing the assault. As a result, many regiments in the field decided to take the initiative, orders or not, to press forward and take the ridge, much to the surprise of Grant, who was watching the situation unfold.

Despite having to charge uphill, the Federal assault was a huge success and the Confederates were driven off Missionary Ridge.

Battle of Chattanooga by Thure de Thulstrup

In his poem, Melville provides a poetic narration of the events, including Grant’s ever present cigar as the general watched events unfold, ending up even better for his army than anticipated. Melville closes with a reminder that however great a victory it was, there was also a human cost. There were about 5800 total casualties (killed, wounded, missing or captured) for the U.S. troops, including about 750 dead, and about 6700 total casualties on the Confederate side, with about 360 killed.

Chattanooga.

A kindling impulse seized the host
Inspired by heaven’s elastic air;
Their hearts outran their General’s plan,
Though Grant commanded there—
Grant, who without reserve can dare;
And, “Well, go on and do your will”
He said, and measured the mountain then:
So master-riders fling the rein—
But you must know your men.

On yester-morn in grayish mist,
Armies like ghosts on hills had fought,
And rolled from the cloud their thunders loud
The Cumberlands far had caught:
To-day the sunlit steeps are sought.
Grant stood on cliffs whence all was plain,
And smoked as one who feels no cares;
But mastered nervousness intense
Alone such calmness wears.

The summit-cannon plunge their flame
Sheer down the primal wall,
But up and up each linking troop
In stretching festoons crawl—
Nor fire a shot. Such men appall
The foe, though brave. He, from the brink,
Looks far along the breadth of slope,
And sees two miles of dark dots creep,
And knows they mean the cope.

He sees them creep. Yet here and there
Half hid ’mid leafless groves they go;
As men who ply through traceries high
Of turreted marbles show—
So dwindle these to eyes below.
But fronting shot and flanking shell
Sliver and rive the inwoven ways;
High tops of oaks and high hearts fall,
But never the climbing stays.

From right to left, from left to right
They roll the rallying cheer—
Vie with each other, brother with brother,
Who shall the first appear—
What color-bearer with colors clear
In sharp relief, like sky-drawn Grant,
Whose cigar must now be near the stump—
While in solicitude his back
Heap slowly to a hump.

Near and more near; till now the flags
Run like a catching flame;
And one flares highest, to peril nighest—
He means to make a name:
Salvos! they give him his fame.
The staff is caught, and next the rush,
And then the leap where death has led;
Flag answered flag along the crest,
And swarms of rebels fled.

But some who gained the envied Alp,
And—eager, ardent, earnest there—
Dropped into Death’s wide-open arms,
Quelled on the wing like eagles struck in air—
Forever they slumber young and fair,
The smile upon them as they died;
Their end attained, that end a height:
Life was to these a dream fulfilled,
And death a starry night.


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