14 November 2016

Rifle pits and Missionary Ridge

One of the most common criticisms of Gen. Braxton Bragg on the Army of Tennessee defense of Missionary Ridge is that he ordered, or at least allowed to be ordered, the placement of the rifle pits, or trenches, along the actual crest of the ridge rather than the military crest, which would be on the side facing the enemy but just below the edge of the actual crest.  That particular criticism of Bragg is an unfair and inaccurate anachronism.  Two other known placements of rifle pits by commanders recognized for their tactical skill demonstrate that this placement of rifle-pits was the standard practice of the time. 

After the troops of Maj. Gen. Sherman’s command, mostly his own 15th Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, dug in the afternoon of 24 November 1863 on Billy Goat and Angora Hills (two hills joined by a short narrow ridge), they did so along the actual crest of the conjoined heights.  You can still see the remains of these rifle pits along the crest of the ridge above Battery Heights, along with several well-preserved gun emplacements created at the same time.

When the troops of Cleburne’s Division of the Army of Tennessee dug in at first on Trueblood/Tunnel Hill at the north end of Missionary Ridge across Lime Kiln Hollow from Sherman’s troops, they likewise did so along the actual as opposed to what’s now called the military crest. 

The reason for the later repositioning of Cleburne’s defences had more to do with the fact that his opponent came from the north instead of the west, necessitating the single brigade of his division in active combat (Smith’s) dig in perpendicular to the original trench in tighter formation just below the apex of the hill at Sherman’s Reservation where the cannons and plaques are now.

Recognized by anyone who knows very much about the Civil War as the best division commander of both armies, had placement of trenches along the actual crest not been standard military doctrine at the time, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne would not have employed it.  The remains of those initial rifles pits along the crest of Tunnel Hill are clearly visible at Sherman’s Reservation and better preserved than those at Billy Goat-Angora Hill.

The most-often cited as the best division commander of the Union army, by the way, is Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, then of the Army of the Cumberland.

Notably, one of Bragg’s brigade commanders, Col. Arthur Manigault of Anderson’s Division, dissented in the placement of the rifle pits, only to be told by Bragg’s engineer Capt. John Green that Maj. Gen. Breckenridge, whom Bragg had charged with the belated construction of defense works, had ordered that they be dug along the actual crest. 

Disregarding those orders, Manigault had the rifle pits of his brigade placed along the “military crest” and futilely tried to convince the two commanders on either side as well.  As a result, Manigault’s line held while those on either side collapsed, though his troops had to withdraw to keep from being overrun.

It was, in fact, about the time of the Battles of Tunnel Hill, Tn., and of Missionary Ridge, that the doctrine of a “military crest” came into being.  I posit that this change in military doctrine came about specifically because  to the experience of the quick collapse of the Army of Tennessee’s line before the onslaught of the Army of the Cumberland on that day (25 November 1863) due in large part to the blind spots created by the traditional placement.


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