Minor American Civil War battle that saw the first fighting in General Grant’s plan to drive away the Confederate army besieging Chattanooga.
That army’s main defensive position ran along Missionary Ridge, east of Chattanooga. However, Bragg had also constructed an inner line of siege lines much nearer the town. That line included Orchard Knob, a 100 foot high hill standing in the Chattanooga Valley.
On 22 November a Confederate deserter suggested that Bragg was about to withdraw from his lines, possibly in order to move against Knoxville. In order to test this out, General Grant decided to order General Thomas to launch an attack on Orchard Knob, to see if the Confederates were still willing to fight. If the Confederate soldiers abandoned the position too easily then that would suggest that they knew they were about to withdraw. This attack had originally been planned for 24 November – it was a necessary preliminary to any attack on Missionary Ridge.
American Civil War armies were not short of generals. Grant gave his orders to Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He passed it on to General Granger, one of his corps commanders. Finally he issued the details orders to Major-Generals Sheridan and T. J. Wood, whose divisions would carry out the attack. When it worked this chain of command allowed for a great deal of tactical flexibility, although from time to time orders could get lost somewhere on the chain (as was to happen at Missionary Ridge, two days later).
Wood’s division was to make the actual attack, with Sheridan guarding his right flank against a Confederate counter attack. Confederate watchers on Missionary Ridge would have be able to see Generals Grant, Thomas, Granger and Hooker (amongst others) and Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana take their places on the parapets of Fort Wood at about noon. Half an hour later, Wood and Sheridan’s men moved out of the Federal lines at Fort Wood as if they were about to conduct a grand review. This view appears to have been shared by the Confederate pickets, watching on from their forward positions a few hundred yards from the Federal force.
After an hour, Wood and Sheridan were ready to go. At half past one signal guns were fired, and Wood’s division turned towards the Confederate lines and advanced. The Confederate positions around Orchard Knob were not as strong as they should have been. The summit of the Knob was virtually unfortified. On the ridge leading south some barricades had been built.
Wood sent Brigadier-General Willich’s brigade against Orchard Knob. They were able to reach the top with remarkably little trouble. In contrast, General Hazen’s brigade, attacking the barricades, suffered more heavily – one regiment took over 100 casualties in the attack, but also captured their objective (along with most of the 28th Alabama Regiment, who had been defending the position). Federal losses in the dash to Orchard Knob were around 125 killed and wounded.
More men were lost securing the flanks of this new position. Overall Union losses were around 1,100 killed and wounded. Confederate casualties were probably about the same (including captives). Two days later, Orchard Knob was to be Grant’s headquarters during the battle of Missionary Ridge.