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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Keogh

Researching The Edge of Hell (Part 2)

Part 1 in this series finished with my research trip to the Chickamauga battlefield in north Georgia. In Part 2, I will take you from Chattanooga, Tennesee, to Resaca, Georgia, including photos from my travels back in the 1990s to help illustrate the movements of the 11th Michigan Infantry, featured in my Civil War novel, The Edge of Hell.

After the battle of Chickamauga, General William S. Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland retreated to strategically placed Chattanooga on the border of Tennessee and Georgia. Though the army had suffered a defeat at Chickamauga, the goal of the campaign--Chattanooga--had been obtained. However, the Confederate Army of Tennesee was set upon retaking the town, and so a siege began, with the Rebels holding the surrounding high ground on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.

The photo above, taken from the National Cemetery in downtown Chattanooga, shows imposing Lookout Mountain to the southwest.

For two months, the Federals remained behind fortifications, slowly starving as the Confederates strangled supply routes. In October, Rosecrans was relieved of command, replaced by the "Rock of Chickamauga," General George Thomas, former corps commander for the 11th Michigan Infantry. President Lincoln ordered General Ulysses S. Grant to leave Vicksburg, which Grant had just secured for the Union, and make his way to Chattanooga to take command of all Federal forces. Those forces included General Joe Hooker's corps, recently detached from the Army of the Potomac in the east and sent west as reinforcements. Other reinforcements came from General William Tecumseh Sherman's troops.

With Grant in charge, Union forces reclaimed the supply routes. Federal troops could finally stop eating their horses and gain strength and morale in anticipation of breaking the siege. The effort began late in November. Grant gave his crony Sherman the task of turning the Rebel right flank at the north end of Missionary Ridge, east of town, after Hooker's men had wrestled Lookout Mountain from Braxton Bragg's Rebel forces on the Confederate left flank. Sherman's attack, however, stalled. On the second day, Grant finally decided to give the Army of the Cumberland a part in the battle.

There is controversy over what Grant's exact orders were on November 25. Some say the orders he gave to the Army of the Cumberland was for Thomas's men to merely demonstrate against the Confederate center in order to draw Rebel troops away from Sherman's continued attack. The veterans of Chickamauga, however, took matters into their own hands, refusing to be merely Grant's tool to help his buddy Sherman. They ended up storming the heights of Missionary Ridge and routing the Confederates.

Unfortunately, modern-day Chattanooga has obliterated much of the battlefield, though there are many markers, like the one pictured below. This marker sits at the top of the ridge where the 11th Michigan and Stoughton's brigade broke through the lines while fighting on the Union right flank. On the slope below the marker is where Major Benjamin G. Bennet of the 11th lost his life after having a morning premonition about his demise. He had once commanded Company D, the company to which my main characters, Nate and James, belonged.

After the victory, Union forces remained in and around Chattanooga for the winter, the 11th Michigan at nearby Rossville, Georgia. All knew that, come spring, they would begin a new campaign against the Rebel army, one that would have the rail hub of Atlanta as the main goal.

In May, General Sherman commanded three Federal armies, including the Army of the Cumberland, and the spring campaign began in earnest. The Union forces were more or less constantly engaged with the Confederates, now led by General Joe Johnston. The Rebels always chose strong ground on which to put up resistance, but Sherman's larger forces kept threatening Johnston's left flank, causing him to withdraw his forces to the next favorable defensive position.

In my rental car, I traced the 11th Michigan's route of march southward. After skirmishing and fighting at places like Rocky Face Ridge, the regiment drew near the small town of Resaca, Georgia, through which the strategic Western and Atlanta Railroad passed. There the armies, including the 11th Michigan (now in King's brigade), battled in the wilderness of red clay and pine forests, accomplishing little except lengthening the casualty lists on both sides.

Unfortunately, the ground covered by the battle belonged to a private owner at the time of my visit, not to mention the Confederate ground now dominated by Interstate 75, so I was deprived of a firsthand look. Today, thanks to the American Battlefield Trust and donations from folks like me, a 500-acre park allows visitors to see the battlefield.

As usual, Sherman forced Johnston to retreat ever southward toward Atlanta by once again outflanking the Rebel army.

In Part 3, we will visit the Pickett's Mill battlefield as well as Andersonville prison in Georgia.

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