The Fall of Ringgold
Cleburne holds gap for Confederate retreat; Sherman prepares fiery path to Savannah
By Randall Franks
As Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans moved his forces off Catoosa soil at the Chickamuaga battlefield Sept. 20, 1863, and back to Chattanooga, residents took a short break from the intensity of day-after-day combat and tried to move forward.
After the fighting, most were left without any food or stock to feed their families, and the hollow Chickamauga victory changed to defeat after Gen. Braxton Bragg’s loss at Missionary Ridge in November.
Confederate forces retreated from the ridge towards Chickamauga on Nov. 25, 1863, then to Ringgold and on to Dalton with Federal forces hot on their heels.
Bragg chose Gen. Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born settler from Arkansas, to be the rear guard of the retreat in an attempt to buy time for the Confederates to reach their destination.
After skirmishes on Nov. 26, including an engagement with Gen. William T. Sherman’s advance column north of Catoosa’s Graysville community, Cleburne camped his 4,000 men close to Ringgold Gap near West Chickamauga Creek. Several hours before sunrise, Cleburne received his orders to hold the gap at all costs.
William H.H. Clark’s “History of Catoosa County” yields some first-hand accounts of those moments. Capt. John R Kennard with the 10th Texas Infantry wrote:
“… We were ordered up to strip and prepare for wading the river, which was soon accomplished. After the river had been crossed the men redressed and, the morning being very cold, were formed in line and arms stacked, and fires built to warm by. About break of day, we were ordered to fall in and commenced the march through the town of Ringgold. …”
The soldiers were ordered to create lines of defense facing north in the dense young timber growth at the foot of White Oak Mountain near the Ringgold Depot and today’s Welcome Hill community and Taylor’s Ridge near the gap. Cleburne sent a regiment to the top of White Oak Mountain and placed several companies on Taylor’s Ridge, dispatching his men and artillery out of sight of the oncoming forces of Union Brig. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus, serving under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Confederates covered their cannons with brush and waited quietly in the natural hiding places on White Oak Mountain and Taylor’s Ridge.
As Hooker came through Ringgold on Nov. 27, he sought information from residents, including slaves, on the condition of the enemy, but none of the reports foretold what was to come.
According to the Ringgold Gap Preservation Plan prepared in 1997 by Keith Bohannon, Gen. Osterhaus deployed his lead brigade of about 400 Missourians under Brig. Gen. Charles R. Woods to advance beyond the Ringgold Depot towards White Oak Mountain. The group faced a group of Texans fighting under Maj. William Taylor.
As the men reached the timberline, the fighting began, and the Confederates forced the Missourians back. Taylor’s forces captured between 60 and 100 of the group.
At the same time, 278 soldiers from Illinois were ordered through the gap to occupy the Isaac Jobe house.
The “Military History of the 13th Illinois Infantry” describes the Illinois boys as “chipper as could be … hardly expecting so much danger near at hand.”
Cleburne watched the group advance with his field glasses. He told Lt. Richard W. Goldthdwaute to hold artillery fire until the Federals reached the farm.
According to Bohannon: “Suddenly, Cleburne almost sprang into the air, clapped his knee and in his broad Irish brogue shouted ‘Now then boys, give it to ’em boys!’”
Confederate Pvt. William Gibson recognized how the Federal troops fell on the ground and, from the way their hats, caps, guns and accoutrements went flying in the air, he said he had no doubt the whole line was annihilated, exclaiming, “By Jove, boys, it killed them all.”
Cleburne heard the soldier and chastised him to get down, or he would discover “that there are enough left for you to get the top of your head shot off.”
Cleburne’s forces held White Oak Mountain and Ringgold Gap until the army trains were safely away. He was then ordered to withdraw.
As Cleburne and his men were setting the scene for retreat, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Ringgold with his staff.
Grant’s staff member Ely Parker commented that despite enemy fire, the group rode through town at “an ordinary trot.”
“Not once,” wrote Parker, “do I believe did it enter the General’s mind that he was in danger.”
Grant arrived at the Ringgold Depot and immediately began issuing orders to dislodge the Confederates from the gap but not pursue the group any farther.
Forces on both sides battled throughout the day, with Union forces trying to scale White Oak, only to be repelled by the Confederates entrenched at the top.
The Federal forces only took the gap and the mountain after Cleburne’s forces left the field of battle.
While the Federals eventually took the gap, it was at great human cost.
In his official report, Cleburne listed 20 men dead, 190 wounded and 11 missing. On the Federal side, Hooker reported 65 dead, 424 wounded and 20 missing.
Grant, Hooker and Sherman later stood at the Ringgold Depot to analyze maps, then took lodging that night at the William L. Whitman house that still stands on Tennessee Street.
According to Chaplain Arnold T. Needham, the Jobe house was littered with wounded soldiers. One female member of the family, after emerging from the root cellar that served as the family’s haven during battle, was outraged that her bed was now soaked with the blood of a wounded Federal officer.
The Catoosa House, the courthouse and the bank sheltered about 261 Federal wounded.
The Confederate Congress acknowledged the valor of the Confederate forces that fought at the Battle of Ringgold Gap in a special resolution Jan. 22, 1864.
During the winter of 1863-4, Federal troops made Chattanooga and Catoosa County their home, while residents saw Confederates from nearby camps at Tunnel Hill, Varnell and Dalton raid and harry Union occupiers until the beginning of Sherman’s March to the Sea in May 1864. Maj. Gen. George Thomas controlled the Ringgold area.
Historian Clark writes that when the Yankees moved back, they burned what they did not take with them.
“Ringgold was a ghost town,” he wrote. “What had been the most enterprising town in North Georgia, with flourishing businesses, nice stores and beautiful homes, was left a forest of soot covered chimneys.”
Clark included a letter in his book from Ophelia Gordon, wife of Thomas Gordon, written Dec. 29, 1863.
“Yankee rule is nothing to boast of. It does not take but one person to make a trade. If you have an article they want, they’ll tell you so and take it.
Union soldiers present arms in front of the
Inman Bank in Ringgold after Union forces
took the city in late November, 1863.
Ma, I never hated a race of people before and I do believe it would gladden my soul to see the last Yankee killed, man, woman and child. There is but two or three families in town. Tal McAfee’s family and the Whitmans are all I know of.”
Union Maj. James Austin Connolly of Illinois wrote home about his stay with the Whitman family.
"The family consists of the merchant, his wife, her sister, and his two children, a little boy five-years-old and a little girl eight-years-old. The little boy did not like me at first; said I was a Yankee and wouldn’t speak to me; didn’t like Yankees ‘Because they burned Pa’s store and killed our cow,’ … When Wilder’s Brigade first came through last fall, before the battle of Chickamauga, it carried away on horseback his entire stock of goods, whereupon he put the key to his store in his pocket and retired … ”
In the first week of May before Sherman’s March to the Sea, Clark estimates that the population of Catoosa County increased by 100,000 males, all dressed in Union blue. The soldiers camped at locations throughout the county, including Catoosa Springs.
Once the march began and the majority of the occupying force left Catoosa, families were able to try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, while waiting to hear if loved ones would ever return from the fields of battle to once again plow the now blood-stained soil which once was so fertile.
Ringgold just a few months before the Battle of Ringgold Gap. Notice the buildings and timber still standing before Sherman’s march.(Photo by George Bernard, 1864)