Thursday, July 9, 2009

Missionary Ridge

The Story of a Regiment: Being a Narrative of the Service of the Second Regiment Minnesota Veteran Volunteer Infantry by Judson Bishop. Edited by Newell Chester.

If you've ever wondered just how exactly the Union army decided to continue the charge up Missionary Ridge instead of stopping at the first line, as they were ordered, this book solves the mystery.

The very first chapter, "The Mystery of Missionary Ridge Unraveled" the amazing story is told. Captain John Reed Beatty, aide-de-camp to Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer had reached Company H of the 2nd Minnesota just after they took the first line of rifle pits. He saw that they could not stay there, they either had to retreat or go forward. So he ordered bugler Billings J. Sibley to sound the charge. He also made his old company (remarkably he had started the war as the first lieutenant of this company before joining Van Derveer's staff) promise not to tell anyone why the bugler had sounded the charge. Apparently Beatty had the presence of mind to make an attempt to protect himself from charges of "insubordination of a direct order" by eliciting that promise from his old comrades.

The men started the charge, the rest of the Union army soon followed their example and the ridge was won. The next day Sibley wrote his father but did not tell him of his historic part. Beatty never mentioned it in letters to his wife. The whole historic moment would have been lost except one comrade couldn't keep the secret forever. On May 9, 1916 Roswell Lyon Nason told the story to the Mankato Review. Beatty had died the previous month and Sibley had died three years earlier. Nason was the last surviving member and he thought it was his duty to reveal the story.

Why Beatty did not tell someone when he served on the Chickamauga Chattanooga battlefield commission in 1893 is unknown, by that time its doubtful anyone would have preferred charges against him. I bet if we looked at every regiment that made that charge we would find some similar stories. I looked through the three modern books on Chattanooga, by Wiley Sword, Peter Cozzens and James Lee McDonough, and found no reference to Beatty being responsible. I did find countless other counts of regiments or brigades that continued past the first line, were called back and then shortly thereafter went up anyway for a variety of reasons. Some essentially decided that it looked like everyone else was doing it, or about to do it, so they might as well go up too. Some received a message that said in effect that if you think you can take the ridge then go for it. I know Sheridan sent his aide to Granger to clarify the orders because some of his men had advanced and then returned. The aide came back with the message to the effect that they could charge but they'd better succeed, the gist being that if you do it no one will care why you did it but if you fail someone will face a court martial.

Nason tells a good story however there is certainly a fair amount of embellishment to the story. I think it is especially odd that Beatty did not share the story when he served on his state's monument commission for the park. It would have been a wonderful story to tell 30 years later. I'm sure it would have also set off a firestorm from other veterans saying that they started up the ridge before the 2nd Minnesota did, but it would have been a good story. Since Beatty never said a word to anyone I'm actually apt to believe he did not do what Nason claimed. I'm more likely to believe that Nason wanted one last moment of glory and telling this story as the last living survivor was a good time to do it.

1 comment:

c_hope said...

I have always been interested in the Chattanooga Campaign and have always heard different explanations as to why the soldiers kept charging. One explanation I heard is that the soldiers of the 14th Corps felt they needed to prove themselves because of their action (or lack of) in a previous battle. Good to see this new information come out.