After Chickamauga Cleburne had two brigade vacancies to fill. He picked James A Smith to replace Deshler. Smith was a 1853 West Point graduate. To replace Wood Cleburne picked a man similar to himself, Mark P Lowrey who was an Irish Protestant and had been a company commander in the early days of the war before rising to regimental command. Before the war Lowrey had been a Baptist minister. Lidell's brigade was also returned to Cleburne's division.
The army also needed two new corps commanders. Cleburne seemed the logical choice to replace DH Hill but the position instead went to Breckinridge while the other corps went to Cheatham. Breckinridge and Cheatham were the two most senior officers who had not signed the anti-Bragg petition; they were not Bragg fans just astute enough not to anger him. Cleburne did not publicly complain about the slight but mentioned to Lidell, who was a friend of Bragg, that Breckinridge was "unlucky and inspired no confidence." Lidell said that there was no one else to which Cleburne responded that surely there were other candidates and that "I would rather the command were given to you." Perhaps Cleburne hoped Liddell would say something similar about Cleburne but either Liddell didn’t feel that way or did not understand the ruse (or maybe he understood it too well). Cleburne may have hoped that Liddell would repeat this conversation to Bragg. It appears that Liddell did not tell Bragg and Cleburne began to tell Liddell less and less. That situation Liddell did pick up on and resented it, later complaining about Cleburne in his memoirs. In late October Hardee returned to the army and took over from Cheatham. Cleburne's division was soon transferred into Hardee's corps.
Near midnight on November 22 Bragg ordered Cleburne to take his division to Chickamauga Station and move to Longstreet's aid. He would also take Buckner's division, now temporarily commanded by Bushrod Johnson, along. Cleburne might have noticed that this move would remove the last two division commanders from the army that had signed the petition. By midmorning all but one of Johnson's brigades had departed when Bragg sent a note that no new units should depart, that if part had already left then the rest should follow but no new units. A little later a second courier reported that all troops should return at once. Pretty soon a third courier arrived telling Cleburne to move to Bragg's HQ at once, that he would be the army's reserve.
The next morning, November 24, Bragg had Cleburne send one brigade (Cleburne selected Polk's) to guard the railroad bridge over Chickamauga Creek. That afternoon, after Lookout Mountain fell, Bragg sent Cleburne to Tunnel Hill as Sherman could be seen over there. Cleburne arrived at about 2:30 PM and sent Smith's brigade to take Billy Goat Hill. Sherman gained it before Smith but this was not the hill Sherman really wanted and he wouldn't realize his mistake until the next day. That night Cleburne had breastworks built but sent all but two cannon to the rear. He thought Bragg would retreat but as the night dragged on he became more anxious. He sent an aide to Bragg's HQ but it wasn't until midnight that he found out that Bragg was going to stay, Breckinridge had talked him into it. Cleburne now ordered the artillery back to the front.
Hardee could tell that Cleburne would be hard pressed and so in the morning he sent Joseph Lewis' Orphan Brigade to help Cleburne. At 11 AM Sherman began the attack. During the first assault Smith asked permission to counter attack, which proved quite successful but Smith was badly wounded during it. Hiram Granbury now took command of the brigade. The second attack pierced Cleburne's lines briefly but was repulsed. Instead of falling back to their jump off points the Union dug in close to Cleburne's lines. They were able to pick off many artillerists and Granbury had to press infantry into the artillery service. Cleburne moved Swett's battery to enfilade the Union and was then able to force them back.
For the next assault Sherman committed four divisions. This attack was working quite well and Cleburne called on Alfred Cumming's Georgia Brigade for help. These three regiments plus the 2nd-15th-24th Arkansas charged down the hill at 3:30 PM and drove the Union back. At 5 PM Cleburne sent another charge down the hill but the Union was gone. Soon he received an order from Hardee that he needed to send all available troops to the center. Quickly this order became useless as the center was pierced so Cleburne took command of the three divisions in his area and formed a line to prevent the Union from rolling up the line. In the dark he withdrew all his men.
During the evening of November 25 Cleburne ordered Lowrey to attack in front of Missionary Ridge to clear the Union pickets. While the rest of the army is fleeing Cleburne is attacking, though it is only as a ruse to help the withdrawal of his men. At 10 PM that night Cleburne's force reached East Chickamauga Creek. The bridge was burned but one of Bragg's staff officers ordered Cleburne to ford the river, camp on the opposite bank and march at 4 AM for Ringgold Gap. Cleburne thought that he would lose many men if they had to cross a cold river and then sleep with little protection from the elements so he ignored this order and went into camp where he was. He was risking possible capture if the Union advanced quickly but he thought the move was in the best interests of his men.
Sometime after midnight Cleburne received an order from Bragg to hold Ringgold Gap at all costs so that the wagon trains and artillery could escape. He feared that he did not have enough men to defend the gap and that his division might be destroyed so he had the orders put in writing. The Union advance would outnumber Cleburne 4 to 1; 16,000 to 4,000. Cleburne also sent Captain Irving Buck to Bragg's HQ to get further instructions. At 2:30 AM Cleburne began crossing the river. First he built large fires on the other side so his men would have a chance to dry off and warm up, one veteran said that the fires only helped them get warm but that they appreciated that.
The gap Cleburne would defend was just wide enough for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, a wagon road and a branch of the East Chickamauga Creek. The ridge south of the gap rose abruptly while on the north side it rose much more gradually. The wagon train continued southeast from the gap toward Dalton and crossed the Chickamauga Creek three times in a short distance. These three bridges could very easily lead to the destruction of Bragg's army if Cleburne could not hold the gap.
On the south side of the gap Cleburne placed the 16th Alabama to guard the left flank. In the gap itself there were four lines of infantry with skirmishers in a patch of woods. Three regiments were also kept in reserve near the gap. Two Napoleon cannons, under the command of Lieutenant Richard Goldthwaite, were put near the mouth of the gap and were concealed by branches. Cleburne's remaining force was left at the rear of the gap with orders to watch the right flank. Soon after placing his men, about 8 AM, Cleburne could see Hooker's skirmishers advancing towards the gap. Turning around Cleburne could see, "close in rear of the ridge our immense train was still in full view, struggling through the fords of the creek and the deeply cut roads leading to Dalton, and my division, silent, but cool and ready, was the only barrier between it and the flushed and eager advance of the pursuing Federal army."
The leading Union brigade was Woods's of Osterhaus' division. The Confederates held their fire until the brigade was within 50 yards and then they let loose with cannon fire and infantry volleys. When the smoke cleared the Union survivors were racing to the rear leaving many dead and wounded behind. Williamson's brigade was then ordered to take the ridge on the Confederate right. Creighton's brigade of Geary's division was also ordered to advance on Williamson's left in hopes of turning the Confederate right flank.
On the ridge the Confederates were commanded by Major W.A. Taylor who was soon re-enforced with two companies sent by Colonel Hiram Granbury. Taylor then launched a charge down the ridge that resulted in the capture of 60-100 Federals and the 29th Missouri's colors. Creighton, meanwhile, was making steady progress towards the top. When they arrived there they meet the 1st Arkansas and 7th Texas, dispatched by General Lucius Polk just in time to beat Creighton's men there. These two regiments were enough to drive Creighton's men back down the ridge. Williamson's and Creighton's brigades reformed and assaulted again several times, Creighton was mortally wounded in this action. Geary then pulled Creighton's brigade off the ridge.
While the Confederate right was being assaulted there were also attacks made on the Confederate left and center. The attack on the left was stopped by the 16th Alabama and some other skirmishers lead by James Dulin. The attack on the center first captured some houses near Cleburne's line from which sharpshooters shot at the cannoners. Then the 13th Illinois charged the cannon but were repulsed by canister. Goldthwaite then shelled the houses until they were destroyed. Sometime between noon and 1 PM Hardee notified Cleburne that the trains were a safe distance away and he could now withdraw, which Cleburne soon did. About this same time Grant rode up and told Hooker to discontinue the attack. Cleburne had saved the Army of Tennessee from destruction.
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