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  • James Houser

September 19, 1863 - The Battle of Chickamauga

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 19, 1863. As the Confederacy reels from the twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the epicenter of the Civil War has shifted to northern Georgia. Confederate General Braxton Bragg has prepared a great counterattack that he hopes will turn the tide and recover Tennessee. The outcome will be the terrible Battle of Chickamauga, one of the worst battles of the Civil War – and one of the most forgotten.

I confess: a bunch of my posts could just be summed up as “the Civil War’s greatest hits.” I’ve covered First Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Appomattox, the titanic struggle between Grant and Lee, and even stuff like the New Mexico Campaign. I have plans to cover Missionary Ridge, the March to the Sea, and Nashville. But this particular battle – the Battle of Chickamauga – is less well-known than many of the others, even to me. I can tell you about the movements of individual brigades and regiments at Antietam, Gettysburg, or First Bull Run. Chickamauga, though, remains a muddle.

And that’s a shame, because Chickamauga should be mentioned in the same breath as all of those. Chickamauga was the second deadliest battle of the Civil War, topped only by Gettysburg. It was easily the most devastating battle of the Western Theater, and the Confederacy’s only real victory IN that theater. It involved some of the big names of the Civil War – James Longstreet, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Braxton Bragg, George Thomas, and future President James A. Garfield. It was the only major battle of the whole war where the South actually outnumbered the North – at least partially because Robert E. Lee shipped reinforcements west by rail to keep the West from falling apart.

It was also a very unromantic battle. There were no great rolling fields, no obvious landmarks, no easy way to put the lines on a map. The Battle of Chickamauga, instead, was fought in the densely wooded hills of northern Georgia, where all the units tended to blur together. It was a bloodbath of the highest order, where tens of thousands of men collided in dense wilderness with surprising zeal and resolve. Chickamauga deserves to be a much bigger deal in popular memory than it is today.

The “Western Theater” of the Civil War was really two theaters in 1863. While Ulysses S. Grant advanced down the Mississippi River in his campaign to capture Vicksburg, two other armies squared off in central Tennessee. Holding Nashville and central Tennessee was the Union Army of the Cumberland under General William S. Rosecrans, a reasonably able commander. Facing him was the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, one of the single most toxic leaders in American military history, whose goal was to hold the key city of Chattanooga. Chattanooga was the Confederacy’s last real outpost in Tennessee and dominated the only invasion route through the Appalachians into Georgia. It was a vital objective for both sides.

Abraham Lincoln had placed continuous pressure on Rosecrans throughout the spring and summer of 1863 to attack Bragg and open the gates of Georgia. This would achieve Lincoln’s twin objectives of first: keeping pressure on all main Confederate armies, and second: liberating East Tennessee, whose population remained firmly Unionist even though their state had seceded. Rosecrans had dithered for months, balking at another battle after the butchery at Stones River in December 1862. His delays had enabled Bragg to send reinforcements to the armies fighting Grant in Mississippi, increasing Lincoln’s exasperation.

When Rosecrans finally made his move on June 24, though, his careful planning produced a swift and nearly bloodless success. Through a series of intricate maneuvers along the Cumberland Mountains in east-central Tennessee, Rosecrans confused Bragg with a series of diversions and then positioned strong forces on both his flanks. Despite heavy rain that turned the roads to muck, the Union forces moved quickly. One brigade of mounted infantry with expensive but deadly seven-shot Spencer Carbines – John T. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” - got in the Confederate rear and threatened their supply depots. By July, Bragg was forced to fall all the way back to Chattanooga. In August, Rosecrans repeated another lightning series of maneuvers that forced Bragg to abandon Chattanooga altogether.

Both generals received criticism from their leaders. Abraham Lincoln was upset that Rosecrans was more concerned with gaining territory than destroying the Confederate forces, which he believed should be the prime objective. Jefferson Davis raged against Bragg for giving up almost all of Tennessee without a fight, even as he shuttled reinforcements to him from across the South. Davis pulled troops from Knoxville, Mississippi, and the Carolina coast to send Bragg’s way as the Confederate general fell back into northern Georgia. Bragg had decided to pull back rather than be encircled by Rosecrans’ advance, but he was looking for an opportunity to strike back.

With the Confederacy’s forces in the West on the verge of crumbling to pieces, Robert E. Lee sent two of his beloved veteran divisions west. Leading them was James Longstreet, Lee’s most reliable subordinate. These units were truly crack soldiers: the divisions of Hood and McLaws who had fought for the Cornfield and West Woods at Antietam, slaughtered the Union charges at Fredericksburg, and duked it out for Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg. These 12,000 veterans stepped on trains on September 9, and due to Union raids had to make a roundabout 900-mile railroad trip to reach Georgia. Only half of them would make it to Chickamauga for the battle – but they would be enough to tip the balance against Longstreet’s old West Point roommate Rosecrans. (Davis had tried to send Lee himself west to take command, but Lee demurred.)

With help on the way, Bragg sought to launch an offensive to reverse the South’s fortunes. The South seemed to be under a cloud after Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the loss of Tennessee; desertions from Confederate armies had begun to rise alarmingly. To retreat any farther could mean a total collapse of the Southern war effort, and Bragg saw an opportunity in the dense hills and woods of northern Georgia just south of Chattanooga. Rosecrans’ Union army was pushing south in three separated columns, and Bragg hoped to strike one before all three could unite.

Throughout the first two weeks of September, Bragg and Rosecrans played cat-and-mouse in northern Georgia as Confederate reinforcements poured in by train, including the first of Longstreet’s units as well as the hard-riding cavalrymen of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Three times from September 10 to 13, Bragg attempted to spring a trap against a fragmented portion of Rosecrans’ army, but his poor command abilities and the caution of his subordinates cost him all these opportunities. Warned by these maneuvers, Rosecrans concentrated his army in an area just south of Chattanooga, nearly straddling the Tennessee-Georgia line. The site was West Chickamauga Creek.

Bragg tried to concentrate his troops quickly on Rosecrans and smash the Union general before he had his whole army together, but his plan miscarried once again on September 18 when Forrest’s cavalry was driven back by that same elite “Lightning Brigade” of mounted infantry and their repeating rifles. As Longstreet’s troops were finally trickling in, Bragg decided to launch his attack on Rosecrans’ position on September 19, 1863. The last of Rosecrans’ army – his 14th Corps under Virginia-born George H. Thomas – had just arrived on the battlefield.

With all the reinforcements Davis had pushed his way, Bragg had almost 65,000 men at Chickamauga compared to Rosecrans’ 60,000. It was the only major battle of the Civil War where the South outnumbered the North. This was hardly a decisive edge, though, especially since Bragg was nothing approaching a military genius and his army was hardly the well-oiled machine that Lee had built in Virginia or Grant had built in Mississippi. The Army of Tennessee was a disunited army with low morale and poor discipline, led by a backstabbing group of quarrelling senior officers headed by Bragg, the biggest backstabber and quarreler of them all. Of every army in the Civil War, the Army of Tennessee had the worst record from 1861 to 1865. Nothing about this spelled success at Chickamauga.

When Bragg commenced the battle on September 19, his plan was allegedly to “turn” the Union left: in military terms, to outflank the enemy. Rosecrans had changed his dispositions when Thomas’ 14th Corps had arrived, though, and when the day broke Thomas was sitting where Bragg expected a gap to be waiting for him. Bragg ordered infantry divisions to assault Thomas’s position, one after another, each of which turned into a mutual massacre in the rocky crags and slopes of northern Georgia. As Bragg sat at his headquarters tent far to the rear, he was totally disconnected from the battle he directed, which degenerated into a series of futile and bloody Southern assaults on the Union flank.

Both Thomas and the Confederate generals in their sector fed brigade after brigade into the swirling melee that erupted on the banks of Chickamauga Creek. Individual fields and pastures throughout the terrain became their own terrible legends: the Dyer Field, the Brotherton Cabin, and Lee and Gordon’s Mill all became blood-soaked landmarks as the blue and grey battled back and forth. Every Rebel attack and Union counterattack crashed through woods and undergrowth so thick that units could not see or cooperate with each other, only to emerge into fields, pastures and groves. Point-blank volleys, bayonet charges, the sudden appearance of an enemy regiment crashing out of the thicket, all mingled into a confusing, maddening brawl.

As the battle spread across the rest of the field, the Union was clearly holding their own. Thomas expertly juggled his units on the left, while Bragg ordered new attacks on the Union center and right. Some Confederate brigades got so close that Rosecrans’ headquarters at the Widow Glenn House was under fire and staff officers had to shout to be heard. Once again, John Wilder’s Lightning Brigade came crashing in to save the day, driving the Rebels back and restoring the line. By 6pm, the sun was sinking, and the Union had somehow held. Even Irishman Patrick Cleburne’s legendary division failed to dislodge the Union left, and soon the fighting died down for the first day. The first day at Chickamauga alone probably cost the Union 7,000 and the Confederates 9,000 dead, wounded, or captured. And it wasn’t over.

On the night of September 19, Longstreet himself finally arrived with the last of his units, and Bragg gave him command over the Confederate left wing. Longstreet observed the chaos and sniping at Bragg’s headquarters, in sharp contrast to the calm and orderly discussion in Lee’s team, and was dismayed. Bragg had badly mismanaged the first day’s fighting, issuing vague orders and launching pointless attacks with no overall plan. To make matters worse, Bragg ordered a last-minute reorganization of the army’s command team – in the middle of a battle! This only made things even muddier on September 20.

At dawn on September 20, Bragg played the greatest hit: a heavy attack on the Union left. Spearheaded by the Kentucky “Orphan Brigade,” led by Benjamin Hardin Helm (brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, fighting for the South) the Confederate attack ran into a slaughter. Helm was killed, his brigade decimated, and the Confederates thrown back everywhere. As Bragg continued his frankly incompetent hammering at the Union lines, there was no result but more blood and slaughter. It would have continued that way all day, in all likelihood – but Bellona, the God of War, has a strange sense of humor. She intervened.

Bear with me.

Rosecrans had been shifting reinforcements over to his hard-pressed (Union) left. During this confusing process a staff officer, failing to see a Union division concealed in the woods on the (Union) right, reported a quarter-mile gap in the line. To fill this dangerous hole, Rosecrans reacted quickly, ordering another division to move over – thus creating a real quarter-mile gap in the effort to patch an existing one. At this same moment, Bragg ordered Longstreet on the (Confederate) left to launch an attack on the (Union) right as a diversion.

Without knowing it, Longstreet was aimed directly at the gap in the Union line.

Longstreet was not about diversions. Contrary to his postwar reputation as a defensive general, Longstreet’s immense talent in the Civil War was launching coordinated, fierce attacks: his performances at Second Manassas, Antietam, and the Wilderness stand as solid examples. Longstreet got his ducks in a row, placing his own units from Lee’s army at the apex, and sent eight brigades forward in a massive, narrow column to splinter the enemy line. He had learned lessons from the failure of Pickett’s Charge two months previously, and decided to assemble overwhelming force at a single point to crush anything in its path. This has been described as something like the German “Spearhead” tactic in World War II. The result was that just as a division-wide gap appeared in the Union line, Longstreet plowed three divisions straight into it.

This was the decisive moment of the battle. Despite all Bragg’s bungling, the tenacious defense of the Union troops, and the confusion of the engagement as a whole, Longstreet’s skill as a commander aligned with a disastrous Union mistake to turn the tide. Soldiers in gray poured through this open gap, causing a sudden panic on the Union right. Longstreet’s steel-tipped sledgehammer cut a jagged path through the Union formations. Its attack sent a third of the blue-coated army – along with a dozen general, including a traumatized Rosecrans, whose headquarters had been overrun – sprinting for Chattanooga and safety. Here were the makings of a decisive Confederate victory, if Bragg could seize the opportunity. Here was the real opportunity to turn the war around by totally destroying the Union army.

Recognizing the golden opportunity, Longstreet sent in every man he had and begged Bragg for reinforcements. Bragg – still back at his headquarters, nowhere near the actual battle – refused, and a disgusted Longstreet pushed forward with what he had. By this time, though, the Union had started to gain their footing. With Rosecrans and his top commanders having fled the field, George Thomas was the man on the spot. He took what was left of the Army of the Cumberland and organized a last-ditch stand. His battered units, which had fought for two days against everything the South could throw at them, now fought a desperate and bloody rear-guard action atop Snodgrass Hill, as the ever-calm, ever-cool Thomas directed them and steadied them. George Thomas saved the Union army at Chickamauga, forever earning him the adoration of his troops and the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.”

As the sun went down, Thomas and his exhausted men finally set off for Chattanooga, and the Army of the Cumberland straggled into the city by first light on September 21. Longstreet and Forrest wanted to push on immediately to complete the Confederate victory, but Bragg was so appalled by his losses that he could barely move. The Army of Tennessee had lost almost 30% of its strength in the Battle of Chickamauga, including ten Confederate generals killed or wounded, along with half its artillery horses. When Bragg refused to pursue, Forrest stormed out in a rage, shouting “What the hell does he fight battles for?”

As Bragg’s army moved slowly and inexorably north to encircle the Union forces in Chattanooga, the victory at Chickamauga grew increasingly hollow. The costliest battle in the Western Theater – the second costliest of the Civil War, after only Gettysburg – would be a tactical Confederate victory with barren results for the war. Because as the shattered Army of the Cumberland sat licking its wounds, it was the Union’s turn to draw forces from across the war front to save its army. And to lead these forces to victory, Lincoln had found his man.

A few days after the Union disaster at Chickamauga, Lincoln put Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all Union armies in the West, with orders to save the Union army at Chattanooga and finally deliver Bragg a crushing defeat. Grant would oblige him. Tune in on November 25 for one of the most dramatic battles of the Civil War: the charge up Missionary Ridge.

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