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Battle of Chickamauga
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The Battle of Chickamauga
As William S. Rosecrans' [US] Army of the Cumberland passed through the gaps in Lookout Mountain, Braxton Bragg's [CS] Army of Tennessee prepared to attack. Coming out of these gaps meant that Rosecrans would immediately need to establish a line of supply from Chattanooga, a line Bragg intended to sever or prevent from forming. With the mountains to their back, the Army of the Cumberland would then be forced to attack to re-establish the supply line.
Marching from the rugged gaps into the rolling hills of the Valley and Ridge section in northwest Georgia, George Thomas, Thomas Crittenden and Alexander McCook began reporting heavier that expected Rebel resistance along Chickamauga Creek. Rosecrans immediately consolidated his army at Lee and Gordon Mill and began a move north along the Chattanooga-Lafayette Road, henceforth called the Lafayette Road. Rather than simply marching north, Rosecrans felt it imperative that a much more complex movement had to be made, to shield his army from assault. This movement, generally called a "sidle," involved withdrawing a brigade, closing up the hole, moving the brigade further north, where it re-enters the line. In addition to the 55,000 men moving north along the Lafayette Road, Rosecrans had Gordon Granger [US] in reserve at Rossville Gap (Prelude to Chickamauga.
Lafayette Road runs along a low ridge west of Chickamauga Creek. Rosecrans decided to destroy the bridges over Chickamauga Creek to further prevent a Rebel attack. Dan McCook advanced to Reed's Bridge early on the 19th and burned it, but engaged some Confederates as he withdrew. What McCook didn't realize was the Rebels near the bridge were a rear guard and that most of Bragg's force crossed Chickamauga Creek the previous evening.
More that 50,000 men from Virginia, Georgia, Florida and every other state in the Confederacy were awaiting orders on the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, listening to the Army of the Cumberland advancing towards Chattanooga. John Bell Hood took command of a combined force including the first arrivals of Longstreet's Corps and part of Simon Bolivar Buckner's Corps while Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry screened John Breckinridge's and Leonidas Polk's Corps to the north.
Dan McCook's report came to George Thomas, at the northern end of the Union Army, of a Rebel brigade between Lafayette Road and Chickamauga Creek. Thomas dispatched Col. John Croxton forward to flush out the Rebels that McCook had seen. Thinking he was heading east on Reed's Bridge Road, Croxton had actually moved east southeast along an old farm road towards Jays Mill. On his left, Croxton saw Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry moving north towards the smoke rising from Reed's Bridge. Suddenly there was a burst of small arms from the Yankees who had lined up and caught the Rebels by surprise. The Union line quickly came under attack. Croxton wired back to Thomas, "Which of the four or five Rebel brigades in my front did you want me to flush out." Croxton had driven Forrest's men back into one of W. H. T. Walker's [CS] divisions commanded by States Right Gist.
Thomas ordered Absolam Baird [US] and John Brannon [US] to move forward supporting Union forces and the line was extended. The southern end of the Union line was in Winfrey Field with a forest so thick on the southern side that it was impossible to see more than a few feet into it. About 11:00 am two of General St. John Liddell's [CS] brigades (Govan [CS] and Walthall [CS]) stepped out of this forest and began to roll up the Union right.
Thomas once again sent men forward but the complex movement north had two of his divisions separated from his main body. When Thomas sent word to Rosecrans that he needed help, Rosecrans ordered the next division moving north, under Richard W. Johnston, to turn right on the Brotherton Road and advance. Johnson came upon the rear of Walthall's men and it was now their time to be dealt a serious blow. The Union line advanced, creating a wide buffer to the east of Lafayette Road.
Calls for more troops began coming in to Bragg at his headquarters in Leet's Tanyard, especially from W. H. T. Walker [CS]. Johnson's attack had splintered his line, and Walker was afraid that without support his corps would be overrun. Bragg's solution was to push Benjamin Franklin Cheatham forward against the Union right, halting Johnson's advance and turning the tide in favor of the Confederates once again.
Bragg also ordered an advance in the south, trying to take pressure off of his two northern corps commanders, Leonidas Polk [CS] and Walker. Bragg's next unit to the south was under the command of Alexander Stewart. A philosophy professor at the University of Nashville, Stewart would eventually become a Lieutenant General and corps commander, but today was destined to be his most famous attack.
At a salient in the Union line near Viniard Field, Stewart sent his entire division forward. General Horatio Van Cleve's Minnesotans were unprepared for an attack this size and the Union line collapsed, create a breach in the line hundreds of feet long. The location was pivotal, because it meant that Thomas was now separated from the main body of the Army of the Cumberland. Luck, though was on the Union side. Rosecrans had rushed Negley's and Reynold's divisions to help Thomas, and the Confederates ran into almost two divisions of men marching along Lafayette Road. General William Hazen quickly responded as well, having his men fall in on the flank of the quickly formed line. Together these men bloodily repulsed the Rebel attack.
Slowly the battle was drawing nearer to John Bell Hood, but by the late afternoon Hood had not received orders to advance. Just before 4:00 pm Hood pushed his men forward without orders from Bragg. He came out at Lafayette Road opposite men under the command of Jefferson C. Davis [US], specifically the brigade of Norwegian-born Hans Heg. Trying to rally his men, Heg was shot from his horse as his brigade literally evaporated with 70% casualties. Once again, though, the Union line held as Generals Thomas Wood and Phil Sheridan and Colonel John Wilder arrived in support. Veteran artillerist Eli Lilly spun his brigade around, firing grape-shot into the Confederate line at close range.
As the sun was setting, General Patrick Cleburne [CS] launched a major attack, driving the federal positions in the north back in line with the Lafayette Road. Although thousands had died and many more injured, the lines were roughly in the same positions as when the battle started in the morning.
For the second day at Chickamauga, Bragg intended to strike en echelon down the entire length of the Union line. The plan is to search for any opening, then exploit it. While there were some Confederate successes, because of confusion they could not be exploited and by 11:00 am the rolling attack to the north had fallen into a stalemate. It was now James Longstreet's turn. Although born in South Carolina, General Longstreet was a Georgian, raised near Gainesville in the northeast part of the state. Longstreet did not like Bragg's rolling attack, so he slightly modified the plan, calling for 16,000 men to move against General Rosecrans forces along a mile of the Lafayette Road.
Just before the attack, George Thomas renewed his request for more men and Rosecrans withdrew Woods' division from the line with the intent of moving it north. As the withdrawal was complete and Wood began to march north, Longstreet hit the non-existent Union line, driving almost a corps of men behind LaFayette Road. Suddenly, Yankees near the road were being fired on from both directions, and the fire coming from the west side of the road was particularly deadly, since that side was elevated. In less than an hour almost two full corps of Yankees were streaming northwest to McFarland Gap through Missionary Ridge and on to Rossville and Chattanooga. Among the enlisted men and officers were 2 corps commanders (Crittenden and McCook), the commander of the Army of the Cumberland (Rosecrans), at least 4 future governors and a future President of the United States, who escorted Rosecrans to McFarland Gap. Once at the gap, General James Garfield told Rosecrans to return to Chattanooga and prepare for the arrival of his army. Garfield then returned to the battle.
As the Confederates broke through the line they had been ordered to wheel to the left. John Bell Hood countermanded these orders and turned right, in pursuit of the fleeing federal army. In some instances small groups of Union forces successfully counterattacked. Colonel Charles Harker's Third Brigade had been the first withdrawn by Wood from the line at Brotherton Cabin. As the Rebel juggernaut rolled through the Union line it pushed the brigade back, but Harker and his men had not fled, instead regrouping in some woods. General Henry Benning [CS], who had moved west with Longstreet's Corps, got caught up in the advance and failed to deploy a flank guard. Harker's men struck from the forest on Benning's left, descending on the unsuspecting Rebels. Benning tried to turn his men to the left. A bullet struck his first horse, then a second. Determined to continue his command he mounted a third horse, which he took from an artillery caisson, but Benning's unit had been completely overrun and no longer existed.
Harker's men, safely returning to the woods near Dyer Field, now concentrated on other Confederates. Hood saw his old Texas Brigade take cover and return fire to Harker when he rode up and tried to rally them. Suddenly, Kershaw's Brigade also appeared. As Hood prepared to issue orders a minnie ball struck his leg, shattering the bone above the knee. It was all his men could do to get him off his horse.
As Rebels completed their turn right, the left flank came under the heavy fire of Spencer repeating rifles. Colonel John Wilder advanced, shredding the South Carolina brigade of Arthur Manigault [CS]. Flush with the success of his technologically-advanced breach-loaders (loaded from a clip and not from the front) Wilder prepared to attack the main body of the Confederate Army with less than 600 effectives. Charles Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, then issued Wilder a direct order, although as a civilian observer he had no authority to do so. Dana ordered Wilder not to attack the Confederates, nor attempt to join George Thomas atop Snodgrass Hill.
Since the breakthrough at Brotherton Cabin, General Gordon Granger [US] had been listening to the changing sound of battle from his headquarters at Rossville (the former home of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross). Simply from the noise, Granger realized there was a problem and advanced south without orders. He didn't know what he was going to do or even where he was going - he would figure that out later.
After Hood's wound, General Kershaw took command. Kershaw continue the advance, although as the Confederate Army moved further from the Brotherton Cabin it slowed significantly and was now moving almost due north, towards the right flank of General George Thomas's XIV Corps. At the time, however, Thomas did not have a right flank. Working with Brigadier General John Brannon, Thomas began forming stragglers into a weak line running from the south side of Snodgrass Hill north to Horseshoe Ridge. As the Rebel army grew closer the number of Yankee stragglers increased. Giving orders directly to enlisted men, Thomas and Brannon created a line barely a man deep. The Confederates advanced to a position at the bottom of the hill. After two attempts to break the Union line, Thomas was out of ammunition. The order came for bayonets as the Rebels prepared for a third assault.
Suddenly there was a commotion among Thomas's staff and he turned to see what the problem was. In the distance a large force was approaching. His staff could tell because of the dust cloud being thrown up by the horses, but they did not know if the men were Yankees or Rebels. If they were Rebels, it meant a second disaster had occurred along the eastern battleline. After a few tense minutes a staff officer made out the flag - it was the Stars and Stripes and a cheer went up.
Gordon Granger [US] was rapidly advancing to support Thomas's army. His men dispersed ammunition as Granger approached Thomas to receive orders. Thomas gestured towards the Horseshoe Ridge on his right and asked Granger if he could drive the Rebels from it. Granger's men advanced and in a half hour fight freed the ridge from Rebel control. About the time Granger began his attack, General Rosecrans was saying goodbye to his Chief of Staff James Garfield at McFarland Gap. Badly shaken and demoralized, Rosecrans listened when Garfield sugguested that Rosecrans proceed to Chattanooga to prepare for the arrival of what remained of his army. Rosecrans briefly made a case for his return to the battlefield, but Garfield would not allow his commander to return to an unstable battle. As Rosecrans rode off, Garfield turned around and sought the sound of battle.
Garfield's six-mile ride back to the Union lines was a historic event for the future President. He secured a small squad of men in the first couple of miles but had to leave the Lafayette Road when a Confederate volley from some woods whizzed by their heads. He returned to Thomas's headquarters at the Snodgrass House and became Rosecrans eyes and ears. Within ten minutes he telegraphed Rosecrans with a series of recommendations for the battle, including ordering Thomas to withdraw and form a line at Rossville. Less than half an hour later Rosecrans had reworded Garfield's telegram and returned it as his own.
While waiting for Rosecrans orders, the Yankee line stabilized and Thomas felt he could safely turn tactical command of this army to Gordon Granger while he rode east to prepare the units on present-day Battleline Road for the coming withdrawal. Entrenched during the night of September 19-20, a mixed command of 9 large brigades had withstood repeated heavy assaults throughout September 20th. Because of the events to the south the heroic stand of these men has been almost lost. From early morning the Confederates sent 6 divisions (Liddell, Breckingridge, Walker, Cheatham, Cleburne and Stewart) against this line, but the Yankee brigade commanders (Willich, Turchin, E. King, Cruft, Berry, Starkweather, Scribner, J. King and Dodge) held their position.
Just before sundown, Granger prepared for a final Rebel assault. Four hours earlier he had resupplied the munition for this Union line but now many men were out of ammunition again. There was no reserve on the way and as Thomas had done earlier Granger gave the order to fix bayonets. Once again the Union line held.
Two armies sat opposite one another separated by a hundred feet of dirt as night fell that evening. Thomas issued orders to his men for withdrawal along Lafayette Road and by 7:00 pm Union troops were streaming down the road. The Union rear guard line was suprisingly quiet - both armies were exhausted. Nathan Bedford Forrest found Braxton Bragg at his headquarters, wanting permission to attack the disorganized Army of the Cumberland but Bragg refused.
Links on the battle of Chickamauga
Prelude - December, 1862 to September, 1863
The Day Before Chickamauga - September 18, 1863
Chickamauga - First Contact
As General Dan McCook withdraws from Reed's Bridge he reports enemy troops in the area to Gen,. George Thomas, who orders Col. Croxton to advance.
A Battleline is Drawn
A Bad Start
Breakthrough at the Brotherton Cabin
Counterattack of the Lightning Brigade
Granger Reinforces Thomas
Links appearing on this page:
Army of Tennessee
Battle of Chickamauga was last changed on - November 12, 2006
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