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Chapter 31: battle of Chickamauga.

  • Tactical features
  • -- the battle opened by direct attack on the Federals in the early morning of September 20 -- repeated and determined front assaults -- brigadiers Helm killed and Adams wounded -- the Union commands lay behind defences -- Hood's brigades surged through the forest against the covered infantry and artillery -- Hood wounded -- Longstreet suggests a plan for progressive action -- halting tactics at high tide of success -- the Confederate left fought a separate battle -- General Thomas retreats -- First Confederate victory in the West, and one of the bloodiest battles of the war -- forces engaged -- losses.

Satisfied that the opening of the battle was to be the attack against his left, the Union commander ordered Negley's division out from its position near the Glen House to report to General Thomas and assist in meeting the attack, but only Beattie's brigade was in time for that service, the other brigades waiting to be relieved from their positions in line. Meanwhile, Baird's left had been extended by Dodge's brigade of Johnson's division of the Twentieth Corps.

Before the Confederate commander engaged his battle he found the road between the enemy's left and Chattanooga open, which gave him opportunity to interpose or force the enemy from his works to open battle to save his line. But he preferred his plan of direct attack as the armies stood, and opened his battle by attack of the right wing at 9.30 A. M. of the 20th. He was there, and put the corps under Lieutenant-General D. H. Hill to the work. Breckenridge's and Cleburne's divisions, Breckenridge on the right, overreached the enemy's left by two brigades, Stovall's and Adams's, but the other brigade, Helm's, was marched through the wood into front assault of the enemy behind his field-works. This brigade made [446] desperate repeated and gallant battle until the commander, Benjamin H. Helm, one of the most promising brigadiers, was killed, when its aggressive work was suspended.

The other brigades crossed the Chattanooga road, changed front, and bore down against the enemy's left. This gave them favorable ground and position. They made resolute attack against Baird's left, threatening his rear, but he had troops at hand to meet them. They had a four-gun battery of Slocum's of the Washington Artillery,1 and encountered Dodge's brigade and parts of Willick's, Berry's, and Stanley's, and superior artillery. In the severe contention General Adams fell seriously hurt, and the brigades were eventually forced back to and across the road, leaving General Adams on the field.

A separate attack was then made by Cleburne's division, the brigades of Polk and Wood assaulting the breast-works held by the divisions of Johnson and Palmer. These brigades, after severe fight, were repulsed, and their positions were covered by Deshler's brigade. General Deshler received a mortal wound from a fragment of shell, leaving the brigade in the hands of the gallant Colonel Roger Q. Mills (our afterwards distinguished statesman). General Thomas called repeatedly for reinforcements, and received assurances that they were coming, even to include the army if necessary to hold the left.

Johnson's brigade of Cheatham's division was ordered to support the brigade under Colonel Mills, and the reserve corps under General W. H. T. Walker (Gist's and Liddell's divisions) was ordered into the Breckenridge battle, Gist's brigade against the left angle of the breastworks, and Walthall's to the place of Cleburne's division. The other brigade of Gist's division supported the battle of his own brigade, and General Liddell was ordered with Govan's brigade to advance, passing beyond the enemy's [447] left to the Chattanooga road, and wheel to the left against his left rear. The troops, without exception, made a brave, desperate fight, but were unsuccessful, and forced to suspend aggressive work.

As the grand wheel to the left did not progress, I sent, at eleven o'clock, to say to General Bragg that my column of attack could probably break the enemy's line if he cared to have it go in. Before answer came, General Stewart, commanding my right division, received a message from General Bragg to go in and attack by his division, and reported that the Confederate commander had sent similar orders to all division commanders. He advanced, and by his severe battle caused the Union reserve division under General Brannan to be drawn to the support of that front, and this attack, with that of the divisions of our right against those of Baird, Johnson, Palmer, and Reynolds, so disturbed General Thomas that other reinforcements were called to support his defence.

General Stewart was in hot engagement before word reached me that the battle had been put in the hands of division commanders; but my orders reached General Hood in time to hold him and commanders on his left before he received notice from the commanding general, and the brigades of Kershaw and Humphreys were ordered nearer the rear of his column. The divisions of B. R. Johnson and Hindman were ordered to follow in close echelon on Hood's left. Buckner's pivoting division under Preston was left to the position to which the Confederate chief had assigned it.

In our immediate front were the parts of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Corps in two lines covered by rail defences and well-posted batteries. At the early surging of his lines through the forest, General Hood came under the fire of this formidable array of artillery and infantry, and found his lines staggering under their galling missiles, and fast losing strength as the fire thickened. His [448] leading brigade was decimated, but his others pushed to the front to take and pursue the assault. The divisions of B. R. Johnson and Hindman were pressed hard on Hood's left, and the brigades of Kershaw and Humphreys closed to his support, when a bold push gave us the first line of the enemy and a large number of his guns; but General Hood was fearfully wounded, supposed to be fatally; General Benning, of his “Rock Brigade,” lost his horse, and thought General Hood was killed. He cut a horse loose from a captured gun, mounted, and using part of a rope trace as his riding whip, rode to meet me and report disaster. He had lost his hat in the melee, and the brigade disappeared under the steady crushing fire so quickly that he was a little surprised. He reported, “General Hood killed, my horse killed, my brigade torn to pieces, and I haven't a man left.” I asked if he didn't think lie could find one man. The question or the manner seemed to quiet somewhat his apprehensions and brought affirmative answer, when he was told to collect his men and join us at the front; that we had broken and carried the first line; that Johnson's division, on his left, was then in the breach and pushing on, with Hindman on his left, spreading battle to the enemy's limits; that Stewart's division would hold it on our right, and the brigades of Kershaw and Humphreys then on the quick step would be with us in a minute and help restore the battle to good organization. Just then these two brigades burst through the brush in cheerful, gallant march, and brought him back to his usual courageous, hopeful confidence.

As we approached a second line, Johnson's division happened to strike it while in the act of changing position of some of the troops, charged upon and carried it, capturing some artillery, Hood's and Hindman's troops pressing in close connection. This attack forced the parts of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Corps from that part of the field, back over Missionary Ridge, in disordered retreat, [449] and part of Negley's division of the Fourteenth Corps by the same impulsion. As our right wing had failed of the progress anticipated, and had become fixed by the firm holding of the enemy's left, we could find no practicable field for our work except by a change of the order of battle from wheel to the left, to a swing to the right on my division under General Stewart. The fire of the enemy off my right readily drew Hood's brigades to that bearing. Johnson's and Hindman's divisions were called to a similar move, and Buckner's pivotal division under General Preston, but General Buckner objected to having his left “in the air.”

Presently a discouraging account came from General Hindman, that in the progress of his battle his left and rear had been struck by a formidable force of cavalry; that Manigault's brigade was forced back in disorder, and his other brigades exposed on their open left could not be handled. I wrote him a note commending the brave work of his division, and encouraging renewed efforts; urged him to have his brigades in hand, and bring them around to close connection on Johnson's left.

On the most open parts of the Confederate side of the field one's vision could not reach farther than the length of a brigade. Trigg's brigade was ordered to the relief of Manigault's, which had been forced back to the Lafayette road, and the balance of Preston's division was ordered to follow, if necessary, to support that part of the field, and our cavalry far away from my left was called to clean it up and pursue the retreating columns. It seems that Wilder's brigade of mounted infantry had struck Manigault's left and put it back in disorder, and a brigade, or part of a brigade, of cavalry coming against the rear, increased the confusion and drove it back to the Lafayette road, when Trigg's brigade advanced to its relief. The two put the attacking forces back until they found it necessary to retire beyond the ridge and cover the [450] withdrawal of trains left exposed by the retreat of troops of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Corps. General Hindman gathered his forces and marched for the left of Johnson's division, and Preston's brigade under General Trigg was returned to the point of its first holding.

Our front, cleared of opposing forces, was soon changed forward, and formed at right angle to its first line to seek the enemy's line standing against our right wing. Calls were repeated for the cavalry to ride in pursuit of the retreating forces, and guard the gaps of the ridge behind the enemy standing in front of our right wing. In the new position of the left wing its extreme left encountered the enemy rallying in strong position that was heavily manned by field batteries. At the same time my left was approaching the line of fire of one of our batteries of the right wing.

General Johnson thought that he had the key of the battle near Snodgrass Hill. It was a key, but a rough one. He was ordered to reorganize his own brigades and those of Hindman's division for renewed work; to advance a line of skirmishers, and give time to the troops for refreshment, while I rode along the line to observe the enemy and find relations with our right wing.

It was after one o'clock, and the hot and dry and dusty day made work fatiguing. My lunch was called up and ordered spread at some convenient point while I rode with General Buckner and the staffs to view the changed conditions of the battle. I could see but little of the enemy's line, and only knew of it by the occasional exchange of fire between the lines of skirmishers, until we approached the angle of the lines. I passed the right of our skirmishers, and, thinking I had passed the enemy's, rode forward to be accurately assured, when I suddenly found myself under near fire of his sharpshooters concealed behind the trees and under the brush. I saw enough, however, to mark the ground [451] line of his field-works as they were spread along the front of the right wing, and found that I was very fortunate in having the forest to cover the ride back until out of reach of their fire. In the absence of a chief of artillery, General Buckner was asked to establish a twelve-gun battery on my right to enfilade the enemy's works and line standing before our right wing, and then I rode away to enjoy my spread of Nassau bacon and Georgia sweet potatoes. We were not accustomed to potatoes of any kind in Virginia, and thought we had a luxury, but it was very dry, as the river was a mile and more from us, and other liquids were over the border. Then, before we had half finished, our pleasures were interrupted by a fragment of shell that came tearing through the woods, passed through a book in the hands of a courier who sat on his horse hard by reading, and struck down our chief of ordnance, Colonel P. T. Manning, gasping, as was supposed, in the struggles of death. Friends sprang forward to look for the wound and to give some aid and relief. In his hurry to enjoy and finish his lunch he had just taken a large bite of sweet potato, which seemed to be suffocating him. I suggested that it would be well to first relieve him of the potato and give him a chance to breathe. This done, he revived, his breath came freer, and he was soon on his feet ready to be conveyed to the hospital. In a few days he was again on duty.

After caring for and sending him off, and before we were through with our lunch, General Bragg sent for me. He was some little distance in rear of our new position. The change of the order of battle was explained, and the necessity under which it came to be made. We had taken some thirty or more field-pieces and a large number of small-arms, and thought that we had cut off and put to disorder the Twentieth and Twenty-first Corps that had retreated through the pass of the Ridge by the Dry Valley road. He was informed of orders given General [452] Johnson for my left, and General Buckner for a battery on the right. I then offered as suggestion of the way to finish our work that he abandon the plan for battle by our right wing, or hold it to defence, draw off a force from that front that had rested since the left wing took up the battle, join them with the left wing, move swiftly down the Dry Valley road, pursue the retreating forces, occupy the gaps of the Ridge behind the enemy standing before our right, and call that force to its own relief.

He was disturbed by the failure of his plan and the severe repulse of his right wing, and was little prepared to hear suggestions from subordinates for other moves or progressive work. His words, as I recall them, were: “There is not a man in the right wing who has any fight in him.” From accounts of his former operations I was prepared for halting work, but this, when the battle was at its tide and in partial success, was a little surprising. His humor, however, was such that his subordinate was at a loss for a reopening of the discussion. He did not wait, nor did he express approval or disapproval of the operations of the left wing, but rode for his Headquarters at Reed's Bridge.

There was nothing for the left wing to do but work along as best it could. The right wing ceased its active battle as the left forced the enemy's right centre, and the account of the commanding general was such as to give little hope of his active use of it in supporting us. After his lunch, General Johnson was ordered to make ready his own and Hindman's brigades, to see that those of Hood's were in just connection with his right, and await the opening of our battery. Preston's division was pulled away from its mooring on the river bank to reinforce our worn battle.2 The battery not opening as promptly as expected, General Johnson was finally ordered into strong, [453] steady battle. He pushed through part of the woodland, drove back an array of artillery and the supporting infantry, and gained other elevated ground. The sound of battle in his rear, its fire drawing nearer, had attracted the attention of General Granger of the reserve corps, and warned him that it was the opportunity for his command. He marched, without orders, towards the noise, and passed by the front of Forrest's cavalry and the front of our right wing, but no report of his march was sent us. Day was on the wane. Night was advancing. The sun dipped to the palisades of Lookout Mountain, when Lieutenant-Colonel Claiborne reported that the cavalry was not riding in response to my calls. He was asked to repeat the order in writing, and despatched as follows:

Battle-Field, September 20, 1863, 5.09 P. M.
General Wheeler:
Lieutenant-General Longstreet orders you to proceed down the road towards the enemy's right, and with your artillery endeavor to enfilade his line, with celerity.

By order of Lieutenant-General Longstreet.

Thomas Claiborne, Lieutenant-Colonel Cavalry.

Then our foot-scouts reported that there was nothing on the road taken by the enemy's retreating columns but squads of footmen. Another written order for the cavalry was despatched at 5.30.3 General Preston reinforced us by his brigade under Gracie, pushed beyond our battle, and gained a height and intervening dell before Snodgrass Hill, but the enemy's reserve was on the hill, and full of fight, even to the aggressive. We were pushed back through the valley and up the slope, until General Preston succeeded in getting his brigade under Trigg to the support. Our battery got up at last under Major Williams [454] and opened its destructive fire from eleven guns, which presently convinced General Thomas that his position was no longer tenable. He drew Reynolds's division from its trenches near the angle, for assignment as rearguard. Lieutenant-Colonel Sorrel, of the staff, reported this move, and was sent with orders to General Stewart to strike down against the enemy's moving forces. It seems that at the same time Liddell's division of the extreme right of our right wing was ordered against the march of the reserves. Stewart got into part of Reynolds's line and took several hundred prisoners. Meanwhile, Reynolds was used in meeting the attack and driving back the division of General Liddell. That accomplished, he was ordered to position to cover the retreat. As no reports came to the left from the commanding general or from the right wing, the repulse of Liddell's division was thought to indicate the strong holding of the enemy along his intrenched front line, and I thought that we should wait to finish the battle on the morrow.

The direct road to Chattanooga was practically closed. McFarland Gap, the only debouche, was supposed to be occupied by the cavalry. Another blind road was at the base of the mountain on its east side. During the artillery practice the fire of some of the guns of our battery was turned to the contest at Snodgrass Hill, which disturbed part of our infantry fiercely struggling for that ground, and they complained, but the fire was effective. As the woods were full of the enemy, a shot would find a mark.

The intrenched line was crumbling faster than we supposed, and their reserve was engaged in hot defensive battle to hold secure the Gap while yet there were two hours of daylight. Had the four brigades of Cheatham's division that had not been in action gone in at the same time as Liddell's division, it is hardly possible that the [455] Confederate commander could have failed to find the enemy's empty lines along the front of his right wing, and called both wings into a grand final sweep of the field to the capture of Thomas's command; but he was not present, and the condition of affairs was embarrassing to the subordinate commanders.

A reconnoissance made just before the first strokes of the morning engagement discovered an open way around the enemy's left by turning his intrenched line in reverse, which General Hill thought to utilize by change of tactics, but General Bragg present, and advised of the opportunity, preferred his tactics, and urged prompt execution. At the later hour when Liddell's division was passed beyond the enemy's intrenchments to strike at his reinforcing march under General Granger, the subordinate of the right wing could not see how he was to be justified in using a greater force in that direction, affairs of the wing being similar to those of the opening, while the relations of the right and left were in reverse of tactical orders; but a vigilant chief present and caring for the weaker part of his battle, advised that the enemy was on his last legs, with his reserves could well have sprung the right wing into the opening beyond his right, securing crushing results. Earlier in the afternoon he did send an order for renewed efforts of the right wing under his plan of parallel assault, but the troops had tested the lines in their first battle, and were not in condition for a third effort, at parallel battle.

The contention by our left wing was maintained as a separate and independent battle. The last of my reserve, Trigg's brigade, gave us new strength, and Preston gained Snodgrass Hill. The trampled ground and bushy woods were left to those who were too much worn to escape the rapid strides of the heroic Confederates. The left wing swept forward, and the right sprang to the broad Chattanooga highway. Like magic the Union army had [456] melted away in our presence. A few hundred prisoners were picked up by both wings as they met, to burst their throats in loud huzzas. The Army of Tennessee knew how to enjoy its first grand victory. The dews of twilight hung heavy about the trees as if to hold down the voice of victory; but the two lines nearing as they advanced joined their continuous shouts in increasing volume, not as the burstings from the cannon's mouth, but in a tremendous swell of heroic harmony that seemed almost to lift from their roots the great trees of the forest.

Before greetings and congratulations upon the success had passed it was night, and the mild beams of the quartering moon were more suggestive of Venus than of Mars. The haversacks and ammunition supplies were ordered replenished, and the Confederate army made its bivouac on the ground it had gained in the first pronounced victory in the West, and one of the most stubbornly contested battles of the war.

Our cavalry had failed to close McFarland Gap, and through that General Thomas made his march for the stand at Rossville Gap.

It has been stated that this retreat was made under the orders of the Union commander. General Thomas did, in fact, receive a message from his chief a little after four o'clock, saying that he was riding to Chattanooga to view the position there; that lie, General Thomas, was left in command of all of the organized forces, and should seek strong and threatening position at Rossville, and send the other men back to Chattanooga to be reorganized. This was a suggestion more than an order, given under the conviction that the Confederates, having the Dry Valley road, would pass the ridge to the west side, cut General Thomas off, and strike his rear at pleasure. The order to command of the troops in action, and the conditions referring to duties at Chattanooga, carried inferential discretion. That General Thomas so construed it was evidenced by his [457] decision to hold “until nightfall if possible.” But directly, under the practice of our enfilading battery, he became convinced that it was not possible, changed his purpose, and at 5.30 gave orders for his commanders to prepare to retire, and called Reynolds's division from its trenches to be posted as rear-guard to cover the retreat.

General Granger was then engaged in severe contention against my left at Snodgrass Hill. His march along the front of our cavalry and right wing suggested the advance of Liddell's division to the Chattanooga road to try to check it. The withdrawal of Reynolds's division was in season to aid in driving Liddell's division back to its former ground. Reynolds was posted on eminent ground as rear-guard, and organized retreat followed. It was not until after sunset that Rosecrans's order for retreat was issued, as appears from the letter written from Rossville by General James A. Garfield, chief of staff, dated 8.40, three hours and more after the move was taken up, viz.:

Your order to retire to this place was received a little after sunset and communicated to Generals Thomas and Granger. The troops are now moving back, and will be here in good shape and strong position before morning. 4

So events and the evidence seem conclusive that it was our artillery practice that made the confusion of Chickamauga forests unbearable, and enforced retreat before Rosecrans order was issued.

The Union army and reserve had been fought, and by united efforts we held the position at Snodgrass Hill, which covered McFarland Gap and the retreat. There were yet five brigades of Confederates that had not been in active battle. The Confederate commander was not present, and his next in rank thought night pursuit without authority a heavy, unprofitable labor, while a flank move, [458] after a night's rest, seemed promising of more important results. The Confederate chief did not even know of his victory until the morning of the 21st, when, upon riding to his extreme right, he found his commander at that point seeking the enemy in his immediate front, and commended the officer upon his vigilance,--twelve hours after the retreat of the enemy's forces.

The forces engaged and their respective casualties follow:

General Bragg's returns of the 20th of August-the last of record-reported his aggregate of all arms43,866
Reinforced from J. E. Johnston's army in August9,000
Reinforced from J. E. Johnston's army in September (Gregg and McNair2,500
Reinforced from General Lee's army, September 18 and 19 (a large estimate)5,000
Losses on the 18th and 19th1,124
Aggregate for battle on the 20th59,242
General Rosecrans's return of September 20, 1863, showed: Aggregate of infantry, equipped46,561
Aggregate of cavalry, equipped10,114
Aggregate of artillery, equipped4,192
Confederate losses (estimated; returns imperfect)17,800
Union losses by returns (infantry, artillery, and cavalry)16,550

The exceeding heaviness of these losses will be better understood, and the desperate and bloody character of the Chickamauga battle more fully appreciated, upon a little analysis. The battle, viewed from the stand-point of the Union losses, was the fifth greatest of the war, Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, the Wilderness, and Chancellorsville alone exceeding it, but each of these battles were of much longer time. Viewed by comparison of Confederate losses, Chickamauga occupies similar place-fifth--in the scale of magnitude among the battles of the war.

But the sanguinary nature of the contention is best [459] illustrated by a simple suggestion of proportions. Official reports show that on both sides the casualties-killed, wounded, and missing-embraced the enormous proportion of thirty-three per cent. of the troops actually engaged.

On the Union side there were over a score of regiments in which the losses in this single fight exceeded 49.4 per cent., which was the heaviest loss sustained by a German regiment at any time during the Franco-German war. The “charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaklava has been made famous in song and history, yet there were thirty Union regiments that each lost ten per cent. more men at Chickamauga, and many Confederate regiments whose mortality exceeded this.

Longstreet's command in less than two hours lost nearly forty-four per cent. of its strength, and of the troops opposed to a portion of their splendid assaults, Steedman's and Brannan's commands lost respectively forty-nine and thirty-eight in less than four hours, and single regiments a far heavier percentage.

Of the Confederate regiments sustaining the heaviest percentages of loss (in killed, wounded, and missing,--the last a scarcely appreciable fraction) the leading ones were:

Regiment.Per cent.
Tenth Tennessee68.0
Fifth Georgia61.1
Second Tennessee60.2
Fifteenth and Thirty-seventh Tennessee59.9
Sixteenth Alabama58.6
Sixth and Ninth Tennessee57.9
Eighteenth Alabama56.3
Twenty-second Alabama55.2
Twenty-third Tennessee54.1
Twenty-ninth Mississippi52.7
Fifty-eighth Alabama51.7
Thirty-seventh Georgia50.1
Sixty-third Tennessee49.7
Forty-first Alabama48.6
Thirty-second Tennessee48.3
Twentieth Tennessee48.0
First Arkansas45.1
Ninth Kentucky44.3


These are only a few of the cases in which it was possible to compute percentages of casualties, the number of effectives taken into battle not having been mentioned, but they serve to illustrate the sanguinary severity of the fight and the heroism of the troops.

1 That company did not go with the battalion to Virginia.

2 This was my first meeting with the genial, gallant, lovable William Preston.

3 Rebellion Record.

4 Rebellion Record, vol. XXX. part i. p. 144.

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