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Notes on the Chickamauga campaign.

by Emerson Opdycke, Brevet Major-General, U. S. V.
Chattanooga was the indispensable key to all the objects committed to the Army of the Cumberland, and General Halleck planned two widely separated movements toward their accomplishment. General Burnside, starting from the Ohio River with one column, was to cross the mountains of eastern Kentucky. To overcome the great advantage of the enemy's position and works, and secure at one blow a decisive victory, General Rosecrans conceived a series of brilliant movements from Murfreesboro' where his four corps were concentrated. On the 23d of June he began the formidable operations which sent the enemy out of middle Tennessee and left our army at the western base of the Cumberland mountains.

General Rosecrans halted there till the 16th of August, and between him and Halleck the question of delay was renewed with spirit. Rosecrans justly urged that, before crossing the Tennessee River, his right and rear ought to be protected by the part of our army made idle by the surrender of Vicksburg, because the enemy's superiority in cavalry forced him constantly to weaken his line of battle, to protect the long line over which supplies were brought to him. This sound view, however, did not prevail, and if General Bragg had perceived the advantage to him of Halleck's error, I am sure that the peremptory order by which Rosecrans was sent across the Tennessee River and into the mountains between Bridgeport and Chattanooga would have proved disastrous.

If Bragg had stubbornly defended his several positions, he certainly could have retained Chattanooga and assumed the offensive, for reenforcements soon made his army larger than ours. It would have been rash for Rosecrans to move his force on the theory that the enemy would not defend at least some of the formidable positions that now separated the two armies. He had to assume that his adversary's conduct would be stubbornly defensive.

On the 16th of August he put his army in motion, crossed the Cumberland mountains, and caused his main columns to appear at several points on the river, the extremes fifty miles apart. These movements so deceived Bragg that he was comparatively harmless where we really wished to cross; and by the 4th of September the army, followed by its artillery, wagons, and beeves, safely reached the south bank of the Tennessee River. Then, throwing as much energy into his movements as though he had approved them, Rosecrans promptly marched upon Chattanooga.

With but slight opposition his columns wound through the defiles of Raccoon Mountain and came to the western base of the Lookout range. On its highest point the enemy's signal-flags were seen announcing to Bragg in Chattanooga the presence of our army. There are only three routes by which armies can cross the range, respectively 2 miles, 26 miles, and 42 miles south of Chattanooga. Unless Bragg should defend these passes, he could remain in the town only to surrender, because the two more distant routes would give us [669] ready access to his line of supplies and enable us to close all avenues of retreat.

Time had now become of pressing importance to him, because heavy reenforcements were advancing to his aid: two divisions from Mississippi, one from Knoxville, and a renowned corps under Longstreet from the army of General Lee. He was in a few days to feel the mistake of allowing us so easily to come to the last barrier of Chattanooga. Fortunately for our army, the Confederate general, while easily defending the pass nearest the town, gave no attention to the other two. Thomas was directed to the 26 and McCook to the42 mile pass, while Crittenden made demonstrations near Chattanooga. These admirable movements endangered Bragg's communications and forced him to choose between immediate retreat and ultimate surrender. He retreated; and on the 9th of September Crittenden entered Chattanooga. These operations drew Buckner from Knoxville to the aid of Bragg, and Burnside marched into Knoxville.

It is surprising that the events of the last sixty days did not suggest to General Halleck concentrations that must have ended the war in 1863. By the 4th of July Meade had seriously defeated and permanently weakened Lee at Gettysburg, and Grant, by giving us Vicksburg and 30,000 prisoners, had ended all important operations near the Mississippi River. In the main, this left Grant's army of 75,000 men free to be sent in whatever directions lay the best chance of decisive work. Is it not, therefore, clear, that Rosecrans should have been heavily reenforced and made able to crush Bragg at Chickamauga? He then could have marched irresistibly through east Tennessee, to the aid of Meade against Lee, whose army could not have existed a single day if it had held its ground, before such a concentration of forces. The order thus to reenforce the Army of the Cumberland could have been as easily made and executed before as after Chickamauga. I am convinced that it would have saved us the slaughter and the expense of 1864. But Halleck only ordered Burnside to reenforce Rosecrans. Burnside, though without an opposing force of importance, failed utterly to obey the orders of Halleck, as well as the plain suggestions of the situation.

Up to the 9th of September--the day Rosecrans entered Chattanooga-his plans and movements, aside from the delay in beginning operations, had been brilliant and faultless. He had not achieved the highest success — the destruction of his adversary, but he had forced from the enemy strategic advantages from which immense results were afterward gained by his successors. But the moment he entered Chattanooga he should have concentrated his army there long enough to accumulate supplies, ascertain the position and intentions of his adversary, and whether or not Burnside would reenforce him. He was now 337 miles from the Ohio River, 150 from Nashville, and his prudence, not his impetuosity, should have increased. Halleck, himself deceived, misled Rosecrans, who judged that his present work was to pursue an alarmed adversary, and, accordingly, on the 10th of September, ordered Crittenden's corps to seek the enemy in the direction of Ringgold,--thus still farther separating his army.

General Wood's division, to which I belonged, happened to be the rear of Crittenden's column, and in the evening a simple negro informed Wood of the position of Bragg's army. Instead of an alarmed retreat, the enemy's movement had been a leisurely march of thirty miles south to Lafayette. The divergent movements which had placed Thomas near to and west of Lafayette, McCook sixteen miles farther south, and was now placing Crittenden farther north than McCook was south of the Confederate army, made it convenient for Bragg to overwhelm in succession our separated corps before any two of them could be united. Wood hurried the momentous information to Rosecrans at Chattanooga; and, notwithstanding the incredulity with which it was received, Harker's brigade of Wood's division was ordered to countermarch at daybreak to the Lafayette road, and to make a reconnoissance in the direction indicated by the negro. Soon meeting an opposing force that was feeling its way toward Chattanooga, Harker slowly forced it back across the Chickamauga River, at Lee and Gordon's Mills, only eighteen miles from Lafayette. Crittenden was now ordered to the mills, Thomas to Lafayette, and McCook to Summerville, twenty-five miles south of Lafayette; for Rosecrans did not yet believe that the enemy's entire army was there, preparing to assume the offensive. Most happily, Bragg, although correctly informed of the isolation of our corps, took no decisive advantage of our helplessness.

McCook found that the enemy's cavalry, when driven, always retreated in the direction of Lafayette; and in advancing toward that place Thomas met a resistance that convinced him that he was in the presence of the Confederate army, while Crittenden's reconnoissance south from the mills sustained the opinion of Thomas.

On the 12th, however, Roscerans also became at last convinced that the enemy had faced about at Lafayette, and orders were issued to attack them at that place.

By the 15th he learned that the enemy was receiving heavy reenforcements. Doctor Hale, chief-of-scouts for General Thomas, found large numbers of prisoners whom Grant had paroled at Vicksburg. They spoke freely of the fact that they had been ordered on duty, although not yet exchanged, and all were confident that the concentration then going on would result in our annihilation. Stunned by the disasters to their cause at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederate chiefs were secretly hurrying reenforcements to Bragg, hoping to neutralize the effects of those disasters by overwhelming Rosecrans. These well-planned movements were not, until too late, even suspected by Halleck, who sent us the report that Bragg was reenforcing Lee!

As already indicated, if Rosecrans had opened his campaign when the other two great armies were carrying forward the Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns, his operations could not now have been disturbed by these reenforcements. [670]

If he should be defeated when so far from his base, and with such obstacles to the rear, the destruction of his army would be probable; while if he should have the good fortune to defeat his adversary, it would not be possible, without surplus supplies at Chattanooga, to pursue far enough to gather the fruits of a victory. With so much to lose and so little to gain, it is clear that the battle of Chickamauga ought not to have been fought.

It has been said that this battle was necessary to secure us Chattanooga. But the error of that assertion may be seen in the fact that Rosecrans, before the battle, still had time to assume impregnable positions around that town. Three days were enough for this, and it was seven days before Bragg seriously interfered with the freedom of our movements. Moreover, Chattanooga, won at the cost of Chickamauga, became a peril instead of a gain. But, deciding not to fall back, Rosecrans slowly concentrated his corps on the north bank of the Chickamauga River, at Lee and Gordon's Mills, twelve miles south of Chattanooga. Bragg decided to move down the valley up which he had retired because, first, of all the routes open to him that one was least obstructed; and, secondly, because it would continue his army near the railway of his supplies, which was also bringing him Longstreet.

Rosecrans did not get his corps united and well in position, before the enemy, on the 19th, began the battle of Chickamauga.

The country in which the next two days operations took place lies between the river and Missionary Ridge, and was covered by woods of varying density, broken here and there by cleared fields. The Chickamauga River, winding slowly through the forest of the region, flows into the Tennessee eight miles above Chattanooga. Bragg's aim was to turn our left and gain the road into Chattanooga, now indispensable to the existence of our army. Thomas commanded our left; and as Bragg sent division after division against that wing, Rosecrans sent successive divisions to Thomas. The fighting was close and stubborn; batteries were taken and retaken till the day closed, without material advantage to either side. It was clear, however, that we were outnumbered; for, while we had put nearly every regiment into the action, the enemy, meeting us with equal numbers in line of battle, still had heavy reserves.

In the night both commanders prepared for the decisive conflict which all felt must come on the 20th. Still covering the Chattanooga road, Rosecrans placed his army in a somewhat better position, both flanks well refused. From left to right his divisions were: Baird's, R. W. Johnson's, Palmer's, Reynolds's, Brannan's, Negley's, Davis's, Sheridan's; Wood's and Van Cleve's were in reserve; and three brigades of Granger's corps were near Rossville, four miles away. Thomas commanded six divisions at the left, McCook two at the right, and Crittenden the two in reserve. Thomas covered his front with a slight barricade of rails and old logs found in the woods, and so greatly aided his men.

Early in the morning Thomas discovered, and reported to Rosecrans, that another division was needed to maintain our extreme left against the enemy's longer line. Rosecrans, therefore, brought Wood from reserve to relieve Negley, and ordered Negley at once to report his division to Thomas; and Thomas was informed that Negley would immediately join him at the left. But Negley, disappearing from the line, drifted away from the field to Rossville. Two of his brigades reached the left, but so far apart, and so ill-timed, as to be of little value. It is important to remember Negley's conduct, because from it came the misapprehensions that were soon to result in disaster to our right wing.

The Confederate plan was to turn and envelop our left, and then to advance upon our divisions in succession, and involve the whole in one common ruin. Their right wing was commanded by Polk, and their left by Longstreet.

Polk was ordered to begin the battle at day-break, but the first shots were not heard before 8:30; and, in an hour, the action at the left became furious. Polk's right division began to envelop our left and to appear upon our rear; but Thomas hurried some reserves against it and drove it away in disorder. Having been able, in the absence of Negley's division, to find the way to our left and rear, the enemy would naturally reappear there with decisive numbers. Thomas, therefore, knowing nothing of Negley's conduct, and wishing to add only a division to his left, sent again and again for the promised reenforcements. The attack soon extended heavily to Johnson, Palmer, and Reynolds; and, by 10:30, lightly to Brannan. Naturally supposing that Negley had already reached Thomas, Rosecrans inferred, from the requests of Thomas and from other indications, that Bragg was moving his left wing to the extreme right of the Confederate line of battle. The conflict had been raging against Thomas for two hours, while Wood, Davis, and Sheridan were untouched; and, not suspecting that Longstreet (a reconnoissance of ten minutes would have developed it) was already formed for attack and about. to advance in full force against our right wing, Rosecrans, in the short space of fifteen minutes,--10:30 to 10:45,--ordered to his left Van Cleve, from the reserve, and Sheridan, from the extreme right; and, by the blunder of an aide in wording an order, sent Wood out of line “to close up on Reynolds and support him as soon as possible,” while McCook was to move Davis by the left flank into the position vacated by Wood. These disconnected and fatal movements of Van Cleve, Wood, Sheridan, and Davis were in progress when Longstreet attacked them with six divisions of the Confederate left wing. Disaster was the immediate and inevitable result.

Sheridan's routed division moved back to Rossville. Heroism could not save Davis; his division was overwhelmed, and scattered in fragments that. were afterward collected behind Missionary Ridge. Wood's movement uncovered Brannan's right, and, in temporary confusion, that division hurried away to a new position. This exposed Reynolds's right, made it necessary for him to change front to the rear at right angles on his left; but there he held firmly to Palmer's right. The rush of disordered troops [671] and artillery, disintegrating Van Cleve's division, destroyed its further usefulness in this battle.

Rosecrans, seeing this appalling demolition of his right wing, and finding that the enemy had interposed between him and Thomas, hastened around to Rossville. Finding there men of Negley's division, which he had supposed to be with Thomas, Rosecrans thought the day lost, and deemed it his duty to hasten to Chattanooga, there to prepare for the reception and disposition of what seemed to him his disordered and defeated army. Rosecrans and Garfield, his chief-of-staff, separated at RossvilleRosecrans riding to Chattanooga and Garfield to Thomas at the front. Rosecrans says that he sent Garfield to the front; while Garfield has many times said that he himself insisted upon going — that the sound of the battle proved that Thomas was still holding the enemy in check. McCook and Crittenden soon joined Rosecrans at Chattanooga; but Thomas remained on the field. Brannan brought his division to a good position, but so far to the right of Reynolds that the space of a division lay open between them. While Wood was moving toward this gap, Longstreet, advancing to complete the work, came within musket-range.

The moment was critical, because if Wood should be unable to occupy and hold the gap, Longstreet would pass through, permanently cut off Brannan, again turn, and then overwhelm Reynolds, and attack the rear of Palmer, Johnson, and Baird, who were still confronted by Polk. Wood coolly changed front under fire, so as to face south instead of east, and caused one of his brigades to charge with fixed bayonets. The audacity of the charge probably made the enemy believe that there was force enough near to sustain it, for they soon bolted, and then fled out of range just before our bayonets reached their ranks. The needed moments were snatched from the enemy, and Wood brought his division into the gap between Reynolds and Brannan.

Except some fragments from the broken divisions, our line was now composed of Baird's, Johnson's, Palmer's, Reynolds's, Wood's, and Brannan's divisions, naming them from left to right. In front stood the whole army of the enemy, eager to fall upon us with the energy that comes from great success and greater hopes. But close behind our line rode a general whose judgment never erred, whose calm, invincible will never bent; and around him thirty thousand soldiers resolved to exhaust the last round of ammunition, and then to hold their ground with their bayonets. Soldiers thus inspired and commanded, are more easily killed than defeated.

For five long hours the shocks and carnage were as close and deadly as men could make them. Thomas often came within speaking distance of his men, and wherever the energy of the attack most endangered our line, he strengthened it with cannon and regiments drawn from points in less peril; and when the soldiers asked for more ammunition Thomas said: “Use your bayonets.” At about 3:30 in the afternoon I saw General Thomas looking in the direction of Chattanooga, watching with anxious interest a column of dust rising in the air. Our suspense was relieved when Granger and Steedman emerged from the dust, and Garfield dashed up to Thomas.

To prevent a turning movement on the road from Ringgold, through Rossville to Chattanooga, Granger, with three brigades, had been stationed on the Ringgold road; and, by a sound, soldierly judgment, leaving one brigade to do the work assigned to the three, brought two brigades to the field. Thomas himself was then only a little way down the rear slope of the low ridge on which Wood's division was fighting, with every man in the line, and with no reserves. We were hard pressed, and many muskets became so hot that loading was difficult; but Thomas sent up two cannon with the words: “The position must be held.” The reply was: “Tell General Thomas that we will hold the position or go to heaven from it.”

At about 4 o'clock Longstreet drew back and asked for reenforcements, but was answered that the right wing was already so shattered that it could not aid him. He then brought forward his reserves and re-formed his lines; and, extending beyond our right, advanced in a final attack.

Thomas ordered Granger's reenforcements to the right of Brannan, where the enemy had already begun to appear. The conflict there, and on the divisions of Brannan and Wood, was soon at its fiercest. Our short-range ammunition from the cannon cut great gaps through the enemy's columns, and the steady volleys of musketry, aided by our bayonets, did their remorseless work for about thirty minutes; and then the Confederate left wing, shattered, bleeding, defeated, withdrew from sight. The battle was ended — Thomas had saved the army.

The sun had not yet gone down, and there was time enough to renew the action, but Bragg, if we may trust his official report, had lost two-fifths of his infantry; his army was incapable of making another effort. What now would have been the consequences if General Rosecrans had come upon the field with ammunition and the few thousand soldiers collected near Rossville?

On the 21st Bragg was too prudent to attack, and on the 22d our army was placed in positions around Chattanooga.

Of our men under fire, we had lost more than one-third, and a number of batteries in the woods fell to the enemy by the disaster on the morning of the 20th. About 30,000 men — both sides — were killed and wounded in this battle.

On the 23d and 24th the Confederates came slowly into position on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, connecting the two by a line of earth-works across Chattanooga Valley; and, by sending a force into Lookout Valley, they commanded our 26-mile wagon route to Bridgeport for supplies. This forced us to an almost impassable mountain route of sixty miles to the same point. Knowing that it would be impossible long to subsist an army by this route, Bragg waited the process of starvation with some probability of Success.

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