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Chapter one

Chickamauga — a Confederate victory, the bloodiest conflict in the West

1864 Union storehouses at Bridgeport, Tennessee river


Lee & Gordon's mills on the Chickamauga, September, 1863: the bloodiest battle-field of the war Dozing in the autumn sunlight of 1863, this obscure building, bearing by chance the patronymics of two great Southern generals, was suddenly to mark a strategic point in the most sanguinary of the battles of the West. It stood on the west branch of Chickamauga Creek, which flowed through the fertile valley between Missionary Ridge and Pigeon Mountain. Through the passes of the one the Federals under Rosecrans were advancing on September 12th, while the Confederates under Bragg held the approaches at the other. Between them flowed the little stream, undoubtedly the scene of some prehistoric conflict, for the Indians had named it Chickamauga, “River of death.” In 1863 the word was about to be written into American history to designate a two-days' battle in which the South lost more in killed and wounded than at Gettysburg and the North almost the same number as at Chancellorsville. The storm center of the mighty conflict had shifted to the West. After Gettysburg the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac lay warily watching each other, each disinclined to become the aggressor. Lincoln had been urging Rosecrans to move his Army of the Cumberland on from Murfreesboro and attack Bragg's entrenched position in south central Tennessee so as to prevent Bragg from detaching troops to raise the siege of Vicksburg. At last, on June 24, 1863, he took the initiative, and then, with what is considered by some military writers the war's masterpiece of strategy, he drove Bragg out of Tennessee into Georgia. Rosecrans' advance was in Bragg's abandoned works around Tullahoma on July 3d and in Chattanooga on September 9th, all without a battle. Burnside, with the Army of the Ohio, captured Knoxville on September 3d. But Tennessee was not to be abandoned by the Confederates without a fight.

[271] [272]
In its dimensions and its murderousness the battle of Chickamauga was the greatest battle fought by our Western armies, and one of the greatest of modern times. In our Civil War it was exceeded only by Gettysburg and the Wilderness; in European history we may compare with it such battles as Neerwinden, or Malplaquet, or Waterloo. John Fiske in The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War.

The town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, lies in a great bend of the Tennessee River and within a vast amphitheater of mountains, ranging in a general southwesterly direction, and traversed at intervals by great depressions or valleys. These passes form a natural gateway from the mid-Mississippi valley to the seaboard States. To dislodge the Confederate army under General Bragg from this natural fortress would remove the last barrier to the invading Federals, and permit an easy entry upon the plains of Georgia. The importance of this position was readily apparent to the Confederate Government, and any approach by the Federal forces toward this point was almost certain to be met by stubborn resistance.

Rosecrans' forward movement from Murfreesboro, in the early summer of 1863, forced Bragg over the Cumberland Mountains and across the Tennessee. The Confederate leader destroyed the railroad bridge at Bridgeport and entrenched himself in and around Chattanooga. The advanced portion of the Federal army had made its way as far as Stevenson, Alabama, when circumstances compelled a halt. It was found impossible to transport needed forage and supplies over the terrible roads of eastern Tennessee. Rosecrans could go no [273]

On the way to Chickamauga To the Elk River Bridge (near Decherd, Tennessee) the enterprising army photographer who was recording Rosecrans' advance had followed the Army of the Cumberland in July, 1863. The two distinct maneuvers that led to Chickamauga fully sustained the reputation of Rosecrans as one of the greatest strategic generals of the war. The first movement was executed in nine days, during which time the troops struggled with their heavy trains along roads little better than bogs. Torrential rains, such as Tennessee had rarely known before, fell incessantly; the artillery had to be dragged through the mire by hand. Despite such difficulties, Rosecrans succeeded in flanking Bragg, compelling him to retreat from his strong position at Tullahoma. South of that place, on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, this bridge was made the objective of Wilder's mounted infantry, which swept around in Bragg's rear, striking the railroad at Decherd, destroying the commissary depot and cutting the rail connection with Chattanooga. A detachment pushed forward to the bridge, but it was too strongly guarded to be destroyed. The Confederates burnt it in their retreat to Chattanooga, but was rebuilt by Rosecrans; it was completed by the Federal engineers on July 13th.

[274] further until the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was repaired as far as Stevenson and Bridgeport, and storage depots established at these and neighboring places. Consequently it was not until August 16th that the movement over the Cumberland Mountains began. Rosecrans had the choice of approaching Chattanooga from the north side of the river, a seventy-mile march through a rough, mountainous country, ill supplied with water and forage, or of crossing the Tennessee on the southwest and moving on the town over Sand and Lookout Mountains. He chose the latter for all but a small portion of his force, although it was the more hazardous.

Between August 29th and September 4th Crittenden, Thomas, and McCook got their corps over at various places between Shellmound and Caperton's Ferry. General Granger, with the reserve corps, took charge of the rear. When Crittenden received orders for crossing the river he was commanded to leave the brigades of Hazen and Wagner behind to threaten Chattanooga from the north. For some days Wagner had been shelling the town, and Bragg, fully expecting the early approach of the Army of the Cumberland from this direction, had concentrated his forces at and above Chattanooga. Rosecrans, consequently, was able to accomplish the difficult crossing of the Tennessee without interference.

He found the Confederates in possession of the north end of Lookout Mountain and decided to dislodge his adversary by endangering his line of communication from the south and east. McCook on the Federal right was sent across Lookout Mountain at Winston's Gap, forty-six miles south of Chattanooga to occupy Alpine, east of the mountains. Thomas went to McLemore's Cove, east of Missionary Ridge, while Crittenden, on the left, was stationed in Lookout Valley to keep his eye on Chattanooga. The cavalry was sent forward to destroy the Western and Atlantic Railroad near Dalton, Georgia. On September 8th, before all these moves had been accomplished, Bragg abandoned his stronghold. [275]

Where the pontoons ran short

The Railroad Bridge over the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, Alabama, August, 1863. In the movement against Chattanooga, Rosecrans chose the Tennessee River for his line. Feinting strongly with Crittenden's command to the north of Bragg's position, he crossed the main body of his army to the south. There was much impatience in Washington that the movement was not more promptly executed, but serious difficulties delayed it. It took three weeks to repair the railroad, and on August 25th the first supply-train was pushed through Stevenson, Alabama, where the new commissary base was established. Meanwhile the Tennessee, greatly swollen by recent rains, presented a formidable barrier. There were not enough pontoons, and at Bridgeport Sheridan had to piece out the bridge with trestle-work.

The Railroad Bridge over the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, Alabama, August, 1863.

Destroyed Bridge over the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, Alabama.


Crittenden the next day marched around the north end of Lookout and entered the town, while Hazen and Wagner crossed over from the opposite bank of the Tennessee.

Rosecrans believed that Bragg was in full retreat toward Rome, Georgia, and Crittenden, leaving one brigade in Chattanooga, was ordered to pursue. Bragg encouraged his adversary in the belief that he was avoiding an engagement and sent spies as deserters into the Federal ranks to narrate the details of his flight. Meanwhile, he was concentrating at Lafayette, about twenty-five miles south of Chattanooga. Hither General S. B. Buckner, entirely too weak to cope with Burnside's heavy column approaching from Kentucky, brought his troops from Knoxville. Breckinridge and two brigades arrived from Mississippi, while twelve thousand of Lee's veterans, under Lee's most trusted and illustrious lieutenant, Longstreet, were hastening from Virginia to add their numbers to Bragg's Army of Tennessee.

The three corps of the Union army, as we have seen, were now separated over a wide extent of territory by intervening ridges, so intent was Rosecrans on intercepting the vanished Bragg. But the latter, by no means vanished, and with his face toward Chattanooga, considered the position of his antagonist and discovered his own army almost opposite the Federal center. Crittenden was advancing toward Ringgold, and the remoteness of Thomas' corps on his right precluded any immediate union of the Federal forces.

Bragg was quick to grasp the opportunity made by Rosecrans' division of the army in the face of his opponent. He at once perceived the possibilities of a master-stroke; to crush Thomas' advanced divisions with an overwhelming force.

The attempt failed, owing to a delay in the attack, which permitted the endangered Baird and Negley to fall back. Bragg then resolved to throw himself upon Crittenden, who had divided his corps. Polk was ordered to advance upon that portion of it at Lee and Gordon's Mills, but when Bragg came [277]

The first to reach the battle-field General James S. Negley and Staff. General Negley (standing uncovered in this picture) formed with his division the advance-guard in the forward movement from the Tennessee against Bragg. This picture (taken at Cove Spring, near Stevenson, Alabama, before the advance) shows the arduous character of the country through which the march was made. Crossing the Tennessee at Caperton's Ferry, Negley's division pressed forward, and on September 9th held the passes of Lookout Mountain. Next day, crossing Missionary Ridge, he took up position in McLemore's Cove. This was destined to become the battle-field of Chickamauga, and here Negley's advance was checked. Bragg, instead of being in retreat, was concentrating in his front, eager to crush the corps of Thomas, which he knew had come up too confidently, unsupported by the rest of Rosecrans' army. On the 11th Negley's position became precarious; Bragg was sending against him such a superior force that he was in great danger of losing his train. With great energy and skill, supported by Baird's division, he succeeded in falling back to a strong position in front of Stevens' Gap without the loss of a single wagon. Negley, who was made a major-general for his bravery at Stone's River, was censured by the irascible Rosecrans for his supposed disobedience of orders at Chickamauga. Subsequent investigation completely exonerated him. With only a handful of his men he had saved fifty guns in the rout of the 90th.

[278] to the front September 13th, expecting to witness the annihilation of the Twenty-first Corps, he found to his bitter disappointment that the bishop-general had made no move and that Crittenden had reunited his divisions and was safe on the west bank of the Chickamauga. Thus his splendid chances of breaking up the Army of the Cumberland were ruined.

When Bragg's position became known to Rosecrans, great was his haste to effect the concentration of his army. Couriers dashed toward Alpine with orders for McCook to join Thomas with the utmost celerity. The former started at once, shortly after midnight on the 13th, in response to Thomas's urgent call. It was a real race of life and death, attended by the greatest hardships. Ignorant of the roads, McCook submitted his troops to a most exhausting march, twice up and down the mountain, fifty-seven miles of the most arduous toil, often dragging artillery up by hand and letting it down steep declines by means of ropes. But he closed up with Thomas on the 17th, and the Army of the Cumberland was saved from its desperate peril.

Crittenden's corps now took position at Lee and Gordon's Mills on the left bank of Chickamauga Creek, and the Federal troops were all within supporting distance. In the Indian tongue Chickamauga means “The River of death,” a name strangely prophetic of that gigantic conflict soon to be waged by these hostile forces throughout this beautiful and heretofore peaceful valley.

The Confederate army, its corps under Generals Polk, D. H. Hill, and Buckner, was stationed on the east side of the stream, its right wing below Lee and Gordon's Mills, and the left extending up the creek toward Lafayette. On the Federal side Thomas was moved to the left, with Crittenden in the center and McCook on the right. Their strength has been estimated at fifty-five to sixty-nine thousand men. On the 18th, Longstreet's troops were arriving from Virginia, and by the morning of the 19th the greater part of the Confederate army [279]

The leader of the right wing General Alexander McD. McCook at Chickamauga. While Thomas, preceded by Negley, was pressing forward to McLemore's Cove, McCook advanced the right wing of the army to the southward within twenty miles of Lafayette, where Bragg had his headquarters. Crittenden, meanwhile, with the left wing, was advancing from Chattanooga on the north. It was the opportunity to strike one of these widely separated corps that Bragg missed. At midnight on September 13th McCook received the order to hurry back and make junction with Thomas. Then began a race of life and death over fifty-seven miles of excruciating marching, back across Lookout Mountain and northward through Lookout Valley to Stevens' Gap, where he arrived on the 17th. After a brief rest the right wing marched through half the night to its designated position on the battle-field, and by the morning of the 18th Rosecrans' army was at last concentrated. General McCook (of a family that sent a father and five sons into the war) had distinguished himself at Shiloh and Corinth, and with the First Corps of the Army of the Ohio had borne the brunt of the battle at Perryville. At Stone's River he commanded the right wing of the army, which suffered such severe disaster. Again at Chickamauga the right wing, after sending reinforcements to Thomas at the left, was driven back in rout.

[280] had crossed the Chickamauga. The two mighty armies were now face to face, and none could doubt that the impending struggle would be attended by frightful loss to both sides.

It was Bragg's intention to send Polk, commanding the right wing, in a flanking movement against the Federal left under Thomas, and thus intervene between it and Chattanooga. The first encounter, at 10 o'clock in the morning of the 19th, resulted in a Confederate repulse, but fresh divisions were constantly pushed forward under the deadly fire of the Federal artillery. The Federals were gradually forced back by the incessant charge of the Confederates; but assailed and assailant fought with such great courage and determination that any decided advantage was withheld from either. Meanwhile, the Federal right was hard pressed by Hood, commanding Longstreet's corps, and a desperate battle ensued along the entire line. It seemed, however, more like a struggle between separate divisions than the clash of two great armies. When night descended the Federals had been forced back from the creek, but the result had been indecisive.

Disaster to the Union army had been averted by the use of powerful artillery when the infantry seemed unable to withstand the onslaught. Rosecrans had assumed the defensive, and his troops had so far receded as to enable the Confederates to form their lines on all the territory fought over on that day. During the night preparations were made in both camps for a renewal of the battle on the following morning, which was Sunday. A fresh disposition of the troops was made by both leaders. Near midnight General Longstreet arrived on the field, and was at once placed in command of the Confederate left, Polk retaining the right. Not all of Longstreet's troops arrived in time for the battle, but Bragg's force has been estimated at fifty-one to seventy-one thousand strong.

Thomas was given command of the Union left, with McCook at his right, while Crittenden's forces occupied the center, but to the rear of both Thomas and McCook. Thomas had [281]

The Confederate leader at Chickamauga Major-General Braxton Bragg, C. S. A. Born, 1815; West Point, 1837; Died, 1876. Bragg's name before 1861 was perhaps better known in military annals than that of any other Southern leader because of his brilliant record in the Mexican War. In the Civil War he distinguished himself first at Shiloh and by meritorious services thereafter. But his delays rendered him scarcely a match for Rosecrans, to say nothing of Grant and Sherman. Flanked out of two strong positions, he missed the opportunity presented by Rosecrans' widely separated forces and failed to crush the Army of the Cumberland in detail, as it advanced to the battle of Chickamauga. The error cost the Confederates the loss of Tennessee, eventually.

[282] spent the night in throwing up breastworks on the brow of Snodgrass Hill, as it was anticipated that the Confederates would concentrate their attack upon his position.

Hostilities began with a general movement of the Confederate right wing in an attempt to flank the Union left. General Bragg had ordered Polk to begin the attack at daybreak, but it was nearly ten o'clock in the morning before Breckinridge's division, supported by General Cleburne, advanced upon Thomas' entrenchments. Fighting desperately, the Confederates did not falter under the heavy fire of the Federals, and it seemed as if the latter must be driven from their position. Rosecrans, in response to urgent requests for reenforcements, despatched troops again and again to the aid of Thomas, and the assault was finally repulsed. Cleburne's division was driven back with heavy loss, and Breckinridge, unable to retain any advantage, was forced to defend his right, which was being seriously menaced. The battle at this point had been desperately waged, both sides exhibiting marked courage and determination. As on the previous day, the Confederates had been the aggressors, but the Federal troops had resisted all attempts to invade their breastworks.

However, the fortunes of battle were soon to incline to the side of the Southern army. Bragg sent Stewart's division forward, and it pressed Reynolds' and Brannan's men back to their entrenchments. Rosecrans sent Wood word to close up on Reynolds. Through some misunderstanding in giving or interpreting this order, General Wood withdrew his division from its position on the right of Brannan. By this movement a large opening was left almost in the center of the battle-line. Johnson's, Hindman's, and Kershaw's divisions rushed into the gap and fell upon the Union right and center with an impetus that was irresistible. The Confederate general, Bushrod Johnson, has given us an unforgetable picture of the thrilling event: “The resolute and impetuous charge, the rush of our heavy columns sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest [283]

The too-advanced position Crawfish Spring, to the South of the Chickamauga Battle-field. Rosecrans, in concentrating his troops on the 18th of September, was still possessed of the idea that Bragg was covering his retreat upon his railroad connections at Dalton. Instead, the Confederate commander had massed his forces on the other side of Chickamauga and was only awaiting the arrival of Longstreet to assume the aggressive. On the morning of the 19th, McCook's right wing at Crawfish Spring was strongly threatened by the Confederates, while the real attack was made against the left in an effort to turn it and cut Rosecrans off from a retreat upon Chattanooga. All day long, brigade after brigade was marched from the right of the Federal line in order to extend the left under Thomas and withstand this flanking movement. Even after nightfall, Thomas, trying to re-form his lines and carry them still farther to the left for the work of the morrow, brought on a sharp conflict in the darkness. The Confederates had been held back, but at heavy cost. That night, at the Widow Glenn's house, Rosecrans consulted his generals. The exhausted Thomas, when roused from sleep for his opinion, invariably answered, “I would strengthen the left.” There seemed as yet to be no crisis at hand, and the council closed with a song by the debonair McCook.

[284] into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the onward dash of artillery and mounted men, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke, the noise of fire-arms — of whistling balls, and grape-shot, and of bursting shell — made up a battle-scene of unsurpassed grandeur. Here, General Hood gave me the last order I received from him on the field, “Go ahead and keep ahead of everything.” ” A moment later, and Hood fell, severely wounded, with a minie ball in his thigh.

Wood's right brigade was shattered even before it had cleared the opening. Sheridan's entire division, and part of Davis' and Van Cleve's, were driven from the field. Longstreet now gave a fine exhibition of his military genius. The orders of battle were to separate the two wings of the opposing army. But with the right wing of his opponents in hopeless ruin, he wheeled to the right and compelled the further withdrawal of Federal troops in order to escape being surrounded. The brave soldier-poet, William H. Lytle, fell at the head of his brigade as he strove to re-form his line. McCook and Crittenden were unable, in spite of several gallant efforts, to rally their troops and keep back the onrushing heroes of Stone's River and Bull Run. The broken mass fled in confusion toward Chattanooga, carrying with it McCook, Crittenden, and Rosecrans. The latter telegraphed to Washington that his army had been beaten. In this famous charge the Confederates took several thousand prisoners and forty pieces of artillery.

Flushed with victory, the Confederates now concentrated their attack upon Thomas, who thus far, on Horseshoe Ridge and its spurs, had repelled all attempts to dislodge him. The Confederates, smith victory within their grasp, and led by the indomitable Longstreet, swarmed up the slopes in great numbers, but they were hurled back with fearful slaughter. Thomas was looking anxiously for Sheridan, whom, as he knew, Rosecrans had ordered with two brigades to his support. [285]

Where the lines were swept back Lee & Gordon's mill, seen in the picture, marked the extreme right of the Federal line on the second day at Chickamauga. From it, northward, were posted the commands of McCook and Crittenden, depleted by the detachments of troops the day before to strengthen the left. All might have gone well if the main attack of the Confederates had continued to the left, as Rosecrans expected. But hidden in the woods, almost within a stone's throw of the Federal right on that misty morning, was the entire corps of Longstreet, drawn up in columns of brigades at half distance--“a masterpiece of tactics,” giving space for each column to swing right or left. Seizing a momentous opportunity which would have lasted but thirty minutes at the most, Longstreet hurled them through a gap which, owing to a misunderstanding, had been left open, and the entire Federal right was swept from the field.


But in Longstreet's rout of the right wing Sheridan, with the rest, had been carried on toward Chattanooga, and he found himself completely cut off from Thomas, as the Confederates were moving parallel to him. Yet the indomitable Sheridan, in spite of his terrible experience of the morning, did not give up the attempt. Foiled in his efforts to get through McFarland's Gap, he moved quickly on Rossville and came down the Lafayette road toward Thomas' left flank.

Meanwhile, advised by the incessant roar of musketry, General Gordon Granger, in command of the reserve corps near Rossville, advanced rapidly with his fresh troops. Acting with promptness and alacrity under orders, Granger sent Steedman to Thomas' right.

Directly across the line of Thomas' right was a ridge, on which Longstreet stationed Hindman with a large command, ready for an attack on Thomas' flank — a further and terrible menace to the nearly exhausted general, but it was not all. In the ridge was a small gap, and through this Kershaw was pouring his division, intent on getting to Thomas' rear. Rosecrans thus describes the help afforded to Thomas: “Steedman, taking a regimental color, led the column. Swift was the charge and terrible the conflict, but the enemy was broken.”

The fighting grew fiercer, and at intervals was almost hand to hand. The casualties among the officers, who frequently led their troops in person, were mounting higher and higher as the moments passed. All the afternoon the assaults continued, but the Union forces stood their ground. Ammunition ran dangerously low, but Steedman had brought a small supply, and when this was distributed each man had about ten rounds. Finally, as the sun was setting in the west, the Confederate troops advanced in a mighty concourse. The combined forces of Kershaw, Law, Preston, and Hindman once more rushed forward, gained possession of their lost ridge at several points, but were unable to drive their attack home. In many places the Union lines stood firm and both sides [287]

The house whence help came Here, at his headquarters, holding the Federal line of retreat at Rossville Gap (the Confederate objective in the battle), General Gordon Granger heard with increasing anxiety the sounds of the conflict, three miles away, growing more and more ominous. Finally, in disobedience of orders, he set in motion his three brigades to the relief of Thomas, pushing forward two of them under Steedman. These arrived upon the field early in the afternoon, the most critical period of the battle, as Longstreet charged afresh on Thomas' right and rear. Seizing a battle-flag, Steedman (at the order of General Granger) led his command in a counter-charge which saved the Army of the Cumberland. This old house at Rossville was built by John Ross, a chief of the Cherokee Indians, and he lived in it till 1832, giving his name to the hamlet. Half-breed descendants of the Cherokees who had intermarried with both whites and Negroes were numerous in the vicinity of Chickamauga, and many of them fought with their white neighbors on the Confederate side.

[288] rested in the positions taken. The plucky Thomas was saved. The onslaught on the Federal left of the battlefield was one of the heaviest attacks made on a single point during the war.

History records no grander spectacle than Thomas' stand at Chickamauga. He was ever afterwards known as “The Rock of Chickamauga.” Under the cover of darkness, Thomas, having received word from Rosecrans to withdraw, retired his army in good order to Rossville, and on the following day rejoined Rosecrans in Chattanooga. The battle of Chickamauga, considering the forces engaged, was one of the most destructive of the Civil War. The Union army lost approximately sixteen thousand men, and while the loss to the Confederate army is not definitely known, it was probably nearly eighteen thousand. The personal daring and tenacious courage displayed in the ranks of both armies have never been excelled on any battlefield. The Confederate generals, Helm, Deshler, and Preston Smith were killed; Adams, Hood, Brown, Gregg, Clayton, Hindman, and McNair were wounded. The Federal side lost Lytle. The battle is generally considered a Confederate victory, and yet, aside from the terrible loss of human life, no distinct advantage accrued to either side. The Federal army retained possession of Chattanooga, but the Confederates had for the time checked the Army of the Cumberland from a further occupation of Southern soil.

It is a singular coincidence that the generals-in-chief of both armies exercised but little supervision over the movements of their respective troops. The brunt of the battle fell, for the most part, upon the commanders of the wings. To the subordinate generals on each side were awarded the highest honors. Longstreet, because of his eventful charge, which swept the right wing of the Union army from the field, was proclaimed the victor of Chickamauga; and to General Thomas, who by his firmness and courage withstood the combined attack of the Confederate forces when disaster threatened on every side, is due the brightest laurels from the adherents of the North.

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