Battle of Chickamauga, 19-20 September 1863

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Introduction
The Missed Chances
19 September
20 September: The Gap
20 September: The Rock of Chickamauga
The Aftermath
Casualty Figures

Introduction

The last major Confederate victory of the American Civil War. Coming after defeat at Gettysburg and the loss of Vicksburg, Chickamauga gave Confederate supporters a last brief hope of victory. It brought to an end a Union campaign that had driven Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of Tennessee and forced the abandonment of Chattanooga, cutting one of the main railroads into Virginia from the rest of the Confederacy.

The summer of 1863 saw the attention of the Confederacy split between Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, which ended at Gettysburg, and U. S. Grant’s attack on Vicksburg. Bragg’s army was weakened as he sent reinforcements to the army attempting to relieve Vicksburg. For a time over the summer he was very vulnerable, but the Federal commander, General William Rosecrans, let most of that time pass without moving.

At the end of June, the Federal Army of the Cumberland, drove Bragg out of his defensive positions at Tullahoma, between Chattanooga and Murfreesboro. Bragg withdrew to Chattanooga and prepared to resist attack. The first week of July 1863 was one of the low points of the Confederacy. On 4 July 1863 Vicksburg surrendered and Lee pulled back from Gettysburg. Now Bragg had lost Tennessee without a fight, and suddenly the heart of Georgia was vulnerable.

Ironically, defeat at Vicksburg and Gettysburg helped Bragg! The troops he had sent west were returned to him. In the east, the Army of the Potomac was clearly in no state to move onto the offensive. Victory at Gettysburg did just as much damage as defeat at Chancellorsville had done. For once the Confederates took advantage of their interior lines, and decided to send James Longstreet with two divisions (about 12,000 men) from the Army of Northern Virginia to aid Bragg. Longstreet’s men left Virginia on 9 September. The original plan had been for them to use the railroad through east Tennessee, a 550 mile trip. However, on 3 September a Federal army under General Burnside had entered Knoxville, blocking that route. Longstreet’s men were forced to take a 900 mile round trip, eventually reaching Bragg from the south. Only half of them would arrive in time for the upcoming battle.

That battle would be fought south of Chattanooga. On 16 August Rosecrans began to move again. One part of his army (Crittenden’s corps ) was sent towards Chattanooga, arriving opposite the town on 21 August. The other two were sent downstream, crossing over the river at Caperton’s Ferry, thirty five miles west (McCook’s corps), and at Bridgeport (Thomas’s corps), a little closer. They crossed the Tennessee on 29 August. This placed Bragg in a difficult situation. From their position west of Lookout Mountain, the Federal forces threatened his railroad link south. In order to avoid becoming besieged in Chattanooga, Bragg pulled out on 8 September, moving south to LaFayette, Georgia. The following day, troops from Crittenden’s corps entered Chattanooga.

The Missed Chances

Bragg was now to get a series of excellent chances to destroy isolated elements of Rosecrans army. He gained these chances by convincing Rosecrans that the Confederate retreat was a disorderly flight. False deserters were sent into the Federal lines with the story that Bragg wasn’t planning to stop before Atlanta.

Rosecrans was already elated by the capture of Chattanooga. He was convinced that Bragg was in full retreat, and in order to take advantage of this decided to throw his forces across Lookout Mountain. The mountain stretches south from Chattanooga through Georgia and Alabama with widely separated passes. Rosecrans maintained the same separate of his three corps that had achieved the capture of Chattanooga. Crittenden moved slowly south from the town. Thomas moved across Lookout Mountain into McLemore’s Cove, twenty miles south of Chattanooga. Finally, McCook was sent much further south, to Alpine, a further twenty miles south.

Thomas’s corps was the first to run the risk of attack. Two of his divisions – Negley’s and Baird’s were crossing Lookout Mountain via Steven’s Gap into McLemore’s Cove. Negley was alone in the Cove on 9-10 September. Bragg ordered an attack on this isolated Federal division on 10 September. However, by now he had lost the confidence of his subordinates, and on 10 September they failed to launch what could have been a devastating attack by an entire army corps (D. H. Hill’s) on a single brigade. The next day an attack was launched, but by now Negley had been joined by Baird, and they were able to withdraw to a strong position on the slopes of Lookout Mountain.

On 12 September it was Crittenden’s turn to be vulnerable. He was probing east from Rossville Gap (in Missionary Ridge) towards Ringgold, leaving various parts of his command exposed to attack, but once again Bragg’s subordinates found more reasons not to obey his orders. By now Rosecrans was aware that Bragg was not retreating after all, and he began to bring his army back together in McLemore’s Cove. Crittenden was pulled back towards Missionary Ridge to protect the roads back to Chattanooga. McCook was called back from Alpine, and between 13 and 17 September marched back to Steven’s Gap in Lookout Mountain.

By the end of 17 September it looked like Bragg had missed his chance. The bulk of Rosecrans’s army was now reunited in McLemore Cove. His left flank had reached Lee and Gordon’s Mill on the West Chickamauga Creek, far enough north to ensure access to Chattanooga via the Chattanooga Valley, west of Missionary Ridge. His reserves, under General Gordon Granger, were further north, at Rossville Gap in Missionary Ridge.

Bragg saw one last chance to gain his victory. If he could cross over the West Chickamauga Creek north of Lee and Gordon’s Mill and get between Rosecrans and Chattanooga he would have a chance to push the Federal army back into the mountains. If Rosecrans could be forced to retrace his steps back across Lookout Mountain, then Bragg would have the time he needed to recapture Chattanooga.

By 18 September it was probably already too late for this plan to succeed as Bragg intended. His army would have had to cross over the West Chickamauga Creek, reach and cross Missionary Ridge and block the southern end of the Chattanooga Valley if he was to prevent Rosecrans escaping north. Even so, if Bragg had succeeding in turning the federal left wing on 18 September then he would have gained a massive advantage.

Instead, his advance was sluggish. Many of his troops were still at Ringgold and LaFayette, and so had quite some distance to advance to reach the West Chickamauga. Rosecran’s excellent cavalry was able to slow down the advanced units of Bragg’s army while reinforcements were rushed north. Finally, General George Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps made an overnight march to be in place to block Bragg. The same day saw the arrival of the first of Longstreet’s corps, commanded by General John Hood.

19 September

The morning on 19 September found both armies on the west bank of the West Chickamauga Creek. The first day of the battle developed without an overall plan on the Confederate side. It began when Thomas received a report that a small Confederate force had crossed over the creek and then had its bridge burnt behind it. He sent three brigades forward to investigate this and instead found Forrest’s cavalry.

The fighting on 19 September consisted of a series of uncoordinated Confederate attacks, many of which achieved some success before being pushed back by Federal reinforcements. By the end of the day, Bragg had failed to break past the Federal left flank, but had pushed the line back quite a distance.

That evening Longstreet finally reached the army, accompanied by two more brigades, although only half of his corps reached the area in time to take part in the fighting. Bragg decided to make immediate use of Longstreet, and reorganised his army into two wings. The right wing was given to General Leonidas Polk, the left to Longstreet.
 
20 September: The Gap

Polk has been a controversial choice. The attack did not start at dawn. Exactly why has been the subject of much debate between supports of Polk, Bragg and D. H. Hill as to who received orders when, where they were and what they should have done. Hill, whose men were to have led the attack, did not receive the order early enough to put it into effect. Hill and Polk do not seem to have made adequate arrangements for communications to pass between them.

D. H. Hill was later to assign the blame for the failure to attack to Bragg, on the grounds that preparations for an attack could not be made ‘without the presence of the commander-in-chief’. This is an idiotic suggestion. The whole point of having a chain of command is to make sure that the commander-in-chief does not have to make sure of every single detail during a battle.

What this does demonstrate is just how hard it was to command a big army before the advent of the radio. On some battlefields it was possible to put in place a field telegraph, but even this could only be effective in fairly static battles. At Chickamauga the heavily wooded terrain blocked visibility. Messages could only pass at the speed of a mounted man. Worse, Polk and Hill each had to keep moving, visiting various parts of their wing or division. Our mounted messenger would have to go to their target’s last known position and hope that someone would be there who knew where that person had gone next.

Despite all the attention it has attracted, the failure to attack at dawn does not appear to have made any real difference to the result of the battle. The attack was launched at 9.30 a.m. and met with partial success. On the Confederate far right the attack outflanked the Federal defences, capturing Thomas’s field hospital and threatening to get behind the Federal lines. Reinforcements were rushed to the Federal left, and the immediate danger passed. The rest of the Confederate attack met Thomas’s corps head on, and after an hour of fierce fighting the attack was repulsed.

However, the attack had been so fierce that Rosecrans became convinced that the entire Confederate army was attacking his left (four miles further north, General Granger, in charge of the reserves, came to the same conclusion, and at about 11.30 a.m. his men began their march towards the sound of the guns). The Federal right had not yet been attacked – Longstreet’s wing was just out of sight, awaiting orders. Rosecrans began to shuffle men from his right to support Thomas on the left. During this process, a gap appeared in the Federal line. Wood’s division was ordered to move left to block a non-existent gap, creating a real one.

If this had happened at another time during the day it probably wouldn’t have mattered, but just as this gap appeared, Longstreet launched his attack. Rather than attack all along the Federal line, Longstreet had decided to form up in three lines and launch a concentrated attack on part of the Federal line. His eight brigades now marched straight into the gap. Longstreet and Bragg had been handed the chance to inflict a truly crushing defeat on a major Federal army. Longstreet was to come very close to taking that chance.

Realising what had happened, Longstreet wheeled to his right, hoping to roll up the entire Federal line. At least half of Rosecrans’s army fled the field, rushing north towards Chattanooga. Amongst them was Rosecrans, whose headquarters had been overrun. As he reached Missionary Ridge, Rosecrans had had a chance to stop and regroup, but there he encountered parts of units from the Federal left and became convinced that his entire army was in flight. Accordingly, he decided that his duty was to get back to Chattanooga and prepare to defend the city.

20 September: The Rock of Chickamauga

With the collapse of the Federal right and Rosecrans absent, the fate of the Union army was left in the hands of General George Thomas, commanding the four remaining divisions on the Federal left. Expecting reinforcements from his right, instead he found Confederate troops marching to the attack!

Fortunately, he had a strong position on Snodgrass Hill, a spur of Missionary Ridge. An attack on his left wing had just been repulsed, so he was able to rush troops across to face this new threat. The new Federal position resembled a horseshoe around the edge of the hill. Longstreet’s first attack on this new position was repulsed at around 1.00 p.m., ending his quick advance.

For the rest of the day Thomas resisted repeated Confederate attacks on his line. The most dangerous moment came at around 3.00 p.m., when Longstreet worked a strong force around one flank of the Federal army (some accounts say the Federal left, but actually on the right). Thomas had no reserves to resist this movement, and for a moment it looked like defeat was imminent.

Fortunately, this was the moment when Granger’s reserves finally arrived. These fresh troops were thrown into the line, and Longstreet’s attack was repulsed. This was some of the fiercest fighting of the day, coming down to bayonet charges at times. The reserve corps suffered nearly 50% casualties (1175 killed and wounded and 613 missing out of 3700 men engaged).

Finally, at 5.30, Thomas began to withdraw back towards McFarland’s Gap and Rossville Gap. He had received orders to pull back earlier in the afternoon, but had determined to remain in place until the Confederate attacks stopped. Now there was a lull in the fighting, and so Thomas left Granger in charge on Snodgrass Hill and started to withdraw his left wing.

Soon after Thomas began this move, The Confederate right launched another attack. By now it was nearly dark. The Confederate attacker succeeding in capturing the Federal lines, but not the Federal army (although did take 1,000 prisoners in the final assault). Finally, darkness fell. Thomas was able to withdraw the rest of his men from Snodgrass Hill to Rossville Gap.

The Aftermath

Both armies suffered very heavy casualties at Chickamauga. Bragg was clearly overwhelmed by the massive losses suffered by his own army and reported even higher casualties that he actually suffered (up to 40% in his infantry). The next day (21 September) he had a very good chance to finish his victory. Thomas had formed a new line around Rossville, but his army was in a terrible state, with some units already at Chattanooga and others shattered by the battle.

Luckily for Thomas, Bragg did nothing. Nathan Forrest’s cavalry appeared in front of the Federal position, and Forrest was able to report just how vulnerable the Federal army was. He was so disgusted with Bragg’s performance after the battle that he took his command and left!

Thomas did not think that Missionary Ridge was a tenable position, and asked for permission to withdraw to Chattanooga. Rosecrans agreed, and overnight on 21 September the army pulled back to Chattanooga. Rather harder to explain is Rosecrans decision to abandon Lookout Mountain, where a small force could have held off any likely Confederate attack.

This decision was to lead to great hardship. On 23 September Bragg’s army finally appear in front of Chattanooga, and began a formal siege. With Lookout Mountain in his hands, he was able to almost entirely shut off the Federal supply lines into Chattanooga. Within the city, food was short, ammunition was short and morale was low. All the Union gains in Tennessee across the summer of 1863 looked to be under threat.

In the south, news of the victory at Chickamauga revived hopes that had been dashed by Gettysburg and the loss of Vicksburg. However, as the Union forces at Chattanooga continued to hold out more and more criticism started to appear. The great victory seemed to have produced very disappointing results.

In the north, news of Rosecrans’s defeat produced a flurry of activity. U.S. Grant was appointed to command all Federal forces in the west, and quickly reached Chattanooga, where he was soon able to save the situation. The great Confederate victory at Chickamauga eventually proved to have done nothing more than delay the Union advance into Georgia. Bragg’s failure to exploit his victory probably ended any hopes that the Confederacy could win her independence in battle.

Casualty Figures

 

Union

Confederate

Killed

1656

2389

Wounded

9749

13412

Captured or Missing

4774

2003

Total

16179

17804

Effective Strength

56965

71551

% lost

28%

25%

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 May 2006), Battle of Chickamauga, 19-20 September 1863 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_chickamauga.html

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