The Battle of Chickamauga

by James R. Knight

Originally published in the Battlefield Dispatch Vol. 1 No. 2 Summer 2013 - read the rest of the issue here.

Gen. Rosecrans seems confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.
— Abraham Lincoln on receiving the report on the Battle of Chickamauga
Battle of Chickamauga by Kurz & Allison, ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Battle of Chickamauga by Kurz & Allison, ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Battle of Chickamauga, fought over two days (September 19-20) in the early fall of 1863 was the last engagement in an almost ten month struggle between Maj. Gen William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, and General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The winner’s prize was the strategic river and railroad town of Chattanooga.

At the end of 1862, Bragg and his army controlled Southeast Tennessee from his headquarters at Murfreesboro, and the campaign began when Rosecrans attacked him there on the last day of the year. After three bloody days, Bragg fell back behind a range of hills from McMinnville to Manchester to Shelbyville. His left extended west to the Columbia Pike and the Nashville & Decatur railroad, and was held by cavalry commanded by Gen. Earl Van Dorn from his headquarters at Spring Hill. Throughout March and April, Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest raided north as far as Franklin and Brentwood.

Almost six months later, following repeated threats from Washington, Rosecrans attacked Bragg’s new line on June 24th, and began what was probably the Federal army’s most successful ten days of the war. By July 4th, Bragg’s army had been routed; Lee had been defeated at Gettysburg; and Vicksburg had surrendered to Grant.

Throughout July and August, Bragg settled in at Chattanooga as the Federal army moved down across the Cumberland Plateau to the Tennessee River, crossing into northern Alabama and Georgia beginning on August 28th. By September 4th, Rosecrans had his three infantry corps south of the river. To avoid being surrounded, Bragg evacuated Chattanooga on the evening of the 7th and began to head south in two columns toward Ringgold and LaFayette.

Rosecrans believed that Bragg was in full retreat towards Rome or even Atlanta and sent his infantry to try and cut him off. Instead of fleeing in panic as Rosecrans believed, however, Bragg was beginning to concentrate his forces, looking for a chance to strike the unsuspecting Federals. To reinforce Bragg, the Confederacy’s rickety railroad system was also bringing two divisions of James Longstreet’s corps from Virginia.

Over the next ten days, Rosecrans worked to consolidate his forces, which were initially strung out on a north/south line almost forty miles long, trying to locate Bragg’s army. On September 18th, an encounter between Forrest’s Confederate cavalry and John T. Wilder’s Federal “Lightning Brigade” drew the two armies to an area between the LaFayette Road and West Chickamauga Creek - about ten miles south of Chattanooga - where the battle would begin in earnest the next morning.

On September 19th, Bragg attacked the northern end of the Federal line, hoping to turn their left flank and cut them off from Chattanooga. All day the fighting raged in the woods and thickets along a front of almost three miles. By sundown, the Federal line had been pushed back, but not broken, and both sides spent the night consolidating their positions and preparing for the next day’s fight.

Bragg had ordered a renewed attack at sunup on the 20th against the Federal left flank, held by George Thomas’ XIV corps, but it didn’t get started until about 9:30am. Then, shortly after 11:00am, the Federal line broke – not at Thomas’ position which was holding firm, but a mile south near Rosecrans’ headquarters. Poor staff work and Gen. Thomas J. Wood’s decision to obey a confusing order, based on a misunderstanding of the real situation on the field, opened a gap of several hundred yards in the Federal line. The gap occurred just as 11,000 Confederates, commanded by John Bell Hood, attacked that very spot. The Federal line was soon cut in two and by early afternoon the Federal right had collapsed, sending Gen. Rosecrans and perhaps a third of his army in full retreat back to Chattanooga.

On the northern part of the field, however, George Thomas maintained his position in Kelly’s Field, at Snodgrass Hill, and along Horseshoe Ridge. With reserves led by Gordon Granger and bits and pieces of units from the disaster to the south, Thomas stood firm until almost dark, essentially saving the Army of the Cumberland and earning him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.” Bragg would not pursue the beaten Federals for almost two days, prompting an infuriated Nathan Bedford Forrest to ask, “What does he fight battles for?”

About 125,000 men fought at Chickamauga and suffered about 35,000 casualties, second only to Gettysburg. It was the last significant Confederate victory in the West. Both commanders would eventually be relieved and a month later, all the Confederate gains at Chickamauga would be lost at Missionary Ridge. Over a year later, many of the same men would be at Franklin – John Bell Hood – minus a leg - and eight of his senior Confederate commanders; Emerson Opdycke, the self-proclaimed savior of the Federal line; Thomas John Wood, whose actions caused the Federal downfall; and “The Rock of Chickamauga” himself, George Henry Thomas, commanding from Nashville.

James R. Knight is the author of several books, including the Battle of Franklin volume of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. He expresses his thanks to all the good folks at Chickamauga National Military Park and to Ranger Brian Autry with whom he walked the ground.