Today is the 147th anniversary of the second day of fighting at the Battle of Chickamauga. Chickamauga Creek runs through the valley southeast of Lookout Mountain. Loosely translated, the Indian name Chickamauga, translates into “River of Blood.” From the morning of September 18, to the evening of September 20, the Indian translation is very appropriate as “Rivers of Blood” would drench the woods and fields of Catoosa and Walker counties in northern Georgia. Many men, north and south, would give their “last full measure” at this battle.
In what would be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, US Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, would push into northern Georgia, after a near bloodless battle to capture Chattanooga, and have his four infantry corps and single cavalry corps spread over a large area. Believing Confederate Army of Tennessee commander, Braxton Bragg, was retreating towards Dalton, and further points south, he became lax in reuniting his command near the Chickamauga. Instead of retreating, Bragg had an offensive move planned to attack Rosecrans and beat his army piecemeal before they could reunite. Fortunately for Rosecrans, Bragg was slow in attacking, and he was able to bring together most all of his army to counter any thrust by the Confederates. Very heavy skirmishing would occur between the Confederate and Federal cavalry, and some infantry, during the day on September 18. This allowed Rosecrans to bring his infantry closer together. Heavy fighting would occur through the day on September 19 and the Confederate position would be strengthened by the arrival of CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps which was sent west by General Robert E. Lee. This corps, led by the ever aggressive division commander, Major General John Bell Hood, would exploit an opening created by confusion on Rosecrans’ part on September 20. Punching through the opening, Longstreet’s soldiers would roll the two wings of the Federal army apart causing a pellmell retreat towards Chattanooga. The only thing that prevented complete destruction of the fleeing Federal troops was a courageous stand made by US Major General George H. Thomas at Snodgrass Hill. Thomas would earn the moniker, “Rock of Chickamauga,” for the desperate defensive fight his troops endured while battling a large portion of Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. This would be Bragg’s singular victory as commander the army and after a defeat, by US Major General Ulysses S. Grant, at the Third Battle of Chattanooga, Bragg would end up being sent east as military advisor to the Jefferson Davis administration. After being “boxed up” in Chattanooga, with his Army of the Cumberland nearly starving, Grant would relieve Rosecrans of command and would promote Thomas to command of the army – a command he had earned through hard fighting, exceptional administrative skills and strong leadership.
I had planned on writing an in-depth essay on the Battle of Chickamauga, for the 147th anniversary, but a heavy workload at my real job prevented me from doing so. This will have to wait until next year. In the meantime, I provide a short narrative I wrote on the battle, several years back, for my other website, BattlefieldPortraits.com. The complete text of that article is provided below. Additionally, I have a collection of photos, from trips I have made to the Chickamauga National Military Park, on my Flickr site which I have arranged into a photo essay. You can view these photos by clicking on the following link.
If you are interested in learning more about the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the most interesting battles in the Western Theater, in my humble opinion, I would recommend the following three books.
The Chickamauga Campaign, edited by Steven E. Woodworth featured essays by: John R. Lundberg, Alexander Mendoza, David Powell, Ethan S. Rafuse, William G. Robertson, Timothy B. Smith, Lee White and Steven Woodworth.
The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, August 29 – September 23, 1863, by David Powell with cartography by David Friedrichs (this is an excellent book in Savas Beatie, LLC’s maps series)
Battle of Chickamauga
Location: Catoosa & Walker counties near Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia
Dates: September 18-20, 1863
Union Commander: William S. Rosecrans, Major General
Confederate Commander: Braxton Bragg, General
William S. Rosecrans was not known for his alacrity. After a decisive victory, over several days in late 1862 and early 1863, at Stone’s River, Rosecrans went into winter bivouac. Even after the urgings of President Lincoln, in the spring of 1863, Rosecrans would not move his Army of the Cumberland.
Finally, in late June, the gargantuan Army of the Cumberland started moving slowly to dislodge Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee, at Tullahoma, Tennessee. This movement was quickly reported to Bragg who decided to relocate his army to northern Georgia – possibly as far as Dalton – since this would provide a better field of battle.
Rosecrans now moved more quickly to cut off Bragg’s army. This was described by soldiers, in the Army of the Cumberland, as one of the hardest marches, over the most difficult terrain, encountered thus far.
After splitting his Army of the Cumberland into three assaulting forces, Rosecrans decided to assault (from the north, Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps, the west, Major General George H. Thomas’ XIV Corps and the southwest, Major General Alexander McD. McCook’s XX Corps) the Army of Tennessee near a sleepy creek, called Chickamauga (appropriately meaning in the local Indian dialect: “River of Blood”).
As the Union forces under Thomas approached the Chickamauga, on September 18, thinking Bragg’s forces were on the other side, they were caught in a surprise attack. The Union forces pulled back to the Lafayette Road and were determined to hold this north/south line.
During second day’s battle, James Longstreet’s Corps arrived in time to join the battle. This brought the armies close to par and allowed Bragg a little breathing room. The battle continued to sway back-and-forth along a 2 1/2 mile with the Lafayette Road being the approximate dividing line.
On the third day, through a grievous error on Rosecrans’ part, Longstreet was able to break through a hole near the center of the Union line. Longstreet’s Corps, including John Bell Hood’s Texans, quickly rolled McCook’s line to the north and attacked Thomas’s corps to the north. With Rosecrans leading the way, McCook’s and Crittenden’s corps started a piecemeal retreat towards Chattanooga. Charles Dana, a war department informer, said he knew there were serious problems when he viewed Rosecrans, a devout Catholic, “cross himself.”
Left on the field, along the Snodgrass Hill spur, George Thomas’ XIV Corps was in a strong enough defensive position to hold Longstreets’s Corps at bay while the Army of the Cumberland retreated. US Major General Gordon Granger’sReserve Corps also played a part in holding the Army of Tennessee in place.
Through his cool actions at Chickamauga, George Thomas earned the nickname, “Rock of Chickamauga.”
Outcome: Confederate Victory
Casualties (34,600 approximate of all types):
Federal: 16,170 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 18,454 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
After their retreat into Chattanooga, the Army of the Cumberland was “boxed in” between the Tennessee River, Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The Army of Tennessee, for all practical purposes, had Rosecrans’ army in a “strangle hold.” Food and supplies dropped until US Major General Ulysses S. Grant, fresh from victory at Vicksburg, arrived with reinforcements - specifically William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee. Upon arrival in Chattanooga, Grant relieved Rosecrans and put Thomas in his place. Within several days food was once again flowing into Chattanooga, along Grant’s “Cracker Line.” Grant would go on to defeat Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, at the Third Battle of Chattanooga, pushing them into northern Georgia. Chickamauga, was a huge Confederate victory, but it was the “high water” mark for the Army of Tennessee. Bragg would win no more victories and would be relieved by CSA General Joseph E. Johnston in the coming months.