There is a creek that flows north through upstate Georgia into the Tennessee River named Chickamauga. The name is derived from an Indian word for “bloody creek”, earned from the numerous inter-tribal conflicts in the area, between namely Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Cherokees.
During the late 1700’s, there was a branch of the Cherokee tribe named the Chickamauga that was involved in hostilities with early pioneers and settlers in the region. In the early 1800’s, a “confederation” of Indian tribes ranging from Alabama to Minnesota, New England to Kansas was organized by Chief Tecumseh to resist American expansionism into their lands. American forces led by Andrew Jackson were heavily involved in this conflict which eventually resulted in the great migration of the Indian nations westward known as the “Trail of Tears”. On September 19th and 20th of 1863, one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War took place near this creek.
Chickamauga ranks 3rd among Civil War battles in total casualties. Gettysburg is by far considered the costliest while Antietam (Sharpsburg) is second with the highest single day of losses, however; a discrepancy arises in that Chickamauga lasted 2 days in a vast, densely wooded area with many remote skirmish sites and it would have been virtually impossible to determine which day many of the casualties occurred.
Prelude to Battle
With much-lauded success in his Tullahoma campaign to drive the rebels out of Tennessee, Union General William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland rather easily captured the major railway hub of Chattanooga (hardly a shot was fired). Bragg had vacated the city and began moving his Army of Tennessee south into Georgia to regroup. With the fall of Vicksburg in the west, Bragg was expecting reinforcements from 2 divisions of The Army of Mississippi under Generals John C. Breckenridge and W. H. T. Walker in addition to 3 brigades under General John Bell Hood of Longstreet’s corps from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia expected to arrive by rail. Convinced that Bragg’s Confederates were on the run, Rosecrans divided his Army of the Cumberland into 3 corps, positioned South of Chattanooga, South of Stevenson, Alabama and the southernmost group extending down to Alpine, Georgia. The plan was to advance to the east through several mountain passes with a three-pronged pursuit of the rebels into Georgia. Robert Minty’s Union Cavalry encounter with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry at a ford near the northern sector of the Union positions, as well as several other skirmishes in the region, brought about the realization that Bragg’s Army was not on the run nor as far south as they had believed. Rosecrans then began rolling his separated corps to the north to reconsolidate. Bragg was aware that the distance between the Union corps was too great for them to support each other and was anxious to mount attacks against them individually in the hope of defeating them piecemeal. Unfortunately for Bragg, his subordinates didn’t share his sense of urgency and the opportunity was missed.
Huge clouds of dust were visible as Bragg’s Confederates moved into a position from around Reed’s Bridge extending south to Lee and Gordons Mill generally along the east side of the creek. Encountering intense skirmishes, Rosecrans continued to regroup on the west side of the creek north towards Chattanooga. Bragg issued orders for his forces to take several bridges and fords crossing Chickamauga Creek late in the day on September 18. After capturing Reed’s Bridge, Bushrod Johnson advanced along LaFayette Road and engaged Union forces moving in to destroy the bridge. General Thomas ordered a division to attack the rebels believing they were covering their rear flank, however; met face-to-face with cavalry from Forrest’s and Walker’s brigades advancing on Jay’s Mill.
The site of the engagement was not desirable by Bragg or Rosecrans. Visibility was limited to 150 feet, less than rifle range, due to the dense woods. Except in the few open fields, artillery was ineffective. The heavy woods made it difficult to form lines and caused much confusion and chaos. Close quarters fighting ensued as both generals came to the realization that a clear victory would be difficult to determine under the circumstances. Just as at it was at Gettysburg, fate decided the field of battle, not Generals.
Tactical decision-making skills were negated, little more could be done than to send more and more troops into the mix. The first day of major battle on September 19, was mainly a showdown between Union General Thomas and Confederate General Leonidas Polk resulting in little to justify the heavy losses taken on by the Rebels. By day’s end, Federal troops controlled the LaFayette Road though Thomas had withdrawn to a position near the Kelly farm.
All through the night, the Rebels could hear the Federals cutting trees and building breastworks from where they were ordered to make camp. Bragg’s battle plan began with orders for Daniel Harvey Hill’s corps to attack the Union line at dawn, however; Hill, was not present at the meeting and his orders not received until morning when Bragg furiously delivered them personally. Though ordered to attack immediately, Hill delayed until 9:00am. Insubordination was common among Bragg’s command. When the attack finally got underway, Hill’s troops penetrated the Union line, and advanced on Thomas’ flank until being repulsed by reinforcements after having driven behind the Union line.
During the fighting, a report had come in to Rosecrans’ headquarters that a gap in the Union line had been spotted by an Officer, however, it was a heavily wooded area and the unit positioned there was well dug-in and concealed. There was no gap. As one unit was ordered to move into this supposed gap, it created a stack on top of the dug-in troops and left a true gap where the replacement unit was originally positioned. Having arrived during the night, veteran commander James Longstreet ordered John Bell Hood to cover his flank during an attack in support of Hill’s drive. Hood’s rebels were amazed as they happened to advance directly into the small breach created by the Union error. More and more rebel troops exploited the hole at Brotherton field causing the Federal line to crumble on both sides. Alarmed by the incoming sea of gray uniforms, Rosecrans, Crittenden and McCook (Alexander) fled the battlefield in disgrace provoking disciplinary action later. Only General Thomas remained.
Federal enlisted men retreated in complete disarray all the way back to Rossville and beyond. Attempting to rally the retreating masses from his saddle, Thomas managed to regroup his own troops around Snodgrass Hill. Col. John Wilder’s Lightening Brigade ordered an attack, providing some protection to the retreating men. Armed with Spencer repeating rifles, Wilder’s cavalry managed to slow down Longstreet’s advance allowing Thomas time to reform his line. Though Thomas line was thin, it repelled repeated Rebel assaults. Hearing the extreme roar and viewing the immense smoke coming from the battle from Rossville, General Gordon Granger advanced his Reserve Corps without orders, resupplying Thomas and protecting his flank (see below Granger’s Reserve Corps save the right). For his bravery, Thomas became reknowned as “The Rock of Chickamauga”, though his family had disowned him because he chose to remain loyal to the North instead of his home state of Virginia. General Thomas lived the remainder of his life in dejected remorse.
His career destroyed, Old Rosy issued a telegram from Chattanooga to his superiors in Washington saying, “We have met with a serious disaster…we have no certainty of holding our position here.” A second wire to the beleaguered Thomas instructed him to withdraw to Chattanooga. Generals Thomas Crittenden and Alexander McCook later were acquitted at an Army tribunal, yet their military careers were ruined and their reputations in the history books irreparably stained.
Moving east to Chickamauga Creek during an unusual late summer cold spell, Major General Gordon Granger and his Reserve Corps advanced to Rossville, Georgia on September 14, 1863 to hold a pivotal mountain pass to Chattanooga. The northern echelon of the Army of the Cumberland, men from the Reserve Corps had continued on to destroy Reed’s Bridge when Confederate forces made first contact with the Union Army in the vicinity of Jay’s Mill shortly after midnight on September 19, 1864. Fighting developed along a broad front after sunrise that morning. Granger watched the battle of Chickamauga from a log cabin known as The Ross House.
At 11:10am on September 20, 1863, the major-general jumped off a large haystack he had climbed to better observe the developing situation at the northern end of the battlefield. Granger ordered his men forward. When his adjutant questioned the decision Granger replied, “I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders.” It was a move that not only saved the Federal forces remaining on the field at Chickamauga but may well have saved the entire Union Army in the West.
Brigadier General John B. Steedman was in motion within 20 minutes, with Granger and his staff riding in advance of the column. Moving south from McAfee Church he left Dan McCook with a brigade to protect Rossville Gap. As General Granger and most of the 5400 men in his command advanced towards the noise and smoke, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Rebel cavalrymen, guarding the Army of Tennessee’s right flank, fired on them. Some troops stopped to engage this dismounted unit as the rest headed south to the sounds of battle.
Soon they came upon increasing numbers of Rebel skirmishers. At a field hospital established in the Cloud House, a group of Forrest’s men were caught in the middle of a raid and quickly driven away. Continuing south they witnessed growing evidence of a tremendous battle. Dozens of small fires burned, ambling across fields that days before had been full of crops. Fallen trees were everywhere, some formed into abatis, some scattered randomly like matchsticks. What happened here was sudden, catching Union soldiers off-guard. Bodies of Rebels and Yanks side-by-side, most dead but some still dying.
…we passed through a narrow skirt of woods and across a field which had been fired by the shells in previous conflict on that ground early in the day. A more desolate sight never met the eye. The entire country seemed to be one smoking, burning sea of ruin. Through this blazing field we marched, while the rebel[sic] battery played upon us with spherical case, shell, and almost every conceivable missile of death."Lt. Col. D. W. Magee, Commanding, 86th Illinois
George Thomas was watching the obviously large group advancing on his rear, but was more concerned about General John Bell Hood’s men directly in front of him as he struggled to form a southern line on Snodgrass Hill. An officer using the general’s binoculars assured Thomas the troops were Union. Thomas dispatched a staff officer, who upon seeing the blue uniforms rode up to inform Granger of the bleak situation. The right flank had given way, Rosecrans, McCook (Alexander) and Crittenden had fled the battle and only Thomas, the Virginian who had never retreated, remained.
At one o’clock Granger stepped briskly up to Thomas and shook his hand. He had covered 4 miles in an hour and a half in spite of two significant skirmishes. They quickly dispensed with formalities and Thomas pointed towards Confederates driving towards the ridgeline less than half a mile from his headquarters. “Those men must be driven back,” Thomas stated in a matter of fact manner, “Can you do it?” “Yes,” replied Granger.
As Granger returned to his men Rebels were engaging Union soldiers along a horseshoe ridge. Granger’s men were ordered to stablize the area to the right of Hill 3. Slightly more than halfway up the hill they stopped briefly to catch their breath. No longer were they just facing the constant popping of muskets. The roar of captured artilley joined in the cacaphony of sound. From Granger’s official report:
As rapidly as possible I formed General Whitaker’s and Colonel Mitchell’s brigades, to hurl them against this threatening force of the enemy, which afterward proved to be General Hindman’s division. The gallant Steedman, seizing the colors of a regiment, led his men to the attack. With loud cheers they rushed upon the enemy, and, after a terrific conflict lasting but twenty minutes, drove them from their ground, and occupied the ridge and gorge."
The Rebels launched two determined assaults to retake the ground. Both failed. Now ammunition was in short supply not only for Steedman’s men, but all the Union forces. During the advance Granger had given his reserve ammunition to other companies as they approached Thomas’ headquarters. It seemed, however, that the Rebels might not try a third attack. Both the charge and the subsequent counter-attacks had been devastating to Granger’s Corps. 80% of his senior staff was either injured or dead, including Steedman, who had been wounded.
In the wild retreat of the Union forces after the Confederate breakthrough at the Brotherton Cabin, Thomas had quickly formed line near his headquarters on Snodgrass Hill. A large gap separated this line from his men along today’s Battleline Road. Thomas left to inspect his left flank and prepare for withdrawal. As senior officer, Granger was placed in charge. Just before 6pm the Rebels prepared for another assault. A commander approached and asked Granger what to do. “Fix bayonets and charge,” Granger replied. He had no other options. There was no more ammunition.
Rebels pushed forward along a broad front, facing a line of Union soldiers rarely more than one man deep. Unit commanders walked behind their men telling them to stay down until the command came to move. Closer marched the Confederates, their gray uniforms now stained with red. When the Rebels reached a point less than 50 feet from the Union lines, the commanders screamed, almost in unison, “Forward, Forward” and the line of soldiers rose and advanced.
The two lines met with a fury unlike that of men firing at each other. Slowly the Federals gained the upper hand, driving the attackers back across the entire front. At one point the Union advance was so fierce it actually broke through the Rebel lines.
Confederate commanders attempted two additional assaults of the Union line. Both failed. At 7pm, less than five hours after he arrived, Granger recieved orders from Thomas to withdraw to Rossville.
From William Rosecrans
Major-General Granger, by his promptitude, arrived and carried his troops into action in time to save the day. He deserves the highest praise."