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Battle of Chickamauga
The Battle of Chickamauga: The Beginning of the End for the Confederate Army
by Roger Craig and Michael Artis

The Battle of Chickamauga

The Battle of Chickamauga is a historic battle fought near Chickamauga Creek in Chickamauga, Georgia, during the Civil War in 1863. The recent Union Army victories took its toll on the Confederate forces in both physical ways and emotional ways. General Braxton Bragg and General William Rosecrans met on the battlefield before the Battle of Chickamauga. They met and fought at the Tullahoma Campaign. General Rosecrans emerged victorious in the Tullahoma Campaign. General Bragg and his troops suffered a loss, but the fight for this region was not over. The importance of the region demanded that each side put all they had into controlling that vital supply route. The Confederate Army won the battle. However, the Battle of Chickamauga was the Confederate victory that led to the defeat of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. [1]


The area in and around Chattanooga is rich in natural resources. It has fertile land for growing crops to sustain an army; it had rail lines that connected much of the nation. Both armies wanted to control this area. The Battle of Chickamauga did not end that dispute. The Battle of Chickamauga was one battle in the struggle to control this area.

A Battle of Attrition

General Bragg’s army had a numerical advantage. The army also had reinforcements on the way. General Rosecrans and his army had momentum on their side. They engaged in one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. They fought a very confusing type of battle, and in the end, neither commanding officer felt strong about the outcome. The Confederate Army and the Union Army were both in a terrible state after the fighting stopped. General Rosecrans’ army retreated into Chattanooga. General Bragg’s army stayed in the area around Chickamauga. General Bragg emerged victorious in this battle that saw no real victor. However, though both sides received damage, the Union Army had reinforcements to draw on. The Civil War was a war of attrition. The Union had the advantage from the beginning.

Union Tactics

Major General George H. Thomas stood ready that cool September morning. People knew him for his calm nature. However, this morning, he was on edge. He earned many nicknames. His Soldiers called him Old Pap and earned the name The Rock of Chickamauga. He sent two brigades to Reed’s Bridge to make contact and defeat a brigade of Rebel troops that had crossed Chickamauga Creek. General Thomas instructed General John Brannan, one of his subordinate Generals, to defeat them early. He was not to give them time to finish breakfast. The brigades under Brannan’s command did not get there fast enough. General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men crossed the creek and were mounted and ready to move forward. The battle started there. [2]

General Thomas and his men were tired. General Forrest had fewer men in his unit. Each side fought hard anyway. The fight started near Reed’s Bridge. It quickly moved to a nearby opening that gave each side a better view of fighting their enemy. The clearing was near Jay’s Mill. The first day’s fighting was ferocious and filled with hate. The second day of fighting saw General Forrest and his men overwhelmed. He had to move back, but just a little bit.

General Rosecrans continued tracking the battle and sent reinforcements. The battle swayed from one side to the other. Union troops caught Rebel Soldiers and brought them in for interrogation. General Rosecrans did not believe most of the intelligence received from the captured Soldiers. He could not discern who was leading the troops at Jay’s Mill and who the major commander in the area was. This was a frustrating situation for General Rosecrans and General Thomas. The information was not flowing as quickly as they wanted it to. [3]

General Rosecrans tried very hard to figure out what was going on. He had bad maps of the area and they did not help much. General Thomas did not explain much. He was busy with the attack on his lines. The telegraph link did not help because General Thomas did not have time to use it. The battle spread quickly to the south. General Rosecrans’ headquarters was in that direction. [4]

Federal troops gained and lost ground. General Rosecrans sent in reinforcements as he lost battle lines. Reinforcements patched holes that the Confederate troops made. Union Soldiers fell and other Union Soldiers stepped over them and continued in battle. The tactics and tenacity of the Union Army made the battle bloody and violent. Chickamauga Creek lived up to the name “River of Death” given to it by Cherokee people.

Confederate Tactics

General Braxton Bragg led the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War. He suffered failures and defeats in 1862 and the Union Generals disliked him. His soldiers disliked him as well. General Bragg failed on the battlefield during many battles in 1863. He lost at Perryville, Stone River, and he was not finished with losing. President Jefferson Davis wanted to remove him from command of his Army. General Bragg’s close ties with the President allowed him to keep his job. [5]

General Bragg’s division and corps commanders did not believe in him. Many of them told him how they felt. His losses in Kentucky and Murfreesboro cost him dearly in men and confidence of his men that remained. General Bragg saw more defeat at Tullahoma than at any previous Campaign. This defeat was at the hands of General Rosecrans. [6]

Braxton Bragg saved the day, and possibly President Davis’ life at Vera Cruz. President Davis never forgot this act. General Bragg had lost the confidence of his unit but not the confidence of the President. Because of this, General Bragg took the lead in the opposition of the Union Army as they moved toward Chattanooga.

President Davis considered Chattanooga the key to the success of the Confederate war effort. The Union Army considered it the key to success as well. They all considered Chattanooga the gateway to the south. It led to Atlanta and onward to the ocean. General Bragg was there to protect that gateway.

General Bragg and General Rosecrans, along with their Armies, met near Chickamauga Creek. They occupied the same area in close proximity for days before any fight took place; the jockeying, positioning, and showing off looked more like a backwoods cockfight. It did not look like professional armies preparing for battle. [7]

The Confederate Army positioned itself on the eastern side of the Chickamauga Creek a few days after arriving in the area. On September 17, General Bragg spread his troops along the Chickamauga Creek. He placed his troops in position before the sun came down. He used Glass’ Mill and Gordon’s Mill to establish his left flank. He established his right flank at Reed’s Bridge. Reeds Bridge was five miles north of Gordon’s Mill. [8]

General Nathan Bedford Forrest led the Confederate Soldiers at Reed’s Bridge. General Forrest joined the Confederate Army as a private and earned the rank of Lieutenant General. He did not attend West Point like most of the Generals of the Civil War. He earned a reputation as a fighting man, and Soldiers respected him for his ability to move well in a saddle and use a Bowie Knife. The Union Soldiers wounded him in other battles that summer, but he stood ready and eager to fight on this September day.

General Forrest and his troops crossed Reed’s earlier and positioned the unit on the west side of the bridge. He had his troops mounted on their horses and ready to move forward. General Forrest thought he was at an advantage and moving stealthily. He then came under attack by Union forces under the command of General Brannan. The Union troops pushed General Bedford’s troops back. Reinforcements came and pushed Brannan’s troops back. This is how the Battle of Chickamauga started and it continued back and forth like this for the majority of the battle. [9]

General Rosecrans eventually gained an advantage but it did not last very long. The Confederate Army continued to press the Union lines. General Thomas was concerned about his ability to hold the left side of the line with his current troop strength. He requested more support from General Rosecrans. The commander eventually sent troops to support General Thomas. The troop movements to support General Thomas left a gaping hole in the Union lines. The gap would prove to be a fatal mistake for the Union Army. The Confederate Army exploited the opportunity and took the advantage from the Union Army.

The exploitation of the gap in the Union line led to the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga. This ended a long losing streak for the Confederacy. However, General Bragg did not press the advantage. He had sustained heavy casualties and decided to take the time to regroup. The Confederate Army was content to lay siege on the Union Army and starve them out of Chattanooga. [10]

The Beginning of the End

The Confederate Army blocked the supply lines to the Union Army, and almost starved them out of their position. However, General Bragg almost starved his own Army in the process due to a lack of needed supplies. General Wheeler embarked on a raid to secure supplies for the Confederate troops. The raid turned into a series of vicious attacks. Wheeler’s troops took supplies and conducted unthinkable acts. The Union reacted and drove them out of the area. Wheeler emerged victoriously, but it was a similar victory to the Battle of Chickamauga. Both sides received heavy loses. [11]

The raids upset the Union Army. The President brought in General Grant to take over for Rosecrans. General Grant accepted a plan from William Farrar “Baldy” Smith. Smith was a classmate of Grants from West Point. They designed a plan to open the supply lines and called it the Cracker line. The opening of the supply lines was a key element in changing the outlook of the war.

General Grant chose General Hooker to lead the mission. Hooker and his troops marched up to the Battle of Wauhatchie. Hooker won the battle and successfully opened up the supply lines. This was a clear sign that the Union owned the advantage and the Confederates had little chance of winning the war. General Grant and the Union Army now controlled the supplies to the south and could advance to Atlanta and onward to the Atlantic coast. The war was essentially over. [12]

Mistakes and Flaws in Strategy

General Rosecrans held a great advantage at the onset of the Battle of Chickamauga. He had more troops. His troops were better trained, and the morale of his Soldiers exceeded that of the Confederate troops. He enjoyed the upper hand and he still lost the Battle of Chickamauga. He lost the battle with one single mistake. He failed to shore up a fatal gap in his lines.

General Thomas needed reinforcements to help him hold his side of the skirmish line. He asked General Rosecrans for more troops. General Rosecrans refused. He held off on sending troops to General Thomas until he could no longer afford to. The concentration of Confederate attacks on the left side of the skirmish line where General Thomas’ troops were demanded attention. General Rosecrans decided to send troops to help hold the left side of the line. The attacks were intense and the line would not hold much longer. The troops had to move fast. In the haste to move troops to assist holding the left side of the line, a gap in the line developed. General Rosecrans did not know about the gap. A young Captain delivering a message from General Thomas noticed the gap and informed General Rosecrans. General Rosecrans did not believe that his line had a gap in it. Two more reports came in confirming the gap. He realized later that the gap did exist. When he realized his mistake, it was too late. The Confederate Soldiers had moved into the gap and continued to separate the Union lines. Nothing stood between the Confederate troops and Missionary Ridge. [13]

That mistake cost General Rosecrans the Battle of Chickamauga. It also cost him his career and reputation. He retreated with his army to Chattanooga. He lost a significant amount of men, which left his Army in disarray. He could not withstand another Confederate attack.

General Bragg had the opportunity to defeat what remained of General Rosecrans’ Union Army. He decided to change his strategy. He held his army outside of Chattanooga and blocked all of the supply lines in and out of the area. This change in strategy caused the Union Army difficulty, but it allowed the Union to regroup and mount its own attack. The change in strategy was a mistake and it cost the Confederacy the war. The Union Army marched to victory from Tennessee to Atlanta, and on to the Atlantic Ocean. One blind mistake by General Rosecrans and one wrong strategic decision by General Bragg determined the outcome of these two battles and the outcome of the Civil War. [14]

Heroes and Participants of the Battle

Braxton Bragg, William Starke Rosecrans, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, Leonidas Lafayette Polk, Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Bell Hood, James A. Garfield, and States Rights Gist are a few of the names of personnel that were at the battles for Tennessee which included the Battle of Chickamauga. Many of these men are famous and are recognizable for their great military contributions. Three of them have military installations named after them. However, while all of these men were present at these campaigns, not all of them were heroes. Many of them were consistently bad militarily. [15]

The Famous Ones

General Braxton Bragg has a long military history. He had proven himself in battle many times. He did not have a good record in the latest battles that he and his Army of Tennessee fought in late 1862 and far into 1863. General Bragg suffered losses at Stones River and again at the Tullahoma Campaign. He suffered losses at smaller battles throughout the spring and summer. The bright spot in 1863 was the Battle of Chickamauga. General Bragg emerged victoriously, but the troops under his command had already lost confidence in his abilities to win. General Bragg asked his subordinate commanders how they felt about him and his abilities. The subordinate commanders did not speak favorably. They expressed their discontent and their lack of confidence with him. They did not want to follow a leader that could not win. General Bragg listened to them but he did not step down from his position of General of the Army of Tennessee. General Bragg never gained the confidence of his Soldiers and subordinate commanders. He did however, have an Army installation in North Carolina named after him. Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has kept General Bragg’s name alive. Many Soldiers stationed there may not know that the man the post is named after never regained greatness in the eyes of his men. [16]

General Nathan Bedford Forrest fought at the Battle of Chickamauga and fought well in many other battles and campaigns. He earned a reputation for being a ferocious fighting man. He received notoriety for other accomplishments. He would later go on to lead the Ku Klux Klan as its first Grand Wizard. [17]

General William Starke Rosecrans fought well in the 1863 battles for Tennessee. He defeated General Bragg on most of those battles. The Soldiers in his units thought highly of him. He produced victories and was known for his planning, patience, and care for his Soldiers. General Rosecrans won more battles and out planned General Bragg through most of late 1862 and midway through 1863. He turned the war around for the Union and led the Union Army to much-needed victories. He received recognition for his accomplishments but he would never achieve the fame and notoriety of General Bragg. [18]

William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip (Little Phil) Sheridan fought with Rosecrans and Bragg and both had battle tanks named after them. They both performed well. Leonidas Lafayette Polk fought in the same area. He performed well and has an Army installation named after him too. General Joe Wheeler and General Joe Hooker both played a significant role in the Battle of Chickamauga, and the battle for Chattanooga. Their names are not as renown but their contributions to the Civil War made the outcome different. [19]

Conclusion

The Battle of Chickamauga was the Confederate victory that led to the defeat of the Confederate Army in the Civil War. General Bragg had superior troop strength. General Rosecrans had better momentum and morale. Neither General made effective use of the advantage they held. The Union Army won the battle because of mistakes, bad decisions, and luck. Indecision by General Bragg allowed the Union Army to regain its strength and inflict heavy losses on the Confederate Army. The Union Army marched through the Confederate Army after Chattanooga and on to Atlanta and the Atlantic Ocean. The Union Army controlled the supply lines and the war was soon over.

Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2019 Roger L. Craig and Michael Artis

Published online: 11/24/2019.

Written by Roger Craig and Michael Artis. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Roger Craig at: topsoldier84@gmail.com.

About the authors:
Roger L. Craig is a Sergeant Major and an Instructor at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy in the Department of Professional Studies. He holds a M.Ed. in Education from Pennsylvania State University.

Michael Artis is an Assistant Professor at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy in the Department of Professional Studies. He holds a M.Ed. in Education from Trident University in California.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.
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