by Rick Byrd
As darkness fell on September 20, 1863, 34,624 men had fallen at Chickamauga;
18,454 Confederates, and 16,170 Federals. That night, many of the Federal
wounded who were conscious, desperately tried to crawl their way to reach the
line of retreat in order to evade capture. The road to Rossville was jammed
solid with an endless column of Union troops, horses, and equipment making
their bitter procession northward. The moon was bright that evening, and off to
the side of the road, some witnessed men stopping to bend over and aid a
wounded comrade. Some also halted and wept over corpses, others actually
struggling to carry the dead and wounded along with them. Most of these injured
men had no one to help them though, and many who made it this far simply
collapsed and died alone by the roadside. By midnight, the retreat column had
passed. Those who were still alive faced tremendous horror as they realized
that there was no one to help them, no one coming for them, and in a few
minutes, perhaps a few hours, they too would be dead. Beatty saw a man with his
bowels hanging out, screaming for Jesus to come and take mercy on his soul. He
wrote: "What multitudes of thought were then crossing into the narrow half hour
which he had yet to live - what regrets, what hopes, what fears! The sky was
darkening, earth fading, wealth, power, fame, the prizes most esteemed by men,
were as nothing". Back on the battlefield, William Gale was atop his horse that
evening. He wrote, "For two hours I rode around and among our men… most of the
time in dense forest of pine and oak. The moon was shining as clear as possible
and gave a most unearthly appearance to this horrid scene. Wounded, dying, and
dead men and horses were strewn around me and under me everywhere, for the
field was yet hot and smoking from the last charge, and thousands were lying
insensible, or in agony… I can never forget the horrid indecency of death that
was fixed on their agonized faces, upturned in the pale moonlight, as I spurred
my horse in and around their prostrate forms". At Horseshoe Ridge, the mortally
wounded were placed in rail pens to keep the animals from getting to them, yet
the boars in the area helped themselves to a feast of amputated limbs stacked
nearby. (Cozzens, 1992)
The idea that the Confederates would pursue was ripe in the minds of the Union
commanders, as they made their way through Rossville. Yet Braxton Bragg had no
intention of pursuing that night, or even the following day. Indeed, Bragg had
gone to bed that evening convinced that the Federals were still present on the
field, and he felt he would have another fight on his hands the next morning.
Incredibly, evidence reveals that Longstreet wasn't aware that the Federals had
quit the field either, although later, he would claim otherwise. It was well
into the next morning before the Confederate's could verify the position of the
Union forces with a certainty that would satisfy them. The rebel decision not
to pursue Rosecrans immediately and complete the Army of the Cumberland's
destruction seems a terrible mistake on Bragg's part, and is a controversy
still debated to this day. As for Rosecrans, he made his way back to
Chattanooga, where he was so fatigued and distraught over what he had seen that
he had to be physically helped from his horse, whereupon he fell upon his knees
and wept. Rosecrans lost his command shortly after Chickamauga, being replaced
by General George Thomas, The "Rock of Chickamauga, when General Ulysses S.
Grant assumed command of all forces in eastern Tennessee. Also on the Union
side, McCook and Crittenden lost their commands after Chickamauga. On the
Confederate side Polk, Hill, and Hindman, were relieved from duty as well.
Bragg, a good friend of Confederate President Jefferson C. Davis, managed to
keep his command, despite vigorous efforts from his subordinates to have him
sacked following the battle.
Although Bragg eventually laid siege to Chattanooga, the Federals would get
even with him following an attack along a rugged stretch of hill known as
Missionary Ridge in November, 1863. However, it would take the combined efforts
of Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Thomas, and tens of thousands of bitter Union troops
to get the job done. The Battle of Chickamauga, despite it's ferocious and
bloody outcome, was fought without either side gaining anything of significance
for their effort. After the war, General Polk wrote that Chickamauga was a
"barren victory" for the South, and indeed it was. The rebel yells that echoed
through the fields and forests and ridges of Chickamauga proved the beginning
of a long and mournful swan-song for the Confederacy. Still, the war would
continue for two more murderous years...
Copyright © 2001 Richard A. Byrd.
Written by Richard A. Byrd.
Published online: 04/09/2001.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.