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Battle of Chickamauga
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...

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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.
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