Battle of Chickamauga
by Rick Byrd
The summer of 1863, the third year of the Civil War, found the Confederate
military situation becoming increasingly critical. The South had suffered a
series of devastating defeats that year, yet continued to fight on, boldly
hoping to somehow turn the tide of war back in their favor. The Union likewise
eagerly wished to exploit its military advantage in the wake of these
victories, and find some way to crush the rebels in order to force an end to
In the spring of 1863, Abraham Lincoln pressed Major General William Stark
Rosecrans, commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, to advance in concert
with General Ulysses S. Grant in Mississippi, and General Joseph Hooker in
Virginia. Lincoln's intention was to keep all of the Confederate armies engaged
by Union troops, so that one could not reinforce the other. He also wished to
"liberate" Eastern Tennessee, home of a large Southern Unionist population
which was loyal to the United States. Initially, Rosecrans was sluggish, and
delayed in moving against General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. To
Rosecrans, there were two mistakes commonly made in combat strategy which he
was diligent not to fall victim to. The first, was moving against an opposing
force before an army was ready. The second, was delaying the attack too long,
once an army was adequately equipped to stage an offensive. Giving attention to
the former concern, Rosecrans sent word to Washington D.C. that he needed more
reinforcements and supplies before he could stage a successful assault against
Bragg. These delays enabled Bragg, much to the mounting frustration of
President Lincoln, to send reinforcements to Mississippi in order to aid in the
defense of Vicksburg against Grant. This was precisely the situation the
president was seeking to avoid. The frustration of those in Washington with the
commander of the Army of the Cumberland became pronounced.
When Rosecrans finally moved against Braxton Bragg, in late June of 1863, his
careful preparation and planning paid off handsomely. Rosecrans succeeded in
confusing Bragg with a series of clever feints, and despite a consistent and
pouring rain, swiftly and almost bloodlessly swept him eastward, out of Middle
Tennessee. By early July, Bragg had retreated all the way back to Chattanooga
with barely a fight. In just over one week, Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland
had pushed back Bragg's Army of Tennessee over eighty miles, at a cost of only
570 Union casualties. It appeared to Rosecrans, however, that despite this
grand success, Lincoln was unimpressed with the campaign. Secretary of War
Edwin M. Stanton sent Rosecrans a message. He wanted him to move immediately to
deliver the coup de grace to the forces of the rebellion. Lee had been defeated
at Gettysburg, and Grant was victorious in Vicksburg. In his message, Stanton
asked the commanding general "Will you neglect this chance?" Rosecrans was
amazed. He wrote immediately back to Stanton: "You do not appear to observe the
fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from Middle Tennessee… I beg in
behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event
because it is not written in letters of blood".
Bragg himself agreed that Rosecrans' moves against him had been "a great
disaster" for the Confederates. His retreats had left the Federals poised at
the threshold of both Knoxville, home of many Southerners loyal to the Union,
and Chattanooga, important strategically because of its industries and its
railroad links to points throughout the Confederacy. Lincoln wanted no
hesitation in Rosecrans' pursuit of Bragg, hoping to defeat him before he had a
time to recover his strength following the chase from Middle Tennessee.
President Lincoln's intention was that General Ambrose Burnside was to move on
Rosecrans' left against General Simon Bolivar Buckner's Confederate corps
defending Knoxville, and Rosecrans was to push into Chattanooga and defeat the
Army of Tennessee. Bragg had been pushed back, but his army had not been
defeated. It was clear to the President and to all others that a major battle
would have to take place at some point in the very near future, before the
rebel forces had an opportunity to catch their breath. Yet Rosecrans, despite
the anxiety and protests of Lincoln and other officials in the administration,
delayed once again. He needed bridges and railroads to be repaired in the rear
of his army. He wanted his troops to be re-supplied and to have an opportunity
to rest. General-in-Chief Halleck ordered him throughout the entire month of
July to attack, yet the Army of the Cumberland would not be moved. Rosecrans
had decided, despite the mounting protests, to sit tight.
At last, on August 16, 1863, Rosecrans was ready to renew the campaign against
The Army of Tennessee. He moved with his 60,000 troops through the mountain
passes south of Chattanooga, again staging clever feints to the north which
confused Bragg as to the position of the enemy and it's strength. Burnside's
army, on his left, with 24,000 troops, seized Knoxville, its badly outnumbered
defenders, the men of Buckner's corps, falling back without firing a shot.
Buckner's retreating rebels linked with Bragg in Chattanooga on September 8,
just as he was withdrawing to northern Georgia. He had made this decision to
avoid entrapment by the Federals, which he knew at this point to be closing in
upon the town rapidly.
To aid Bragg against Rosecrans' initiative, Confederate President Jefferson C.
Davis ordered two of Joseph Johnston's divisions to northern Georgia from
Mississippi. He also ordered General Robert E. Lee to dispatch General James
Longstreet with two divisions to Bragg as well. Longstreet would be forced to
travel a round-a-bout route to arrive on-scene due to Burnside's occupation of
Knoxville, which created a long delay in moving troops to the region via rail.
Longstreet did not protest however, and according to many students of the
battle, the second-in-command in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia hoped that by
staging a success in northern Georgia, he could wrest command of the Army of
Tennessee away from its commander. Braxton Bragg, at this point in the war, was
increasingly sickly, indecisive, and unpopular with his men, and most
historians appear to agree that Longstreet felt he could do a much better job.
In the event, Longstreet would manage to get only 6,000 of his troops (roughly
half of those originally deployed to aid Bragg) into the battle, which was fast
approaching. Still, as we shall see, Longstreet's efforts, coupled with a bit
of astounding luck, would lead to one of the most remarkable Southern military
accomplishments of the entire war.
Twice in early September, 1863, Bragg attempted to seize the campaign's
initiative away from Rosecrans. On September 9-10, Bragg's army was positioned
close to the Union's XIV Corps under Major General George H. Thomas, which was
isolated from the XXI Corps of Major General Thomas L. Crittenden, and the XX
Corps of Major General Alexander McCook. Bragg ordered Lieutenant General D.H.
Hill and Major General Thomas C. Hindman to attack Thomas. Yet Hill and Hindman
had long been angry with Bragg, distrusted him, and believed that any plan
conceived by him was doomed to failure. As has been noted, Bragg was often in
ill health, and his indecisiveness, along with his growing reputation for
blaming his failures on subordinates after-the-fact, didn't exactly endear him
to his men or inspire their confidence. Both Hill and Hindman succeeded in
finding ways to circumvent their orders. Hindman, for example, convinced
himself falsely that he was badly outnumbered and refused to comply with his
orders. Hill sent a laundry list of reasons to Bragg explaining why he could
not seize the initiative and attack. Bragg meekly accepted Hill's excuses, but
his insubordination, as will be seen, would perhaps come back to haunt him on
the battlefield at Chickamauga. Bragg, a man that history has traditionally not
been very kind to, was not to blame for the Confederate failure in this
particular case, however. With the excuses and foot dragging of both Hill and
Hindman a valuable chance to destroy all, or at least a significant part, of
Thomas's corps, slipped away.
Ironically, opportunity knocked again for Bragg a few days later. Occasions
when a commander catches his enemy weak and isolated on the eve of a major
attack are rare; a second chance at such a fluke is virtually unprecedented.
Yet on September 12, a similar situation presented itself. This time, it was
Crittenden's XXI Corps that was isolated to the north. Bragg gave orders to
Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk and Major General Simon B. Buckner to attack
Crittenden and destroy his corps. Buckner and Polk, however, were no more
confident in Bragg than Hindman or Hill had been. The generals delayed, and did
not stage an attack against the Union forces. The second chance in as many days
at virtual certain victory against Rosecrans for the Army of Tennessee slipped
silently away into the mists of history. There would be no third chance. As
Rosecrans realized the danger of his spread out forces, he moved them
northward, toward Chattanooga, along the west bank of Chickamauga Creek,
anchoring his left at Lee and Gordon's Mill. Translated from Cherokee, the word
"Chickamauga" means "River of Death". In just seven days, its name would
acquire a meaning horrifically literal.
The Gathering of the Forces
By September 18, Bragg had shaken off his characteristic indecision, and
with his subordinate generals managed to forge a definitive battle plan. Bragg
wanted to attack east, against Crittenden's XXI Corps anchoring the Federal
extreme left at Lee and Gordon's Mill. Once the assault turned the Federal
left, Bragg would force a frontal attack from the north. This would place the
Army of Tennessee between Rosecrans and Chattanooga, effectively cutting them
off from the city. Following this, he would back the Army of the Cumberland
southward into McClemore's Cove, a mountain valley which offered no roads or
viable exit of retreat. Here, Bragg believed, he could annihilate Rosecrans'
forces. In order for the plan to succeed however, he would have to cross
Chickamauga Creek rapidly, seizing the well maintained La Fayette road, which
was Crittenden's natural route of withdrawal, and preferably also the Dry
Valley road (which at the time of the battle was more like a wide trail than a
The terrain in the area of Chickamauga Creek had once been a hunting ground for
Cherokee Indians. As the Indians were forced from the area by President Andrew
Jackson via the "Trail of Tears", settlers began to arrive in the area in the
late 1830's. Most lived life-styles that were Spartan, doing the bare minimum
needed for the survival of their families. They built one or two room cabins,
with some farmers adding a rare barn or other out-building in the scrubby
cornfields scattered throughout the area. The most prominent structure for
miles around was the Gordon-Lee mansion, built by James Gordon, who with his
partner James Lee, operated Lee and Gordon's Mill. Otherwise, the area was
heavily forested with thick woods which were (and are to the present day)
tangled with a dense undergrowth. In the areas where farmers had allowed their
hogs and cattle to graze freely in the woods, visibility might exceed 100
yards. In most places however, the woods and underbrush cut visibility to
practically zero. It was a terrain forbidding not only to its inhabitants, but
to the commanding generals as well. Neither Bragg nor Rosecrans desired to
fight a battle there. Fate would dictate otherwise.
On September 18, 1863 Bragg, initiating his effort to turn the Union left,
selected Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson's division, on the Confederate
right, to attack across Reed's Bridge, thereby placing his command on the west
side of Chickamauga Creek. Previous orders delayed the attack, as Johnson was
forced to execute a countermarch prior to striking the Union forces at Reed's
Bridge. Attacking in the center would be Major General William H.T. Walker's
Corps, and on the left would be General Simon Buckner's Corps. Buckner reached
the creek at 2:00 p.m., and pushed back the Federal detachment at Thedford's
Ford. He heard no word from Walker on his right however, and after moving only
a few of his troops to the west side of the creek, decided to bivouac the rest
of his corps on the east side of the Chickamauga for the remainder of the
To the north, at Reed's Bridge, Bushrod Johnson, attacking on the Confederate
right, was having a more difficult time. Federal cavalry, led by Colonel Robert
H.G. Minty, blocked his approach to the bridge. In the center, further south,
Walker, who attacked with the brigades of Brigadier General Edward C. Walthall
and Colonel Daniel Govan, found the approach to Alexander's Bridge blocked not
only by Federal cavalry, but also by Colonel John T. Wilders "Lightning"
Brigade, armed with the deadly 7-shot Spencer repeating rifles. Wilder also had
four cannon's from Eli Lilly's battery which opened up on the Confederates as
they approached. Badly outnumbered, Wilder knew it was only a matter of a short
time before the rebels forced him to withdraw, yet he intended to delay the
inevitable as long as he possibly could.
The first Confederate artillery shell fired toward Wilder's men at Alexander's
Bridge seemed as though it would never arrive, as it sped toward the Federals
with an "awful, unearthly, screeching…", recalled artillerist Henry Campbell.
"We all knew from the sound of it, that it would strike some place close by".
At last, the shell tore through the tree tops, bounced in front of gun #2,
ricocheted off the corner of the nearby Alexander cabin, finally landing amid
the terrified artillerymen with the fuse still sizzling away. A very
cool-headed Private Sidney Speed quickly reached down, grabbed it, and tossed
the shell over the cabin where it burst harmlessly on the other side. Following
the event, Private Speed was cited for gallantry (Cozzens, 1992).
Walthall, who was originally from a plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi,
was known as a very brave brigade commander and here, along with Govan, showed
great determination under fire, as always. However, after four hours of
fighting on the 18th, Walker's men had little to show for their efforts. Before
Wilder's men withdrew, they pulled up the planking from the bridge and set it
on fire. Many years after the war, Walker's chief of staff, Captain Joseph
Cumming, had an opportunity to kid with Wilder about the event. Wilder was
inclined to take things quite seriously by nature. Cumming opened by "remarking
casually 'General, when you and I opened the battle of Chickamauga, and we
whipped you down there at Alexander's Bridge…' [Wilder] replied with heat: 'I
whipped you!' 'Why then,' I asked, 'did you run away and leave the bridge?' 'I
didn't run away. I destroyed the bridge and then moved off to whip some more of
you at another place.' There was much truth in the old fighters statement,"
Cumming admitted (Cozzens, 1992). Before he withdrew, Wilder managed to inflict
over 100 rebel casualties at Alexander's Bridge, with the loss of only one man.
By destroying the bridge, Wilder forced Walker's troops, amid much grumbling,
to cross the numbing waters of the Chickamauga at Lambert's Ford, more than a
mile to the north.
Major General John Bell Hood, his arm still in a sling from a wound he received
during the fighting at Gettysburg, joined Johnson's force in the late
afternoon, throwing in three more brigades to the fighting at Reed's Bridge.
There, the rebels staged an attack across the creek which eventually forced
back Minty's Federal horsemen. Still, by dusk on September 18, Bragg had
managed to get only 9,000 troops across the Chickamauga. It was an amazing
night, filled with great anxiety and fear. As the land grew dark that evening,
the air turned frigid. The temperature dipped below freezing, and a glistening
glaze of frost settled over the ground. The night was clear, and thousands of
sounds for many miles could be heard by the Federal troops who lay awake that
evening. Confederates were working hard getting into place, repairing bridges,
cutting down trees, digging trails, and building defenses. They heard the
endless rumble of moving artillery and ammunition trains, and the shuffling of
thousands of soldiers through the woods. Few slept that night, and all were
certain that the next day would usher in a brutal engagement.
Confederate crossings of the Chickamauga continued throughout the night along
the entire line. Unknown to William Rosecrans, by dawn, nearly the entire
Confederate Army was on the heavily forested west bank of the creek, a position
which threatened the Federals with a large scale attack. Conversely,
unbeknownst to Bragg, Rosecrans began to suspect a move to turn his left. He
sent Thomas's XIVCorps, around Crittenden, with orders to march his troops
northward. By the clear, brisk autumnal dawn of September 19th, Rosecrans had
the divisions of Brigadier Generals Absalom Baird and John Brannan in position
near the Kelly Field along the La Fayette road, with the divisions of Generals
John Reynolds and James Scott Negley on the march northward to join them. Bragg
did not suspect that Rosecrans left was no longer at Lee and Gordon's Mill.
Indeed, the nocturnal maneuvering of Rosecrans now actually placed Federal
troops beyond the Confederate right. In a sense, both of the commanding
generals were groping around in the dark throughout the night trying to discern
the positions of their enemy. Neither was successful.
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.