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Battle of Chickamauga
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 the war.

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 proper road).

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 evening.

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.

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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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