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Battle of Chickamauga
Battle of Chickamauga - Part 1
by Rick Byrd

The First Day of Battle - Saturday, September 19, 1863

Following the fighting at Reed's Bridge the day before, Thomas was notified that a lone Confederate brigade had crossed and made camp on the west side of Chickamauga Creek, in the vicinity of the bridge. Thomas ordered Brannan, on the left of the XIV Corps position, to send troops to crush the isolated Confederates. Brannan dispatched the very capable Colonel John T. Croxton and his brigade for the task, ordering him forward in the direction of Reed's Bridge. Very soon, as Croxton moved along to the east, he became engaged with Nathan Bedford Forrest's rebel cavalry brigade. For a short time, Croxton managed well, and he put up an admirable scrap, but he was soon driven back when Walker's Corps slammed into the Federals with a fierce advance. Croxton and his men were completely surprised at the fierceness of the attack. In the midst of the sudden and intense fighting, he stole a moment and penned a dryly humorous note to Thomas. "Which rebel brigade was it…" he asked, that he was "…supposed to capture?" Brannan managed to deploy the rest of his division toward the bridge to assist Croxton, and soon, all of the badly outnumbered Federal troops were engaged against Walker. The stage was set. Bragg's force of 68,000 Confederates would now be engaged against Rosecrans 58,000 Federals in the bloodiest and most desperate two days of the entire war. The Battle of Chickamauga had begun.

In the frenzy and chaos of the opening moments of the battle, Thomas, recognizing the considerable threat to his men, knew he must stabilize his line immediately. He threw Absalom Baird's division into the fray to accomplish the task. Walker reciprocated, calling for General St. John Liddell's division to assist the rebels. With that, Walker gained the upper hand. Soon the men of his corps had driven the Federals back to their initial starting point upon the Lafayette Road near the Kelly Field. To add insult to injury, the retreat was forced under an intense fire. Present on the field here was Lieutenant George Van Pelt, of the 1st Michigan battery, with six guns. As his infantry support melted away in the rain of shot and shell, and despite orders to pull back, Van Pelt stood his ground, valiantly firing on the Confederates in an effort to delay their advance. The price of Van Pelt's bravery was high. Eventually Liddell's men captured 5 of his 6 guns. Van Pelt was killed.

Meanwhile, Thomas was frantically looking southwards for any sign of the divisions of Negley and Reynolds which, despite have been ordered to support him, had not yet arrived. Thomas appealed to Rosecrans for immediate help, and the commanding general dispatched the division of General Richard Johnson to his aid. As Johnson's division approached, their formations were broken up by a sudden rush of Federal troops, which had been engaged in the earlier fighting, retreating through their lines. Johnson's fresh men poured into the ever weakening Walker, who was in turn reinforced by the division of Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham. The usually serene Georgia forest was now a hell on earth, as more and more troops were thrown piecemeal into the battle. Horses ran riderless in every direction. The crescendo of musket fire, the booming of artillery, the screams of the injured and dying and determined, reached deafening proportions. The dead and wounded were stretched out along the creek over half a mile. One observer of the fighting here wrote that the dead were stacked in ricks, like cordwood, to make room for the columns as they advanced.

Just after 1:00 p.m., September 19, 1863, Rosecrans decided to relocate his headquarters, which up to this time had been at the Gordon-Lee mansion, in an effort to be closer to the fighting. He chose the small cottage of a young widow named Eliza Glenn. Despite being closer to the fighting here, Rosecrans could see nothing of the battle or the terrain due to the thickness of the forest. Only the noise of the growing engagement, poor maps, and reports from the commanders engaged in the fighting would guide his decisions. To make matters worse, as the afternoon wore on, the battle drifted further and further to the south, closer to Rosecrans' position. The Widow Glenn house began to shake, so great was the noise of battle growing at the new headquarters. Soon, the occupants would have to shout at the top of their lungs in order to be heard over the den of the fighting.

Around 2:30 p.m., Major General Alexander P. Stewart's division arrived in line to Cheatham's left. He immediately staged an assault that crashed into the division of Brigadier General Horatio Van Cleve. Engaged but a short time, Van Cleve was driven to the west, across the La Fayette road, and beyond the farm house and fields owned by George Brotherton. The rebels were now poised to gain the La Fayette Road. The fighting grew murderous. One of Stewart's brigades lost 604 men in mere minutes, equaling 1 out of every 3 men. At this moment, the divisions of Negley and Reynolds were rushing behind Van Cleve in their effort to reinforce Thomas to the north. They found they had arrived just in the nick of time. With Negley in reserve, Reynolds joined Van Cleve just as the rebels seized the road. The situation was now turning critical for the Union. Not only did Confederate possession of the La Fayette road mean that Thomas was cut-off from Crittenden to the south, their push in the direction of the Glen-Kelley road to the west, threatened to cut the route between field headquarters and Chattanooga as well. 
Reynolds managed to get into line with Van Cleve, just as Stewart was making another push. The fire became virtually one consistent volley all along the entire line. Hood, who had been waiting most of the afternoon to get into the fight, was eventually ordered to bring forward the divisions of Brigadier General Evander McIver Law and that of Bushrod Johnson to join Stewart in his assault upon the Federal right. Two Federal brigades of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis were caught with both flanks in the air. His regimental lines began to give way, from north to south. On the right, just north of the West Viniard Field, Colonel Hans Christian Heg led the men of his brigade in the fighting here. 

Heg, from Norway, had come to a Norwegian settlement in Wisconsin, then moved to California where he spent two years panning for gold with the forty-niners, before he was forced to return to Wisconsin in order to raise his younger siblings after they were orphaned following his father's death. There, he took a wife and settled down to a farm, eventually entering state politics, before signing on with the Union army to serve in the war. Heg was a strict disciplinarian, but was well respected by his troops. Now, upon the northern end of the West Viniard Field at Chickamauga, as his line began to wither under the intense fire, Heg was mortally wounded, just west of the La Fayette Road. He lay in a tent at the Federal field hospital at the Gordon-Lee mansion for long hours before he died early on the following morning. The surgeon of the 15th Wisconsin, 31 year old Stephen Himoe, intently watched the suffering Heg throughout the night, until death claimed him. He had a special interest in the colonel, as Himoe was married to Heg's sister. Himoe and Heg were close friends and tent mates, and his wife and children had gone to live with Mrs. Heg at the outbreak of the war. Those who called upon him at the tent to inquire of his condition wept like children when they learned of his death. Back in the Viniard Field, Heg's brigade had lost more than their colonel. 696 of his men were killed or wounded in the fighting that afternoon (Cozzens, 1992).

Near 4:00 p.m., Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood moved his division into the gap which formed on Davis' right. Now, it was Hood who was outflanked. The brigades of Colonel Charles Harker and Colonel George P. Buell, backed by Wilder's Lightening Brigade, engaged the brigades of Brigadier General Jerome Robertson and Colonel Robert C. Trigg in the Viniard Field. Johnson's men took heavy fire on their left flank from Elli Lilly's Federal battery. A shallow ditch running along the La Fayette road seemed to offer a bit of shelter to the Confederates on this part of the field. Yet the Federal cannons had established an enfilading fire here, and the result was a massacre. The rebels were slaughtered. In a few quick minutes, the ditch became filled with the dead and wounded. "It actually seemed a pity to kill men so," wrote Wilder after the battle. "They fell in heaps…" (Cozzens, 1992).

In the late afternoon, the division of General Philip Sheridan was added to Wilder's line. Sheridan renewed the assault, but was soon repulsed by the Confederates. As his men approached the line of battle and moved forward, the lead officers boastfully called out to those ragged figures already engaged, "Make way for Sheridan! Make way for Sheridan!" they shouted. In minutes they came rushing in a frenzy back through the lines, with the rebel's breath hot on their backs. Wilder's troops taunted Sheridan's men as they passed in retreat shouting "Make way for Sheridan! Make way for Sheridan!" (Cozzens, 1992). Confusion and horror ruled the day. From Reed's Bridge and Alexander's Bridge, in places like the Brotherton Field, the Brock Field, the Winfrey Field, and the Viniard Field, the ground, littered with the dead and wounded, was soaked in blood. 

Meanwhile, up the La Fayette road to the north, the situation was no better for the Union. Around 4:30 p.m., the Confederate brigades of Brigadier General William B. Bate and Brigadier General Henry D. Clayton, were crashing westwards through the Federal center at Brotherton Field. Their success however, would be just as hollow as many another that day, for there were no reinforcements available to support their gains. Due to the chaos and frenzy of battle, neither general had a full grip over their troops, and regimental commanders played a very large part in directing the men in their actions along this part of the field that afternoon. Clayton's men crested the ridge in the Brotherton Field and, caught up in the momentum of the assault, chased a group of retreating Federals northwest into the Dyer field. Luckily, they met with little resistance. Bate, for his part, remained with the regiments to the right of his brigade, in the dense woods east of the Brotherton Field. He faced the men north and moved them, in what has been described by some as a "reckless" pursuit, and attempted to push the Federals northward, across a field owned by the Poe family. 

Shortly before the assault, as Bate's Confederates were rushing through the woods, Brigadier General William B. Hazen worked furiously to find some ground upon which to make a stand against the rebels. He stopped in the forest on either side of the La Fayette road, to the north-west and north of the Poe field. Hazen unlimbered the six guns attached to his brigade, and was joined by the batteries of Lieutenant Giles Cockerill, Lieutenant Harry Cushing, and Lieutenant Francis Russel. As Hazen went about his work, Reynold's hurriedly collected stragglers from a patchwork of regiments whose men were hurrying willy-nilly through the woods, to lend infantry support to the guns. This last move was however, quite unnecessary. Hazen had assembled a total of 20 cannons loaded with cannister. They were concealed in a tree line to the north-west of the field across the La Fayette road. All of the guns were aimed to fire directly into the field, an area 200 yards wide, and roughly 400 yards long.

At 5:00 p.m., Bate moved 600 men from three regiments into the field from the south. In the long shadows of the fading afternoon sunlight, the silent, quick, brilliant orange flames of muzzle flashes licked out at the soldiers a split second before the tremendous roar of the guns thundered across the level field. Men fell at the rate of one per second. In just over three minutes, 180 men were cut down, and Bate was forced to withdraw. The famous American writer, Ambrose Bierce, was present on the field here. He stood transfixed from behind the batteries watching the massacre unfold before him. At first he could hear nothing but the deafening booms of the cannons, and could see nothing through the thick blanket of white smoke. Then, faintly at first, and becoming clearer as the wisps of smoke thinned, he saw the rebels lying in the field, covered by a shroud of yellow dust. One gunner remarked as he surveyed the scene, "We bury our dead" (Cozzens, 1992: Woodworth 1999).

As the sun began to set upon the stage of the day's massacre, General Thomas began making plans for the attack he was certain would come the next morning. Yet all was not finished for day. In the gathering darkness, General Patrick Cleburne's division, which had moved northward throughout the afternoon, crossed the Chickamauga in icy, arm-pit deep water at Thedford's Ford in order to stage a rare night assault. He wished to attack while the Federals in this sector were weakened and confused, thereby denying them the chance to get reinforcements and build defenses.

As a curtain of darkness began to descend on the battlefield, around 6:00 p.m, Thomas grew concerned about the advanced positions near the Winfrey field of Baird and Johnson's men in Colonel Philemon Baldwin's and Brigadier General August Willich's brigades. Thomas wished to pull them back about a ½ mile to the west, to an area closer to the La Fayette Road, just east of the Kelly field. Just prior to this, Polk had been planning an attack the that was to include Cleburne in line behind Cheatham and Liddell poised to strike precisely upon the place from which Johnson and Baird were preparing to withdraw. According to the plan, Cleburne's men would advance over Cheatham, whose men would follow in support. Liddell's men, who like Cheatham's were badly weakened after fighting most of the afternoon, were relegated to the role of on-lookers. They had botched an attack in this same field a few hours earlier, and Polk knew better than to include them in any crucial role associated with the night attack.

The bitter irony in all of this is that, not only was the attack Cleburne was to make badly planned, it was also totally unnecessary. Thomas had already made his mind up to withdraw Baird and Johnson's men precisely to the point where Cleburne hoped to push them in the attack. Yet before the blue coats could be withdrawn, Baird heard the "the sound of a fierce battle in front…".

Brigadier General S.A.M. Wood's brigade, joined by the brigades of Brigadier General Lucious Polk (Leonidas Polk's nephew) on the right and Brigadier General James Deshler on the left, swept westward into the Winfrey field. One soldier attached to the 18th Alabama infantry wrote that the day ended as it began, in "one solid, unbroken wave of awe inspiring sound. It seemed as if all the fires of heaven and hell had been turned loose in one mighty effort to destroy each other". Wood had the sad task of crossing the field in the wide open, and despite the velvet darkness amid the forested areas bordering the field, there was enough light for the Union troops to see where they were firing and check Wood's advance for a time. The darkness increased the tension of men on both sides, and the firing was wild and rapid. The Confederates only had the muzzle flashes from the Federal guns to guide them in their fire. Many of the Union troops over-shot the rebels in the darkness. The fighting grew in intensity, until it reached an almost surreal crescendo. One of the division historians who witnessed the battle would later write that it was "probably one of the most furious battles that has occurred during the war." The fighting continued in what sounded like one consistent roar for 30 minutes. The woods were ablaze, shot whizzed around the soldiers who lay in the open field like hail stones, shells exploded with tremendous fury, and a dense smoke settled upon the field which, coupled with the darkness, made it literally impossible to see anything. The fight was brief but vicious. In places, the fighting was hand to hand. Men in the Union lines amid the chaos, fired into the backs of other Union troops in front of them, killing and wounding many by what is called today "friendly fire". In barely forty minutes however, the fight was over, and a ghostly silence descended upon the field.

The darkness of the night, while ushering an end to the fighting, also escorted a companion that many would later say was worse than the day's fighting had been. All throughout the fields and woods of the area, lay thousands of wounded and dead. Although litter bearers worked feverishly through the night, many of the injured could not be reached. Hundreds remained conscious and yelled out in the darkness for their Mother, or for water, or for death to come and take them. The screams of these men could be heard for miles around. The temperature dropped below freezing and all night long mean screamed out in pain, moaning in the cold, some calling out to their friends by name, begging them to come out into the fields and help them. The troops in the lines of both sides remained vigilant though, and efforts to help the injured men, although well intentioned, were fruitless and deadly. The least movement forward from the lines drew a heavy, almost instantaneous fire. There was nothing to do but shiver through the darkness, attempt to shut-out the screams of the wounded, pray, and contemplate the horrors that the dawn was sure to bring.

The night of September 19th, 1863 was one of furious activity. Both sides marched and counter-marched troops in order to gain a better position upon the field. The sound of axes cutting trees confirmed that defenses were being rapidly constructed. Perhaps the Union troops had the worst time of it, as included in their considerable list of difficulties, was the fact that there were no close sources of water. Most suffered from tremendous thirst. The Union commanders realized that their position was an extremely critical one. An offensive was out of the question. Rosecrans called a council of war at the Widow Glenn house that evening, where a decision was made to mount a defense of the positions along the axis of the La Fayette road on the 20th. Perhaps Bragg, as he had done in the past, would fight himself out and withdraw, although such a proposition seemed unlikely. The focal concern continued to be the Union left. Thomas was to hold where he was, east of the Kelly Field, with three divisions of his own corps, in addition to that of Johnson's division of the XX Corps, and Palmers division of the XXI Corps, the objective being to hold the La Fayette Road to prevent the Confederates from getting between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. His position resembled a backward "C", starting on its north end, very near the intersection of the La Fayette Road with Alexander's Bridge Road, then curving east, then south, then west again, terminating in an area north and west of the Poe field. Following the evenings conference, McCook, who was a talented vocalist, sang a mournful ballad while an exhausted Thomas dozed in a nearby chair. Rosecrans, who was used to talking excitedly with his subordinates into the wee-hours of the night, did not sleep. He paced up and down in front of the Widow Glenn cabin munching hard tack and sipping tea, looking pensively off to the east. He was at this point thoroughly exhausted, and many students of the battle have concluded that his fatigue was now beginning to negatively affect his decision making. On the following day, this fatigue, along with the quick decisions he would be required to make in the face of ordering troops about the field whose commands were hopelessly entangled, would play a role in leading to an event which would produce disastrous results for Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland.

On the Confederate side of the front that evening, confusion reigned supreme. Cozzen's aptly refers to the events that evening behind the rebel lines as a "comedy of errors". Near 2:00 p.m, on the 19th, as the battle raged up and down the La Fayette Road at Chickamauga, General Longstreet arrived at Catoosa Station, outside of Ringgold, Georgia with the remainder of the forces from Virginia. He was in a foul mood, as there had been no escort from Bragg on hand to personally greet him and guide him to headquarters. Longstreet waited at the station with the members of his personal staff, Lieutenant Colonels Moxley Sorrell and P.T. Manning, until their horses arrived on a later train, around 4:00 p.m. They decided to ride off on their own in an effort to locate Bragg. Although Sorrell would later write that the failure of Bragg to send a party to greet Longstreet was a "sorry reception for the celebrated second-in-command of the Army of Northern Virginia…", it would also have almost devastating consequences. Near sunset the trio, which had turned off the road and was travelling through the dense forest, entered the vicinity of a Union picket line by mistake. They were detected by a voice which called out asking "who's there?". Although Longstreet attempted to bluff his way out of the tangle by answering that it was "a friend", the group was fired upon. They hurried off in search of another route with which to find Bragg, all three cussing the commander of the Army of Tennessee as they rode off in the wake of this very close call. That the men managed to escape injury or death is amazing.

Polk was the first of the commanders to arrive at the Thedford's Ford headquarters for a meeting with Bragg around 9:00 p.m. Bragg revealed incredible news to Polk. He had decided to completely reorganize his entire force. Why Bragg made the decision remains unclear, but it is obvious that the choice to reshuffle the structure of his army in the midst of a terrific battle, when the commanders were fatigued, could only add to the confusion. Nevertheless, the plan now was that the army would be divided into two wings. Polk would command the Right Wing with Cheatham's division of his own corps, Cleburne's division of Hill's corps, and Walkers entire corps, as well as that of Major General John C. Breckenridge. Longstreet would command the Left Wing, his force comprising Hindman's division of Polk's corps, Buckner's corps, Bushrod Johnson's division, and Longstreet's own corps (commanded by Hood). Additionally, Longstreet would also have three battalions of artillery in his wing. But what of D.H. Hill? Since there were three Lieutenant Generals now on-scene (Longstreet, Polk, and Hill), and the army was divided into only two wings, Hill was relegated as a corps commander under Polk, the equivalent of not having a command at all. Some students of the battle believe that placing Hill in such a position was Bragg's way of getting even with him for his insubordination and failure to cooperate with Hindman to stage the attack at McLemore's Cove earlier in the month, yet this is debated even today.

Bragg told Polk that he was to attack at dawn with Hill's men, on the extreme right of the army. Each brigade would then attack, immediately after the left of the brigade to the right had pushed forward, this being thought to be the best way to advance in the heavily forested region where, as has been noted, visibility was extremely limited. Incredibly, Bragg gave Polk only verbal orders, not one of the items Bragg discussed with him was put in writing. Polk asked for reinforcements for the right, but Bragg denied the request. When confident that Polk understood his orders, Bragg dismissed him.
Next to arrive at Bragg's headquarters was John Bell Hood, who showed up just before Polk was about to depart. Hood commented later that the tone of those he met was not very sanguine, which to be sure he found discouraging. He saw Breckenridge, his friend since childhood, sitting under a tree, but Hood's efforts to engage his friend in conversation met with no success. Hood ate a late supper, and slept that night upon a pile of leaves, shivering in the frigid air.

Longstreet finally arrived at headquarters around 11:00 p.m., seven hours after leaving Catoosa Station. Bragg was asleep, and it should be noted, had retired amazingly without giving Hill any notification of the role his divisions were to play in opening the attack. Instead, he apparently felt comfortable leaving the task to notify Hill to Polk. Nor had Bragg taken any effort to make sure that the proper preparations were being made during the night to carry out the orders he had given Polk. Bragg was awakened and shared his plans for the battle with Longstreet over a crude map of the area. Incredibly, Longstreet made no effort to share the information he gleaned from Bragg regarding the upcoming attack with either Hood or Buckner, who would be commanding corps in his (Longstreet's) wing. Following the meeting, Longstreet made a bed out of some branches covered with blankets, and went to sleep.

And what of Hill's whereabouts? He was in the vicinity of Cleburne's line until after 11:00 p.m., when it dawned on him that he had received no orders for the following day, and might better go and see what Bragg wanted him to do. He heard from stragglers in the area that Breckenridge's men had moved northward, and he sent an aide to find him and order him into position on Cleburne's right. As Hill rode on into the dark forest with his staff officer, he became lost. When he eventually arrived at Thedford's Ford well after midnight, he could not, for reasons that are unclear, locate Bragg's headquarters.

Earlier, after the meeting with Bragg, Polk had run into Colonel Archer Anderson, Hill's chief of staff. It is believed that Polk told Anderson that he wanted to see Hill at his headquarters, which was located somewhere near Alexander's Bridge (the actual location of Polk's headquarters is still debated to the present day). He told Anderson that he would have men posted to guide Hill to his camp. Polk also allegedly discussed the positioning of Breckenridge with Anderson. When Polk told him to have Hill place Breckenridge in support of Cleburne, Anderson revealed that Hill preferred to have him on Cleburne's right. In that case, Polk said, Hill could place Breckenridge where he liked. Almost unbelievably, Polk said nothing of the planned daylight attack to Anderson. He also had not written anything down for Anderson to deliver to Hill, nor did he offer to go with him to meet with Hill personally. The two men separated.

Anderson happened upon Hill at Thedford's Ford, shortly after he and his aide had given up on locating Bragg. He told Hill the news that his corps was now under Polk's command. He also gave him word that Polk wanted to see him at his Alexander's Bridge headquarters. Perhaps because he was tired, and perhaps because he was a bit angry at Bragg for placing his forces under the command of Polk, Hill made the highly irresponsible decision to delay reporting to Polk, and went to sleep.

As for Polk, even though he had seen Breckenridge that evening, he mentioned not one word about the upcoming first-light attack, saying only that he intended to extend Cleburne's right. Polk did dictate orders for the attack at 11:30 p.m. which called for Hill to attack on the right at dawn, immediately joined by Cheatham on Hill's left, with Walkers corps in reserve. Walker received his orders from Polk personally when he stopped by his [Polk's] headquarters. A runner was dispatched to give Cheatham his orders. At 1:00 a.m., Polk also sent the written orders out to Hill. Yet John Fisher, the man given the task of delivering the papers to Hill, could not find him. He claimed he rode about in every direction for four hours, questioning everyone he came into contact with as to Hill's whereabouts to no avail. Cold and frustrated, he returned to Polk's headquarters where, instead of reporting his failure to find Hill to General Polk, Fisher went to sleep.

Polk was indeed expecting Hill, because he made an effort to distinguish the location of his headquarters so that it would be easier to find. He ordered that trooper J.A. Perkins be posted to act as a guide along the path to his headquarters that evening. Perkins was to keep a fire burning, so that Hill could identify where the headquarters was. Yet by 2:00 a.m., there was no sign of Hill, (he was at this point asleep). Perkins grew tired and sleepy, and since his orders were not very specific as to how long he was supposed to wait, he left the fire, retiring for the evening. About an hour later, at 3:00 a.m., Hill awoke and decided to set out to meet with Polk, per the orders Anderson had delivered earlier, but he could not find him, as Perkins was long gone by the time Hill arrived in the area. He told an aide to find and inform Polk that he'd be in line if he was needed, then rode back in the direction from which he had come. Comedy of errors indeed!

And so it was that, on the night before one of the most critical and important attacks ever staged by the Confederate army, it's commanders went to sleep, in confusion and ignorance. Hill knew nothing of the planned attack which he was to lead at dawn. Nor did Breckenridge, who was to initiate the attack. Nor did Cleburne know anything about the attack as a result of the nights folly either. As for Hood and Buckner, they didn't even realize that Longstreet was present on the battlefield.

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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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