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Battle of Chickamauga
Battle of Chickamauga - Part 2
by Rick Byrd

The Second Day of Battle - Saturday, September 20, 1863

September 20, 1863, dawned cold and foggy along the banks of the Chickamauga. A thick frost blanketed the ground. Smoke from the previous day's battle mingled with fog hanging heavily amid the trees. Polk arose, fully expecting at any second to hear the boom of cannon which was to open Hill's attack, but all was strangely silent. Only then did Polk learn that Fisher had been unable to locate Hill. He was outraged. Polk ordered Captain Frank Wheless to ride forth and inform Cleburne and Breckenridge that they were to attack immediately. On the way, he was to inform Cheatham to advance along with Cleburne and Breckenridge. As Wheless rode across Alexander's Bridge and into the fog, Polk sat down to eat his breakfast. When Wheless found Cheatham, he discovered that he was as perplexed as Polk as to why the attack had not begun.

Bragg too, waited anxiously, but in vain, for the sound of battle. He sent Major Pollack Lee of his staff to locate Polk immediately and find out why the attack was being delayed. Soon, Lee returned and told Bragg that he had found Polk casually eating his breakfast. The news that Polk was eating when he should have been attacking enraged Bragg, and the commanding general decided to ride forward and have a word with him personally. No doubt it appeared to Bragg that his subordinates once again had succeeded in defying his orders. 

As Bragg set off to find Polk, Wheless found Hill, Breckenridge, and Cleburne standing around a fire a few hundred yards behind Cleburne's lines. It was now 6:00 a.m. Snubbing Hill, Wheless would only show the orders to Cleburne and Breckenridge, but he did inform Hill that Polk had been looking for him to report for over six hours. After reading them, Cleburne handed the orders to Hill. They said nothing about making an attack at dawn, however. The instructions were for the attack to be staged as soon as practicable. Hill informed Wheless that the men were receiving their rations, and that he would wait until this activity, which would perhaps take an hour, had been completed before assembling his men to attack. Also, Hill knew of a problem with the alignment of some of the forces. Cheatham's right was perpendicular to Cleburne's left, thus making a simultaneous attack along this section of the line impossible. Hill wrote Polk a brief note saying that he had tried, but had been unable to find Polk, and that his men were receiving their rations. He also informed him that the enemy had been constructing defenses throughout the night, and now occupied a position so strong that he felt it could not be taken. Wheless took the note, and hurried off.

On his way back to headquarters, Wheless ran into Polk, who was just then riding to the front. He read him Hill's note, and informed Polk that unless he went personally to Hill, he felt Hill would not attack for several hours. This was around 6:45 a.m. Just moments after Polk's departure, the furious Bragg arrived on-scene. Wheless brought Bragg up to speed on all he had learned. The two also discussed the news about the enemy constructing defenses in front of Cleburne's position. Each moment of delay now was a precious gift of time which the Yankees were sure to take advantage of. 

Polk at last had a chance to speak to Hill, when he located him at 7:45 a.m.. Daylight was wasting, and the battlefield was still silent. The agitated Polk ordered Hill to attack at once, then rode off, for a time, to a location that remains a mystery. One wonders what Hill's mood must have been when about 15 minutes later, Bragg himself arrived at Hill's location. He berated Hill for delaying the attack in order to distribute rations. Hill for his part, truthfully it should be noted, informed Bragg that this was the first he'd heard of any order which called for an attack at dawn. Bragg also complained openly about Polk and the leisurely breakfast he had taken, despite being aware that the attack was not being initiated as planned. He ordered Hill to attack at once, and rode off.

Bragg knew nothing of the situation relating to the problems with the lines of Cheatham and Cleburne, and Polk, even at this late hour, had made no effort to straighten it out. Eventually, Cheatham personally informed the commanding general of the taint in the placement, and Bragg ordered him in reserve. Polk, a short time later, ordered Walker northwards in support Cleburne. 

As the morning wore on, back at the Union left, Thomas was managing to solidify his Kelly Field position and get some reserves into place. Following the war, one of Thomas' division commanders admitted that if the rebel attack had begun at first light as Bragg originally intended, the position would have been quickly taken. Had this occurred, it seems likely that the entire Army of the Cumberland would have been destroyed. But not so now, as the yankee's had in fact been using the time stemming from the delay of the attack to build a line of low breastworks in front of the Kelly Field salient. Still, Thomas remained very concerned about the Federal left. He decided to extend the line further north, where the La Fayette Road intersected with the Reed's Bridge Road. He called for his final reserve division, that of Negley, to be put into the line upon the left of his position. Perhaps as an indicator of his anxiety, Thomas made the imprudent decision of putting the first of Negley's brigades to arrive immediately into the line alone. This was around 9:00 a.m. He shook out the men of the brigade from his left flank northward to the intersection, expecting that the rest of Negley's force would arrive and deploy into line before the fighting started. He was wrong. At that instant, at 9:30 a.m, the popping sound of musket fire and the sharp boom of cannon split through the frigid morning air. The attack which the Confederates had for hours been trying to initiate, had finally begun.

Breckenridge, who a few years earlier had been Vice President of the United States, opened the Confederate attack, his left flank following the Reed's Bridge Road, in the woods to the south. Two of his three brigades were well to the north of the Kelly Field salient, yet the lone brigade of Negley's division, which had been put into line by Thomas, was caught unawares in the advance of the Confederate brigades of Brigadier Generals Dan Adams, and Marcellus Stovall. Isolated, Negley's men were quickly torn to pieces in the fury of Breckenridge's attack. Reaching the La Fayette Road, Breckenridge realized that he was beyond the Union left. This was precisely the prized position the Confederates had been hoping to gain all along. He faced his two brigades from the west to the south, on either side of the La Fayette road, and lead them on an assault that was to crash directly into the left flank and rear of Thomas's position, which he reached at 10:30 a.m. 

In the meantime, Breckenridge's third brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin Helm, whose wife was Mary Todd Lincoln's sister, was having a terrible time of things. His regiments struck west across the Alexander's Bridge Road at the left of Thomas's position east of the Kelly Field. His brigade was known as the "Orphan Brigade" due to the fact that it was made up of Kentuckian's who chose to fight for the Confederacy. It has been noted that Helm was perhaps the only rebel commander who President Lincoln took a personal interest in, as he was after all, the President's Brother-In-Law. Helm's brigade separated in the confusion and white smoke of the battle, with the right elements drifting off beyond the left of Thomas' line. With the men remaining to him, Helm bravely assaulted the position once and yet again. At one point he advanced to within forty yards of the enemy line. Try as he might, however, he could not break through the Federal position. Remarkably he managed to continue the fight for over 30 minutes. In a third valiant attempt to shatter the line, Helm was stuck by a bullet which tore through his right shoulder. The wound was mortal, and Helm died a short time after he was removed from the field. Lincoln was said to be visibly aggrieved upon receiving the news of Helm's death. 

Meanwhile, Breckenridge continued down the La Fayette Road. The brigade which he had broken belonged to Brigadier General John Beatty, of Negley's division. Beatty frantically called for help from the other brigades of the division, but they could not leave the line to aide him, because the troops which were to replace Negley's men, belonging to General Thomas J. Wood's division, had not arrived to relieve them. Wood, who was in reserve to the south on McCook's line, had been ordered to move to the left at 7:00 a.m., but had not complied with the order. McCook's line he felt, would have dangerously thinned had he moved as Rosecrans ordered, and it is possible that this command was a telling sign of Rosecrans fatigue. Obviously the concern for the left ran high. When Rosecrans learned of the situation, he sought Wood out personally, and upon reaching him, yelled at him in front of his troops. Rosecrans lost his composure, screaming at Wood that his negligence in complying with his orders had endangered the entire army. He ordered Wood into line at once. Still, Wood dragged his feet apparently, as it took him some time to get into position in the Brotherton Field, where upon his arrival, Negley's men were finally freed, and rushed north to the aid of Thomas.

Meanwhile on the left, Cleburne had opened his attack against the Kelly Field salient, coming into line just south of where Helm had staged his ill-fated assault. Due to the confusion created by Polk's negligence overnight, Cleburne, who had been unaware that he was to attack that morning until the last minute, had been forced to hastily organize his troops. The attack was not well coordinated, and many of the troops hit the Federal line unsupported, and unclear as to what they were actually supposed to do. Some units struck the position with their flank completely exposed, as they mistakenly believed they were to strike the line oblique. The result was predictably grim. One of the brigade commanders on this part of the line, General James Deshler, was struck directly in the chest by a piece of shrapnel which completely ripped his heart from his body. Soon Cleburne's men were relegated to taking cover behind trees and firing into the enemy lines with little effect.

At this moment, 10:30 a.m., as Thomas frantically tried to fight off Cleburne's attack along his front, Breckenridge, with the brigades of Stovall and Adams straddling the La Fayette Road, arrived in the rear of the position. Union reserves arrested his advance on the west side of the road, but on the east side, Breckenridge's men advanced to the tree line bordering the north edge of the Kelly Field. It was soon a slaughter yard. Men were shot down at an unbelievable rate. Those not injured ran in every direction, and it appeared for a time that the assault would totally shatter Thomas's position. Yet the brave men of Colonel Ferdinand Van Deveer's brigade arrived on the scene in the nick of time. Moving east, and taking a murderous fire on their left flank as they reached the La Fayette Road, Van Deveer crossed the road and upon gaining the field, ordered his men to wheel to the left. An extremely difficult and deadly maneuver under fire, Van Deveer's men followed the order with great discipline and bravery. Upon completion, both the rebels and the yankee's poured volley after volley into each other's lines for several minutes. Suddenly, and without orders, the German commander of the 9th Ohio regiment, Colonel August Kammerling, ordered his men to fix bayonettes and charge the Confederate line. They passed through the lines of the 2nd Minnesota infantry in their impetuous charge, and were soon joined by these men, the entire brigade being swept forward in the frenzy of battle. The officers looked on, blinked in amazement at the spontaneous charge, and hurried along to catch up with the men. Breckenridge's line melted away, and the men of Van Deveer's brigade chased them all the way back to the Reed's Bridge Road. The Union left held.

Interestingly, events may have turned out differently here had Hill taken up Polk and Walker on an offer they made to him of two divisions, shortly after Helm's brigade was repulsed, just as Breckenridge was making his way into the Federal rear. The failure of Helm and of Cleburne's troops to break through the Kelly Field salient and join forces with Breckenridge, opened a yawning gap in the middle of his corps. He very quickly developed an obsessive worry about filling it. Polk and Walker offered Hill four brigades from the Reserve Corps, but strangely, Hill said he only wanted one brigade, that of Brigadier General States Right's Gist (yes, that was his real name). Hill heard that Gist had arrived on the field earlier that morning from Catoosa station. After the battle, Breckenridge complained that Hill's failure to support the brigades of Stovall and Adams led to his failure in breaking the Federals from the rear. Had Hill taken the four brigades offered him, he could have reinforced Breckenridge and had plenty of men left over to fill the gap in his line. Yet Hill had heard grand reports about Gist's effectiveness, and insisted on having his lone brigade instead. Polk and Walker assented to the request.

Gist's men had marched all night following a mission they were assigned to the previous afternoon behind the lines, and Gist informed Hill that the brigade was in no condition for an attack. Yet Hill insisted on attacking the salient again, in the same general area where Helm had met his untimely end. Colonel Peyton Colquitt, who had been placed in charge of the brigade after Gist was given command of Walker's corps, rode forward with his men. Yet the Union position was even stronger now than it was when Helm had made his assault, and Colquitt quickly met with a similar fate. The brigade was repulsed. Colquitt was killed. Efforts by the brigades of Colonel Claudius Wilson, and Brigadier General Matthew Ector to assist Colquitt's men were ineffectual, as was Govan's attempt, made about this time, to get around the left of the salient and aid Stovall and Adams. At this point, the Confederates had pretty much fought themselves out on this portion of the field. Thomas was managing, desperately but effectively, to hang on.

Although it was beginning to look like it would be a long and tragic day for the Confederates, the fighting here did have one positive effect, an aspect that they could not be aware of during the final moments of Govan's failed attempt to get around the Federal left. The success of Breckenridge had caused Thomas to consistently call for units to leave the line to the south, along the La Fayette Road, in the area of the Poe Field and the Brotherton Field, and rush north to help him in a frantic effort to shore up his position. Captain Stanford Kellogg, Thomas's Nephew, was dispatched to Brigadier General John M. Brannan, whose division was in position in the woods west of the La Fayette Road, opposite the Poe Field, with an order for Brannan to move north. Reynolds was in line to the north of Brannan's position, General Thomas Wood was in line to the south. Brannan, aware that his reserves had been called away to the aid of Thomas earlier, sought Reynolds advice about pulling out, for obviously his removal would open a large gap in the line. Reynolds, who was unaware that Wood had moved up into line to replace Negley, gave his approval that the request be honored, and he wished Brannan luck. Reynolds already had a great deal of experience here at Chickamauga fighting with one, if not both, flanks in the air. At that moment, there was no firing on his part of the line however, and Reynolds was as concerned as Thomas was about the heavy fighting upon the Union left. As a precaution, Reynolds sent Kellogg back to Rosecrans to report to him the danger involved in pulling Brannan out of the line. He wanted Rosecrans to understand that his right flank would be in the air with Brannan's departure, and hoped that if there were any extra troops available, Rosecrans would send them into the line upon his right. Brannan, apparently while Kellogg was still present, had ordered his brigade commanders to move, thereby complying with Thomas's request, but then, as Kellogg hurried off to Rosecrans, Brannan almost immediately countermanded the order, and his division remained in place. Of course, Kellogg, who was not present when Brannan changed his mind, had no way of knowing this. Brannan, who it appears got cold feet about leaving the line, was perhaps waiting to see if Rosecrans had any further instructions for him.

When Kellogg arrived back at Rosecrans' headquarters, now just six hundred yards to the west (he had at this point left the Widow Glenn house and established a new headquarters position in an area on a knoll in the southern sprawl of the Dyer Field), Kellogg hurriedly explained the situation to Rosecrans, and asked that Brannan be allowed to help Thomas. Rosecrans told Kellogg to go to Thomas at once and inform him that he was to hold his position at all costs. He would reinforce him with the entire army if necessary. Rosecrans was fatigued, and it seems certain that no time was wasted on exchanging specific details, or extraneous conversation. Aware of Wood's position south of Brannan, Rosecrans turned to Major Frank S. Bond and directed him to write an order informing Wood that he was to "…close up on Reynolds right, and support him". Bond immediately took out a pencil, and drafted the following order:

Headquarters Department of the Cumberland
September 20 - 10:45 a.m.

Brigadier General Wood, Commanding Division:
  The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him.
Respectfully, etc.

Frank S. Bond, Major and Aide-de-Camp

In an effort to highlight the urgency of the order, Bond scribbled the word "Gallop", across the page. Rosecrans did not read the order personally, nor was it necessary (as normally would be the case) to route the order through Crittenden, Wood's corps commander, because he was present at headquarters at the time the order was drafted. Lieutenant Colonel Lyne Starling was told that Wood's order was to "close to the left on Reynolds, and support him". Rosecrans chief of staff, and future president of the United States, Brigadier General James A. Garfield, jumped in to clarify things for Starling. Starling was apparently confused, because, since there was no firing in that part of the line, Reynolds did not appear to need "support". Garfield explained to him that the intent of the order was to fill the gap in the line created by Brannan's withdrawal to the north. With that, Starling set off to deliver the order to Wood. It is important to note that Wood was less than a five minute ride away from Rosecrans headquarters.

As he galloped up to Wood's breastworks, Starling noticed that a steady fire was coming into the position from Confederate skirmishers to the east, across the Brotherton field and the La Fayette Road. It was 11:00 a.m. Starling gave the order to Wood, and as he was reading it, began to explain its intent, but Wood cut him off. Wood could clearly see that Brannan's division was still in position on his left, between he and Reynolds. He pointed out to Starling that there was no gap in the line to be filled. "Then there is no order", Starling told Wood. Yet this did not suite Wood. As will be recalled, Rosecrans had hotly berated Wood in front of his troops a short time before that morning for not obeying the order to come into line quickly enough after Negley was ordered to the north. Additionally, Rosecrans had sent a written rebuke across the wire for all to see, following Wood's part in a failed reconnaissance mission on Lookout Mountain some days before the battle. Being twice humiliated by the commanding general in front of his troops was enough for Wood. He snatched the order out of Starling's hand. The order was quite clear, he told Starling, and he would obey it at once. Wood expressed that he was glad Rosecrans had put it in writing, as it would be a good thing to have "…for future reference". Before placing it in his pocket notebook, it is believed that he held the order aloft and waved it around in front of his staff. He said "Gentlemen, I hold the fatal order of the day in my hand and would not part with it for five thousand dollars" (Cozzens, 1992) With that, incredibly and spitefully, Wood ordered his division out of line.

The first brigade commander to pull out and head north up the Glen-Kelly Road was Colonel Sidney Barnes, followed by Colonel Charles Harker, and finally Colonel George P. Buell. Buell was apparently the only one who made the move in protest. He understood that the enemy was present in-force less than 200 yards in his front, and he was concerned about making such a dangerous move. One regimental officer even informed Buell that he'd rather be court-martialed than obey such an order. Just then, a messenger road up reiterating that compliance with the order was imperative. Buell, with obvious reservation, ordered his men to withdraw from the line, joining Harker and Barnes on the tragic and ill-fated march.

The resulting controversy would rage into the next century, until all of the participants were in their graves. It seems clear that Wood had allowed his anger with Rosecrans to cloud his judgment. Out of spite it seems, he complied with an order that he almost certainly understood did not apply to the situation he was in. Further, in military parlance, the order was technically contradictory. To "close up on" suggested a movement to the left, remaining in line, until he reached Reynolds right. "In support of" implied that he was to pull the troops out of line, and bring them up in support behind Reynolds. To wait the 10 minutes it would have taken to ride to Rosecrans and request clarification of the order (it will be recalled that Rosecrans was at this point just a few hundred yards away) could easily have been done, but no such request was made by Wood. The commanding general may as well have been on the moon. Rosecrans bears part of the blame for not reading the order after it was drafted. Also, Bond should have arguably realized that the order was contradictory when he drafted it. Yet it seems clear that the lion's share of the blame goes to Wood. Had he decided to stay put for a time, even if he thought it against Rosecrans wishes, and although admittedly risking yet a third reprimand, this seems the most professional and intelligent thing to do. Yet Wood's pettiness got the best of him. Now, it would get the best of the Army of the Cumberland, almost destroying Rosecrans' entire force.

Major General Alexander Stewart started his westerly attack shortly before 11:00 a.m., in compliance with orders directly from Bragg, to attack at once. His three brigades, which moved west across the Poe Field, made up the right division of Longstreet's wing. As the brigades of Brown, Clayton, and Bate advance, they pushed across the La Fayette road and engaged Brannan, Reynold's, and part of Wood's division, the lead elements of which were just now moving northward from the position they vacated in the Brotherton Field. They managed to shatter Brannan's right, and pour into Van Cleve's division for a time which was in Brannan's rear. Yet the gain was short lived. A Federal counterattack pushed the brigades back to their starting position. 

Although Stewart's abrupt attack and repulse rather struck Longstreet by surprise (Bragg had ordered them to attack personally), he worked expertly and quickly in arranging the other forces in his wing in a column that was designed to strike the Federal line in the Brotherton Field. The idea was to assemble the forces in such a way that a devastating sledge-hammer blow would hit the Federal center and right with an awesome fury. The divisions of Johnson, Hindman, Law (formerly Hood's), Kershaw, and McLaws, with that of Brigadier General William Preston's division of Buckner's corps in reserve, now were assembled in the woods east of the Brotherton Field it's line extending southward. Three of the divisions were placed in a single massive column, poised to strike the Brotherton Field head-on. The Union troops in the Brotherton Field had no idea that, at that instant, a furious storm of battle was about to be unleashed upon them, the likes of which most had never seen nor could even imagine.

Longstreet gave the order to advance, initiating an attack that he would later describe in his autobiography as "one of the most stubbornly contested battles of the entire war". At exactly 11:10 a.m., over 11,000 wildly yelling Confederates stepped out of the chilly darkness of the forest's shade, and into the brilliant sunshine flooding the La Fayette Road and Brotherton Field. The greatest part of the force was positioned to strike, in an example both ironic and extremely unfortunate for the Federals, the exact spot where just moments before, Wood had spitefully ordered his men out of line.

Bushrod Johnson's men, the lead division of Longstreet's wing, swept across the Brotherton Field, spilling into the woods to the west, and then out again into the open expanse of the Dyer Field. Across the field, upon the Confederate right, Federal batteries began racking Johnson's line, but they were without infantry support. For a brief time, they held the men of Johnson's division in check, but soon the guns were taken by a rebel brigade which managed to outflank them. The fighting for the cannons became hand to hand as the rebels arrived at the position, with the gunners throwing shells at the Confederates with their bare hands. Of the 29 guns present on the field here, the Confederates captured 15. 

The rebels on this part of the field gazed westward across an amazing scene, 500 yards deep and nearly 1000 yards wide. The boundaries of the field here to the west, north, and south, rise slightly in places, more drastically in others, making what Woodworth has called a "natural amphitheater". Upon the stage of the Dyer Field, the third act of the Union tragedy had begun. Union troops ran wildly about, stunned by the suddenness and tremendous fury of the Confederate attack. Horses rushed, stricken with terror, in every direction. Equipment of almost every discernable type was strewn across the entire expanse of the field. The Confederates were quickly rushing upon Rosecrans headquarters position. General Hood arrived in the vicinity at this point, and urged Johnson to continue forward. Suddenly, and with no warning, there was a surge of resistance from the Union forces. Hood was shot in the upper portion of his right leg. He fell from his horse, and was carried to the rear. Although he managed to keep both his arm and his life after he was wounded at Gettysburg, Hood's luck (if you could call it that) ran out at Chickamauga. Although he survived the wound, his leg had to be amputated.

To the south, Hindman's division was meeting with success as well. In the opening minutes of the battle, the forces of Davis, which comprised the men which had been badly chewed up under Heg's command the day before, broke and ran to the rear, fleeing in a desperate panic. Union efforts to check the retreat were ineffective, despite the fact that some turned and crossed rifles with the fleeing troops or struck them with their swords. Here, both McCook's and Sheridan's forces were routed, except for the brigade commanded by Brigadier General William H. Lytle. General Lytle was a popular writer and poet, and had proven himself a very capable commander as well. Lytle chose to make a stand on a hill north of the Widow Glenn house, in the Dyer Field. Although he was badly outnumbered, as Hindman's rebels approached his position in front, and upon both flanks, Lytle gave the order to his men to charge. "We can die but once…" he shouted, "…this is the time and place". Although conducted with much bravery and determination the attack was a disaster. Lytle was shot in the spine, but managed to stay upon his horse, and continued to ride among his brigade leading them against Hindman's force, until three more shots struck him, knocking him from his horse. Lytle was most likely dead before he hit the ground. 

Although Wilder's men managed to check for a time the advance of the Confederate left in the vicinity of the intersection of the Glen-Kelly Road and the Chickamauga-Vittatoe Road, all was destruction for the Union forces upon the center-right. The men of Longstreet's wing now began to flood into Rosecrans' headquarters area. The commanding general and his staff were forced to flee the field, as shot and shell crashed into the position all around them. Also fleeing were McCook, Crittenden, and Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who had been present with the Army of the Cumberland throughout the campaign. Dana had been dozing under a tree, when he was awakened by the tremendous noise of the attack. As he awoke, he saw Rosecrans, who was a devout catholic, crossing himself. Needless to say, he took this as a very disconcerting sign. As Dana and the general gazed to the east, across the Dyer field, they could see emerging from the tree line, one steady and unbroken advance of thousands of Confederates directly toward them. They were quickly forced to quit the field and literally flee for their lives.

Although Longstreet had orders to wheel left and back the Union troops into McClemore's cove, he was forced to deal with the yankee position to the north of the Dyer Road, as those 29 guns mentioned earlier were pouring a deadly fire into the lines of his forces at that time. The brigades of Colonel John S. Fulton, Brigadier General Evander McNair, Colonel Cyrus Sugg, and Colonel James Sheffield collected on this part of the field accomplished the task. The Federals who were responsible for the wounding of Hood belonged to the brigade of Colonel Charles G. Harker, of Wood's division. It will be recalled that Harker's was the first brigade Wood pulled out of the line at the Brotherton Field, barely 45 minutes before. The men managed to be far enough to the north so as to avoid being hit by Longstreet's initial attack, and as Wood realized the gravity of the situation to his back, he created a line with Harkers men and faced them south, along a ridge. 

They were advanced upon by reinforcements which Hood had ordered into line here just before he was wounded. They were the brigades Brigadier General's Benjamin Humphreys and Joeseph Kershaw. These men, wearing new uniforms and carrying the square flags of the Army of Northern Virginia, advanced across the upper reaches of the Dyer Field. They could see Harker's line extending on a hill running from the northwestern part of the Dyer Field all the way to a lower rise at the field's northeastern corner. Strangely, the guns of Harker's men fell silent. In the diminishing smoke of the battle, the yankee's were not quite sure what they were looking at. Perhaps the approaching troops were men from Sheridan's or Davis's division moving across the field to join their position. They waved the Stars and Stripes, the color bearer's standing upright and in the open upon the hill. Harker and Wood ordered the men to hold their fire to avoid shooting into what they believed to be other Union troops (Woodworth, 1999).

As they came within range, Kershaw's men opened a deadly fire upon Harker's position, and another tremendous fight resumed. This must have given Harker a very unpleasant shock. As it turned out, the defense of the position was another lost-cause for the Federals. Kershaw and Humphrey's had outflanked the position, and Harker was forced to fall back further to the north, to the next rise which was an open ridge in the vicinity of a home owned by farmer George Washington Snodgrass.

Already, a small contingent of Federal troops here were gathering to make a stand. Brannan was present with his division, and so were other brigade commanders which were rallying troops who had fled in this direction following the confederate breakthrough to the south. On this part of the field, there was one ridge that ran east of the house down to the Union left (known as Snodgrass Hill), and another rising to the west of the home, called Horseshoe Ridge. General George Thomas was present on the ridgeline that afternoon. He had been pulling the fresher units from the Kelly Field salient to take position along the hills and rally those who were retreating through the area. At 12:45 p.m. Union forces started to stumble upon the ridge in significant numbers and assemble there. Most of the troops were in very poor condition. They were panicked, without ammunition, and filled with the expectation that Kershaw's men would storm the ridge at any moment and drive them from the position. They were right. Kershaw's men did come, but the Federals managed to hold their ground. The rebels were reinforced, and tried to assault the position again, yet once more they failed. Despite the best efforts of the Confederates, it seemed that the blue-coats along Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge were determined to stand and fight.

The Union was making excellent use of the terrain. Harker's men would fire from the top of the ridge, and then slip over the back-side of the ridgeline, where in safety they could reload, as another group of men arrived in line to resume the fire. The technique worked well, and the spirits of the Federals began to rise as they witnessed the Confederates being repulsed again and again. The rebel attacks were badly coordinated, and each successive assault seem to break-down in bitter confusion as they struck the Union line in piecemeal fashion. Bragg had counted on Longstreet to coordinate the attacks, and Longstreet had counted on Hood, who at this moment, was injured and not present on the field. Although Longstreet was aware of Hood's absence, he made no effective effort to replace him, thus the Confederate attacks were launched disjointed and anemic.

Thomas however, who initially was completely unaware of the breakthrough to the south, and who did not know that the commanding general, along with Crittenden and McCook had left he field, seemed to be making all the right decisions. He established a headquarters near the base of Snodgrass Hill, and executed an effective command there. His reputation as a competent leader and the bravery he displayed on the field during these moments, helped him to assemble and hold a defense which covered the Federal retreat and prevented the entire Army of the Cumberland from being destroyed in detail. Thomas, who was from Virginia, chose to fight with the Union when the war broke out. His sisters, upon learning of his decision, turned his picture to the wall and claimed they no longer had a brother. Still, leaders in Washington were skeptical of Thomas, and distrustful as to his loyalty. They procrastinated in giving him promotions, and the saying was common among them to "let the Virginian wait". Yet following the Battle of Chickamauga, his brave stand against the rebels would earn him a unanimous respect. Never again would his loyalty to the Union be doubted. He would forever be known as the "Rock of Chickamauga" for the determined fight he made upon Horseshoe Ridge. 

Currently, Bushrod Johnson was trying to determine how to break the "Rock of Chickamauga" however.  If Thomas could not be beaten by direct assaults, perhaps the rebels might be able to outflank him? Johnson swung his division around Horseshoe Ridge in an effort to strike at a position higher up than where the Federals were conducting their desperate defense. He ran into men of the 21st Ohio Regiment, and desperate fighting ensued, as alternately the Confederates were driven back, and then the Federals, several times along this portion of the ridge. Soon, the men of the 21st Ohio began to run out of ammunition. Among those that still had rounds, the rapid rate of fire caused many of the rifles to overheat and jam, and the troops urinated upon them in a desperate attempt to cool them off so that firing could be resumed. 

Johnson's men pressed on, further and further up the hill. The fighting was desperate and tremendous. The steady push up-hill had fatigued the men. An overwhelming thirst plagued the troops. The men of both sides realized that this position was critical, and they fought tenaciously to bring the battle to a close; Confederate attackers struggling to break through, Union defenders frantically trying to hang on. Forces of both sides were caught up in the frenzy and fury of battle, and it seemed that all were willing to fight to the last man. At last the rebels managed to get around the flank of the Ohioan's, but just as it seemed that Thomas's last line of defense would be finally breached, Johnson crashed into the blue-clad troops of General James B. Steedman's division belonging to Major General Gordon Grangers Reserve Corps, who rushed into the area southward from Rossville at 2:30 p.m. His timing was as if he made his entrance on cue in a grand theatrical production. The sound of battle raging for two straight days demonstrated to Granger that something very significant must be going on, and despite his orders to hold a gap in Missionary Ridge, he ordered his troops to move in the direction of Chickamauga. Granger arrived just in time, and Thomas put him on the flank of the 21st Ohio, where his two brigades no doubt prevented the annihilation of Thomas's forces upon Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge. The ammunition and manpower he provided on the field here were precisely what Thomas needed. Although the battle would rage for the next two and a half hours, the lines teetering back and forth, the yankees managed to hang on. The fighting was tremendous, it was a slaughter. Casualties in many units on both sides totaled over 50%. 

Finally, at 5:00 p.m., Thomas received an order from Rosecrans, who was now making his way back to Chattanooga, to withdraw. Now Thomas would have the unenviable and very difficult task of trying to get what was left of the Union forces out of the line under a heavy fire. Indeed, the order actually came at the worst possible time to effect a retreat. Following the repulse of the Confederate right earlier in the morning, there had been little fighting in the position along the Kelly Field salient. Earlier in the day, following the Confederate breakthrough at the Brotherton Field, Longstreet had urged Bragg to resume the attack upon the Federal left. Bragg had refused, saying that the men were simply not ready to go on the assault again. By 5:00 p.m., this had changed. All along the line of the Federal breastworks east of the Kelly Field, the divisions of Liddell, Gist, Breckenridge, Cleburne, Cheatham, and Stewart, sprang to life yet again and opened a furious attack on the position, just as the Federals were pulling out. To the west, the divisions of Hindman, Johnson, Preston, Law, and Kershaw were driving the blue-coats from Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge. The rebels in front of the Kelly Field broke through the breastworks, managed to get a battery into the open field, and fired canister into the backs of the fleeing yankees. The Confederates cheered at this point so loudly that the rebel yell could be heard from every point of the battlefield. Even the wounded, lying over the field in every direction, strained to raise their heads and give a victorious shout (Some students of the battle, including Cozzens, maintain that this shouting actually came from the Union troops in an effort to disguise their retreat). Although most were of the belief that they had thoroughly annihilated the Federal troops, many yankee units managed to escape to the north and west intact. Still, the confusion was tremendous. The rebels took many prisoners, including the brave and exhausted men of the 21st Ohio. As darkness descended upon the battlefield, the heaviest fighting drew to a close. Still, sporadic skirmishes continued to erupt throughout the evening as the defeated Federals pushed their retreat in the direction of Rossville and Chattanooga. 

A foggy mist settled into the area at nightfall, making the withdrawing Union troops look like ghostly apparitions as they stumbled forward in fear, agony, and bitter defeat. Corpses, mangled and twisted in every imaginable position, littered the ground at every step. They were left in place upon the field where they had fallen throughout the night, as the Confederates were simply too tired to tend to them.

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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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