September 20, 1863

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Sep 202013

Braxton Bragg spent the evening of the 19th being as useless as possible. Despite the confusion reigning in the woods that day, his men had done fairly well and pushed the Yankees back past the Lafayette Road. They hadn’t gotten north of the Union troops, but they were in a good position to attack and much of the remainder of Longstreet’s force had arrived during the night. So, Bragg reorganized his army’s command structure, and without consulting many of his senior generals, ordered an attack for daybreak.

Bragg’s plan for the 20th, displaying the full breadth of his tactical skill, called for an attack on the right, commanded by Leonidas Polk, followed by an attack on the left, commanded by Longstreet. Although many people have the impression that in the Civil War the North had the resources and the South had the generals, this impression largely comes from Virginia-dominated histories. Outside of that state, Southern commanders were often every bit as unimpressive as a Burnside or Howard.

At any rate, the dawn attack did not happen. The lines on the right were too confused, and it took several hours to rearrange them, time the Yankees used to entrench. Under the command of George Thomas, several brigades had formed a bulged salient around the field of the Kelly farm. South of them, somewhat behind the Lafayette Road, the rest of the army was also digging in.

When Polk’s wing finally did manage to attack, it was something of a mess. Attacks were disorganized, and lines got snarled in the rough terrain and vegetation. Nonetheless, the salient was hard-pressed for a while, and Thomas sent for reinforcements. At one point he asked for Brannan’s division, which was in the line to the south. Brannan desired to go, but realized that pulling out would open a gap. He sent word of his intention to answer the call to Rosecrans, but did not pull out immediately.

Rosecrans then ordered the division of Thomas Wood, next to Brannan in line, to cover the opening. Rosecrans’ primary assistant, James Garfield (later to become President) was busy, so another aide wrote the order, which ended up being confusing, especially since Brannan had not yet moved. Wood chose to interpret the order as indicating he should move his division out of line and form it behind another division to the north. Given the circumstances this was an unreasonable reading, and obviously the move would open up a huge hole in the formation. Wood chose not to seek any clarification of the order.


Longstreet’s attack may well have succeeded without Wood’s help, but not so totally.

Wood, who had been dressed down by Rosecrans earlier for failing to promptly obey orders, clearly knew that his course of action endangered the whole army. “Gentlemen,” he announced as he pocketed the note, “I hold the fatal order of the day in my hand and would not part with it for five thousand dollars.” For spite, Wood pulled his men out of line and doomed the army, and for that he ought to have been hanged, but that order he valued so highly protected him. Although it was obviously foolish to obey it, the existence of the order could not be denied, so his choice was technically correct, which is the best kind of correct on funny TV shows but not when it leads to thousands of deaths.

Which Wood’s decision did. As it happened, Longstreet was not far away. Having only found his troops that morning, he had taken some time to arrange them how he wanted. Hidden by the woods, they were arranged in a deep column with a narrow front. With no time to flank or even inspect the ground, Longstreet had to perform a frontal assault against a fortified enemy, the same attack that had caused such grief at Gettysburg. However, this time he had much less ground to cover, and the defensive position was not as dominant. The formation he had adopted was also perfect for a hard blast against a single point (military historian Harold C. Knudsen compares it to the Schwerpunkt tactics of the Nazi blitzkrieg). And coincidentally, he had aimed his attack right at the part of the line Wood was now abandoning.

It was precisely the right attack, landing at precisely the right place at precisely the right time, and its effect was devastating. Rebels were behind the lines almost before the Yankees knew what was happening. As some of Longstreet’s troops turned north and south to engage the Union line on newly-exposed flanks, the rest raced towards the Union rear. Although Wood turned to try and stop the assult his counterattack failed. The southern end of Rosecrans’ army disintegrated. Rosecrans himself fled the field with his staff.

The battle could very easily have been a Cannae for the Army of the Cumberland – with the south end of the line gone and many troops and trains fleeing in disarray, Longstreet might have turned north and rolled up the whole Union line. But Longstreet adopted a rather hands-off approach at an inopportune time. His best subordinate – John Bell Hood, who had just recovered from having his arm crippled at Gettysburg – had been shot in the leg (he would lose it) and carried from the field. The rest of his commanders were competent enough, but lacked a good organizer.

George Thomas,  who became known as "the Rock of Chickamauga".

George Thomas, who became known as “the Rock of Chickamauga”.

This gave Thomas an opportunity to save the day. Those units that had not broken completely were scraped together and posted in a defensible spot called Horseshoe Ridge. He summoned the reserve troops of Gordon Granger and added them to the force there, while continuing to hold out in the Kelly Field salient. The race was on between the ammunition supplies (many trains had fled or been captured) and the sun, which the sun just barely won. Night fell just as the Union troops reached their limit, and Thomas was able to withdraw in good order towards Chattanooga, to which Rosecrans had already fled.

Chickamauga was a major disaster for the Union forces in Tennessee, but it was not as bad as it could have been. Bragg failed to pursue his defeated enemy, which allowed Rosecrans time to organize a defense of Chattanooga. Bragg then settled in for a siege, much to the dismay of Longstreet and his other subordinates, who argued for various offensives to displace or destroy Rosecrans. Infighting among the generals doomed the army to inaction, and Chickamauga became a fallow victory for the Confederacy.

If Bragg did not destroy the Army of the Cumberland, he at least destroyed the career of its commander. To fail so spectacularly in front of the War Department’s spy doomed Rosecrans, even though that failure was in large part due to the unreasonable demands of the War Department itself. When Ulysses S. Grant was given command of almost every troop in the theater, he chose to promote Thomas rather than keep Rosecrans, who never commanded a major force again.

As for the battle itself, it’s barely remembered. Though a victory for the South, Chickamauga had no strategic result – the Union Army retreated no further north than Chattanooga, and was not pushed out of Tennessee. The generals who could take credit for the victory – Bragg and Longstreet – were unpopular after the war, and many others present had bitter feelings towards the engagement because it led nowhere despite its massive cost. Union casualties were about 16,000 and Confederate 18,000, for net casualties second only to Gettysburg, though 40,000 more troops were engaged in Pennsylvania. As for the Yankees, they were eager to forget the embarrassment. Chickamauga was a battle that, at great and terrible cost, achieved almost nothing, and is barely remembered.

September 19, 1863

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Sep 192013

Although it was one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Civil War, and despite being a rare Southern victory in the western theater, the Battle of Chickamauga is mostly forgotten. The battle took place south of Chattanooga, close to the borders of Alabama and Georgia, but even in those states the Eastern battles are better remembered. That’s a shame, because Chickamauga is a particularly interesting fight.

William Rosecrans was not a professional soldier but had performed admirably in sweeping Bragg out of Tennessee.

William Rosecrans was not a professional soldier but had performed admirably in sweeping Bragg out of Tennessee.

Part of Chickamauga’s problem is that it doesn’t feature well-remembered generals. The Union forces were commanded by William Rosecrans, who had been strikingly successful thus far. He had pushed the Rebel army out of Tennessee, but much of this success came without bloodshed. Since the Army of Northern Virginia had “gotten away” after Gettysburg, Rosecrans’ bloodless victories were not what political purposes in Washington demanded. Rosecrans was therefore ordered to pursue and destroy the Rebel forces in his department. In a move that fooled nobody, the supposedly neutral observer Charles Dana was sent by the War Department to spy on Rosecrans and prod him forward.

Those Confederates were the Army of Tennessee, commanded by the miserable Braxton Bragg. Prone to illness and depression, Bragg was quietly (and in some cases openly) at war with several of his senior subordinates, a situation not helped by the almost headlong flight out of Tennessee over the preceding weeks. Rosecrans had outmaneuvered Bragg constantly, and his subordinates had repeatedly written directly to Jefferson Davis to request his replacement. Bragg, however, was a friend of Davis, and so despite his deficiencies as a general and as a leader he held on to his position for the time being.

The problem was that in its eagerness to destroy the Army of Tennessee, Washington had pushed Rosecrans into a dangerous position. The Tennessee is a powerful river, and crossing it had forced Rosecrans to spread his men out. Worse, the mountainous terrain south of the river made it difficult to concentrate his forces again. The Confederates eventually recognized that Rosecrans’ forces were split up and might be destroyed in detail. So, they regrouped and turned to attack. At this juncture, the only thing that saved one of Rosecrans’ corps was that Bragg’s poor leadership (and equally poor subordinates) prevented the Rebel army from striking as quickly as it could have.

Things might have settled into a stalemate. Rosecrans had time to draw his forces together, but his supply situation was too poor to advance, and Bragg lacked the men to displace him. But this was one of the rare instances where the South was able to use its shorter internal lines of communication to its advantage. After much pleading, Longstreet had convinced Lee to detach the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia from that bogged-down theater and send it west to try its luck there. Bragg had Longstreet coming to his aid with two divisions. This gave him a chance to strike back against Rosecrans and possibly even destroy him. He determined to attack.

Braxton Bragg, for whom Fort Bragg in North Carolina is named.

Braxton Bragg, for whom Fort Bragg in North Carolina is named.

As was typical, nothing went according to Bragg’s plan. Longstreet’s men did not arrive as quickly as expected, and dribbled slowly into the theater on overtaxed railways. On September 18th, when the Confederates should have been advancing to cut off the Union troops from Chattanooga, they were stymied at the crossings of Chickamauga Creek by small detachments of cavalry and mounted infantry. So it was not until the morning of the 19th that the armies truly clashed in the woods west of the creek.

The action of September 19th is almost impossible to accurately describe. The battlefield was unusually chaotic and encounters took place in piecemeal fashion. The area was heavily wooded and plagued with dense underbrush, and most maneuvers took place on the level of regiments and brigades rather than divisions or corps. The day was calm, so the smoke from the gunpowder lingered in the air, further obscuring vision. Units would advance and find suddenly find themselves all alone, or suddenly discover allies (or enemies) on their flank. Divisions from various corps got jumbled together, then broken up as their brigades were sent in different directions to patch different holes, real or perceived, in a line nobody could actually see. The jumbled line of battle and the impossibility of understanding the larger picture from the ground resulted in a serious breakdown of the chain of command.

This had happened to the Union forces at Gettysburg, too, but on a field with a well-defined defensive position and clear lines of sight. There, the battle was largely able to fight itself, and artillery could compensate for imperfect tactics. Here in the smoky woods that simply wasn’t possible. Artillery was much less useful, and nobody knew where to go or what to do. Units charged, routed the enemy, then got counterattacked and routed themselves. Sometimes they reformed and charged again; mostly they didn’t. The fields of the few farms present in the area were soon covered with dead and wounded men.

Rosecrans had as his main goal the protection of the Lafayette Road, which ran north to south and led to Chattanooga. If the road were lost, his only real line of retreat would be cut off.  His success was mixed. On the north end of his line, a salient organized by George Thomas (commander of the XX Corps) bulged out from the road and kept it clear. On the southern end of the line, closer to Rosecrans headquarters, the Union troops had been chased across the road and up a hill. Fortunately, this position looked east towards the Rebels across the field of the Brotherton farm, making further attacks too difficult, at least for the evening.

As if the situation weren’t confused enough, attacks continued after dark, mostly coming to grief. As the Yankees began to entrench, Bragg plotted a dawn attack, and Longstreet arrived. As the night deepened, the soldiers slept fitfully, unaware that the chaos of the 19th would soon be superseded.