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.
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.
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.