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.
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.
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.