Chickamauga: The Rock and the Angel of Death
Background to the Battle
Following an unsuccessful campaign in Kentucky, and failure to push back USA Major General William Starke Rosencransı Army of the Cumberland at Stoneıs River, Tennessee, in January 1863, CSA General Braxton Bragg withdrew his still intact Army of Tennessee back to Tullahoma to attempt a stand. Digging in heavily along the Duck River, and charged with protecting the vital transportation center of Chattanooga, Bragg intended to let Rosencrans bleed his army to death in frontal assaults rather than trying another offensive himself.
Months went by without action, Rosencrans having nearly wrecked his own army at Stoneıs River and needing time to refit. Finally, under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln, the USA Army of the Cumberland moved south, bursting through multiple gaps south of Tullahoma on June 24 and taking Bragg completely by surprise. His own line of retreat in danger of being cut off, Bragg hastily withdrew his entire force into Chattanooga with barely a shot being fired.
Bragg had no idea of the actual position of the advancing Union columns. Believing that they still intended to envelope Chattanooga somewhere to the east from Knoxville, he spent several days fretting and giving conflicting orders. The Confederates reestablished their lines along the Tennessee River centered in the small mountain town, but when Union forces cross unopposed at three points below the city, they again were ordered to withdraw south without a fight, this time completely out of Tennessee and on to the northwest Georgia town of LaFayette. Without a firm grasp of the situation and in a nervous frustration over what to do about it, Bragg missed several excellent opportunities to strike the separate Union columns as they exited the Lookout Mountain passes. On September 9, as the last of Braggıs army leaves, the vanguard of Rosencransı entered the city from the north.
At about the same time, USA Major General Ambrose Burnsideıs Army of the Ohio, divided into four columns with 24,000 men, forced the Confederate garrison at Knoxville to abandon the city, again without a major fight. These forces joined Braggıs column in the general retreat south into Georgia. The Confederate commander was determined to protect the vital industrial center of Atlanta and to regain control of Chattanooga if possible, and tried an interesting tactic to draw Rosencransı forces into battle on his own terms.
Paying too much attention to planted faked desertersı, who convinced Rosencrans that Bragg was in full panicked retreat, the Union commander placed his forces in three widely separated columns with over 60,000 men in order to cut him off and force the Confederate army into battle, where it can be destroyed once and for all. One column led by USA Major General Thomas L. Crittenden passed through Chattanooga and on to Ringgold, Georgia. Another led by USA Major General George H. Thomas passes through Bridgeport, Alabama, and with some difficulty crosses Sand Mountain to approach LaFayette. The third column, led by USA Major General Alexander McDowell McCook, goes another 40 miles to the southwest of Chattanooga through northern Alabama towards Summerville, Georgia.
As the Union forces move to his north and west, Bragg sends urgent requests for reinforcements, and gathers his forces for battle.
Two Armies at Chickamauga
Bragg knows that if he is going to protect Atlanta, retake Chattanooga, or even hold on for long in the north Georgia mountains, he is going to need reinforcements, plentiful and soon. In addition to the men from the Knoxville garrison, two divisions are sent from CSA Major General Joseph Eggleston Johnstonıs army in Mississippi. CSA General Robert E. Lee agreed, reluctantly, to allow CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet to go to Braggs aid with two divisions of his corps (the third, CSA Major General George E. Pickettıs Division, was still combat ineffective after Gettysburg). All these reinforcements will bring the Confederate force to a higher available manpower than the Unionıs, an exceedingly rare event at any point during the war.
With help on the way, Bragg becomes impatient to go into offensive action. Between September 10 and 13, with Rosencransı forces widely separated and cut off from mutual support, Bragg grabs the tactical advantage and orders divisional sized attacks at several points. Mysteriously, not a single attack is carried out, each divisional commander finding one reason or another not to assault. Rosencrans shortly receives word from spies and scouts about both the fizzled attacks and the incoming reinforcements, and orders his columns to pull together just west of Chickamauga Creek. By September 17 the columns are in close proximity, and Rosencrans orders them forward to concentrate in the vicinity of Lee and Gordons Mill, on Chickamauga Creek.
Meeting Engagements at the Bridges
On that same day, Braggıs forces are in place from near Reedıs Bridge over Chickamauga Creek on the north and opposite Lee and Gordonıs Mill in the south. With the leading elements of Longstreetıs Corps just arriving by train an still a few hours march away, the order for attack is given. Braggıs strategy is to sweep forward and take control of the Lafayette Road, hitting the Union forces from the east, cutting them off from a line of retreat back into Chattanooga and hopefully driving them back towards Alabama. CSA Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnsonıs Brigade is ordered to start the offensive by seizing and crossing Reedıs Bridge, followed by movement forward all along the nearly five mile line.
Johnson moves forward to contact early on the morning of September 18, but his and the other brigades advances are slowed by a combination of bad roads and miscommunication. USA Colonel Robert Mintyıs 1st Brigade (2nd Cavalry Division) makes the first contact with the advancing Confederate force, skirmishing about a mile east of Reedıs Bridge before being pushed back to the creek itself. Before withdrawing, Minty orders the bridge burned, further delaying the Confederate assault. Johnsonıs men do not actually cross the creek until late in the afternoon. By this time the leading element of Longstreetıs Corps, CSA Major General John Bell Hoodıs Division, arrives and takes command of the column.
Just to the south at Alexanderıs Bridge another contact is made about 10:00 a.m. between USA Colonel John T. Wilderıs 1st Brigade (Mounted Infantry) (4th Division, XIV Corps), supported by the 18th Indiana Artillery, and CSA Brigadier General St. John R. Liddellıs Division. Holding the line for most of the day, Wilder is forced to withdraw about 5:00 p.m. when his right flank is turned by newly arriving elements of CSA Major General William H.T. Walkerıs Corps, who have crossed the creek further downstream. Pulling back towards Lee and Gordons Mill, Wilder is soon reinforced and manages to halt the sputtering Confederate advance after a fierce night attack.
Day Two, September 19, 1863, Morning
On Saturday morning, after a long night of shifting his forces about to meet the developing Confederate threat, Thoması XIV Corps arrives at Kelleyıs field on the Lafayette Road, and he orders USA Brigadier General John M. Brannonıs 3rd Division eastward to make contact with the Confederate force. About 7:30 a.m. they suddenly encounter dismounted troops in the vicinity of Jayıs Mill and both sides open fire. There is no opportunity for either side to get organized, and the fight rapidly turns into a confused melee, with men firing every which way and seeking whatever cover they can in the surrounding forest. A few minutes into the fight none other than CSA Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest himself comes charging up, pistol in one hand, saber in the other, and begins bellowing orders. The dismounted troops are part of his Cavalry Corps, detailed to protect the northern flank of the Confederate lines. Quickly, his men get into line, laying down in the damp grass side by side and return a disciplined fire into the Union ranks. Casualties are high, nonetheless, for the legendary cavalry commander, who loses almost 25 percent of his men in the first hour alone.
Both Forrest and Brannan quickly call for reinforcements, and shortly USA Colonel John M. Connellıs 1st and USA Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveerıs 3rd Brigades (of Brannonıs 3rd Division) arrive to shore up the Union line, while Walker and Liddell bring their divisions to Forrestıs aid. The fight grows almost by itself, very soon additional units begin pouring into the rapidly growing battle, extending the lines a few hundred yards to each side, then a half-mile, a mile, then finally a nearly four mile wide solid front of combat exists over the fields and forest from near Lee and Gordons Mill all the way up to well north of Jayıs Mill. Throughout the early afternoon assault after assault pushes one side back a bit, then the other, neither side gaining any real ground or advantage. Both lines are in close contact the entire time, with appallingly high casualties piling up by the minute.
From this point on through the end of the day the battle is a soldierıs fight,ı as the thick woods and disordered array of combat units make it nearly impossible for commanders on either side to make informed tactical decisions. Both lines overlap at several points, and hand to hand combat is commonplace across the fields.
Day Two, Midday
Starting a little after noon, Thomas begins shifting his forces north, to oppose Confederate forces coming on line against his left flank. This opens up a hole in the main Union line that is quickly exploited by three brigades of CSA Major General Alexander Stewartıs Division. Attacking straight across the Lafayette Road at the Brotherton farm, they succeed in breaking the thin Union line. Following his lead, just to the left at the nearby Viniard Field, CSA Brigadier Generals Jerome B. Robertonıs and Henry L. Benningıs Brigades (of Hoodıs Division) storm across the LaFayette Road and push the Union forces out of their entrenchments and back about 200 yards.
At this point the Confederates have nearly split the Union forces in half, and control their main line of communication to Chattanooga. Worse for Rosencrans, the momentum of their attack is carrying them straight towards his headquarters, across Brotherton Field at Widow Glennıs cabin.
With the breach made, reinforcements sent hurried-up would be all that was needed to completely break the Union lines and carry the day. Resistance in the retreating Union units is stiffening, and the breakthrough is bogging down after a few hundred yards advance. Benning requests not only infantry reinforcements but artillery to counter the batteries directly in front that were shattering his ranks. Stewartıs Division fairs a little better, with Union batteries exhausting their loads of cannister before his own attack draws too close.
Rosencrans sends word to his units to hold ³at all costs,² and they respond well, putting up a solid wall of resistance even while their own ranks are blown apart. Several witnesses mention that whole companies simply ceased to exist in the rain of lead balls and iron shot. In typical Bragg fashion, however, no reserves are ordered in to exploit the situation. Without fresh men and ammunition the breakthrough halts before any serious gain can be made. As darkness falls Hoodıs brigades hold their line, relieved later in the night, while Stewartıs men stay put and hastily dig in just west of the Lafayette Road.
Day Two, Evening
Just after sunset, CSA Major General Patrick R. Cleburneıs Division (Lieutenant General Daniel H. Hillıs Corps) is sent in from itıs reserve position up to the right of the line, and immediately swings into battle with itıs three brigades. Hitting Thoması units in the process of shifting positions, another fierce hand to hand combat ensues across nearly a mile wide front, pushing the Union line back nearly three-quarters of a mile. Within an hour, however, it is too dark to see anything except the brilliant muzzle flashes seemingly coming from all directions, and both sides break contact and pull back after again suffering high casualties. The long day of fighting finally draws to a close without either side having gained any significant advantage.
The Union lines now are compacted into a three mile wide continuous front, and all night long the men dig in and wait for the coming onslaught. Thoması men construct a mile long series of heavily reinforced above ground log emplacements rather than entrenchments during the night, along and just to the west of Alexanderıs Bridge Road. Longstreet himself finally arrives at Braggıs headquarters with the rest of his men about 11:00 p.m. Bragg divides his forces into two corps, giving Longstreet command of the left and CSA Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk (an Episcopalian Bishop in civilian life) command of the right.
All through the night both sides shift their positions in preparation for the next dayıs action. The Union right moves back away from the Viniard Field to the Glenn Field at Crawfish Springs Road, refusingı the Confederate line which stays near the Lafayette Road all night. On the north end of the line Cleburneıs Division is reorganized and reinforced by Breckinridgeıs Division to the right, extending the line to Reedıs Bridge Road and facing due west. Forrestıs Cavalry had confirmed that the line outflanked the Union defenses, and stays to the right to guard their own flank.
Bragg gives orders that night for Polkıs Corps to attack at daybreak in force on the extreme right, to be followed by attacks all down his line and then followed in the same manner by Longstreetıs on the left. Both corps were to hit the Union line with every man they had, no reserves were to be kept back, and the attack was to be maintained until the Union line broke.
Day Three, September 20, 1863, Morning
Sunday morning dawns with a blood red sun through the fog and battle haze, but no sounds of gunfire reach Braggıs headquarters. What has gone wrong? Riding forward to recon the ground personally, the only sound he hears is axes chopping and trees falling within the Union lines a few hundred yards away, as they continue to strengthen their positions. Continuing on, he finds the troops on the right flank drawing their rations and not even close to being ready for battle. No doubt throwing one of his famous temper tantrums, Bragg sends for Polk and his corps and divisional commanders.
Reading the naturally self-serving after-action reports of who said whatı and when I received my orders,ı it is nearly impossible to ascertain with any degree of accuracy exactly what had caused the delay. The divisional commanders all stated that they had received their final orders at 7:25 a.m., but Hill claimed this was the first he had heard of any attack order. It is known that there was some serious infighting between the Confederate high command, and that a rift over who was senior to whom had developed between Polk and Hill. Bragg himself is one of the most widely despised officers in the entire Confederate army, hated and distrusted by officer and enlisted man alike, which only increased the communication problems. The only certainty was that no attack went off at dawn, and the Union line gained in strength by the hour.
About 9:30 a.m. the attack finally gets underway (this time and subsequent ones are also disputed in different reports). Breckinridgeıs Division leads off with a three brigade front. Moving forward about 700 yards, CSA Brigadier General Benjamin H. Helmıs Brigade is the first to make contact, with the 2nd and 9th Kentucky and 41st Alabama Infantry Regiments storming the barricades held by USA Brigadier General John H. Kingıs 3rd Brigade (USA Brigadier General Absalom Bairdıs 1st Division, Thoması XIV Corps). Rather than following in line to the left, again for some unknown reason, no brigade comes up on Helmıs left to support him, allowing enfilade fire to hit him from the Union forces now to his left.
The assaulting regiments are nearly torn to pieces, and the Union lines hold fast. Helm, Mary Todd Lincolnıs brother-in-law, is mortally wounded and dies later that day. What is left of his brigade, along with CSA Brigadier Generals Daniel W. Adams and Marcellus A. Stovallıs Brigades, move further to the right and around the line of long fortifications, where they run headlong into and capture a two-gun artillery battery, and push back the extreme left of Bairdıs Division. Stovallıs Brigade finally halts just to the Union left and rear at the LaFayette Road (near the present-day Visitors Center) and Adamıs moves up to his right in the Kelly Field.
Day Three, Midday
Acting against specific orders, Polk had both sent in his units one at a time rather than as a united front, and had held back Walkerıs Corps in reserve. To try and shore up this failed attack, Walker is sent in about 11:00 a.m., with orders to attack the same set of fortifications. Once again each brigade is thrown into the battle as they come into line, rather than as divisional or corps sized assaults, and once again their attack is halted and repulsed. Another brigade commander is killed during the action, CSA Colonel Peyton H. Colquitt.
A little to the south and the left, at about 10:00 a.m., Cleburneıs Division is ordered into the fight. Ordered to dressı on Breckinridge, who is already heavily engaged, he instead moves too far to the left and his units mill about getting organized for some time before committing to battle. His three divisions storm the very heavily defended ramparts held by USA Major General John M. Palmerıs 2nd Division (USA Major General Thomas L. Crittendenıs XXI Corps), but are thrown back with very heavy losses.
This piecemeal advance of regiments and brigades continues on down to the left of Polkıs command, but while inflicting heavy casualties on the Union defenders, proves unable to bring enough force at any one point to break the strong line of emplacements. Throughout the morning, Thomas shifts his units around to meet each newly developing threat, and so far Polkıs tactics have not been able to counter this.
About 10:00 a.m., USA Captain Kellogg of Thoması staff was riding from his location to Rosencransı headquarters. As he passed by Brannonıs assigned position just north of the Brotherton farm, for some reason, he failed to see the men in their entrenched position. Kellogg reported this to Rosencrans a few minutes later, who believed without confirmation that this meant that a hole existed in his lines, and promptly issued orders for USA Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood to move his 1st Division from in front of the Brotherton cabin north to link up with USA Major General Joseph J. Reynoldıs 4th Division and close this supposed gapı.
Rosencrans had been having just as many infighting problems with his top commanders as Bragg, and Wood just happened to have been personally and profanely berated by Rosencrans for failure to promptly obey orders just an hour previous. Wood knew full well that Brannan was exactly where he was supposed to be, and despite the warnings of his own staff officer that such a move would be disastrous, decided to follow his orders to the letter. Woodıs Division moved out at 11:15 a.m., opening up a nearly 1,500 foot wide undefended gap in the lines in the process.
Just on the other side of the LaFayette Road at the Brotherton Cabin, the spot Woodıs men have just left, stands 16,000 men of Longstreetıs Corps drawn up in line of battle.
Longstreetıs men had moved up into position during the night, and it took several hours to get them fed and resupplied for the coming assault. It was not until just before 11:00 a.m. that he was able to advise Bragg that he was fully in position and ready to step off. Bragg then gave the go ahead, and Longstreet moved forward into one of the luckiest accidents in military history.
Fully expecting to run headlong into the same strongly defended line of emplacements that had tied up Polk all morning, Longstreet had arrayed his main assault force into a powerful, compact formation. Surviving elements of three divisions had been rearranged into three divisions of eight brigades total, commanded as a corps by Hood. Directly adjacent to the south stands another division commanded by CSA Major General Thomas C. Hindman, with three brigades arrayed two forward, one in reserve. Another division (CSA Brigadier General William Prestonıs) stands in reserve to Hindmanıs left and rear.
No more than five minutes after Woodıs Division moved out of their position, four brigades assault side by side in a 3,500 foot wide front (from left to right, CSA Brigadier Generals Arthur M. Manigualtıs, Zach C. Deası, John S. Fultonıs (Johnsonıs), and Evander McNairıs) across the Lafayette Road, the right two brigades smashing immediately through the his just-abandoned breastworks. Raising their rebel yells, the leading regiments brush aside what little resistance is left in the Union trenches and plunge ahead, passing on either side of the Brotherton cabin and heading for the treeline several hundred yards ahead at the double-quick.
The left two front brigades (Hindmanıs Division) move forward at the same time, but run into well defended log breastworks after about 300 yards. Moving at the double quick, Deaıs and Manigualtıs Brigades assault the works without faltering, driving USA Brigadier General William P. Carlinıs 2nd Brigade (Davis 1st Division, XX Corps) out of their trenches and back in wild disorder. USA Major General Philip H. Sheridanıs 3rd Division had also been shifting north just behind Carlinıs position, but it is also driven off the field by the fury of Hindmanıs attack.
Brannonıs men soon find themselves under attack from three sides, and pull back to the north. Woodıs Division, turning to go back to their original position, are pushed back also from the brunt of McNairıs men advancing up the Dyer Road. One after another, Union regiments on line abandon their position under pressure from the massive Confederate attack, until the right side of the line completely collapses.
The rout of most units in this part of the field becomes complete. With his headquarters under threat of capture and a wild confusion of men and horses swirling around him running to the rear, Rosencrans himself joins the flight of roughly half his army (his headquarters was only about one-half mile directly behind the Brotherton Cabin). Abandoning the field with him is his aid, USA Brigadier General, and later President, James A. Garfield. Rosencrans heads dejectedly back to Chattanooga, believing that Thoması men have been routed as well, and the field already lost. Garfield accompanies his commander north to the outskirts of Chattanooga, then turns back to try and help save the rest of his army.
Stand At Snodgrass Hill
Thomas realizes that with Rosencrans abandoning the field, all hope for victory is gone and the best he can do is fight a rear guard action to save as much of the army as he can. Leaving his men still successfully holding off Polk in the entrenchments along the Lafayette Road, he moves his headquarters and what is left of units from the right flank back to Snodgrass Hill. With the broken and shattered remains of 19 regiments and two artillery batteries, he sets up a line of defense around the top of Snodgrass Hill and the adjoining Horseshoe Ridge, under the direct command of Wood and Brannan. All are terribly low on ammunition and no resupply or reinforcement is thought possible.
Longstreet is fast on Thoması heels, and knows if he can throw him off the small hill that he can then cut up the Army of the Cumberland by piecemeal as it flees back to Chattanooga. He sends Bragg an urgent request for all available reserves, so to finish the battle as quickly as possible. Bragg replies that there are no available reserves, as everyone on the field is now committed with either his corps or Polkıs, and Polkıs men are ³too badly beaten² to be shifted to his attack.
About 1:30 PM, Longstreetıs attack opens up again with CSA Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershawıs Division (McLawıs) attack up the slope of Snodgrass Hill, from the southeast. His force nearly gains the crest of the hill before being violently thrown back. Kershaw is followed in rapid succession by a continuous series of assaults all along Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, each one being beaten back with increasingly heavy casualties on both sides.
About 3:30 PM, with Longstreetıs assaults nearly piercing his lines at several points, and his line of men becoming dangerously low, Thomas turns to look to the north and his line of retreat, wondering if the time had come to leave. Just then he spots a column of infantry heading his way. Knowing that there were no reserves that could be sent his way, he starts to prepare what defense against them that he could hastily muster, when their colors finally caught the breeze. It is USA Major General Gordon Granger with two brigades of his Reserve Corps, coming up from their position at Rossville, Georgia. Granger had observed Longstreetıs men piling into Thomas, and in a great fury violated his specific orders from Rosencrans, and moved some of his reserves up to relieve Thoması beliegered post.
Going immediately into action, they share the ammunition they had brought up with Woodıs and Brannanıs men, and jump into the line of entrenchments just in time to meet another Confederate assault. It, too is beaten back, along with the next, and the next. As sunset approaches, almost everyone along the Union line has completely run out of ammunition, and the Confederates are massing for another assault. Granger gives the order to fix bayonets.
Three more assaults are thrown back at the very crest of the hill in fierce hand to hand combat. At 5:15 PM, in the midst of yet another Confederate attack, Thomas receives word from his absent commander Rosencrans, now safely in Chattanooga, for him to take charge of remaining forces and move them in a ³threatening² manner to Rossville. He immediately passes word along to the other commanders, and makes preparations to pull out at sunset.
Just as the sun sets and Thoması men start to pull out of their positions, another strong Confederate charge sends Longstreetıs men up over the crest of both Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, into the midst of the retreating regiments. Massive confusion erupts, with many whole Union companies and regiments being made prisoner, and others managing to slip away without harm. His men exhausted but with ³their dander up,² Longstreet and Polk both beg permission to chase after the retreating Union army, but Bragg refuses.
Terribly shaken by his own severe casualties, and typically fretting over what he should do next, Bragg instead does nothing. Thomas slips away unmolested back to Rossville with the remnants of his command, and Rosencrans begins organizing his shattered army within the strong fortifications of Chattanooga. Not until September 22 does Bragg finally move the Army of Tennessee up to Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga, only to find it was far too late to finish what had started off so well.
The Cost of the Battle
The Angel of Death was ever present during the two days of vicious fighting. Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, with over 16,000 casualties among the 58,000 Union soldiers, and 18,000 casualties among the 66,000 Confederate troops. Only the three days at Gettysburg produced a higher casualty figure. Dozens of officers on both sides were killed in the close proximity fighting, including 3 Confederate and 1 Union Generals.
Most of the dead were buried in unmarked trenches dotted around the battle areas, but one private lies today in the only marked grave on the battlefield. John Ingram, who had lived with his family in this area before the war, was a close friend of the Reed family. Finding his body among his fellow slain of the 1st Georgia Infantry Battalion, they buried him near where he fell and maintained his grave for many years.
The Union army was terribly affected by their defeat here, but in their despair they found a true hero. Thoması stand was widely publicized by Northern newspapers desperate for some good news from Chickamauga, dubbing him the ³Rock of Chickamauga² for his stand at Snodgrass Hill. Rosencransı faired less well, relieved of his command soon after in favor of Thomas, for his continued displays of shear incompetence.
Chattanooga: The Battle Above the Clouds
Background to the Battle
In the late afternoon of September 20, 1863, following the disaster at Chickamauga, Union troops stream back in a near panic to their stronghold at Chattanooga. Many abandon both arms and equipment in their haste to escape the Confederate force they think will surely pounce at any moment. Amid them (and in front of a great number of them) rides their dispirited commander, USA Major General William Starke Rosencrans, no doubt wondering how to tell his bosses that earlier dispatches predicting victory in the north Georgia battle were premature at best.
Although his able lieutenant, USA Major General George Henry Thomas, the ³Rock of Chickamauga,² still holds his ground at the northern end of the battleground, Rosencrans is in a near hysteria on hearing (untrue) rumors that 20,000 or more Confederate troops under CSA Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell were on their way from Virginia. In quick succession, Rosencrans telegraphs Washington begging for ³all reinforcements you can send hurried up,² sends other telegrams both stating he can stand and fight and others that claim he would soon have to withdraw north. To complete his rushed and distracted set of actions, he orders Thomas to retreat and join him in Chattanooga, and that small outposts atop Lookout Mountain itself be abandoned as ³undefensible² and withdrawn into the city. Lincoln later remarked that Rosencrans had acted ³confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.²
The Gateway City
Chattanooga had first fallen into Union hands in early September, 1863, the Confederate force under CSA General Braxton Bragg pulling out without a shot being fired when Rosencrans three columns of 60,000 men moving southwards threatened to cut the rail line to Atlanta. At the same time, USA Major General Ambrose Burnsideıs Army of the Ohio, divided into four columns with 24,000 men, swept down on the smaller Confederate garrison at Knoxville, also forcing it to abandon the city without a fight. The two Confederate forces combined under Bragg in northwest Georgia, just below the Tennessee line. For all practical purposes, Tennessee was then under complete Union control.
Strangely enough, both forces at this time were closely matched in both troop strength (56,359 Union to 65,165 Confederate) and the controversial nature of their sometimes simply incompetent commanders. Rosencrans was considered a dangerous tactician by his Confederate foes, but while loved by his men and admired for his generalship in most battles, his own peers thought him unstable and prone to panic under stress. Lincoln himself remarked after Chickamauga that Rosencransı loss did not surprise him.
Bragg, on the other hand, was intensely despised by both officers and the ordinary soldiers, and kept his rank and position primarily by way of his personal friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. CSA Private Sam Watkins of the Maury Grays, 1st Tennessee Infantry, said that ²None of General Braggıs soldiers ever loved him. They had no faith in his ability as a general. He was looked upon as a merciless tyrant.² Bragg also was noted for his personal vendettas against his enemies,ı those fellow Confederate officers who disagreed with him on one point or another. In the midst of renewed Union offenses in the summer of 1863, Bragg choose instead to pay more attention to his conspiracies against outstanding generals such as CSA Major Generals Benjamin Frank Cheatham and John McCowan, and CSA Lieutenant General William J. Hardee.
Problems in the Armies
In the midst of Rosencrans rushed preparations, one glaring problem escaped his notice - his own supply lines. Confederate forces had cut his northern rail access, steep and nearly impassable mountains surrounded him on three sides, soon to be manned with Confederate artillery and infantry emplacements, and a low water situation combined with adjacent Confederate outposts on the Tennessee River flowing past his command prevented resupply by riverboat. To add to his woes, most of an over eight-hundred wagon supply train coming in on the one inadequate road was captured on October 2 by CSA Major General Joseph Wheelerıs cavalry raiders. Rations at this point were estimated at a mere 10 days worth, and ammunition for only about two days of fully involved combat. Instead of a fortified redoubt, Rosencransı muddled planning had placed them in an isolated prison.
On the Confederate side, things were hardly better. At Chickamauga, to the outrage of his senior commanders, Bragg refused to allow them to press on after the rapidly retreating routed majority of Union forces, ordering instead a concentration of effort on Thoması sparse force holding fast to Horseshoe Ridge. Even after Thoması men slipped away after nightfall of September 20, Bragg refused to allow a pursuit, believing the noises the retreating Union forces were making indicated they were preparing for an assault the next morning. Not until two full days later did Bragg move forward to Missionary Ridge, only to see the Union forces already well entrenched within the city below.
After some patrol and light skirmishing action on September 22 showed the extent of the Union armiesı fortifications, Bragg settled down to try and starve out the besieged city garrison. Within a few days, Union rations were reduced by half, then to one-quarter rations. Even with some supplies coming through a torturous 65 mile mountain route, constantly under attack by Wheelerıs cavalry, it became nearly impossible to maintain even this inadequate ration. Guards were posted to prevent soldiers from stealing the feed of the most essential horses, another 15,000 horses and mules simply died of starvation.
The situation on the Confederate side was hardly better, after heavy rains washed out the only bridge on their own supply line, men were reduced to the same merger rations as their Union foe. With the infantry obviously dissatisfied with Braggıs tactics and personal vendettas, as well as the bleak supply situation, Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided to make a mid-October visit to the Battlefield to shore up moral. It didnıt work as planned, as Sam Watkins describes:
And in the very acme of of our privations and hunger, when the army was most dissatisfied and unhappy, we were ordered into line of battle to be reviewed by Honorable Jefferson Davis. When he passed by us, with his great retinue of staff officers and play-outs at full gallop, cheers greeted them, with the words, ³Send us something to eat, Massa Jeff. Give us something to eat, Massa Jeff. Iım hungry! Iım hungry!²
Sherman to the Rescue
Unknown to either side at Chattanooga, at least at first, once word of the situation reached Washington, four divisions of USA General William T. Shermanıs Army of the Tennessee set out from Vicksburg and two corps under USA Major General Joseph Hooker set out from Virginia. On October 30 the forward elements of Hookerıs Corps reached Bridgeport, Tennessee, and Rosencrans made plans to assault and seize the closet ferry point, Brownıs Ferry, just west of Lookout Mountain itself. Before all could be made ready, Rosencrans was relieved of command, taken over by Thomas. Grant himself arrived on October 23, and both commanders agreed to continue with Rosencransı finally plans.
Led by USA Lieutenant Colonel James C. Foy of the 23rd Kentucky Infantry (US), hastily gathered pontoon and flatboats floated quietly down river on the night of October 27, and captured Brownıs Ferry with hardly a shot being fired by the small Confederate outpost.While engineers and pioneers hastily assembled a pontoon bridge to bring reinforcements across, Foy had his men entrench for the attack that was sure to come.
The only Confederate troops nearby did soon mount for an attack, but only about one-half of a regiment could be summoned under Colonel William C. Oates for the assault. In a twenty minute fight, Oates men were routed by both Foyıs men and other Union units hastily brought across the still-unfinished bridge. Ironically, the key to Braggıs entire strategy had been guarded by a tiny, unsupported percentage of the men under his command.
On October 28, with Bragg and CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet personally observing from atop Lookout Mountain, USA Brigadier General John W. Gearyıs 2nd Division of Hookerıs 12th Corps crossed the newly finished pontoon bridge and entered Lookout Valley, stopping at the Wauhatchie rail junction. At midnight that same night, CSA Brigadier General Micah Jenkinıs Division of Longstreetıs Corps attacked Geary, now reinforced by two other brigades. The three hour fight resulted in both Jenkinıs being thrown back and a complete Confederate withdrawal out of the valley and up on the slopes of Lookout Mountain, leaving all the good supply lines into the city in Union hands. The Confederates still held all the high ground surrounding the city, and Bragg remained confident that this was the only advantage he would really need.
The Fight Begins: Orchard Knob
With the Union situation improving by the day with fresh men and supplies coming in, and the Confederate supply problems mounting, Bragg amazingly decides to concentrate on his own personal vendettas once again. Blaming Longstreet for the Union successes at Brownıs Ferry and Wauhatchie, Bragg orders him and two other generals to prepare for an all-out assault on the strong Union positions in Lookout Valley. Longstreet duly reports for the three of them that such an attack would be ³impracticable.² Viewing this sensible report as a personal affront, Bragg decides Longstreetıs attitudeı was unacceptable. In a letter to Jefferson Davis, Bragg complained that Longstreet was ³disrespectful and insubordinate,² and reports that he plans to send him off with his corps to the renewed campaign around Knoxville. On November 4, Longstreet leaves by rail with nearly a third of Braggıs entire force.
Shermanıs forces finally begin arriving on November 21, and with this encouraging news, Grant orders attacks to begin as soon as possible. His first target is a small, steep hill in front of Missionary Ridge called Orchard Knob. On the morning of November 23, three Union brigades led by USA Brigadier Generals William B. Hazen, August Willich and Samuel Beatty storm the lightly held outpost, capturing the knob in about five minutes of heavy fighting. The surviving Confederates flee back to the entrenchments at the base of Missionary Ridge, and almost before they know it, the Union holds one of the best strategic observation posts for the coming battle. The cost was very high, though, with Hazen alone losing 167 men.
Lookout Mountain: Craven House Fight
Early the next morning, with Shermanıs forces fully across the river (but mistakingly out of position to strike at Missionary Ridge), Hooker is ordered to make a demonstrationı against Lookout Mountain, to draw attention away from the main assault on Missionary Ridge. With a low fog enveloping the mountain and obscuring the view of Confederate artillery and infantry outposts atop the mountain at Point Lookout, Gearyıs Division supported by USA Brigadier General Walter C. Whitakerıs Brigade moves quietly up the flank of the rough, boulder encrusted mountainside, aiming not to take the upper crest (which Hooker thought was completely immune to direct assault) but to capture the middle and lower reaches of the mountainside. When they at last encounter a line of Confederate entrenchments and emplacements manned by CSA Brigadier General Edward C. Walthallıs Brigade, they find to their joy that the Confederate force was positioned to repulse a direct assault up the slope, not from across the steep mountainside. In less than fifteen minutes of furious fighting, the Confederate force is driven out and sent fleeing back to their main line of defense at the Craven House.
Storming around the mountain after the fleeing Confederates, led now by the 60th and 137th New York Regiments, the Union forces advances through a furious cannonade towards the white farmhouse, close behind Walthallıs retreating Confederates. They close in so tight that a two gun battery at the Craven House itself is unable to fire upon them, for fear of hitting their own troops, and is soon overrun and captured. More Confederate forces arrive to shore up the trenchlines of the tiny battleground, but are soon routed and sent fleeing down the mountain by Whitakerıs reserve brigades coming onto the field.
Geary send word to Hooker of their achievement and asks for resupply so they can advance further. Amazed and almost upset that this demonstrationı has gone so far, Hooker orders instead for him and Whitaker to entrench and stay put. With the Confederate forces above and around them in the woods keeping up a steady fire, and even rolling large boulders down the mountainside at them, the Union forces man their enemiesı previous breastworks and wait.
Bragg, alerted to his plight on Lookout Mountain by the sound of heavy Union artillery being placed atop it, makes a fatal decision. Convinced that this action constitutes a major assault on his commanding position, he orders the withdrawal of all units from atop and on Lookout Mountain, and the valley below as well, to concentrate his forces on Missionary Ridge. By sunrise on November 25 Hooker has complete command of the entire mountain, at least by default. As a final act, men of the 8th Kentucky (US) and 96th Illinois Infantry Regiments climb the nearly shear rocky cliffs to plant their flags on the abandoned emplacements.
The oft-remarked ³battle above the clouds² in fact never really occurred, at best, it could be accurately called the ³battle within the fog.² Grant himself grumbled over the brief fightıs wide exposure and exhaultation in the press, stating that it had hardly even constituted a skirmish. In his postwar memoirs he remarked, ³The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.²
With reinforcements from the withdrawn positions around Chattanooga coming in line, Bragg has a strong position on Missionary Ridge. Aside from the natural defense of the steep mountain terrain, he has positioned his men in two main defensive bands. The first line of defense is a set of interlocking rifle pits at the mountainıs base and the second is a set of strongly reinforced breastworks nearly atop the ridgeline, reinforced by artillery emplacements.
Turning attention immediately towards his main objective, Grant orders Sherman to attack the far right of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge early on the morning of November 25. Moving forward on the afternoon of the 24th, Sherman discovers too late that the hill his men are already assaulting, Billy Goat Hill, is not continuous with the ridgeline, but is separated by a steep and wooded ravine. With his typical bullheadedness, Sherman attempts to push through the ravine and hit the far right of the Confederate line anyhow, only to be halted by CSA Major General Patrick R. Cleburneıs still entrenching troops. Even with a near seven to one advantage, the Union forces can not push through the strong Confederate position. Even worse, a counterattacking downhill bayonet charge by Cleburneıs men at a part of the ridge called Tunnel Hill pushes the Union line back to the base of the hill, and captures nearly a whole Union brigadeıs worth of men after an incredibly fierce hand-to-hand fight.
With Sherman stuck on the Union left, Grant orders Hooker to cross the valley and strike on the low ridges on the right, with Thoması men to make a demonstrationı from Orchard Knob towards the middle of the Confederate line. As planned, this center attack would force the Confederates to shift their men away from the flanks, giving Sherman and Hooker the edge they need to take the flanks.
The Infantry Assault on Missionary Ridge
Once more, the demonstrationı became the battle centerpiece. About 3:30 p.m., Thoması men move forward with orders to engage the first set of rifle pits and halt. Charging across the nearly half-mile of open ground, under inaccurate and ineffective Confederate artillery fire all the while, the Union troops quickly take over the Confederate rifle pits, earlier ordered to be abandoned when attacked in a serious tactical blunder by CSA Lieutenant General William J. Hardee. Under heavy and accurate fire from above, Thoması men realize that to stay in this exposed position was shear suicide. Ignoring his orders, USA Lieutenant Colonel William P. Chandler of the 35th Illinois Infantry leaps to the top of the breastwork, and with a cry of ³Forward!², leads his men up the steep hillside.
This is all the motivation that the rest of Thoması command needs, and company by company, roaring at the top of their lungs, soon all are in full assault uphill. Atop Orchard Knob, Grant is horrified at the sight. With the memory of Shermanıs men in full flight down Tunnel Hill still very fresh, he has a terrible vision of Thoması men being chewed to pieces and routed. Turning in anger, he demands of his corps commanders who has ordered that charge. Thomas and USA Major General Gordon Granger both calmly answer, truthfully, that they had not. Grant turns back to watch the scene unfolding, muttering that if that attack fails, someone would pay dearly. One does get the impression that he was not referring to the infantrymen.
Sweeping like a wildfire up the mountainside, the uncoordinated attacks all along the center of the Confederate lines cannot be stopped. About 5 PM, the 32nd Indiana and 6th Ohio Infantry Regiments reach the crest at Sharpıs Spur, right in the center of CSA Colonel William F. Tuckerıs Mississippi Brigade. Quickly capturing one 12-pounder Napoleon of CSA Captain James Garrityıs Alabama Battery, the Ohio men force the Confederate gunners at bayonet point to fire on their own retreating men.
Other Union regiments soon reach the crest and fan out to both sides, with Confederates only making token resistance before pulling back. With strong attacks now coming from three points atop the ridge, Bragg gives hasty orders to retreat. Mostly in ragged groups and as individual soldiers, some in hastily organized defensive postures, the Confederates stream back towards Georgia. Hooker is ordered to give chase. Cleburne is ordered to save what is left of the army, and to protect their retreat at the north Georgia town of Ringgold.
The Fight at Ringgold
Receiving these orders just before the Union advance elements arrive, Cleburne elects to set up his defensive position just south of the small town atop two small hills on either side of the rail line. With only a little over 4,000 men and two small artillery pieces, he knows that he cannot withstand a direct assault by Hookerıs 12,000 troops.
Hookerıs men pass through the small town nearly uncontested on the morning of November 27, and immediately set out along rail line south, led by the 13th Illinois Infantry. Waiting until the Union men were less than 150 yards away, Cleburne orders both cannon to open fire with both solid shot and cannister. The resulting carnage was extreme, with the 13th Illinois being shot to pieces within minutes, and the flanking regiments on either side of the gap suffering equally immense casualties.
Cleburne keeps up his defensive position until shortly after noon, when Union artillery finally arrived on scene. In less than an hour later he has his men and both artillery pieces safely off the hilltops and heading back towards Dalton. At a cost of 110 casualties, he has both stopped the Union advance and bloodied Hooker to the tune of at least 500 casualties. Many of Hookerıs own men grumble that this official figure was far too low.
Grant arrives in town later that same day, and orders Hooker to stop the pursuit. Intending to sit out the winter in relative comfort in Chattanooga, he orders Hooker to stay put for a few days, then withdraw to the north. Hooker finally leaves on November 30, burning the small Georgia town in his wake. The bitter fight for control of the gateway city to the deep South finally comes to an end, ironically with a Confederate tactical victory.
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