Above: Wilder's Brigade Monument. Col. John Wilder fought for the Union but eventually came back and became mayor of Chattanooga.
What: The Battle of Chickamauga
Where: Northwest Georgia, on the border of Chattanooga, Tennessee
When:September 19-20, 1863
Who Fought: Union(north) Army of the Cumberland: 58,000 troops (soldiers), commanded by Gen. William Starke Rosecrans Confederacy (south) Army of Tennessee: 66,000 troops (soldiers), commanded by Gen. Braxton Bragg
The Battle of Chickamauga was the second largest battle of the U.S. Civil War. For two days — September 19 and 20, 1863 — over 120,000 soldiers slugged it out over farmlands and through dense woods.
Who fought at Chickamauga? The Union (Northern) Army of the Cumberland, with 58,000 soldiers, and the Confederate (Southern) Army of Tennessee, with 66,000 troops. Chickamauga was a rare instance of the Rebs outnumbering the Yanks.
Who led the men? A couple of really strange birds.
The Army of the Cumberland (Union) was commanded by General William Starke Rosecrans. Rosecrans was a native of Ohio who graduated from West Point (the U.S. Military Academy), served in the Mexican War, then went into civilian life as an engineer. When the Civil War broke out, he reenlisted and rose quickly: he was a good strategist and popular with his troops (although not everyone liked him. Early in the war he got in a tiff with a fellow named Ulysses S. Grant...a tiff that would have consequences later). Rosecrans was quirky: high-strung, hyper, and talkative. A devout Catholic, he kept a personal chaplain on his staff and liked to sit up late into the night debating theology. Although he was usually cheerful, he had a hot temper and could lash out when he lost it.
Commanding the Army of Tennessee (Confederate) was General Braxton Bragg. Another West Pointer and another Mexican War veteran, Bragg was, in some ways, Rosecrans’ opposite: dour, grim, and unpopular. He had plenty of brains, but not a great personality. There was a story (probably not true) that in the U.S. Army before the war, Bragg held two positions simultaneously; he issued an order at one level and then vetoed it at the next. “Mr. Bragg,” his superior supposedly said, “you have quarreled with every man in this army and now you are quarreling with yourself!” Jokes aside, Bragg had a real problem getting along with people, and this would spell profound trouble for his army.
A strategic move pushed the battle from Chattanooga to Chickamauga...
Why Chattanooga? Tennessee River & four converging RR lines
Strong pro-Union sentiment in SE Tennessee because it was not a big slave territory
Why Fight Here?
The reason Chickamauga was fought at all was Chattanooga, just over the state line in Tennessee. It wasn’t a large city (not even 2500 people) but its position on the Tennessee River and four major railroad lines converging in the city made it a major shipping center. In a time before motor-vehicles, river and rail were the only real means by which to move supplies, food, weapons, and even people, and so controlling access to the rivers and rails was crucial. The city also had factories that produced resources precious to a resource-starved Confederacy.
But there was another factor, a political one, that made Chattanooga such a prize. It and Knoxville, 140 miles to the north, were the major cities of east Tennessee, and east Tennessee was a pocket of Unionism in the Confederacy. Because the land was unsuited for plantations, there were few slaves and not much support for the Confederate government. In fact, many east Tennesseans (like Senator Andrew Johnson, who later became Abraham Lincoln’s vice president) resented the wealthy Southern slaveowners, claiming they were an aristocracy that kept poor folk down. President Lincoln was convinced that if Chattanooga and east Tennessee could be wrested from Confederate control, “the rebellion must dwindle and die.”
Finally, there was a strategic move by Rosecrans that pushed Bragg into Georgia. More on that below.
A Timeline Leading to Chickamauga
Stones River National Military Park, Murfreesboro, TN, where Rosecrans defeated Bragg, after which the armies hunkered down for the winter of 1862/1863 before moving on toward the Civil War's second bloodiest battle at Chickamauga.
Picture by Hal Jespersen
Dec. 31, 1862-Jan 2, 1863. In a large battle at Murfreesboro, TN, Gen. Rosecrans defeats Gen. Bragg and sends the Army of Tennessee eking south. (This battle is commemorated today by the Stones River Battlefield.) Both armies hunker down for the winter and spring.
June 1863. After much prodding from his superiors in Washington, D.C., Rosecrans takes up the pursuit of Bragg. In a brilliant and almost bloodless few weeks, he maneuvers the Confederates south through Tennessee and into Chattanooga. Rosecrans is considerably aided by Col. John Wilder and his “Lightning Brigade,” a unit of mounted infantry (soldiers who rode horseback and then dismounted to fight) armed with the new Spencer repeating rifles that fired much quicker than standard-issue guns. Wilder had paid for the rifles out of his own pocket.
August-September 1863. After more procrastination, Rosecrans orchestrates a clever series of movements that convince Bragg he must abandon Chattanooga or be trapped. On Sep. 7, the Confederates move down into Georgia and the Union troops take possession of Chattanooga - their objective all along. Unfortunately for the Union, Rosecrans suddenly decides to stop procrastinating. Bubbling with overconfidence, he dispatches his army piecemeal after Bragg, convinced he can crush the Army of Tennessee and maybe even capture Atlanta and end the war.
Early September. Bragg is a grouch but not a fool. He knows Rosecrans’ army is uncoordinated and instead of retreating he turns to fight. Several times the armies almost come to blows; once, Bragg nearly bags an entire Union division, only to have it slip away when he sends confusing orders to subordinates. Meanwhile, Rosecrans is jittery again and scrambles to pull together his scattered army.
Battle of Chickamauga Lithograph, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divison. Note: Historically speaking, this lithograph is terribly inaccurate, but it is one of the most popular artistic renditions of the battle. One theory holds that the painter was trying to include in it the battles of Chattanooga, though landscape is not the only inaccuracy.
Chickamauga Creek, Picture by William Cook, Permission by civilwaralbum.com
Sept. 18. Col. John Wilder's Lightning Brigade holds off the southerners at the Alexander's Bridge Cossing of the creek. Gen. Bushrod Johnson drives away the northerners at the Reed's Bridge crossing.
September 18. Both armies are congregating near the Chickamauga Creek, where the battlefield is today, and a battle is brewing. In fact, some historians mark the 18th as the battle’s first day.
In an attempt to outmaneuver Rosecrans, the Confederates storm two different bridges. At the first, Alexander’s Bridge, John Wilder’s Lightning Brigade holds off the southerners. At the other, Reed’s Bridge, Confederates under Gen. Bushrod Johnson drive away the Yankees after hard fighting. Gen. Johnson is an interesting character: a northerner from a pacifist Quaker family who joins the Confederate army.
By day’s end, Bragg’s troops are massed to the east and Rosecrans' nearby to the west. Both armies are tense and watchful.
September 19. 9:00 AM. As morning dawns, neither side has a clear notion of the other's position. Just after daybreak a Union brigade is dispatched toward Jay’s Mill to corral a lone Confederate brigade — or so they think. Instead, the Federals run into a half-dozen Rebel brigades, led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a self-made millionaire slave-trader who has risen through the ranks from private to general.
The battle, as battles will, quickly gets out of hand. Rosecrans and Bragg both start feeding more and more troops into the fray, and by noon a full-scale engagement is under way.
The fighting is as intense as any in the war, men wading through a maze of trees and underbrush, sometimes mistakenly firing at their own comrades, while commanders struggle to keep their units together. Col. Wilder’s troopers are in the thick of things and Wilder later recalls, “It actually seemed a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps, and I had it in my heart to order the firing to cease, to end the awful sight.”
Battle of Chickamauga Sketch, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Divsion
September 19. 4:00 PM. All day the fighting rumbles southward, roughly along the dusty Lafayette Road. Both sides take heavy casualties but neither gains an edge. Then at about four PM, Confederate Gen. A.P. Stewart launches a charge that pushes back the Federals near the Brotherton Farm — one of over two-dozen farms on the field — and nearly breaks open the battle. But this attack, like so many before it, fizzles out.
September 19. 6:00 PM. In an inconclusive end to a day of inconclusive combat, Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne — an Irishmen who served in the British army before emigrating to Arkansas — attacks the Union left flank as the sun sinks. Nighttime fighting is rare in the Civil War, and this fight is eerie, bloody, and accomplishes nothing.
General George Thomas becomes known as "the Rock of Chickamauga" when he holds back Rebel troops for hours on Snodgrass Hill and saves the Union Army of the Cumberland. Thomas was a Virginian who sided with the Union against the wishes of his family.
September 20. Dawn. After a chilly night, during which the soldiers North and South shiver and listen to the cries of the many wounded still on the fields, the battle resumes early — though not as early as Gen. Bragg intends.
He has ordered a full-scale assault at dawn, but in a frustrating repeat of previous times, his orders are either garbled or fall on deaf ears. Over three precious hours pass before the Rebels coordinate themselves. This gives the Yankees time to strengthen their lines.
September 20. 9:30 AM.Finally, the Confederates attack. It is a massive but disorganized strike against the Union’s left flank, near what is today the visitors center. The Federal's commander here is Gen. George Thomas, a burly Virginian who has, to the dismay of his Southern family, sided with the Union and become one of its finest officers.
As on the day before, the combat is intense and indecisive. Confederate Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln, is killed leading his troops. In Kelly Field, a ferocious mini-battle erupts, culminating in a spontaneous Union bayonet charge led by a regiment of German-speaking immigrants from Ohio. Together with Minnesota troops, they drive back the brigade of Southern General — and former U.S. Vice President — John C. Breckinridge.
Gen. James Longstreet, on loan from Gen. Robert E. Lee, goes up against Gen. George Thomas at Snodgrass Hill. Two great generals -- Thomas saves his army from destruction, but the battle belongs to Longstreet and his Confederates.
September 20. 11:30 AM. Overnight, Gen. Bragg has been bolstered by the arrival of Gen. James Longstreet and two more brigades. They have traveled by train from Virginia, on loan from Robert E. Lee.
Now, as midday approaches, Longstreet prepares to hit the Union line farther south — and he walks into an incredible stroke of luck.
Gen. Rosecrans by now is so sleep-deprived and keyed-up that he isn’t thinking clearly. When an officer reports spotting a gap in the Union line around the Brotherton Farm, Rosecrans, who is near enough to ride over and see for himself, orders several regiments to shift position and fill the gap.
In fact, the gap does not exist. The officer who reports it has been fooled by the heavy forest. But when troops start moving as Rosecrans directs, they open a real gap — and they do it at the exact moment Longstreet sends 15,000 Rebels streaming against that spot.
Instead of stiff resistance, the Confederates find a gaping hole and they pour through. Caught out of position and off-guard, the Yankees — fully half of the Federal army, including a panicked Rosecrans — flee the field, rushing north to the safety of Chattanooga. The hard-charging Rebels are on the verge of a crushing victory.
September 20. Afternoon. Longstreet is determined to press his advantage. His Southerners swing north after the retreating Federals. But when they reach Snodgrass Hill — the highest part of the battlefield and one that protects the road to Chattanooga — they run into Gen. Thomas and his midwestern troops. For hours, the Rebels launch one exhausting assault after another up the steep slopes, and for hours Gen. Thomas’s men push them back. More than a show of resolve, this stand salvages the Army of the Cumberland from absolute destruction. Thomas will go down in history as “the Rock of Chickamauga.”
Snodgrass Hill, where Union Gen. George Thomas held off Confederate Gen. James Longstreet's troops for hours and salvaged the Union Army of the Cumberland. But it was not enough to win Chickamauga -- that victory went to the Confederates.
At last, with sundown, the final Union soldiers are able to safely withdraw and join the rest in Chattanooga. The Battle of Chickamauga is a victory for Gen. Braxton Bragg and the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Chickamauga was the second bloodiest battle of the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Only Gettysburg saw more casualties. Over 4000 soldiers died on the field of battle and another 23,000 were wounded. Many of these wounded later died, meaning the actual death-toll was even worse.
What happened next...
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, feels compelled to appear in person in Chattanooga to settle a row between Gen. Braxton Bragg and his men.
Gen. Bragg straggles after Gen. Rosecrans and sets up siege on the hills and ridges overlooking Chattanooga, making a prisoner of the Army of the Cumberland. A cold, miserable autumn sets in, and both armies hunker down.
Both armies are also in turmoil. Bragg’s officers, who didn’t like him in the first place (a mutual feeling, incidentally), are outraged that he hasn’t pursued the Federals more vigorously. They try to oust him, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis comes personally from Richmond to calm things down.
In Chattanooga, meanwhile, Rosecrans is shocked and demoralized — “Like a duck hit on the head,” as President Lincoln memorably puts it — and can’t pull himself together. His troops are running low on food, mostly because their main supply line from Bridgeport, Alabama, is not operating properly.
Finally, in October, President Lincoln sends his new supreme commander, Ulysses S. Grant, to Chattanooga. You’ll remember that Grant and Rosecrans have feuded in the past, and Grant wastes no time in stripping Rosecrans of his command. The Army of the Cumberland’s new commander is George Thomas, though Grant stays on to direct the campaign.
President Abraham Lincoln sends Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to Chattanooga to deal with a flustered Rosecrans. Grant replaces Rosecrans with Gen. George Thomas then proceeds to win battles at Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
Things move quickly. Grant creates a new supply line and revitalizes the army. On Nov. 23, 1863, he launches a sudden attack on the surrounding Confederates. On that day, he captures Orchard Knob; the next day, the 24th, Union troops take Lookout Mountain in the so-called Battle Above the Clouds. And most important, on the 25th, after a day of hard fighting, an impulsive band of Yankees storms up Missionary Ridge and drives off Bragg’s main force. (One of the storming Yankees is Arthur MacArthur, whose son Douglas will become one of World War II’s most famous generals.)
The Army of Tennessee retreats south, abandoning their last hopes of holding Chattanooga. Gen. Bragg, more despised than ever and in terrible health, resigns. The Union stands at the Gateway to the Deep South, and in the spring of 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman will start out from Chattanooga on his March to the Sea.
What happened to...
Braxton Bragg served out the war mostly as an advisor to President Davis. Afterward, he worked as an engineer in Alabama and died in 1876. Historians consider him a talented but abrasive man who ended up in positions he wasn’t suited for.
William Rosecrans never held another important command. In the 1864 presidential election, there was a push to make him Abraham Lincoln’s running mate — a job that fell to Andrew Johnson. (Otherwise, it might have been President Rosecrans when Lincoln was assassinated.) After the war Rosecrans served in Congress and landed a number of good government jobs. He died in 1898.
James Longstreet returned to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He was badly wounded in 1864, recuperated, came back, and served out the war. In later years he joined the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln! — and was disowned by many former comrades. He served as minister to Turkey and then went into the railroad business. He died in Georgia in 1904.
John Wilder rose to the rank of major general, served out the war, and later returned south where he became a prolific businessman and for a short time mayor of Chattanooga! He later served as commissioner of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. He died in 1917 and was buried in the city he helped capture 54 years earlier.
Patrick Cleburne, who led the unusual night attack on the first day at Chickamauga, was one of the South’s great fighting generals, but he hurt his reputation by suggesting that the Confederacy free its slaves and enroll them in the army — an unpalatable idea to the Confederate Government. Cleburne was fatally shot while leading a charge at the Battle of Franklin, TN, on Nov. 30, 1864.
George Thomas led the Army of Cumberland back into Tennessee in 1864, and in December of that year completely crushed his old foe, the Army of Tennessee, at the Battle of Nashville. He stayed in the army after the war but lived only five years, dying in 1870. He was one of the best , and also one of the most underappreciated, generals in U.S. military history.
BONUS FEATURE: Video presentation of Civil War Markers/Tablets & Monuments of Old Lafayette Road, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, by Pat Silcox. Many people do not realize that the Battle of Chickamauga extended beyond the boundaries of the current national military park. This video presentation takes us on a poignant tour of the old Lafayette Road markers...
Note regarding written history above (not in reference to video): Any pictures without attribution noted are historical pictures from the Library of Congress and are public domain property, or they are photographs taken by FortOGeorgia.com.