Battle of Chickamauga

From Academic Kids

Template:Battlebox The Battle of Chickamauga, fought September 1820, 1863, marked the end of a Union offensive in south-central Tennessee and northwestern Georgia called the Chickamauga Campaign. The battle was the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.

The battle was fought between the Union Army of the Cumberland under Major General William Rosecrans and the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, and was so-named for the Chickamauga Creek, which flows into the Tennessee River about 12 miles southwest of Chattanooga. Chickamauga was a local Indian word meaning "River of Death".


Initial movements in the Chickamauga Campaign

In his successful Tullahoma Campaign in the summer of 1863, Rosecrans moved southeast from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, driving Bragg across the state of Tennessee to the city of Chattanooga, suffering only 560 casualties along the way. Chattanooga was a vital city for a Union war aims because seizing it would open the door for an assault on Atlanta and the heartland of the South. General in chief Henry W. Halleck was insistent that Rosecrans move quickly to seize Chattanooga.

Rosecrans delayed for weeks, but finally renewed the offensive on August 16, aiming to force the Confederates out of Chattanooga by threatening their supply lines to the south. A major obstacle on his route was the Tennessee River and Rosecrans devised diversionary activities to prevent Bragg from opposing his crossing at Caperton's Ferry. The Second Battle of Chattanooga was part of the diversion. Colonel John T. Wilder of the XIV Corps moved a brigade near Chattanooga and bombarded the city with artillery for two weeks, fooling Bragg as to the direction of the Union advance. Rosecrans crossed the Tennessee without opposition. The terrain he faced in northwestern Georgia was formidable, consisting of the long chain of rugged mountains known as Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, which had very poor road networks. Bragg and the Confederate high command were nervous about this development and took steps to reinforce Bragg. General Joseph E. Johnston's army dispatched a division from Mississippi under Maj. Gen. Hiram T. Walker by September 4, and General Robert E. Lee dispatched a corps under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet from Virginia.

Three corps of Rosecrans's army split and advanced by separate routes, on the only three roads that were suitable for such movements. On the right flank, the XX Corps under Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook moved southwest to Valley Head, Alabama; in the center, the XIV Corps under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas moved just across the border to Trenton, Georgia; and on the left, the XXI Corps under Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden moved directly towards Chattanooga. On September 8, after learning that Rosecrans had crossed into his rear, Bragg evacuated Chattanooga and moved his army south to Lafayette, Georgia. He was aware of Rosecrans's dispositions and planned to defeat him by attacking his isolated corps individually. The corps were spread out over 40 miles, too far apart to support each other.

Rosecrans was convinced that Bragg was demoralized and fleeing to Dalton, Georgia. Confederate soldiers who posed as deserters deliberately added to this impression. Rosecrans ordered McCook to swing across Lookout Mountain at Winston's Gap and use his cavalry to break Bragg's railroad supply line at Resaca, Georgia. Crittenden was to take Chattanooga and then turn south in pursuit of Bragg. Thomas was to continue his advance toward Lafayette. On September 10, Thomas's advance division, under Maj. Gen. James Negley, encountered a Confederate division under Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, skirmished with it at Dug Gap in the Pigeon Mountains, a minor engagement known as the Battle of Davis' Cross Roads, and withdrew back to Stevens's Gap in Lookout Mountain.

Bragg decided to attack Crittenden and ordered Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk to attack Crittenden's lead division, under Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood, early on September 13, with Polk's corps and Walker's corps, assuming that Crittenden's divisions were separated. However, Polk realized that Crittenden had in fact concentrated his divisions and elected not to attack, infuriating Bragg. For the second time in three days, Bragg had been unable to get his subordinates to attack in a timely fashion and now Rosecrans was belatedly concentrating his forces.

By September 17, the three Union corps had closed up and were much less vulnerable to individual defeat. Yet Bragg decided that he still had an opportunity. Reinforced with troops arriving from Virginia under Maj. Gen. John B. Hood, and troops from Mississippi under Brig. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson, he decided on the morning of September 18 to advance on Crittenden's left and cut the three union Corps from their supply base at Chattanooga. The stage was set for the Battle of Chickamauga.

Battle of Chickamauga

As Bragg marched north to engage Crittenden's XXI Corps on September 18, his cavalry and infantry fought with Union cavalry and mounted infantry armed with Spencer repeating rifles. The corps under Hood, Walker, and Simon B. Buckner crossed West Chickamauga Creek against this pressure and bivouacked just to the west of the creek; Crittenden's corps was one mile to the west of their position. Although Bragg had achieved some degree of surprise, he failed to strongly exploit it. Rosecrans, observing the dust raised by the marching Confederates in the morning, anticipated Bragg's plan. He ordered Thomas and McCook to Crittenden's support and while the Confederates were crossing the creek, Thomas began to arrive in Crittenden's rear area.

On the morning of September 19, Thomas's four divisions were spread out north of Crittenden's position. Bragg, however, was unaware of the arrival of Thomas and believed that Crittenden occupied the left flank of the Union position. The Union commanders were equally unaware of the Confederate dispositions and did not know that they had crossed the creek the night before. Early that morning, the Confederate corps under Buckner and Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham's division joined Hood and Walker. The fighting that morning started with an attack by Thomas, who believed he was attacking only a small force under cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest to his front. The fight expanded and lasted throughout the day as Bragg engaged more and more of his force. He made repeated frontal attacks, without success, and the fighting petered out after dark.

That night, while Thomas erected log breastworks around Kelly Field on his left flank, and Rosecrans rearranged his divisions to form a more compact defensive line, Bragg made plans to resume his offensive on September 20 by once again attempting to envelop the union left flank. He reorganized his army into two wings, commanded by Polk and Longstreet (who had just arrived from Virginia), based on locations of units at the time, without regard for the existing command structures. Oddly, Bragg seems to have been unaware of the severity of the fighting that day, because when Longstreet arrived that night, Bragg told him that "the troops have been engaged in ... severe skirmishing while endeavoring to get in line of battle."

At 9:30 a.m. on September 20, Bragg's attack began with the division of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge and cavalry under Forrest attacking Thomas's left flank. However, by 10:15 a.m., part of Maj. Gen. James S. Negley's division had arrived on the north flank and repulsed Breckenridge's assault. The second Confederate attack was by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, but he was stopped by fire from the breastworks at Kelly Field. Bragg was concerned about the failure of his attacks on the Union left and ordered a general assault along the entire line, changing his strategy from a flanking attack to a full frontal assault. At 11 a.m., assaults by Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart and Walker were repulsed. Longstreet attacked at 11:30 a.m. and began to achieve some initial success.

Thomas requested reinforcements and Rosecrans began shifting units to react to the initial attacks on his flank. At about 11 a.m., Wood was pulled out of the line to carry out an order given by Rosecrans's aide, "to close on Reynolds". Rosecrans apparently believe that Woods's left flank was exposed. Woods's movement to satisfy Rosecrans's orders inadvertently opened a gap in the center of the Union line and when Longstreet's entire wing of the army arrived, they were able to exploit this gap and struck the columns of Union soldiers in their flanks as they moved. Longstreet had, however inadvertently, racked up another successful surprise assault, for which he had a well-deserved reputation in the war.

The Union troops in the gap began to retreat, carrying Rosecrans along with them, and Cooks's and Crittenden's commands soon followed. By 1 p.m., Thomas was the sole commander left on the battlefield. He received word from Rosecrans to withdraw the troops to Rossville, Georgia, a few miles to the north in the direction of Chattanooga. But Thomas was too heavily engaged to move. He began consolidating forces on Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill. The Union Reserve Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, who was north of the battlefield at MacAfee's Church, heard the firing to the south and, on his own initiative, sent Brig. Gen. James B. Steedman to support Thomas. Steedman arrived about 2:30 p.m., just in time to stop Longstreet's attempt to envelop Thomas's right flank. At about 4 p.m., Longstreet made one final effort, but could not break the stubborn Union defense. At the same time, Thomas repulsed a renewed assault by Cheatham on his left flank.


Thomas withdrew to Rossville that night. His heroic defense that day earned him the nickname The Rock of Chickamauga. it recognized that although his troops fought valiantly, it was only his personal determination that save the Union army from disaster. Bragg failed to pursue the Union forces, a strategically grave error on his part. He had performed poorly during the battle, generally unaware of the details of the battle on the first day, mixing up his command structure, and failing to command a reserve force that could follow up on his initial successes.

On September 21, Rosecrans's army withdrew to the city of Chattanooga while the Confederates occupied the surrounding heights and laid siege upon the Union forces. Unable to break the siege, Rosecrans was relieved of his command of the Army of the Cumberland on October 19. It would take the relief forces of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman and the Battle of Chattanooga that November to break Bragg's grip on the city.

Considered a Confederate victory for halting the Union advance, the Battle of Chickamauga was a costly one. It claimed an estimated 34,624 casualties (16,170 for the Union; 18,454 for the Confederates).


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