|Late June, 1863, - Early September, 1863
After the Battle of Murfreesboro Union General William Rosecrans and Confederate
General Braxton Bragg
maneuver for position on the road to Chattanooga. Rosecrans begins moving in the second
half of June, 1863. Feigning a move to the left, the Federals are behind Bragg on the
right before he knows it. Faking an attack, Old Rosy, as his men called him, moves off on
another flanking move leaving Bragg so confused that he has no choice but to retreat. 17
consecutive days of rain does nothing to slow down this Union tactician who has the
Confederate troops surrounded and out-numbered in Chattanooga on July 4.
General Thomas Crittenden
On top of Lookout Mountain, Bragg's superior defensive
position is a problem. Rosecrans regroups west of Chattanooga and moves toward the city
from Bridgeport, Alabama, in early September. However, Rosecrans does not want to
challenge Bragg's control of the mountain. Again, Old Rosy looks to flank Bragg. Moving
through gaps in the ridge south of Lookout Mountain Rosecrans forces Bragg to withdraw
from Chattanooga and protect his supply line. On September 9th Union troops under the
command of General Thomas L. Crittenden occupy the city without a fight and Bragg regroups
near the town of LaFayette, Georgia. In a serious tactical error, Rosecrans decides to
continue the chase instead of regrouping in Chattanooga.
Unaware that Bragg is concentrating his men in LaFayette, and
being resupplied and reinforced, Rosecrans continues to move towards his objective, the
Western and Atlantic Railroad. Twice Bragg orders an attack on General George Thomas'
corps, once as he crosses Steven's Gap and again as he marches into McLemore's Cove, but
because of communications problems and lack of discipline no attacks occurred. With Union
troops widely spread in mountainous territory, Rosecrans realizes that his skirmishers are
running into major resistance, not the rear-guard action he expects. He orders his troops
to meet at Chickamauga Creek, 12 miles south of Chattanooga, and some distance away from
the main force of Confederates. Or so he thought. Bragg attacks the Union troops on
September 19 and what ensues is the bloodiest two days in American History.
The Confederate Army
stretched from a point near Reed's Bridge on the north to Lee and Gordons Mill on the
south, roughly following Chickamauga Creek. The Union Army began to move north on the west
side of the creek towards Chattanooga to regroup after encountering stiffer than expected
rebel resistance. On the evening of September 18, 1863, Braxton Bragg ordered
Army of Tennessee forces to take the crossings over Chickamauga Creek. Bushrod Johnson
captured Reed's Bridge and advanced on LaFayette Road. During the night Union forces
moving to destroy the bridge ran into Johnson's men. Thinking this was a rear guard
action, General George Thomas ordered a division to attack the troops that had crossed the
river. The Union division ran headlong into rear elements of advancing Rebels at Jay's
The scene of the battle was one where neither
Bragg nor William
Rosecrans wanted to fight. The thick forest limited visibility to 150 feet, less than
the range of a rifle. Cannon were useless, except in the occasional field that broke the
heavy forest. Battle lines did not exist and enlisted men made tactical decisions. Often
the fighting was hand-to-hand. Both generals realized that neither would come out a clear
winner under these conditions. Yet, just as at Gettysburg, the field on which the men
fought was not the choice of generals but the choice of fate.
With the advent of battle in such a hostile
environment the generals could do little but send in men to reinforce the soldiers doing
battle. The brunt of the fighting on September 19, the first day of battle, was borne by
Union General George Thomas and Confederate General Leonidas Polk. By the
end of the day, the rebels had little to show for their efforts. Union soldiers still held
LaFayette Road, although Thomas had to withdraw to a high point near Kelly's farm.
Ordered to make camp, the rebels could hear the
Federals cutting trees and building breastworks. As part of a larger plan, Bragg ordered
Daniel Harvey Hill's corps to attack the Union line at dawn. Hill, who missed the meeting,
did not receive the orders until that morning when a furious Bragg delivered them in
person. Ordered to begin the attack immediately, Hill delayed until 9:00am. As the attack
began, Hill's men pierced the Union line, moving on Thomas' flank. The men had driven into
the rear before being repulsed by reinforcements.
Site of Widow Glenn's House(Rosecrans'
Col. Wilder's Lightning Brigade attacked
Longstreet's advancing rebels.
Veteran commander James
Longstreet, who arrived during the night, ordered John Bell Hood to cover
his flank during an attack in support of Hill's drive. Hood stumbled into a small breach
in the Union line created by the gross mismanagement of Union generals. As rebel troops
advanced the Federal line crumbled on both sides. Caught unsuspectingly by oncoming
graybacks, Rosecrans and two senior officers disgracefully fled the battlefield. Only
General Thomas remained.
Enlisted Union soldiers ran in any direction
that they didn't see gray. Issuing orders from horseback directly to retreating soldiers,
General Thomas withdrew his men to Snodgrass Hill. To protect the men as they withdrew,
Col. John Wilder ordered his Lightning Brigade to attack. The cavalry, armed with Spencer
repeating rifles, slowed Longstreet's advance long enough for Thomas To protect the men as
they withdrew, Col. John Wilder ordered his Lightning Brigade to attack. The cavalry,
armed with Spencer repeating rifles, slowed Longstreet's advance long enough for Thomas to
reform his line. Repeated rebel assaults could not break the thin blue line Thomas
constructed. Watching the battle from a nearby hill General Gordon Grainger, without
orders, advanced his reserves, resupplying Thomas and protecting his flank. For his
bravery, Thomas became known by his men as "The Rock of Chickamauga."
His career destroyed, Old Rosy issued a telegram
from Chattanooga to his superiors in Washington saying, "We have met with a serious
disaster...we have no certainly of holding our position here." A second wire to the
beleaguered Thomas instructed him to withdraw to Chattanooga.
An interesting footnote: Rosecrans' Chief of
Staff left the battlefield with the General and decided to accompany Rosecrans until he
was safe. When they reached Rossville Gap, Rosecrans continued on to his headquarters in
Chattanooga while his Chief of Staff headed back to the fighting. Twenty-five years later
that man, General James A. Garfield, was elected President of the United States.