by Andy Mateja

The Battle of Chickamauga was another in a series of bloody conflicts which provided a clear invitation for the South to win the war and gain its independence. The name Chickamauga was derived from ancient Cherokee Indian word meaning “River of Death”. The name lived up to its meaning…..with over 37,000 casualties in two days of fighting.
A campaign which started out brilliantly for Maj Gen William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland, turned into utter disaster through a combination of missteps and communication breakdowns.
Never since the First Battle of Bull Run were Union forces put into such a rout. The defeat of Rosecrans and afterwards Burnside, who was in a supporting role for Rosecrans at Knoxville, would have allowed the Confederate army under able leadership to bring the war to the Ohio River once again and negate the massive Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and perhaps reverse the outcome of the war.
Chickamauga proved once again that triumphs of weakness over strength, despite Northern money and industrial strength, are no substitutes for victory on the battlefield and hot pursuit of the defeated foe.
Rosecrans was flanking Bragg by left movements –first from Tullahoma Alabama, and then from Chattanooga. Rosecrans continued to move around Braggs flank using the Raccoon and Sand Mountain ranges as cover to the point that Bragg was deeply concerned Rosecrans and would get between him and Atlanta.
Rosecrans captured Chattanooga on Sept 9th 1863 without a shot. Burnside and his supporting army captured Knoxville on the same day 114 miles away with the North effectively now controlling all of Tennessee from Memphis to Nashville to Chattanooga. Bragg however decided to turn the tables on the over confident Rosecrans by pretending he was in full retreat to Atlanta. Rosecrans was so sure of victory that many in his army thought the war might be over by Christmas!
Jefferson Davis however became alarmed about Bragg’s retreat and wanted to send him reinforcements. Longstreet of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia volunteered once again to be detached from Lee to reinforce Bragg. While denying a similar opportunity to Longstreet before the battle of Gettysburg, this time Lee agreed. Davis however wanted Lee to head the relief force which Lee declined – choosing to stay and defend Virginia.
Many Georgians served in Longstreet’s corps and were eager to defend their home state. This was the first time a large army (2 full divisions) were transferred by rail to battle. During the first Battle of Bull Run, Jackson’s brigade was transferred by rail approx 50 miles – Longstreet’s forces were much larger and traveled a far greater distance. Longstreet made his move will little detection and too late for Meade’s Army of the Potomac to reinforce Rosecrans. Rosecrans himself did not find out about Longstreet’s arrival until the battle began.
Bragg was further reinforced by troops he dispatched to assist Joe Johnston in relieving the siege of Vicksburg several months earlier. Bragg’s forces now numbered over 70,000 men – more than double of what he had when he was flanked out of Chattanooga nine days earlier. Rosecrans forces totaled only 57,000 men.
Bragg wanted to start the battle before Longstreet arrived and did so with most of Longstreet’s men still in transit. He planned to attack portions of Rosecrans scattered army at McLemores Cove. Rosecrans forces were as separated as Lee’s forces were in Pennsylvania prior to the battle at Gettysburg
While Bragg was preparing to pounce on the exposed Union forces, their commander grew suspicious and requested immediate reinforcements. Bragg ordered his generals in the area to attack but they delayed and allowed the Union forces to escape the trap. Bragg tried a similar maneuver at Lee & Gordon’s Mill against another exposed Union force, but once again his field commanders failed to act.
Rosecrans now realized the Bragg was not retreating after all and hurriedly tried to concentrate his own Union army against the attack he believed Bragg was organizing.
Bragg, while waiting for Longstreet’s forces to arrive, allowed Rosecrans four days to concentrate his forces. Finally Bragg could not wait any longer and decided to move and interpose his army between Rosecrans at Lee & Gordon’s Mill and Chattanooga. Bragg reasoned that if he could defeat Rosecrans, his army would have a difficult and circuitous route of retreat through the mountains and subject to constant harassment from his own infantry and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry.
Bragg planned to attack on Sept 18th but his forces were not yet in place. This allowed the lead elements of Longstreet’s forces to arrive in time for the battle which began the following day.
Bragg tried to flank Rosecrans forces from the left, but Rosecrans discovered the intent and moved forces quickly into position- so quickly that divisions became intermixed with other corps. Maj Gen George Thomas holding Rosecrans left flank moved on the morning of Sept 19th to attack what he thought was and isolated Confederate brigade….only to run into an entire rebel division and Forrest’s cavalry.
The battle rolled on in piecemeal fashion with brigades engaging other brigades. Rosecrans on the extreme right of his line did not have accurate area maps and had no idea what was going on at the battlefront on the left. Bragg’s forces then launched an attack against the Union center and after severe fighting, was beaten back through the efforts of divisions from all three of Rosecrans’s corps.
The battle then moved further south right in front of Rosecrans position. As night began to fall the Confederates under Patrick Cleburne made one last desperate attack on the Union left which was pushed back as well. That night was unusually cold with both armies suffering greatly from the lack of fires and overcoats.
As the troops that night prepared for the continuing battle the next day, more of Longstreet’s forces arrived – five brigades now commanded by Maj Gen John B. Hood. Bragg wanted to continue his attack on the Union left in the morning to wedge his army between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. Longstreet arrived on the field that night and was assigned command of the left wing of Bragg’s army while Lt Gen Leonidas Polk was assigned command of the right flank.
Polk was ordered to have D.H. Hill’s corps attack early on the morning of the 20th but Hill later claimed he never received the attack orders. There was already bad blood between Bragg and Hill and this only made matters worse. Polk’s forces under Hill finally began the attack at 10:00AM- five hours late. Thomas’ forces beat them back with the help of Union reinforcements from the far and center of the line
At this time an accident occurred that had dire consequences for Rosecrans army. A courier from Thomas erroneously reported a “gap’ in the center of the Union line. This mistaken observation was repeated by other commanders as well. In reality there was NO gap- only that the Union division assigned to the position was positioned farther back than expected. Nevertheless, Rosecrans issued an order to have the non-existent gap “closed” by moving Wood’s division over to connect with Reynolds. Wood reported that there was no gap in the line and did not need to move as he was already under attack. Rosecrans refused to change the order and Wood, who was chastised by Rosecrans an hour earlier for moving slow, decided not to get Rosecrans angry again.
At the precise moment Wood’s troops were in movement creating a REAL gap in the center of the Union line a quarter mile wide, Longstreet’s forces attacked. Three divisions poured through the Union gap, effectively cut the Union line in two and capturing Rosecrans’s headquarters (he escaped) while routing four Union divisions, including Phil Sheridan’s.
The remaining Union divisions fought stubbornly to prevent a complete route of Rosecrans army with George Thomas stubbornly resisting attack after attack atop Snodgrass Hill. Thanks to aid from the reserve corps under Maj General Gordon Granger, Thomas held the hill until nightfall earning the sobriquet “ The Rock of Chickamauga”. He retired in the night with his remaining forces back to Chattanooga
All of Bragg’s generals were in favor of a rapid pursuit of Rosecrans retreating army……….the only exception was Bragg himself. He was concerned about the troops being tired , thereby allowing a golden opportunity to save the Confederacy to slip away forever.
The next morning however Bragg changed his mind and wanted to quickly interpose his army between Rosecrans defeated army in Chattanooga and Burnsides army in Knoxville. He assumed both armies would then retreat after such a masterful maneuver. However Bragg changed his mind again…….this time under the false belief that Rosecrans was already preparing to retreat. Bragg changed his plans and instead decided to settle in and besiege Chattanooga.
Chickamauga was the last opportunity for the South to win the war by military victory. It also set the stage for the epic battle that propelled Ulysses S. Grant to supreme Union command and the final showdown with Robert E. Lee………..