"CHICKAMAUGA – THE WESTERN CATACLYSM" Top 5 Page for this destination Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park by mtncorg

Chickamauga translates from the original Cherokee into “River of Death”. On the days of 19-20 September 1863, these words rang true. Here in the woods and fields around Chickamauga Creek, more men fell in battle than any other battle during the Civil War except for Gettysburg: Federal casualties 16,179/28 %; Confederate casualties 16,986/25 %. In comparison, at Gettysburg, Federal losses were 17,684/21 % while for the Confederates losses were 22,638/30%. Gettysburg was a three-day affair, while here, the combat raged for two full days – for the most part.

The battle was – like at Gettysburg – a meeting engagement. There was no script for the sequence of events from the beginning. Braxton Bragg, the Confederate commander, was in the process of receiving reinforcements in the form of Pete Longstreet’s corps on loan from Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia which gave the Army of Tennessee – Bragg’s force – a rare superiority in numbers over their Federal foes. Bragg had been trying to get at isolated Federal units of the Army of the Cumberland for the last week. A rough script had been written beforehand by Bragg in that he had spent 18 September trying to bring his enlarged force into position to cut off the Federals from their supply base to the north – Chattanooga. His adversary, William Rosecrans, was trying to unite his scattered army and regroup back towards Chattanooga in response to the Rebel reinforcement. Bragg’s plan went awry on the 18th when his forces were delayed in crossing Chickamauga Creek by Federal cavalry and mounted infantry units. On the morning of the 19th, Federal and Confederate forces came together and the fighting escalated so quickly that all Bragg and Rosecrans could do was to try to reacted to events and feed reinforcements into the fray piecemeal. Ebb and flow went both ways the first day – first a Federal push followed by a Confederate counteraction. The morning’s actions were centered on the woods and fields lying along Brotherton Road. Later in the afternoon, the battlefield expanded to Viniard and Brotherton Fields where significant Confederate breakthroughs occurred. Federal reinforcements, along with Rebel failure to follow up their success with reinforcements of their own, led to the Union line being sealed up. The first day ended with a rare Civil War night attack on the Federal left which ended up disrupting the successful Rebels as much as their Union defenders. Day one ended with both sides bloodied but fully ready to continue the next day.

Bragg planned an all-out assault for day two which was to start as a rolling wave – first rolling in on the Union left and moving from north to south. The attack was to begin at daybreak. Command control broke down, however, mostly because of ongoing problems between Bragg and his subordinate commanders. The attack on the Federal left did not come off until mid-morning. Some fleeting success was achieved against the far left, but most of the Confederate efforts were wasted against Union lines that had been given needed time to create rough breastworks of fallen timber. The success that did occur, while not creating any lasting hole in the Federal line, did lead to several Federal counter movements and misunderstandings which did lead to more significant events.

In response to the attacks on the Union left, Rosecrans made several moves. He began sending units from both the center of the Federal line and the reserves he was holding back. In the confusion, he had division pull out of the line around Brotherton Field just as a new Confederate attack was getting underway.

Our knowledge of Civil War frontal assaults is colored by the abject failure of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg – and perhaps by Burnside at Fredericksburg, as well. Vainglorious waves of men destroyed by superior firepower. That memory is not wholly true. Frontal assaults could work when enough strength was amassed. One of the masters of the frontal assault was Peter Longstreet who was commanding the left wing of the Confederate army this day. He launched a five division assault on the Federal positions around Brotherton Field. The attack was strong enough to have succeeded on its own, but with the withdrawal of Union troops just at the moment of the attack, the assault tore away the center of the Federal line. With the rupture of the center, the Federal right soon collapsed in turn washing their commander – Rosecrans – off the battlefield in their wake. Interestingly, while Rosecrans left – this would cost him his job – his chief of staff, Brigadier General James Garfield, made an exciting ride through the chaos to Thomas on the Federal left to apprise him of events. After the war, Garfield would use his ride here to go all the way to the White House.

With the Federal army in total disarray, the weak Confederate command structure allowed their victory to be whittled down significantly in size. Instead of moving to take the Federal left from the rear, Rebel units spent the rest of the afternoon attacking an ad hoc Union line that had been thrown up on Horseshoe Ridge. The Federals finally retreated from both the Ridge and their positions on the left at the end of the afternoon and were allowed to withdraw towards Chattanooga in battered but reasonable shape, all things considered.

A significant chance for the Confederacy had been squandered – maybe the last true chance for the South to determine its future with its own forces. Bragg’s army pushed Rosecrans back to Chattanooga, but with Federal reinforcements and a new Union commander – U.S. Grant – Bragg’s options had once again faded. Longstreet’s corps was pulled away and a Federal frontal assault on weakened Rebel positions on Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga turned the tables on Bragg. His defeat would set the table for the successful Union drive on Atlanta in 1864 – the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

Chickamauga was a soldier’s battle. There are no grand equestrian statues of generals here – only one general, Bushrod Johnson, has his likeness immortalized here and that monument is a very recent addition. The battlefield was the first battlefield preserved at a Federal level – 1890. The park was part of the Department of War until 1933 when the National Park Service took over. As at Gettysburg, a granite forest has sprung up. Almost every Union regiment that took part in the battle and most of the Southern States have erected monuments memorializing the actions of the men here in 1863. Most monuments can be visited by driving on park roads- the park’s auto tour offers a good overview of the battle. Several monuments can only be visited by hiking through the fields and forests. The battlefield is far-flung and the events that took place can be confusing. To make sense of it all I recommend four very good sources to browse before and after your visit:

Trailhead Graphics %L[www.trailhead graphics.com]Chickamauga National Military Park%L* topographical map which shows all of the monuments and an overview of the actions.

David Powell and David Friedrich’s “The Maps of Chickamauga” – this might give the best graphical explanation of what was a very confusing battle. The maps show unit movement by regiment in most cases and the explanation given by Powell is almost as good as …

Peter Cozzen’s “This Terrible Sound” – long considered the best blow-by-blow account of the battle – though the accompanying maps are nowhere a substitute for the last book. Cozzen’s has written a trilogy on the Army of the Cumberland with a book covering Stones River – “No Better Place To Die” – and Missionary Ridge – “The Shipwreck Of Their Hopes” – and all three are very worthwhile.

Last is Matt Spruil’s “Guide to the Battle of Chickamauga” – this is a staff ride guidebook in which it takes you to various stops where you can learn more about the actions that took place from the soldiers who fought the fight from their official after-battle reports.

As significant in its outcome as Gettysburg, Chickamauga is a much quieter place to visit. No one is going around on Segways or large horse tour groups. No tour guides - who passed elaborate tests – to take you around. Here, you are on your own.

  • Last visit to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park: Sep 2012
  • Intro Updated Mar 28, 2014
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Comments (2)

  • isolatedpawn's Profile Photo
    Aug 20, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    Well done! Sounds like Braveheart! War war is stupid.

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Aug 20, 2013 at 3:08 PM

    An interesting, detailed account of the battle history. As a one-time radio operator I have often wondered how these armies managed to maintain communications before the invention of radio, and I suppose the answer is that they did it on horseback or not at all, hence the confusion on this battlefield and missed opportunities on both sides.

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