Near the end of September 1863, Union General William Rosecrans had gathered his men in the valley of West Chickamauga Creek in Georgia, and Confederate General Braxton Bragg was preparing to attack the Union left flank and force a reversal into a nearby valley from which Rosecrans could not escape.[i] The maneuver would be the ideal Confederate response to the federal successes at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Fortunately for the federal troops, September 18 brought Confederate inaction and allowed General George Thomas, known as “Old Slow Trot” or “Pap” to his men, to reinforce Rosecrans’ left line.[ii] The next morning dawned what would become the “bloodiest battle in the western theater of the war.”[iii]
Thomas and his men held a position that required the rebels to cut through thick woods and undergrowth to mount their assault.[iv] Throughout the day, the federals kept their composure and held the line but at the expense of significant casualties to both sides. An Alabamian described the din as “one solid, unbroken wave of awe-inspiring sound . . . as if all the fires of earth and hell had been turned loose in one mighty effort to destroy each other.”[v] With no breakthrough, Bragg had devised a plan for the following morning: James Longstreet would command his men and attack the left flank while Leonidas Polk would launch an assault on the right in the hope of piercing the line and rolling up Rosecrans’ men.[vi] When darkness forced an end to the day’s fighting, one Union veteran later recalled, “How we suffered that night no one knows.”[vii] With the rebels in possession of the Chickamauga Creek, the federals had no access to water, and few had blankets on the cold night: “All looked with anxiety for the coming of the dawn; for although we had given the enemy a rough handling, he had certainly used us very hard.”[viii]
Not all went according to plan come sunup for the rebels: Polk’s assault came hours later than planned permitting Thomas’ men to hold the left flank without fear of needing to shift men to the right to counter Polk.[ix] In fact, throughout the assault, Rosecrans had been taking men from the center and right to bolster Thomas’ defense on the left. Realizing the ineffectiveness of the two-pronged attack, Bragg called for Longstreet to “go forward with everything he had.”[x] At 11:30 a.m., Longstreet charged ahead against Rosecrans’ men—an odd spectacle for both commanders as they were roommates at West Point—and, as Longstreet approached the federal line, he could not have been more pleased with the sight ahead of he and his men.
One of Rosecrans’ staff officers had made a colossal mistake: he had failed to see a division of troops concealed along a quarter-mile of the right side of the line and advised Rosecrans to shift troops to fill the nonexistent gap.[xi] With Rosecrans already having reinforced Thomas with men from other parts of the line, the Union men had created a quarter-mile gap in their line, and Longstreet’s veterans from the Army of Northern Virginia—the most experienced army in the Confederacy—happily marched into the flank and spread a panic.[xii] The rebels had rolled up the entire right side of the federal line and sent Rosecrans, four division commanders, and two corps commanders fleeing toward Chattanooga, eight miles away.[xiii] One Confederate wrote:
The scene now presented was unspeakably grand. The resolute and impetuous charge, the rush of our heavy columns sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the onward dash of artillery and mounted men, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke, the noise of firearms—of whistling balls and grapeshot and of bursting shell—made up a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur.[xiv]
Anxious to further capitalize on the victory, Longstreet called for reinforcements to take on the remaining federal troops. Disappointing Longstreet, Bragg reported he had no men to spare.[xv] Rosecrans had lost hope and spread a sense of overwhelming defeat to his officers and men, bringing one Indiana colonel to report: “Many of the officers of all ranks showed by their wild commands and still wilder actions that they had completely lost their heads and were as badly demoralized as the private soldiers.”[xvi] Rosecrans fled from the battlefield and dismounted only once he was in Chattanooga, reporting to his superiors that there was “wholesale panic” and a total loss for the Union.[xvii]
By this time, Thomas had taken command of the remaining federal troops, assembled a new line on high ground, and received reinforcements from Gordon Granger, a reserve division commander.[xviii] Old Slow Trot, one soldier reported, was a “full rounded, powerful form” standing six feet in height and over two hundred pounds with a presence that “gradually expands upon you, as a mountain which you approach.”[xix] The rebels, many already having fought at Gettysburg, made assault after assault on Thomas’ line.[xx] The Confederates found themselves “panting like dogs tired out in the chase” from the uphill climb for each assault, and one fifteen-year-old soldier, when told that this was no time for letting fear get the best of him, wept and responded, “That aint it, Colonel. I’m so damned tired I can’t keep up with my company.”[xxi] For the remainder of the day, Thomas and his men held out, earning himself his most flattering moniker, the Rock of Chickamauga.[xxii] As night fell, in as graceful a defeat as could be obtained under the circumstances, Thomas brought his troops to Chattanooga.[xxiii] One captain wrote: “Weary, worn, tired, and hungry, we sullenly dragged ourselves along, feeling a shame and disgrace that had never been experienced by the Old Sixth before.”[xxiv] Bragg, citing the significant rebel casualties, did not chase the federals, and his lethargy had the effect of drawing ire from his fellow Confederates including Nathan Bedford Forrest who asked, “What does he fight battles for?”[xxv] The criticism of Rosecrans was harsher: President Abraham Lincoln labeled him “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.”[xxvi]
In the two days of fighting, the Confederates had lost 20,000 killed, wounded, and missing which constituted thirty percent of effectives under Bragg.[xxvii] Ten Confederate generals were killed or wounded, and half of the artillery horses were dead.[xxviii] However, the rebels had captured 8,000 prisoners, 51 guns, 23,281 small arms, 2,381 rounds of artillery ammunition, and 135,000 rifle cartridges.[xxix] One Confederate characterized the fighting as a battle not of generals but of soldiers:
All this talk about generalship displayed on either side is sheer nonsense. There was no generalship in it. It was a soldier’s fight purely . . . . The two armies came together like two wild beasts, and each fought as long as it could stand up in a knock-down and drag-out encounter. If there had been any high order of generalship displayed, the disasters to both armies might have been less.[xxx]
Nonetheless, one native of the Confederate capital wrote:
The effects of this great victory will be electrical. The whole South will be filled again with patriotic fervor, and in the North there will be a corresponding depression. . . . Surely the Government of the United States must now see the impossibility of subjugating the Southern people, spread over such a vast expanse of territory, and the European governments ought now to interpose and put an end to this cruel waste of blood and treasure.[xxxi]
[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 672.
[ii] See id.
[iv] See id.
[v] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 717.
[vi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 672.
[vii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 724.
[ix] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 672.
[xi] See id.
[xii] Id.; see also Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 736.
[xiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 674.
[xiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 738.
[xv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 674.
[xvi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 746.
[xvii] See id. at 748.
[xviii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 674.
[xix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 748.
[xx] See id. at 750.
[xxii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 674.
[xxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 756.
[xxv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 674.
[xxvi] Id. at 675.
[xxvii] See id at 674.
[xxix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 756.
[xxx] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 717.
[xxxi] Id. at 757.