Thursday, August 22, 2013

Prelude to Chickamauga: Opening Movements of the Bloodiest Battle in the Western Theater of the Civil War

By Capt. William Carraway
State Public Affairs Officer

 Situation in the West

Image of Reeds Bridge.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Where May 1863 saw the apogee of Confederate hopes with an improbable victory at Chancellorsville, July represented a stunning reversal and a resurgence of Northern fortunes.  In addition to Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Union forces under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had forced the capitulation of Vicksburg, Mississippi effectively dividing the Confederacy in two.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans was about to achieve a strategic victory of maneuver against his old foe Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee. As related in the December 2012 edition of the Georgia Guardsman, Rosecrans had fought Bragg to a standstill in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and forced the southern army to retreat to Tullahoma.  Remaining in Murfreesboro for six months, Rosecrans rebuilt his army before launching his Tullahoma Campaign to drive Bragg from his strong defensive positions.  In early July, Rosecrans sent his three army corps on separate routes of march flanking Bragg from his lines and forcing him to retreat to Chattanooga.  The campaign was nearly bloodless and a brilliant study in maneuver.  But Rosecrans was set on driving Bragg completely out of Tennessee. To that end, he set his sights on Chattanooga, a vital rail hub key to the launching of operations into the deep south.

Approaches to Chattanooga

Anyone who has driven north through Monteagle, Tenn. is familiar with the Cumberland Plateau.  It rises sharply, dividing Chattanooga from the rich farmland of middle Tennessee.  This terrain feature provided Rosecrans with a significant challenge. He would have to cross the plateau with an army and all of its supply wagons.  Moreover, once across the plateau, he would be vulnerable to attack from Bragg who could isolate his elements and attack them with their backs to the mountain removing any avenue of escape.  To compound his problem, Rosecrans would then have to cross the Tennessee River to approach the defensible city of Chattanooga. 
To cross the river, Rosecrans employed clever subterfuge.  Sending his three corps to the west and southwest of Chattanooga, Rosecrans dispatched a diversion force of four brigades to demonstrate north of the city.  While the bulk of his forces moved west screened by mountains the diversion force shelled Chattanooga by day and by night lit dozens of campfires to lend the appearance of vast numbers of encamped Soldiers.  The plan worked. By early September, Rosecrans had crossed downstream and to the rear of Chattanooga. Through deception, Rosecrans had brought his Army within striking distance of Chattanooga, traversing both mountain and river utterly uncontested.  As with Tullahoma, Bragg found himself outmaneuvered with the enemy threatening his communications and his route of escape.

Bragg Retreats

Opening actions at Reeds Bridge.   
Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust (
Alarmed by the developments and hoping to reverse the setbacks of the summer of 1863, Jefferson Davis dispatched two divisions from Mississippi under Maj. Gen. John Breckenridge, a former United States vice president, and two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia under command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to bolster Bragg’s ranks.  These reinforcements would prove critical to the battle of Chickamauga, but for now, Bragg was on his own. Abandoning Chattanooga, Bragg retreated to the vicinity of Lafayette, Ga.  Rosecrans, exultant at the victory began pursuit.  Compelled by Washington telegraphs to pursue Bragg, Rosecrans divided his army and plunged into Georgia with 60,000 men moving along three separate avenues of approach.  Nearly 6,000 would not return.

Civilian reports confirmed Rosecrans’ suspicions that Bragg was making a disorganized retreat.  Crestfallen deserters confirmed the civilian reports and convinced Rosecrans that he was moving into terrain devoid of effective enemy resistance.  Ignoring the advice of Maj. Gen. George Thomas, who commanded Rosecrans’ XIV Corps, Rosecrans did not pause to consolidate and reinforce Chattanooga. Instead he dispatched his army along diverse routes with the intention of concentrating at Lafayette, Ga.

The Trap is Set

Rather than fleeing to Atlanta, Bragg was himself concentrating forces near Lafayette, Ga. Anticipating Rosecrans’ actions, Bragg had enacted deception operations of his own sending deserters into Union ranks with false reports of a disorganized retreat. Confederate officers primed civilians with tales of an Army on the verge of ruin with the intention of luring Rosecrans into a false sense of security. Far from the demoralized army that Rosecrans envisioned, the Army of Tennessee, swelling in size to 63,000 men was poised to strike. Knowing that the mountains west of Lafayette canalized movement to three passes, Bragg ordered his generals to be prepared to advance upon Union elements in the vicinity of McLemore’s Cove. 
Marching into McLemore’s Cove, Soldiers of Thomas’ corps were confronted by forces of D.H. Hill’s corps at Davis’ Crossroads on September 10, 1863. Despite outnumbering the Federals three to one, Confederates failed to seize the opportunity.  Thomas was able to withdraw the bulk of his forces before they could be destroyed in detail.  Meanwhile, to the north near Graysville, Ga., Union forces attempting to cross Pea Vine Creek were thwarted by the 6th Georgia Cavalry supported by Captain Gustave Huwald’s Georgia Artillery Battery. 
After the abortive attempt by Confederates at Davis’ Crossroads and the actions along Pea Vine Creek, Rosecrans belatedly realized the peril of his position.  He had sent his corps in motion along separate routes of march confident that his enemy was fleeing.  Instead, Bragg was numerically superior, concentrated, and in a position to seize the initiative.  Recognizing the danger Rosecrans resolved to concentrate his forces along the banks of the Chickamauga River north of Lafayette.  Bragg intended to give him battle before he could concentrate.

Crossing the Chickamauga

On September 18, 1863, lead elements of the Confederate army encountered Union resistance at Reed’s Bridge, a crossing of the Chickamauga creek.  Union forces under Col. Robert Minty attempted to burn the bridge but were compelled to withdraw by Confederate pressure.  Among the units present at Reeds Bridge were the 1st and 6th Georgia Cavalry. 
Meanwhile to the south at Alexander’s Bridge, Union Col. John Wilder’s brigade defended the river crossing with seven-shot Spencer carbines.  These weapons allowed Wilder’s Brigade to summon the firepower of two divisions worth of musket fire.  While Wilder was able to hold his position, Confederates secured a bridgehead across the Chickamauga at Reed’s Bridge.  Unable to drive Wilder’s men from the north side of Alexander’s Bridge, Confederates managed to cross the stream nearby at Lambert’s and Bedford’s Ford.
On the morning of September 19, 1863 Union and Confederate forces faced each other in a line running roughly north to south with the Union arrayed on the west side of the Lafayette Road.  General Bragg was resolved to cut off Union avenues of retreat while Rosecrans’ intent was to hold the Lafayette Road line to prevent the destruction of his forces.  Rosecrans was committed to fighting a defensive battle.  The initiative thus shifted to Bragg. 

Next month:  Bragg attacks and the bloodiest battle in the western theater begins.