Monday, September 23, 2013

Battle of Chickamauga: Desperate struggle in North Georgia

By Capt. William Carraway
State Public Affairs Officer

[Second in a series on Chickamauga.  See first blog post here]

Prologue

The September edition of the Guardsmen recounted the opening maneuvers of the Chickamauga Campaign from Tullahoma to Chattanooga, and finally to the banks of the Chickamauga River north of Lafayette, Ga. By the evening of September 18, Union forces were arrayed west of the river and the Lafayette Turnpike. Confederate forces had achieved a bridgehead across the Chickamauga River at Reed’s Bridge and Alexander’s Ford, and were building combat power on the west side of the river.

Final Positions

Map of actions on 19 September.
Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust (civilwar.org)
On the evening of September 18, Union commander Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans sent Maj. Gen. George Thomas, commander of the 14th Corps north along the Lafayette Road. His intent was to extend his defensive line and maintain the Union army’s line of retreat north to Chattanooga. By the morning of September 19, Thomas’s men had taken up position in the fields of the Kelly farm. Having received a report from Union Col. Daniel McCook about an isolated rebel brigade trapped on the west side of the river, Thomas dispatched two Union divisions to investigate.

The Confederate troops McCook had encountered were cavalrymen of the 1st Georgia, who had thrown up skirmish lines in the vicinity of Jay’s Mill, approximately ½ mile west of Reed’s Bridge. Having already received orders to withdraw, McCook left the field to the Georgians before reporting his findings to Thomas. Thus, when Thomas’s brigades moved east in search of the isolated Confederate brigade the Georgians were prepared in skirmish order across Reed’s Bridge Road. In the woods, just one quarter mile south of the 1st Georgia, a Union brigade under Col. John Croxton encountered additional cavalry forces of Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest engaged Croxton with his cavalry long enough for rebel infantry of Col. Claudius Wilson and the 25th, 29th and 30th Georgia to enter the fight. Over the next two and a half hours, brigades would be sucked into the growing fight at Jay’s Mill.

Confusion and Reinforcement

The action alarmed both Rosecrans and his Confederate adversary, General Braxton Bragg. Bragg’s battle plan called for 25,000 men to assault Union lines along the Lafayette Road, well south of Jay’s Mill. The unexpected presence of Thomas to the north threatened Bragg’s right flank. Rosecrans, meanwhile, had ordered Thomas into defensive positions, only to have his subordinate launch a two-division attack.

Before launching his Lafayette Road offensive, Bragg determined to secure his flank in the vicinity of Jay’s Mill. He dispatched his reserve corps and five brigades of Maj. Gen. Ben Cheatham’s Division to reinforce Forrest. Simultaneously, Rosecrans shifted divisions from the 20th and 21st Corps. Both the Union and Confederate commanders were dispatching units without regard to the chain of command, a breakdown in command and control that would be further exacerbated by the terrain and lack of visibility.

The Fighting Moves South

Map of actions on 20 September.
Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust (civilwar.org)
Cheatham’s 7,000 Confederates slammed into the Union divisions shortly after noon, in the vicinity of the Brock Farm. After committing Cheatham, Bragg dispatched a third division under command of Maj. Gen. A. P. Stewart and ordered him to move “to the sound of the guns.” Stewart arrived south of Cheatham’s lines shortly before 2:00 p.m. in time to stabilize the faltering Confederate line. Moving with Stewart were the 4th Georgia Sharpshooters and the 37th Georgia Infantry. The Georgians were able to dislodge the stubborn Union defenders of Maj. Gen. Van Cleve’s Division from their positions on the Lafayette Road. Having taken a significant amount of ground, Stewart had insufficient men to maintain his position and was forced to withdraw east of the Lafayette Road.

Georgians Enter the Ditch of Death

Intent on finding the enemy flank, Rosecrans met with the improbably named Brig. Gen. Jefferson Davis and directed him to move his division across the Viniard Field, well south of the engaged forces. Expecting to find the Confederate left flank, Davis instead encountered the main body of Bragg’s waiting assault force-25,000 strong. In the next two and a half hours the most savage combat of the battle would swirl about the Viniard Field until the Union line collapsed at 4:30 and the Northerners were sent streaming back across the Lafayette Road. Pursuing the fleeing Union troops the Georgians of Brig. Gen. Henry Benning poured volley after volley into the backs of the retreating Union Soldiers. Sgt. W.R. Houghton of the 2nd Georgia recalled the action:

“We stood there… shooting them down… It was horrible slaughter.” The slaughter would soon be visited upon Benning’s men as they advanced into the field of fire of the brigade of Col. John Wilder, whose men were armed with seven shot repeating rifles. Benning’s Georgians were cut to pieces. Of 1,200 Georgians 490 became casualties.

A Restless Night

By 6:00 fighting had mostly ended in the Viniard Field where 15 brigades had contended. After nearly 12 hours of continuous combat the fighting was concluded, except for a rare night assault initiated by the division of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne across the Winfrey Field. The men of both armies settled in for a restless night. Despite the temperatures that plunged below freezing, Soldiers of both armies were forbidden from starting campfires due to the proximity of enemy forces.

With the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet on the field, Bragg reorganized his army into two wings. Longstreet was given command of the left wing while Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk commanded the right wing. Bragg’s battle plan remained unchanged:  attack and drive the Union army south, away from its line of retreat to Chattanooga.   

On the opposite side of the Lafayette Road, Rosecrans, having gone without sleep, surveyed his lines with the intent of supporting Thomas’s lines to the north. Rosecrans would agree to reinforce Thomas – a decision that would have fateful consequences on the second day of the battle.

Action Resumes, The Union North in Peril

Although Bragg had intended to attack at dawn, the Confederate assault did not get underway until 9:30 a.m. when the corps of Lt. Gen. D.H. Hill struck Thomas. Though bloodily repulsed on part of their lines, two brigades of Hill’s Corps succeeded in turning Thomas’s left flank. The Confederates drove south down the Lafayette Road into the Kelly Field and threatened the entire Union position. Rosecrans, sensing the threat, shifted forces from the south and by 11:30, Hill was forced back.

Union Disaster

Hill’s success worried Rosecrans, who began shifting additional forces north. In the course of redeployment, the Union exposed a division-wide gap in their line. Just as the gap opened, Longstreet launched an assault into the gap. The divisions of Davis and Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan are crushed by 12,000 surging Confederates. In the resulting stampede Rosecrans, his chief of staff and future president, James Garfield, and three corps commanders are driven from the field. One third of the Union army ceased to exist as a fighting force. If not for the determined stand of Maj. Gen. Thomas’s men on Snodgrass Hill the entire Union army might have been destroyed in detail. Thomas holds just long enough to preserve the Union army before withdrawing to Rossville to the North. Nevertheless hundreds of Union Soldiers are captured by onrushing Confederates.

Aftermath

On the morning of September 21, Confederates awoke to find that the Union army had slipped away. Rosecrans would reestablish his base at Chattanooga but his tenure as army commander was drawing to a close. In just over a week Rosecrans would be replaced by a hard fighting western general named Ulysses Grant.

Although he was technically the victor, Bragg had failed in his objective of destroying Rosecrans. He would continue to bicker with his subordinate commanders until November when he would challenge the Union army for control of Chattanooga.

More than 34,000 of the 125,000 Soldiers engaged at Chickamauga became casualties. But D.H. Hill remembering the battle years later observed that true casualty of Chickamauga was hope.

"It seems to me that the élan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga; the brilliant dash which had distinguished him was gone forever. He fought stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair, and without the enthusiasm of hope. That 'barren victory' sealed the fate of the Southern Confederacy."