The land between Chickamauga Creek and the LaFayette Road was gently rolling but almost completely wooded. ... In the woods no officer above brigadier could see all his command at once, and even the brigadiers often could see nobody’s troops but their own and perhaps the enemy’s. Chickamauga would be a classic “soldiers’ battle,” but it would test officers at every level of command in ways they had not previously been tested. An additional complication was that each army would be attempting to fight a shifting battle while shifting its own position. ... Each general would have to conduct a battle while shuffling his own units northward toward an enemy of whose position he could get only the vaguest idea. Strange and wonderful opportunities would loom out of the leaves, vines, and gunsmoke, be touched and vaguely sensed, and then fade away again into the figurative fog of confusion that bedeviled men on both sides. In retrospect, victory for either side would look simple when unit positions were reviewed on a neat map, but in Chickamauga’s torn and smoky woodlands, nothing was simple.
—Six Armies in Tennessee, Steven E. Woodworth
Battle of Chickamauga: 19-20 September 1863
Forces: Army of the Cumberland (62,000 commanded by Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans) vs. Army of Tennessee (65,000 commanded by Gen. Braxton Bragg).
Location: Catoosa and Walker Counties, Georgia. “Chickamauga” means “stagnant water” in Cherokee and “good country” in Chickasaw. The popular translation “River of Death” comes from its notability as the location where the Cherokee first encountered smallpox.
The Battle of Chickamauga was the most decisive Union defeat in the American Civil War. It was the final battle of the Chickamauga Campaign, following 2nd Chattanooga and Davis’s Cross Roads. The combination of limited visibility and a tactical blunder allowed the Confederate forces to break the Union line and force them to retreat.
The Union won strategic victories in the Stones River and Tullahoma Campaigns, driving General Braxton Bragg’s forces into Chattanooga and putting Middle Tennessee in Union hands. Following the Battle of Stones River, Rosecrans spent five and a half months reinforcing Murfreesboro into a supply depot.
Situated between Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Raccoon Mountain, and Stringer’s Ridge, Chattanooga (pop. 2,500 as of the battle) occupied an important, defensible position. It is on a rail line directly through the Appalachian Mountains into the Confederate heartland and on the shore of the Tennessee River. Chattanooga is also a manufacturing centre for iron and coke. Whoever controlled Chattanooga had access to road, rail, and river routes directly into the heart of Confederate territory.
Prior to Chickamauga, General Rosecrans had executed a cunning plan in the Second Battle of Chattanooga. For two weeks from August 21, Col. John T. Wilder’s brigade bombarded the city from the northeast, within line of sight, to keep General Bragg’s attention on him and away from the four divisions sneaking in from the south and west. On September 8, Bragg learned about the massive Union force and abandoned the city. Rosecrans left about 1/5 of his 80,000 men to protect middle Tennessee and his communications lines. The Army of the Cumberland captured the city without a fight.
On September 10-11, Maj. Gen. James S. Negley’s division withdrew from battle with the forces of Breckinridge and Hindman at Davis’s Cross Roads. After the indecisive encounter, Bragg turned his attention north, toward the XXI Corps of Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden.
The battle occurred because the armies met near Jay’s Mill; they had not wanted to engage in the thick forests between Chickamauga Creek and La Fayette Road, which limited visibility to 150 yards at best.
Col. John Croxton encountered Brig. Gen. John Pegram’s unaware cavalry several hundred feet south of Reed’s Bridge Road, which Croxton thought he was following. The cavalry had been sent to investigate the fire coming from Reed’s Bridge. The surprise attack was the opening of the Battle of Chickamauga.
Rosecrans and Thomas continually moved troops to reinforce the left flank. Rosecrans eventually concluded that he had a gap in his right-centre, ordered Brig. Gen. Wood to plug it, and opened a gap for Hood and Lt. Gen. Longstreet to exploit before McCook could move his division into that position.
Brotherton cabin was an excellent choice for the attack: it had no nearby high ground, no creeks or rivers to impede the advance and some roads that could make it easier to move wagons forward. It also was directly in front of the Widow Glenn’s house, where Rosecrans had set up headquarters after moving north from the town of Chickamauga. Longstreet’s corps, along with Bushrod Johnson’s men had moved into position directly in front of Thomas Wood and began to drive forward just as Wood’s men pulled back. The result was devastating.
The Confederate push swept Rosecrans, McCook, and Crittenden from the battlefield. George Thomas’s line curled under the attack. He withdrew to Snodgrass Hill and formed his defences there. Brig. Gen. James Steedman’s division of Granger’s reserve corps arrived just in time to reinforce Thomas against Bushrod Johnson. Rosecrans ordered Thomas at sundown to withdraw beyond Missionary Ridge. Bragg then used key high terrain to siege Rosecrans’s retreating forces and Chattanooga itself.
Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Federal troops sent from Virginia and Mississippi to relieve the Army of Cumberland (see Chattanooga Campaign), affecting the timetable of Federal victory in those areas.
Chickamauga was the largest battle and the last Confederate victory in the western theatre. The battlefield is now Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Casualties: 16,170 Union, 18,454 Confederate
The Message Edit
- Headquarters Department of the Cumberland
September 20 - 10:45 a.m.
- Headquarters Department of the Cumberland
Brigadier General Wood, Commanding Division:
The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him.
- Frank S. Bond, Major and Aide-de-Camp
Successive Engagements Edit
Chattanooga Campaign (24-25 November): Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decisively defeats the Confederate forces laying siege to Chattanooga.
Atlanta Campaign (May 7 – September 2, 1864): Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman leads Union forces through northwest Georgia, defeating Confederate forces and securing Atlanta.
Robertson, William Glenn; The Civil War Battlefield Guide, Chickamauga chapter; edited by Frances H. Kennedy
Golden, Randy and Col. Samuel Taylor; Chickamauga; for OurGeorgiaHistory.com.