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Valley of the Shadow – Sept. ’90 America’s Civil War Feature

9/23/1996 • America's Civil War, Battle Of Chattanooga, Battle Of Chickamauga, Civil War 1863, Civil War Swords, Confederacy, Gettysburg, John Hood, John Reynolds, Ulysess S Grant, Union Army, William Starke Rosecrans


Overconfident and overextended, the Union Army
of the Cumberland advanced into the deep woods
of northwest Georgia. Waiting Confederates did not
intend for them to leave. At Chickamauga Creek,
the two sides collided.

By Mike Haskew

In the dimly lit log cabin of the Widow Glenn, the military map wasspread. Worried Union officers of the Army of the Cumberland crowdedaround as Major General William S. Rosecrans, their haggard commander,asked for an assessment of the situation facing his troops on the night ofSeptember 19, 1863. Sunday morning would certainly bring with it a renewalof the savage fighting that had swirled along the banks of ChickamaugaCreek most of that day.

The Union army had been hard-pressed along an extended battle line, buthad refused to break under the pressure of repeated assaults from GeneralBraxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. The XIV Corps of Maj. Gen.George H. Thomas had borne the brunt of some of the fiercest fighting.Bone tired from his day’s work, Thomas settled back in a chair and napped.As was his practice, Rosecrans in turn asked each officer for his advice onthe fight to come. Each time his name was mentioned, Thomas roused longenough to say, “I would strengthen the left,” before falling back asleep.

Though Rosecrans’ army had been bloodied, its line was still unbroken,and the decision was made to renew the battle on the 20th on essentiallythe same ground the troops now occupied. Thomas would be reinforced andcharged with holding the left, which crossed the LaFayette Road, the vitallink to strategically important Chattanooga, Tenn., 10 miles to the north.Major General Alexander McCook’s XX Corps would close up on Thomas’ right,while Thomas Crittenden’s XXI Corps would be held in reserve. During thenight, the ringing of axes told waiting Confederates their enemy wasdesperately strengthening his positions.

The Army of the Cumberland had fought bravely, and there was cause foroptimism among the Union commanders. Since coming out of winter quarters,Rosecrans had brilliantly maneuvered Bragg and his army out of Tennesseeand captured Chattanooga, virtually without firing a shot. In his momentof supreme success, however, Rosecrans made one error: he mistook Bragg’sorderly withdrawal for headlong retreat and rashly divided his force intothree wings. As these separate forces moved blindly through mountainpasses into the north Georgia countryside in pursuit of a “beaten” foe,each was too distant to lend support to the others in the event of an enemyattack. With the Federal troops spread over a 40-mile-wide front inunfamiliar terrain, Bragg halted his forces at LaFayette, Ga., 25 milessouth of Chattanooga.

Bragg realized the magnitude of his opportunity to deal with each wing ofthe Union army in detail and win a stunning victory for the Confederacy.He ordered his subordinates to launch attacks on the scattered Federalunits, but they were slow–even uncooperative–in responding. Therelationships between Bragg and his lieutenants had seriously deterioratedafter questionable retreats from Perryville, Ky., and Murfreesboro, Tenn.Bragg’s corps and division commanders felt almost to a man that he hadsquandered victories by his inept handling of troops. The lack ofcooperation in the higher echelons of Bragg’s army contributed greatly tothe squandering of a chance for one of the most lopsided victories of thewar.

In the nick of time, and with substantial help from his enemy, Rosecranscollected his troops in the vicinity of Lee and Gordon’s Mill along thebanks of a sluggish little stream the Cherokee Indians had named”Chickamauga” after the savage tribe that had lived there many yearsearlier. Now, two great armies would prove once again that “River ofDeath” was an accurate translation. In the vicious but indecisive fightingof September 19, both Rosecrans and Bragg committed more and more troops toa struggle which began as little more than a skirmish near one of the crudebridges that crossed the creek. Though little was accomplished the firstday, the stage was set for a second day of reckoning.

The importance of the war in the West was not lost on the Confederatehigh command. Already three brigades of the Army of Northern Virginia,under Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, had arrived by rail to reinforce Bragg.Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s “Old Warhorse” andsecond in command, was due at any time with the balance of his I Corps.These veteran troops would give Bragg an advantage few Confederatecommanders would know during the war–numerically superiority. As theVirginia troops arrived, Bragg’s army swelled to 67,000 men, outnumberingthe Federals by 10,000.

While Rosecrans convened his council of war at the Widow Glenn’s,Longstreet was searching for the elusive Bragg. Bragg unaccountably hadfailed to send a guide to meet him, and after a two-hour wait, Longstreetstruck out with his staff toward the sound of gunfire.

As they groped in the darkness, Longstreet and his companions were metwith the challenge. “Who comes there?” “Friends,” they responded quickly.When the soldier was asked to what unit he belonged, he replied withnumbers for his brigade and division. Since Confederate soldiers usedtheir commanders’ names to designate their outfits, Longstreet knew he hadstumbled into a Federal picket. In a voice loud enough for the sentry tohear, the general said calmly, “Let us ride down a little and find a bettercrossing.” The Union soldier fired, but the group made good its escape.

When Longstreet finally reached the safety of the Confederate lines, hefound Bragg asleep in an ambulance. The overall commander was awakened,and the two men spent an hour discussing the plan for the following day.Bragg’s strategy would continue to be what he hoped to achieve on the 19th.He intended to turn the Union left, placing his army between Rosecrans andChattanooga by cutting the LaFayette Road. Then, the Confederates woulddrive the Army of the Cumberland into the natural trap of McLemore’s Coveand destroy it, a piece at a time.

Bragg now divided his force into two wings, the left commanded byLongstreet and the right by Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, the “fighting bishop”of the Confederacy. Polk would command the divisions of John C.Breckinridge, who had serves as vice president of the United States underPresident James Buchanan, and Patrick Cleburne, a hard-fighting Irishman.Also under Polk were the divisions of Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, StatesRights Gist and St. John R. Liddell.Breckinridge and Cleburne were under the direct supervision of anotherlieutenant general, D.H. Hill. Longstreet was given the divisions ofEvander Law and Joseph Kershaw of Hood’s corps, A.P. Stewart and WilliamPreston of Simon Bolivar Buckner’s corps, and the divisions of BushrodJohnson and Thomas Hindman.

Breckinridge and Cleburne were to begin the battle with a assault onThomas at the first light. The attack was to proceed along the line, witheach unit going into action following the one on its right. Bragg’s ordersubordinating Hill to Polk precipitated some costly confusion amongSouthern commanders as the time for the planned attack came and went.Somehow, Hill had been lost in the shuffle and never received the order toattack. Bragg found Polk calmly reading a newspaper and waiting for hisbreakfast two miles behind the lines. Polk had simply assumed that Bragghimself would inform Hill of the battle plan.

When the Confederate tide finally surged forward at 9:45 a.m., Thomas wasready with the divisions of Absalom Baird, Richard Johnson, John Palmer andJohn Reynolds. Breckinridge’s three brigades hit the extreme left of theUnion line, two of them advancing smartly all the way to the LaFayette Roadbefore running into reinforcements under Brig. Gen. John Beatty, whose 42ndand 88th Indiana regiments steadied the Federal line momentarily. Aredoubled Rebel effort forced the 42nd back onto the 88th, and severalUnion regiments were obliged to shift their fire 180 degrees to meet thethrust of enemy troops in their rear. Fresh Federal soldiers appeared andfinally pushed Breckinridge back.

Cleburne’s troops followed Breckinridge’s assault and suffered a similarfate. The hard-pressed Rebels pulled back 400 yards to the relative safetyof a protecting hill. As he inspected the ammunition supply of his menbefore ordering them forward again, one of Cleburne’s ablest brigadiers,James Deshler, was killed by an exploding shell that ripped his heart fromhis chest. Seeking shelter in a grove of tall pines, the Confederatestraded round for round but could not carry the breastworks.

Thomas’ hastily constructed breastworks had proven to be of tremendousvalue, but several of the Union regiments suffered casualties of 30 percentor higher. The brigades of Colonel Joseph Dodge, Brig. Gen. John H. King,Colonel Benjamin Scribner and Brig. Gen. John C. Starkweather had held theextreme left of the Union line since the day before and had been engagedfor over an hour when Cleburne’s attacks gained their full fury. For alltheir seeming futility, the Confederate assaults against Rosecrans’ leftdid have one positive result. Thomas’ urgent pleas for assistance werecausing Rosecrans to thin his right in order to reinforce the left throughthe thick, confusing tangle of forest.

At the height of the fighting on the left, one of Thomas’ aides, CaptainSanford Kellogg, was heading to Rosecrans with another of Thomas/ almostconstant requests for additional troops. Kellogg noticed what appeared tobe wide gap between the divisions of Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood on the rightand John Reynolds on the left. In actuality, the heavily wooded areabetween Reynolds and Wood was occupied by Brig. Gen. John Brannan’sdivision. When Kellogg rode by, Brannan’s force was simply obscured bylate-summer foliage.

When Kellogg informed Rosecrans of the phantom gap, the latter reactedaccordingly. In his haste to avoid what might be catastrophe for his army,Rosecrans did not confirm the existence of the gap but, instead, issuedwhat might have been the single most disastrous order of the Civil War.”Headquarters Department of Cumberland, September 20th–10:45 a.m.,” thecommuniqu? read. “Brigadier-General Wood, Commanding Division: The generalcommanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible andsupport him.”

Earlier that morning, Wood had received a severe public tongue-lashingfrom Rosecrans for not moving his troops fast enough. “What is the meaningof this, sir? You have disobeyed my specific orders,” Rosecrans hadshouted. “By your damnable negligence you are endangering the safety ofthe entire army, and, by God, I will not tolerate it! Move your divisionat once as I have instructed, or the consequences will not be pleasant foryourself.”

With Rosecrans’ stinging rebuke still echoing in his ears, Wood was notabout to be accused of moving too slowly again, even though this new orderconfused him. Wood knew there was no gap in the Union line. Brannan hadbeen on his left all along. To comply with the commanding general’s order,Wood was required to pull his two brigades out of line, march aroundBrannan’s rear, and effect a junction with Reynolds’ right. In carryingout this maneuver, Wood created a gap where none had existed.

Simultaneously, Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s men were ordered out of line onWood’s right and sent to bolster the threatened left wing, and Brig. Gen.Jefferson C. Davis’ division was ordered into the line to fill thequarter-mile hole vacated by Wood. Almost three full divisions of theFederal right wing were in motion at the same time, in the face of aheavily concentrated enemy.

Now, completely by chance, in one of those incredible situations on whichturn the fortunes of men and nations, Longstreet unleashed a 23,000-mansledgehammer attack directed right at the place where Wood had been momentsearlier.

At 11:30 a.m., the gray-clad legion sallied forth from the forest acrossLaFayette Road into the fields surrounding the little log cabin of theBrotherton family. Almost immediately it came under fire from Brannan’smen, still posted in the woods across the road. Brannan checked Stewart inhis front and poured an unsettling fire into the right flank of theadvancing Confederate column. Davis’ Federals, arriving from the otherside, hit the Rebels on their left while his artillery began tearing holesin the ranks of the attackers.

Johnson soon realized that the heavy resistance was coming from theflanks and the firing of scattered batteries. His front was virtuallyclear of opposition, and he smartly ordered his troops forward at thedouble-quick. As he emerged from the treeline that marked Wood’s formerposition, Johnson saw Davis’ troops rushing forward to his left, while twoof Sheridan’s brigades were on their way north towards Thomas. OnJohnson’s right, Wood’s two brigades were still in the act of closing onReynolds.

While Johnson wheeled to the right to take Wood’s trailing brigade andBrannan from behind, Hindman bowled into Davis and Sheridan, throwing themback into confusion. When Brannan gave way, Brig. Gen. H.P. Van Cleve’sdivision was left exposed and joined the flight from the field. In a flashof gray lightning, the entire Union right disintegrated.

The onrushing Confederates were driving a wedge far into the Federalrear. They crossed the Glenn-Kelly Road just behind the Brotherton field,rushed through heavy stands of timber, and burst onto the open ground ofthe cultivated fields of the Dyer farm. One Confederate regiment overran atroublesome Union battery that had been firing from the Dyer peach orchard,capturing all nine of its guns.

Johnson paused to survey the progress of the attack. Everywhere, itseemed, Union soldiers were on the run, fleeing in panic over thecountryside and down the Dry Valley Road toward McFarland’s Gap, the onlyavailable avenue to reach the safety of Chattanooga. “The scene nowpresented was unspeakably grand,” the amazed general recalled.

The brave but often reckless Hood caught up with Johnson at the Dyer farmand urged him forward. “Go ahead and keep ahead of everything,” Hoodshouted, his left arm still in a sling from a wound received 10 weeksearlier at Gettysburg. Moments later, Hood was hit again. This time, aMinie bullet shattered his right leg. He fell from his horse and into thewaiting arms of members of his old Texas Brigade, who carried him to afield hospital, where the leg was amputated. Meanwhile, Longstreet wasecstatic as his troops swept the men in blue before them. “They havefought their last man, and he is running,” he exclaimed.

Only two Federal units offered resistance of greater than companystrength once the rout was on. Intrepid Colonel John T. Wilder and hisbrigade of mounted infantry assailed Hindman’s exposed flank and droveBrig. Gen. Arthur Manigault’s brigade back nearly a mile from the area ofthe breakthrough. Wilder’s stouthearted troopers from Indiana and Illinoiswere able to delay a force many times their size by employing the Spencerrepeating rifle.

Sheridan’s only remaining brigade, under Brig. Gen. William Lytle, awell-known author and poet, was in the vicinity of the Widow Glenn housewhen Hindman’s Confederates began streaming through the woods. A commandermuch admired by his troops, Lytle was famous for his prewar poem, “Antonyand Cleopatra,” which was popular in the sentimental society of the day andfamiliar to soldiers on both sides.

Lytle found his brigade found his brigade almost completely surrounded byRebels. With the prospect of a successful withdrawal slim, he gallantlyordered his men to charge. He told those near him that if they had to die,they would “die in their tracks with their harness on.” As he led histroops forward, he shouted: “If I must die, I will die as a gentleman. Allright, men, we can die but once. This is the time and place. Let uscharge.” Lytle was shot in the spine during the advance but managed tostay on his horse. Then, he was struck almost simultaneously by threebullets, one of which hit him in the face. As the doomed counterattackcollapsed around him, the steadfast Lytle died.

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana was with the Army of Cumberlandat Chickamauga to continue a series of reports to Washington on theprogress of the Western war. Exhausted by the rapid succession of eventsthe prior day, Dana had found a restful place that fateful morning andsettled down in the grass to sleep. When Bushrod Johnson’s soldiers camecrashing trough the Union line, he was suddenly wide awake. “I wasawakened by the most infernal noise I ever heard,” he remembered. “I satup on the grass and the first thing I saw was General Rosecrans crossinghimself–he was a very devout Catholic. ‘Hello!’ I said to myself, ‘if thegeneral is crossing himself, we are in a desperate situation.'”

Just then Rosecrans rode up and offered Dana some advice. “If you careto live any longer,” the general said, “get away from here.” The whistlingof bullets grew steadily closer, and Dana now looked upon a terrible sight.”I had no sooner collected my thoughts and looked around toward the front,where all this din came from, than I saw our lines break and melt way likeleaves before the wind.” He spurred his horse toward Chattanooga, where hetelegraphed the news of the disaster to Washington that night.

With time, the Confederate onslaught gained momentum, sweeping before itnot only the Federal rank and file but also Rosecrans himself and two ofhis corps commanders, Crittenden and McCook. After negotiating the snarlof men, animals and equipment choking the Dry Valley Road, Rosecrans andhis chief of staff, Brig. Gen. and future president James A. Garfield,stopped for a moment. Off in the distance, the sounds of battle werebarely audible. Rosecrans and Garfield put their ears to the ground butwere still unable to satisfy themselves as to the fate of Thomas and theleft wing of the Union army.

Originally, Rosecrans had decided to go to Thomas personally and orderedGarfield to Chattanooga to prepare the city’s defenses. Garfielddisagreed. He felt that Rosecrans should supervise the placement ofChattanooga’s defenders, while the chief of staff would find out whathappened to Thomas. Rosecrans assented and started toward Chattanoogawhile Garfield moved in the direction of the battlefield. By the time hereached his destination, Rosecrans was distraught. He was unable to walkwithout assistance and sat with his head in his hands.

Had he known the overall situation, Rosecrans might have been in a betterstate of mind–if only slightly. Thomas, to the great good fortune of theUnion cause, was far from finished. Those troops which had not fled thefield had gathered on the slope of a heavily wooded spur that shot eastwardfrom Missionary Ridge. From this strategic location, named Snodgrass Hillafter a local family, Thomas might protect both the bulk of the armywithdrawing through the ridge at McFarland’s Gap and the original positionsof the Union left–if only his patchwork line could hold.

An assortment of Federal troops, from individuals to brigade strength,came together for a last stand. Virtually all command organization wasgone, but the weary soldiers fell into line hurriedly to meet an advancingfoe flush with victory. The Rebels drew up around the new defensiveposition, and a momentary lull settled over the field.

Their goal clearly before them, the emboldened Confederates then rose inunison and assailed their enemy with renewed vigor. They pressed to withinfeet of the Union positions, only to be thrown back again and again,leaving scores of dead and wounded on the ground behind them.

With three of Longstreet’s divisions pressing him nearly to the breakingpoint, Thomas noticed a cloud of dust and a large body of troops movingtoward him. Was it friend or foe?

When the advancing column neared, Thomas had his answer. It was Maj.Gen. Gordon Granger with two brigades of the Union army’s reserve corpsunder Brig. Gen. James Steedman. These fresh but untried troops broughtnot only fire support but badly needed ammunition to the defenders ofSnodgrass Hill, who had resorted to picking the cartridge boxes of the deadand wounded. For two days, Granger had guarded the Rossville Road north ofthe battlefield. By Sunday afternoon, he was itching to get into thefight. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he bellowed, “I am goingto Thomas, orders or no orders.”

At one point, the marauding Rebels actually seized the crest of SnodgrassHill, planting their battle flag upon it. But thanks to numerous instancesof individual heroism, the stubborn Yankees heaved them back. No singleact of bravery was more spectacular than that of Steedman himself, whograbbed the regimental colors of a unit breaking for the rear and shouted:”Go back boys, go back. but the flag can’t go with you!”

As daylight began to fade, Thomas rode to the left to supervise thewithdrawal of his remaining forces from the field, leaving Granger incommand on Snodgrass Hill. Longstreet had committed Preston’s division inan all-out final attempt to carry the position, and the movement towardMcFarland’s Gap began while Preston’s assaults were in progress. Theprotectors of Snodgrass Hill were out of ammunition again, and Granger’sorder to fix bayonets and charge flashed along the lines of the 21st and89th Ohio and the 22nd Michigan, the last three regiments left there. Thedesperate charge accomplished little save a few extra minutes for the restof the army. While the last 563 Union soldiers on the hill were rounded upby Preston’s Confederates, the long night march to Chattanooga began forthose fortunate enough to escape. By Longstreet’s own estimate, he hadordered 25 separate assaults against Thomas before meeting with success.

The tenacity of the defense of Horseshoe Ridge bought the Army of theCumberland precious time. It also contributed to Bragg’s unwillingness tobelieve his forces had won a great victory and might follow it up bysmashing into the demoralized Federals at daybreak. Not even the lustycheers of his soldiers all along the line were enough to convince theircommander. Bragg was preoccupied with the staggering loss of 17,804casualties, 2,389 of them killed, 13,412 wounded and 2,003 missing or takenprisoner. The Union army, after suffering 16,179 casualties, 1,656 dead,9,749 wounded and 4,774 missing or captured, retired behind Chattanooga’sdefenses without further molestation.

History has been less than kind to Bragg, not without cause. Trueenough, over a quarter of his effective force was lost at Chickamauga.Nevertheless, at no other time in four years of fighting was there agreater opportunity to follow up a stunning battlefield triumph with thepursuit of such a beaten foe. Had Bragg attacked and destroyed Rosecranson September 21, there would have been little to stop an advance all theway to the Ohio River. Bragg, however, was true to form. As at Perryvilleand Murfreesboro before, he quickly allowed victory to become hollow.

Rosecrans, on the other hand, had seen one mistaken order wreck hismilitary reputation and almost destroy his army. His nearly flawlesscampaign of the spring and summer had ended with the Army of the Cumberlandholed up in Chattanooga and the enemy tightening the noose by occupying thehigh ground of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Lincoln lost faithin “old Rosey’s” ability to command, saying he appeared “stunned andconfused, like a duck hit on the head.”

Chickamauga, the costliest two-day battle of the entire war, proved aspawning ground of lost Confederate opportunity. While Bragg laid siege toChattanooga with an army inadequate to do the job, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S.Grant, the hero of Vicksburg, was given overall command in the West and setabout changing the state of affairs. Reinforcements poured in from eastand west. During the November campaign to raise the siege, the Army of theCumberland evened the score with the rebels in an epic charge up MissionaryRidge. And when Union soldiers next set foot on the battlefield ofChickamauga, they were on their way to Atlanta.

Chattanooga, Tenn., native Mike Haskew is a frequent contributor toEmpire Press publications. As further reading, see Glenn Tucker’s classicChickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West or William M. Lamers’ The Edgeof Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A.