John Bell Hood’s success at Chickamauga proves costly
The Confederacy suffered three staggering military disasters in July 1863. Stunned Southerners struggled to grasp the unthinkable. General Robert E. Lee was human after all; Gettysburg proved that conclusively. Bastions believed unconquerable could be breached; the loss of Vicksburg left no room for doubt. And the precipitate retreat of General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee from Middle Tennessee to Chattanooga before Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ advancing Army of the Cumberland showed how readily huge swaths of the Confederate heartland could be sliced away with hardly a fight. Desperate measures were needed to arrest the people’s descent from disillusion to defeatism. Lost ground must be recovered, and soon. A counteroffensive against Rosecrans offered a good prospect for success, but only if Bragg were reinforced. With that end in mind, President Jefferson Davis ordered an unprecedented interdepartmental transfer of troops to the Army of Tennessee. In early September two divisions from Mississippi and Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner’s Corps from East Tennessee joined Bragg. On the way from the Army of Northern Virginia were the divisions of Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw and Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, under the command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.
General Hood could have remained behind. By any reckoning one of the finest division commanders in the Confederate Army, the 33-year-old Kentuckian had been struck below the left elbow by a shell fragment at Gettysburg. For a month he lay in hospitals in Staunton and Charlottesville, Va., his thoughts fixed on the pretty but fickle young Richmond socialite Sally “Buck” Preston.
The night before the troop trains carrying Hood’s Division left Richmond, he met his lieutenants for the first time since Gettysburg. Hood was pale and weak, and his wound still pained him. He had come to bid his officers farewell, but yielded instead to their plea that he return to command. The next morning he put his horse on the train and saw his men off; he had one matter to settle before joining them at Petersburg for the journey west—winning Sally Preston’s hand in marriage.
Hood returned to the depot in a carriage with Sally. Before boarding the train he proposed. Sally answered neither yes nor no, so he persisted. “I am engaged to you,” he told her as though issuing a field command. “I am not engaged to you,” she countered. There, for the time being, the matter rested. Undoubtedly Hood thought long and often of Sally on the ride to Tennessee, and his disappointment must have been great.
The diarist Mary Chesnut first met Hood during his stay in Richmond. He reminded her of Don Quixote, rather than the beau-ideal of a soldier Chesnut had expected. “He is tall, thin, and shy; has blue eyes and light hair; a tawny beard, and a vast amount of it covering the lower part of his face, the whole appearance that of awkward strength.” He would need every ounce of that strength in the days ahead.
As the troop trains crawled across the Carolinas and into northern Georgia, the contest between Rosecrans and Bragg coalesced. In early September Rosecrans crossed the Tennessee River along a wide front stretching far below Chattanooga, compelling Bragg to abandon the city. Rather than withdrawing toward Atlanta as Rosecrans expected, Bragg gathered his forces at Lafayette, Ga., with the intent of defeating the Union corps of Major Generals Alexander McD. McCook and George H. Thomas as they emerged from the mountain country south of Chattanooga. But the sluggish performance of insubordinate lieutenants foiled Bragg’s plans. Alerted to Bragg’s presence, Rosecrans hastily sidled the two corps north in a race to reach Chattanooga before Bragg blocked the way.
On the afternoon of September 17, Hood’s famed Texas Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Jerome B. Robertson, chugged into Catoosa Station at Ringgold, Ga.. Brig. Gen. Henry Benning was a few hours behind with his Georgia brigade. Hood himself was still a day away, and Longstreet, traveling with Kershaw’s Division, was at least 48 hours out.
Ten miles west of Ringgold, the contending armies drew nearer to battle. The Army of the Cumberland, now largely reassembled, hurried along the LaFayette Road toward Chattanooga. By nightfall Rosecrans’ lead division was at Lee and Gordon’s Mill on the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, 15 miles short of the city. Bragg planned to cross Chickamauga Creek on the morning of September 18, interpose his army between Rosecrans and Chattanooga, and then sweep south, driving the Federals into McLemore’s Cove, a V-shaped valley from which there could be no escape.
Hood arrived in Ringgold shortly after noon on September 18 in dramatic fashion. As the train creaked into the station, a courier from Hood’s new commanding general handed him an urgent summons. Angry that Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, whose division was to have crossed Chickamauga Creek at Reed’s Bridge at dawn, had been unable to fight his way across in the face of spirited resistance from a Union cavalry brigade, Bragg ordered Hood to relieve Johnson as commander of the army’s right column. Hood hurried to the freight car that held his horse. With his left arm in a sling, he mounted, holding onto the reins with his right hand. Hood applied the spurs, and his horse leapt from the train and galloped out the Reed’s Bridge road.
Hood’s old brigade formed part of Johnson’s stalled column, and a thousand cheering Texans greeted the general when he reached the front at 3 p.m. After a brief exchange of greetings, Hood assumed command just as a regiment of Tennesseans raised the Rebel yell and pounded over the bridge. Hood said it was his decision to bring up artillery and send flanking units splashing across the creek that turned the tide. In truth, the Federal cavalry had withdrawn after its commander realized he had held the position three hours longer than ordered.
On the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, Hood found a disquieting landscape of dark forests, briar-laced thickets, gloomy cedar brakes and carelessly cultivated cornfields scratched from the surrounding timber. He had no good map of the ground and probably no guide. Except for Jay’s Mill a half-mile west of Reed’s Bridge, there were no landmarks to orient him. Beyond an understanding that he should attack south, Hood knew little of Bragg’s plans. The best he could do was drive the Federals before him and hope his movements conformed to the commanding general’s intentions. Bushrod Johnson apparently had little more to offer. He wanted to march west from Jay’s Mill along the Brotherton Road before turning south, but Hood elected to follow the Jay’s Mill Road due south after the fleeing Union cavalry.
Hood’s decision was understandable, but may have cost the Confederates a golden opportunity to deal Rosecrans an early and perhaps decisive blow. The Brotherton Road terminated at the LaFayette Road, over which Rosecrans was hurrying toward Chattanooga. Had Hood followed the Brotherton road to its end before swinging south, he would have forced Rosecrans to fight with his army strung out for miles in a long and unwieldy march column. As it was, Hood pushed down the Jay’s Mill Road to Alexander’s Bridge, where he turned the flank of Brig. Gen. John T. Wilder, whose mounted infantry brigade guarded the crossing site. Near Alexander’s Bridge, Hood was joined by a brigade from Lt. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest’s cavalry corps. From there Hood and Forrest drove their five brigades—all there was of Bragg’s grand enveloping force on the west bank of Chickamauga Creek—hard in the direction of Lee and Gordon’s Mill. The sun had gone down and a chill bit the air. As the last hint of twilight melted into darkness, skirmishers from Johnson’s lead brigade ran into a fire so sharp and steady it caused Johnson to halt and begin the tedious process of deploying his 21/2-mile-long divisional march column into line of battle.
Hood and Johnson had come up against the Spencer repeating rifles of Wilder’s brigade. The unexpected opposition unnerved Johnson, who feared the entire Union army had surrounded him. Although not spooked like Johnson, Hood himself was confused; he thought they had driven the enemy seven miles, when in fact they had advanced fewer than two. With no desire to press on over strange ground in the dark, Hood let Johnson bivouac for the night where it stood, 800 yards east of the Viniard Farm and half a mile short of the LaFayette Road.
Hood and Johnson had followed Bragg’s vague instructions as best they could, but in doing so created serious problems of command and control. During the early hours of September 19, Bragg assembled his army on the east bank of Chickamauga Creek, fronting the LaFayette Road. Hood’s position compelled Bragg to place the reserve corps of Maj. Gen. W.H.T. Walker on the extreme right of the army rather than in the center as he intended. More important, it forced Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Corps into a tiny pocket on the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, with the creek on three sides and Johnson’s Division on the fourth. For this awkward alignment, Hood was blameless; halting east of the Viniard Farm had been the only prudent course of action.
The second and third brigades of Hood’s Division, commanded respectively by Colonel James Sheffield and Brig. Gen. Henry Benning, came on the field during the early morning hours of September 19. Hood fed them into line with Robertson’s Brigade on the right of Johnson’s Division. Bragg ordered Hood, in Longstreet’s absence, to assume command of what now amounted to a provisional corps.
Bragg’s plan of battle called for an attack by Walker, Hood and Buckner’s Corps against Rosecrans’s left flank, which he supposed to be at Lee and Gordon’s Mill. Nothing went as planned. An all-night march had brought Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s Union corps three miles farther north than Bragg expected. The battle opened at daybreak with an unexpected clash between a lone Federal brigade seeking water near Jay’s Mill and a regiment of Confederate cavalry. What was to have been a concerted three-corps envelopment deteriorated into a progression of piecemeal lunges blunted by Federal units swinging into line east of the LaFayette Road.
The battle came to Hood at 2 p.m., when the lead brigade of Union Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’ division ran into Bushrod Johnson’s lines in tangled forest north of the Viniard Farm, on the east side of the Lafayette Road. No sooner had fighting broken out on Johnson’s front than Bragg ordered Hood to relieve pressure on Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheat-ham’s Division, which was locked in a stalemate a half-mile to the north. Hood directed Johnson to extricate himself from his chance clash and wheel to the northwest. That was the last Hood saw of Johnson, who battered his command against the Federal center for the remainder of the afternoon.
Hood had intended to follow Johnson with Law’s Division, but Davis’ Federals drew him into four hours of senseless slaughter around the Viniard Farm. Once again, Hood ran up against Wilder’s Spencer rifles, defending the western edge of the Viniard fields from behind temporary breastworks. The slaughter was terrific. Robertson hurled his brigade against the nonstop Federal volleys first. After he withdrew, Benning came up. He held on longer and suffered accordingly. Seventeen of 23 officers in the 20th Georgia were cut down; the enlisted men fell in equal proportion. Nobody could withstand such punishment, and as the sun touched the treetops west of the Viniard fields, Benning’s Georgians streamed rearward. Hood’s men had been unable to break the Union lines, but that didn’t shake his confidence in them. “My men [did not] have a single wagon, or even an ambulance in which to convey the wounded. They were destitute of almost everything, I might say, except pride, spirit, and forty rounds of ammunition to the man.”
In contrast, Hood found the morale of the high command of the Army of Tennessee woefully lacking. That night he rode to Bragg’s headquarters, not in response to a summons from the commanding general, but because in Virginia subordinate commanders personally reported the status of their units to General Lee after a day’s battle. It was Hood’s first meeting with many of the principal officers of the Western army. “To my surprise, not one spoke in a sanguine tone regarding the result of the battle in which we were then engaged,” he recalled. Hood noticed his boyhood friend Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge sitting hunched over on the root of a tree, a heavy black-slouch hat hiding his face. Hood tried to strike up a conversation with the listless Kentuckian, who kept silent until Hood said he was sure they would beat the Yankees in the morning. Springing to his feet, Breckinridge exclaimed, “My dear Hood, I am delighted to hear you say so. You give me renewed hope. God grant it may be so.”
Longstreet reached the field of battle that night, reporting to Bragg shortly after Hood departed. To Longstreet’s surprise, Bragg gave him command of half the army. Bragg had decided to completely reorganize his forces in the face of the enemy. The Army of Tennessee would fight on September 20 as two grand wings. Bragg chose Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk to command the right wing and Longstreet to lead the left. While less bizarre than his organizational reshuffling, Bragg’s battle plan lacked creativity “The left wing was to await the attack by the right, take it up promptly when made, and the whole line was then to be pushed vigorously and persistently against its extent,” he later explained. Rosecrans’ army remained arrayed along the LaFayette Road fronting east. In effect, Bragg was sticking to his original plan of turning the Federal left and pushing Rosecrans south into McLemore’s Cove.
Longstreet massed most of his command opposite the Brotherton Woods, where his frontline commanders said heavy Federal forces were concentrated. He assembled an attacking column five brigades deep in dense forest 300 yards east of the Brotherton cabin. Bushrod Johnson’s division would lead the way with two brigades up and one in reserve. Hood also deployed his own division, still commanded by Evander Law, with two brigades forward and one back. Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw placed his two-brigade division behind Law. Nearly 11,000 men occupied a front of just over a quarter mile wide. Longstreet turned the column over to Hood, giving him his greatest battlefield responsibility to date.
One of Longstreet’s first acts that morning had been to pay Hood a visit. It proved the ideal tonic for both. Unlike Breck-inridge, Longstreet shared Hood’s absolute confidence in the battle’s outcome. “I could but exclaim that I was rejoiced to hear him so express himself, as he was the first general I had met since my arrival who talked of victory,” Hood recalled.
September 20 began inauspiciously for the Confed-erates. Polk, who was to open the battle at daybreak, dithered until nearly 9:30. When they came, his poorly coordinated attacks—conducted one brigade at a time—hardly dented the Union lines. It fell to Longstreet to inject life into the Confederate assault. At 11:10, he ordered Hood to advance. At that very moment, the Federal division defending the Brotherton Woods pulled out of the line, a consequence of garbled orders from Rosecrans. Bushrod Johnson punched through the gap. As he drove due west toward the Dyer field, Hood brought Law’s Division forward to extend Johnson’s right and silence troublesome enfilading fire from a Federal brigade north of the Brotherton Farm. His decision was a tactical necessity, but it did contravene Bragg’s plan for a general wheel to the left, or south. Longstreet’s orientation became due north, his objective now to drive the Federals toward instead of away from Chattanooga.
Bushrod Johnson’s Division emerged from the Brotherton Woods at 11:45, “sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke.” It was, Johnson continued, “a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur.” Hood interrupted Johnson’s reverie to remind him it was too early for self-congratulation. A long line of Union cannon on a ridge a thousand yards away, around which pockets of Union infantry were beginning to regroup, had to be silenced—and quickly. Johnson saluted Hood. Did the general have any orders? He did. “Go ahead, and keep ahead of everything.”
That was Hood’s last decisive command of the day. Two hours later, the brigades of Robertson and Col. William F. Perry broke in the face of unexpected resistance at the northern edge of the Dyer field. Hood was there, trying through sheer force of will to restore a semblance of order. He made light of the Yankees, shouting, “Move up, men, those fellows are shooting in the tops of the trees.” The troops kept running. Hood spurred his mount past the panicked men toward Kershaw’s brigade, then entering the southeast corner of Dyer field, to urge them forward. Robertson glimpsed Hood. Badly in need of orders, he rode out to intercept him. Robertson saluted and was about to speak when, to his horror a Minié ball crushed Hood’s right leg just below the hip, splintering the bone. Hood released his reins and slipped from the saddle into the outstretched arms of his courier, who eased him to the ground with the help of soldiers from the Texas Brigade. Through his anguish, Hood muttered his standing orders, “Go ahead, and keep ahead of everything.” Hood was borne from the field on a stretcher. Dr. T.G.R. Richardson, the chief medical officer of the Army of Tennessee, pronounced the leg beyond saving and performed the amputation.
Hood’s fall was an incalculable loss to the Confederate effort that day. His presence at the height of the breakthrough, when total victory depended on rapid exploitation of the advantage was critical; no other field commander possessed the unrelenting aggressiveness then needed. Hood’s wounding threw the command structure on that part of the field into chaos. Before Longstreet learned what had befallen his friend, the attack faltered, giving Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas the time needed to fashion a final Federal line of defense on Horseshoe Ridge that held until dusk.
In the bitter aftermath of the pyrrhic Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Hood’s achievements were not forgotten. Bragg scapegoated his own generals for his personal failure to achieve a larger triumph. But he had only praise for Hood. On September 24, Longstreet recommended Hood be promoted to lieutenant general for “distinguished conduct and ability in the battle of the twentieth,” observing that he had commanded “with the coolness and ability that I have rarely known [in] any officer, on any field.” Bragg, believed by many to be constitutionally incapable of complimenting anyone, “cordially united in this just tribute” by Longstreet.
On February 11, 1864, the Confederate Senate approved the promotion to lieutenant general of the “Palidan of the fight,” to use Secretary of War James Seddon’s words. Hood’s performance from that day forward, first as a corps commander and then as commanding general of the Army of Tennessee, became the subject of harsh and unending debate. His detractors, who remain legion, see in Hood the most egregious example of the Peter Principle at work in the Confederate high command. Be that as it may, there is no denying that Hood fought hard and ably at Chickamauga, in an army he did not know, over ground he had never seen, enduring the lingering pain of a partially healed arm wound and with the sudden burden of corps command thrust upon him. Brief though they were, his three hours of glory leading the Confederate breakthrough on September 20, 1863, were among his finest moments in the Civil War.
Peter Cozzens is author of 16 books on the Civil War and the American West.