Chickamauga: Georgia's River of Death

Historian David A. Powell and cartographer David Friedrichs provide a detailed overview of the battle's complex machinations.
Horshoe Ridge at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Viewed solely from the microcosm of Virginia, by the summer of 1863, the Civil War appeared to be at a stalemate. Confederate forces had frustrated repeated Federal offenses through two long years of war and occupied roughly the same ground they had held in 1861. But in the Western Theater, the war was anything but static, and by nearly any measure was turning decisively against the Confederacy. The vast spaces and plethora of navigable rivers offered Union forces access into the interior of the rebellious states.

Alfred Waud sketch of Confederates advancing through the forest at Chickamauga Library of Congress

By 1863, a trio of the South’s most important cities — Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans — were under Federal control. It was the third summer of the war, and momentous events were unfolding across the country. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate thrust into Pennsylvania was well underway. Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was tightening his grip on the Rebel bastion of Vicksburg, Miss., in a siege now into its second month. On the main Western front in Tennessee, however, Federal inactivity cast a long shadow.

When the final week of June arrived, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans decided his Army of the Cumberland was ready to move. During the resulting Tullahoma Campaign in late June and early July, Rosecrans outmaneuvered Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, forcing him from a strong defensive position, driving the Confederates out of Middle Tennessee and threatening Chattanooga, where Southern troops then entrenched. After some weeks of recuperation and logistical preparation, Rosecrans moved against the Confederate stronghold.

On August 21, Union troops appeared opposite the city and opened fire, taking the Confederates completely by surprise. On August 29, Rosecrans began his main crossings downstream, but Bragg — wedded to the idea that Rosecrans would maintain a connection with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who was advancing from Knoxville — dismissed these efforts as a feint for too long. Realizing the truth of the situation, Bragg withdrew southward. By the morning of September 8, only one cavalry regiment remained in the city, while a 75-man detachment of cavalry clung to Lookout Mountain. The next day, Chattanooga — a logistical hub and one of the most important cities in the South — officially fell into Union hands, with barely a shot fired.

Civil War Army Crosses the Tennessee River and Enters Chattanooga. This Harper’s Weekly engraving shows the obstacle created by the river. Crossing was a major operation involving pontoon bridges and boats. Library of Congress

Union forces soon followed Bragg into Georgia. Through 10 days of skirmishes, feints and flanking maneuvers across the ridges, valleys and creek bottoms of north Georgia, the stage was set for the Battle of Chickamauga, the greatest Union defeat in the Western Theater and the second bloodiest battle of the war. In The Maps of Chickamauga, each individual phase of the complex fighting is presented in minute detail. Here, we present two excerpts from that larger work to provide context for understanding of the engagement.

The Fight for Brock Field and LaFayette Road

Midday, September 19, 1862

With the repulse of Confederate Col. George Dibrell’s brigade, the fighting on the north end of Brock Field — a key landmark of early fighting — drew to a close. Both armies had traded exploratory jabs and been somewhat bloodied. Among the Southern units, Maj. Gen. William Walker’s Reserve Corps was about fought out. Brig Gen. Matthew Ector and Col. Claudius Wilson had sustained losses approaching 50 percent. Brig. Gen. St. John R. Liddell’s divisional casualties weren’t as severe, but both his brigades (Col. Daniel C. Govan and Brig. Gen. Edward C. Walthall) had been bruised and disorganized by Union counterattacks.

On the Union side, Brig. Gen. Absalom Baird’s division (the brigades of Col. Benjamin Scribner and Brig. Gens. John Starkweather and John King) had been roughly handled and was withdrawing up the Reed’s Bridge Road to recuperate. Two brigades from Brig. Gen. John M. Brannan’s division (Cols. Ferdinand Van Derveer and John Connell) covered Baird’s withdrawal. Only Col. John T. Croxton’s brigade (Brannan), augmented by the 31st Ohio, pressed the retreating Rebels astride the Alexander Bridge Road.

Still concerned about Federal attacks from this unexpected quarter, Braxton Bragg decided to continue fighting. At midday, he still had two infantry corps — more than 17,000 men — massed in the woods south of Brock Field about a half mile east of the LaFayette Road. These troops faced the lightly defended Federal center. Bragg, however, did not know how lightly defended the enemy front was, and he was not about to send them forward without a better understanding of the threat to the north. Between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s large division — about 7,000 men and 20 guns arrayed in five brigades — had crossed the Chickamauga at Hunt’s Ford and filed into position behind Maj. Gen. Simon Buckner’s corps. At 11:00 a.m., Bragg sent Cheatham to help Walker. Moving north and forming his division along the Alexander’s Bridge Road, Cheatham was ready by noon.

By now, both Brig. Gen. Richard Johnson’s and Maj. Gen. John Palmer’s Federal divisions were also ready to advance. Col. William Grose’s brigade had finished its excursion up LaFayette Road, making contact with Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s XIV Corps near the Kelly farm. It was returning south when it met the rest of its division marching toward it. Union Army commander William Rosecrans was still hesitant about launching a major attack, but Thomas was thinking aggressively. About 9:30 a.m., he sent a note to Palmer: if his troops were to “advance as soon as possible on [the Rebels] in front, while I attack them in flank, I think we can use them up.” Some time later, when Rosecrans authorized Palmer to move to Thomas’s aid, attacking was still on the XIV Corps commander’s mind. With Grose falling in at the rear of the column, Palmer reached the vicinity of the Poe farm and faced east.

At the same time, Johnson’s leading divisional elements were forming a line at the south end of Kelly Field, neatly filling the gap between Thomas’s line and Palmer’s men. Thomas ordered both divisions to replace Baird and Brannan’s exhausted troops. These six fresh Union brigades were now poised to clash with Cheatham’s five Rebel brigades, opening the second phase of the battle.

Thomas was now in command of units from all three corps, as Rosecrans elected to reinforce him with whatever troops were closest without regard for the formal chain of command. Perhaps it mattered little at the moment, with Thomas on hand to control the fight directly, but the decision would lead to serious confusion over the next two days with substantial ramifications.

Thomas had at least one more division he could call on quickly, as the two brigades of Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynolds’s Forth Division, XIV Corps (Cols. Edward A. King and John B. Turchin) resumed their march to join him. The rest of the field remained quiet. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” watched Vinyard Field from its vantage on the low rise west of LaFayette Road. The men were the only Federals at that time facing Bragg’s main column, had the Rebel leader but known it. Farther south, the other two divisions of Thomas Crittenden’s corps remained in position west of Lee and Gordon’s Mills, protecting the crossing and awaiting the arrival of the balance of McCook’s XX Corps.

Longstreet Shatters the Union Right

Midday, September 20

Thus far, the day’s action had been confined to the Union left, where Maj. Gen. George Thomas struggled to drive back repeated Rebel thrusts. Maj. Gen. A.P. Stewart’s attack into Poe Field, supporting Brig. Gen. S.A.M. Wood’s assault, was the farthest south the fighting had spread. By late morning, that action was winding down and the Rebels were in retreat. Throughout this fighting Thomas bombarded Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and others with a steady stream of requests for reinforcements. The army commander shuffled as many troops as he could find toward Thomas’s sector, often regardless of the chain of command or the integrity of the defensive line elsewhere. One of those requests was about to bear disastrous fruit.

About 10:30 a.m. Capt. Sanford Kellogg, Thomas’s nephew and aide, instructed Brig. Gen. John Brannan in Poe Field to move the rest of the Third Division to Kelly Field. (Col. Ferdinand Van Derveer’s brigade moved earlier.) Brannan consulted with Fourth Division commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynolds. In the wake of A.P. Stewart’s repulse, Reynolds believed that he could hold on alone, but urged Kellogg to ride to Rosecrans and inform him that Brannan’s move would leave Reynolds’s right flank near Poe Field exposed. After Kellogg left, Brannan and Reynolds changed their minds, but failed to recall Kellogg or send another courier to clarify matters. Kellogg wasted no time informing Rosecrans of the original decision, and Rosecrans reacted just as quickly by dictating an order (later referred to as the “fateful order of the day”) instructing division commander Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood to “close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him.”

Wood’s front was quiet, but plenty of Rebels lurked in the timber to the east. Wood knew that Brannan’s men were in line between his division and the position Reynolds occupied farther north, but he had no idea that Brannan had been ordered away. Puzzled by the order and seeking clarification, Wood showed it to XX Corps commander Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook, who happened to be present. McCook insisted that it was peremptory and that Wood must pull his brigades out of line move north behind Brannan, find Reynolds and report to him immediately.

After the battle, Rosecrans partisans insisted that Wood knew his move would expose the army, but he followed the orders out of spite. Since the order was contradictory (“close up” suggested a move literally, while “support” suggested that Wood move behind Reynolds’s division) Wood should have remained in place and sought clarification. This line of argument glosses over the fact that Wood did seek clarification from McCook, who affirmed the move.

While the generals were conferring, Col. Frederic A. Bartleson of the 100th Illinois (Col. George Buell’s brigade, Wood’s division) set out on an unauthorized venture that bore out just how dangerous Wood’s departure might be. Annoyed by Rebel skirmishers who had taken up residence in the Brotherton cabin, Bartleson advanced his entire regiment in what “turned out to be an unfortunate movement.” Bartleson led the 100th beyond the LaFayette Road until it stumbled into the front line of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s massive attack column hidden in the woods beyond. Stung by enemy fire, the probing Illini staggered back to Union lines in disorder. Bartleson and two companies halted at the cabin, intending to hold it as a strong point. The colonel was unaware that behind him, Wood’s entire division — including Col. Sidney Barnes’s brigade on loan from Brig. Gen. Horatio Van Cleve’s division — was falling into column to scurry north.

Wood’s first two brigades left without incident. Barnes, in the woods between Brotherton and Poe Fields, moved first and was already a considerable distance ahead before Harker’s brigade started to move. Already confused by the impromptu advance of the 100th Illinois, Buell was considerably more nervous about abandoning his position in the front line. “Tell the General my skirmishers are actively engaged, and I cannot safely make the move,” he insisted to one of Wood’s aides. The reply was unambiguous: orders were orders; his men must leave immediately. Thinking all of the wayward Illini of the 100th regiment had returned, Buell faced his regiments to the north and stepped off after Harker. His withdrawal set the stage for the most dramatic moment of the battle.

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Catoosa County and Walker County, GA | September 18, 1863
Result: Confederate Victory
Estimated Casualties