September 18, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans began concentrating his Federal Army of the Cumberland, and General Braxton Bragg continued looking for any opportunity to attack.
From his La Fayette headquarters, Bragg did not know the exact location of the Federal army, but he did know that Federal forces were on his right (north), front (west), and left (southwest). Bragg and Lieutenant General D.H. Hill expected the Federals to attack from the southwest, but Rosecrans was instead starting to pull his dangerously spread-out army together.
Major General Alexander McCook’s XX Corps held the Federal right (southwestern) flank at Alpine. Unaware that Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps held McLemore’s Cove in the center, McCook directed his men on a 57-mile countermarch back over Lookout Mountain to join Thomas.
Rosecrans ordered Thomas to close within five miles of Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps, which held the left (northern) flank near Lee and Gordon’s Mill. From Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck ordered Major General Ulysses S. Grant to send all available troops in his department from Corinth, Mississippi, to Tuscumbia, Alabama, so they could be ready to reinforce Rosecrans if needed.
Meanwhile, Bragg had been reinforced by troops from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Mississippi, led by Major General William H.T. Walker. Bragg also had the former Army of East Tennessee, led by Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner. Bragg designated the commands of Walker and Buckner as corps within the Army of Tennessee.
In addition, Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s two Confederate divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws continued moving via railroad to reinforce Bragg’s army. One of Hood’s brigades reached Atlanta, about 100 miles south of Bragg, on the 12th. But the remaining troops were strung out across the Carolinas and Georgia, and would not be available to Bragg for several more days.
On the 15th, Halleck informed Rosecrans that Longstreet would be reinforcing Bragg. He also told Rosecrans that he was pulling troops from Grant to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans notified Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, that “the enemy, reinforced by Johnston and Longstreet from Virginia, doubtless intend us all the mischief in their power.”
Bragg held a council of war with his corps commanders (Buckner, Walker, and Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and D.H. Hill), where it was decided to cross Chickamauga Creek and move around Rosecrans’s left. This would cut the Federals off from their supply base at Chattanooga and force them to either fight or flee.
However, Bragg did not issue orders to move until a day later, and the orders only involved moving some units while keeping others on the defensive. No crossing of the Chickamauga was mentioned, nor were Longstreet’s reinforcements, which were now on their way to Ringgold.
Major General Gordon Granger, commanding the Federal reserve corps at Chattanooga, reported that at least two Confederate divisions had moved through Ringgold. Rosecrans set up headquarters at Lee and Gordon’s Mill, which became the new Federal left flank under Crittenden. He hurriedly began concentrating his forces along Chickamauga Creek, about 12 miles south of Chattanooga, to meet the threat. However, McCook was still trying to cross Lookout Mountain, and Thomas refused to close with Crittenden until McCook arrived to link with him.
McCook finally arrived at McLemore’s Cove on the 17th, after a grueling four-day march. He had been isolated from the rest of the Federal army during that time, but Bragg failed to capitalize on it. Thomas moved up to link with Crittenden’s right, and the Federal army was no longer in danger of being destroyed piecemeal. Rosecrans directed Granger to guard the road to Chattanooga at Rossville. That night, Rosecrans extended Crittenden’s left flank to guard against the flank attack that Bragg had planned.
Bragg’s army held a line running north (right) near Ringgold to south (left) near La Fayette. Most of the forces were south, under Hill. Polk held the north, with Buckner and Walker in between. Bragg ordered Buckner and Walker to shift right and reinforce Polk, and then he ordered this new force to cross Chickamauga Creek the next day.
Trains conveying Longstreet’s Confederates began arriving at Catoosa Station, near Ringgold. When Colonel Robert Minty of the Federal cavalry reported this to Crittenden, the general insisted, “Longstreet is in Virginia. The Rebel army is retreating, and are trying to get away some of their abandoned stores; they have nothing but dismounted cavalry in your front.” Unbeknownst to Crittenden, Federal troopers briefly skirmished with some of Hood’s Confederates in Ringgold.
By the 18th, Walker and Buckner were crossing the West Chickamauga Creek. The division of Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson, reinforced by Longstreet and Walker, was ordered to “sweep up the Chickamauga, toward Lee and Gordon’s Mills.” Federal cavalry challenged Johnson’s crossing at Reed’s Bridge, using their repeating carbines to hold the Confederates at bay.
Brigadier General John T. Wilder’s Federals crossed Alexander’s Bridge, upstream from Reed’s, and clashed with Walker’s vanguard. Wilder fell back across the bridge and destroyed it; the Federal actions at Reed’s and Alexander’s bridges delayed the advance of over 20,000 Confederates for several hours. Meanwhile, Buckner crossed and waited for Walker and Johnson to come up on his right.
Confederates under Hood and Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest arrived and pushed across the Chickamauga to join the others as the sun set. That night, Bragg ordered Polk’s corps to cross, with Hill’s corps shifting right to take Polk’s place. Just 9,000 Confederates were across the Chickamauga by sundown, but they continued crossing through the night until just three divisions remained at Ringgold. Bragg directed, “The movement will be executed with the utmost promptness, vigor and persistence.”
The steady arrival of Longstreet’s men would eventually give Bragg about 66,000 troops, and he would outnumber Rosecrans’s 58,000 Federals. Bragg ordered Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to hold Dug Gap in Pigeon Mountain against a possible flank attack on the Confederates’ extreme left. By day’s end, all the Federals had concentrated to the north, and Wheeler was called up to take Hill’s place on the line near La Fayette.
Meanwhile, Rosecrans could see the dust clouds formed by marching Confederates to his left. He responded by moving Thomas around Crittenden to the north to extend the left flank. Thomas took up a line directly in the path of Bragg’s intended march the next day. The armies formed along the creek the local Cherokee called Chickamauga, which loosely translated to “River of Death.”
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