September 19, 1863 – A terrible battle began in northwestern Georgia between General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee and Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland.
By the morning of the 19th, Rosecrans’s Federals held a line running roughly north to south (i.e., left to right), west of the advancing Confederates. Rosecrans still believed that most of Bragg’s army was east of the meandering Chickamauga Creek, but three-fourths of the Confederates had already crossed.
Conversely, Bragg still believed the Federal left flank was at Lee and Gordon’s Mill, but Rosecrans had extended his left with two divisions of Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps and two brigades of Major General Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps. Thus, the Federal line now stretched three and a half miles farther north and covered the path to Chattanooga.
Thomas sent troops forward to find the enemy, and as they groped through the dense, rolling forest, they clashed with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s dismounted Confederate cavalry. Fighting began between Reed’s Bridge and the La Fayette Road, and more units on both sides soon joined the fray.
The skirmish quickly escalated to a full-scale battle, with nearly every Federal and Confederate unit engaged by afternoon. The fight extended along a winding, three-mile front. Both sides surged back and forth throughout the day, as troops had trouble seeing and maneuvering among the thick woods around Chickamauga Creek.
The Confederates launched multiple assaults against the Federals’ left but could not pry them from their positions. After setting up headquarters at Alexander’s Bridge, Bragg deployed his men into the fight piecemeal rather than massing them for one overwhelming attack. Meanwhile, Rosecrans sent reinforcements to Thomas, thus weakening his center and right.
Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, accompanying the Federal army on behalf of the War Department, telegraphed at 4:30 p.m., “I do not yet dare to say our victory is complete, but it seems certain.” However, the Confederates opened gaps in the weak Federal center and right, and used these gaps to advance almost all the way to Rosecrans’s headquarters.
Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederate corps attacked the Federal center, held by a division under Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood, Buckner’s childhood friend and West Point classmate. Counterattacks by Wood and Major General Philip Sheridan on the right pushed the Confederates back, as Dana telegraphed at 5:20 p.m.: “Now appears to be undecided contest, but later reports will enable us to understand more clearly.”
The fighting continued after sundown, with the troops using sounds and muzzle flashes to guide their aim. Consequently, many soldiers were hit by friendly fire. Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Confederate division launched one last assault on the Federal left. It was repelled, and both sides disengaged for the night.
Bragg had narrowly missed breaking the Federal line and getting between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. The Federals still held all the main roads leading to the city, and while casualties were extreme, no advantage was gained by either side. During the fight, Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps continued arriving at Ringgold depot, about 20 miles away. They would be too late to join the fighting on this day.
The night turned cold as men on both sides slept on the ground without blankets. They also could not build fires or else they would be easy targets for sharpshooters. The Federals suffered worse because the Confederates held the Chickamauga, which they used for drinking water. Many soldiers groped through the darkness in search of wounded and missing comrades.
Rosecrans telegraphed Washington, “The army is in excellent condition and spirits, and by the blessing of Providence the defeat of the enemy will be total tomorrow.” President Abraham Lincoln, somehow reminded of Chancellorsville, did not share Rosecrans’s optimism.
Rosecrans held a council of war with his top commanders at the Glenn house. He suffered heavy losses and had few men left that had not yet seen action. But with Dana present, Rosecrans would not consider retreat. The officers agreed to assume the defensive and stand their ground the next day, unless Bragg withdrew, which he had done after Perryville and Stones River.
Thomas said that the left needed reinforcing. Rosecrans responded by placing six divisions on the left under Thomas’s command. McCook’s two divisions of XX Corps were moved north to link with Thomas, and Crittenden’s two divisions of XXI Corps were moved behind the line to support whatever sector was threatened most. Rosecrans directed the troops on the frontline to build log breastworks.
Bragg reported, “Night found us masters of the ground, after a series of very obstinate contests with largely superior numbers.” He held an informal council of war, where he divided his army into two wings:
- Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk commanded the right (north) wing, which included his corps (less one division) and the corps of both Lieutenant General D.H. Hill and Major General William H.T. Walker
- Longstreet commanded the left (south) wing, which included his arriving corps, Buckner’s corps, and Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s division of Polk’s corps
Hill, who did not attend the council of war because he got lost in the dark, was not informed of this change. Longstreet also got lost when Bragg did not send anyone to meet him at the train depot. He finally arrived at Bragg’s headquarters around midnight and received his orders.
Bragg expected Polk to renew the assault at dawn, with the rest of the army attacking en echelon from right to left, “to turn the enemy’s left, and by direct attack force him into McLemore’s Cove.” Bragg made no adjustments to his line, even after receiving reports that Rosecrans had strengthened his left.
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