September 20, 1863 – The terrible battle in northwestern Georgia entered its second day and threatened to result in Federal disaster.
As the day began, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was still situated on a line running from north (left) to south (right). Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the army, placed most of his strength on the left to block the roads leading to Chattanooga. Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps and several supporting divisions held the left near the Kelly house.
General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee held a line roughly parallel to the Federals, with the right (north) wing led by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk and the left (south) wing led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Bragg expected Polk to assault the Federal left at dawn, with the rest of the army attacking en echelon from right to left.
Lieutenant General D.H. Hill’s Confederate corps, now part of Polk’s wing, was to begin the attack. But Hill did not know about any of this until a courier delivered Bragg’s orders to him that morning. Hill read the orders and protested that he could not get his men into assault positions “for an hour or more.” Bragg arrived on the scene and berated both Polk and Hill for the delay.
The attack finally began at 9 a.m., but the Confederates could not break the strong defenses that Thomas’s Federals had built overnight. Frustrated by Polk’s delay, Bragg canceled the echelon attack and instead ordered Longstreet’s left wing to assault the Federal center. Heavy woods, rough terrain, and piecemeal troop deployment resulted in many small, independent battles opening all along the line.
Confederates charged the Federal center some time after 9 a.m., but Federals on either flank helped push them back. Around 10:30 a.m., Rosecrans received word that a gap had formed in his center, between the divisions of Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood and Major General Joseph J. Reynolds. This “gap” was actually held by Brigadier General John M. Brannan’s division, but Rosecrans could not see it through the dense woods.
At 10:55 a.m., Wood received an order from Rosecrans’s headquarters: “The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him. Respectfully, &c. Frank S. Bond, Major and Aide-de-Camp.” This contradicted itself because it directed Wood to move closer to Reynolds’s men on the left but also to move behind Reynolds in support. It also bypassed Wood’s corps commander, Major General Thomas L. Crittenden, in the chain of command.
Wood quickly decided to support Reynolds, thus moving his division out of the Federal line and opening a major gap between the Brotherton and Viniard houses that one of Thomas’s aides called “a chasm in the center.” Longstreet quickly exploited this error by sending 10,000 men through the quarter-mile opening just before noon. The men belonged to the divisions of Major Generals Thomas C. Hindman and John Bell Hood. Longstreet’s aggressiveness earned him the nickname “Old Bull of the Woods.”
The Confederates destroyed the two Federal corps (Major General Alexander McCook’s and Crittenden’s) in the center and on the right, overrunning Rosecrans’s headquarters and sending half the Federal army fleeing in retreat. A Federal general recalled, “All became confusion. No order could be heard above the tempest of battle. With a wild yell the Confederates swept on the far to their left. They seemed everywhere victorious.”
Rosecrans ordered a general retreat to Chattanooga, and Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, observing on behalf of the War Department, telegraphed at 4 p.m., “My report today is of deplorable importance. Chickamauga is as fatal a day in our history as Bull Run.” Dana described the scene:
“They came through with resistless impulse, composed of brigades formed in divisions. Before them our soldiers turned and fled. It was wholesale panic. Vain were all attempts to rally them… We have lost heavily in killed today. The total of our killed, wounded, and prisoners can hardly be less than 20,000, and may be much more… Enemy not yet arrived before Chattanooga. Preparations making to resist his entrance for a time.”
But as the Federal center and right dissolved, the left held firm. Thomas formed a defense line on Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge west of the hill. All units that had not been routed assembled on this line and repelled attacks from four of Longstreet’s divisions; Longstreet later estimated that he attacked the line 25 times without success.
Longstreet prepared to shift his forces and attack Thomas’s rear when Major General Gordon Granger, without orders, moved toward the sound of gunfire and brought up Brigadier General James Steedman’s division from his Reserve Corps to block the maneuver around 2:30 p.m.
Rosecrans dispatched his chief of staff, Brigadier General James A. Garfield, to prepare defenses at Chattanooga. When Garfield told Thomas that Rosecrans called for his “retiring to a position in the rear,” Thomas said, “It will ruin the army to withdraw it now. This position must be held until night.” Garfield informed Rosecrans that Thomas remained “standing like a rock.” Northern newspapers soon nicknamed Thomas “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
As darkness approached and Confederate pressure intensified, Thomas began withdrawing his forces one unit at a time. The movement took two hours. The Federals pulled back through McFarland’s Gap to Rossville, where they held the mountain gaps and blocked any Confederate advance on Chattanooga. Three of Granger’s regiments (the 21st and 89th Ohio, and the 22nd Michigan) remained on the defense line, with orders to defend it with their bayonets after running out of ammunition. They held until the rest of the troops escaped, and then they surrendered.
This was the most terrible battle ever fought in the Western Theater, as both commanders lost nearly 30 percent of their armies in the two-day struggle. The Federals sustained 16,170 total casualties (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded and 4,757 missing), including seven brigade commanders, from about 58,000 effectives. Rosecrans wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that night, “We have met with a serious disaster; extent not yet ascertained. Enemy overwhelmed us, drove our right, pierced our center, and scattered troops there.”
Garfield met with Thomas at Rossville and reported to Rosecrans that “our men not only held their ground, but in many points drove the enemy splendidly. Longstreet’s Virginians have got their bellies full. I believe we can whip them tomorrow. I believe we can now crown the whole battle with victory.” But Rosecrans, exhausted physically and mentally, remained in Chattanooga and conceded defeat.
The Confederates lost 18,454 (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded and 1,468 missing), including nine division and two brigade commanders, from about 66,000 men. Bragg reported capturing over 8,000 prisoners, 51 guns with 2,381 artillery rounds, and 23,281 small arms with over 135,000 rifle rounds. This was the largest arms seizure on a battlefield during the war.
While this was a major Confederate victory, Thomas saved the Federal army from complete destruction. Also, Bragg did not receive definitive reports on the Federal rout and thus did not order a pursuit. When a Confederate soldier who had escaped capture told Bragg that the Federals were in full retreat, Bragg asked, “Do you know what a retreat looks like?” The solder said, “I ought to, General; I’ve been with you during your whole campaign.”
Although Bragg missed an opportunity to destroy Rosecrans’s army, he had handed the Federals a disastrous defeat, which he hoped would lead to regaining Chattanooga and eventually all of Tennessee. Nevertheless, Hill later wrote:
“It seems to me that the elan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga… He fought stoutly to the last, but, after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope. That ‘barren victory’ sealed the fate of the Confederacy.”
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