Major-General William S. Rosecrans hurriedly worked to reunite his Federal Army of the Cumberland in northern Georgia:
- Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden’s Twenty-first Corps held the army’s left flank at Lee and Gordon’s Mill
- Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps held the center near McLemore’s Cove
- Major-General Alexander McCook’s Twentieth Corps was hurrying across Lookout Mountain to join with Thomas
Major-General Gordon Granger, commanding the Federal reserve corps at Chattanooga, reported that at least two Confederate divisions had moved through Ringgold, Georgia. Rosecrans set up headquarters at Lee and Gordon’s Mill and began concentrating his forces along Chickamauga Creek, about 12 miles south of Chattanooga, to meet the threat. However, Thomas refused to close with Crittenden until McCook arrived to link with him.
On the night of September 16, Rosecrans issued orders warning his men that a battle may be coming: “The general commanding directs you to see that your men have three days’ rations in their haversacks, and as near twenty rounds of ammunition in the pocket of each man, in addition to having his cartridge box full. There are some indications that the enemy is massing for an attack on our left.”
General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee held a line running north (right) near Ringgold to south (left) near La Fayette. Most of his forces were south, under Lieutenant-General D.H. Hill. Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk’s corps held the north, with the corps of Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner and Major-General William H.T. Walker in between.
Bragg resolved to move around the Federal left to cut Rosecrans off from his supply base at Chattanooga. But he did not issue orders to move until the 16th, and the orders only involved moving some units while keeping others on the defensive. He rescinded these orders at 3 a.m. on the 17th, characteristically changing his mind and deciding instead to stay on the defensive.
McCook’s Federals 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 a possible flank attack.
By this time, Bragg had changed his mind again and resolved to advance after all. He ordered Buckner and Walker to shift right and reinforce Polk, and then he ordered this new force to cross Chickamauga Creek the next day. Corps commanders were confused by these vague orders, but they complied and had their troops in motion by 2 p.m. nonetheless.
Reinforcements from Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia began arriving by train at Catoosa Station, near Ringgold. Colonel Robert Minty of the Federal cavalry reported this to Crittenden, but Crittenden refused to believe him. Minty then went to inform Rosecrans, but when he arrived at headquarters, Crittenden was there.
Crittenden 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.” Rosecrans sided with Crittenden, and Minty left “with a heavy heart.” The troops arriving at the station belonged to Major-General John Bell Hood’s crack division, with the rest of Longstreet’s men set to arrive within the next two days.
By the 18th, Walker and Buckner were crossing the West Chickamauga Creek. The division of Brigadier-General Bushrod R. Johnson 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. Enraged by the delay, Bragg ordered Hood to reinforce Johnson and take command of the operation. Troops from Walker’s corps were also directed to join in.
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 Hood, Walker, and Johnson to come up on his right.
Confederates under Hood and Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest 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, outnumbering 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.
Rosecrans had finally united his army, but the Confederate threat unnerved him. He could see the dust clouds formed by marching enemy troops to his left, and 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.”
Bragg hoped to attack the Federal left flank at Lee and Gordon’s Mill the next morning, unaware that Thomas’s corps had extended the flank beyond his own. He ordered Forrest’s cavalry troops to scout the mill, which was now heavily defended by Federal troops. Forrest set out early on the 19th.
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