On the morning of September 19, Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland held a line running roughly north to south (i.e., left to right), west of General Braxton Bragg’s advancing Confederate Army of Tennessee. Rosecrans still believed that most of Bragg’s army was east of the meandering Chickamauga Creek, but three-fourths of Bragg’s troops had already crossed.
Conversely, Bragg still believed that 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 Fourteenth 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.
Bragg had sent Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry to reconnoiter the area around Lee and Gordon’s Mill, unaware that Thomas’s Federals were now there. Thomas sent troops forward to find the enemy, and as they groped through the dense, rolling forest, they clashed with Forrest’s dismounted troopers. 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.
Bragg was soon faced with two options: either stay with his original plan and move the bulk of his army against Lee and Gordon’s Mill, or shift the bulk’s focus to turning the Federal left. Characteristically, Bragg vacillated between the two before finally committing his troops to the second option. The Confederates launched multiple assaults against the Federals on the left but could not pry them from their positions. Bragg threw his men into the fight piecemeal rather than massing them for one overwhelming attack.
Meanwhile, the Federals were largely unaware of where the main Confederate army was. Rosecrans’s primary focus was on defending the La Fayette Road, which led to his supply base at Chattanooga. He therefore sent reinforcements to Thomas which in turn weakened his center and right. Crittenden performed so well at positioning his men where they were needed most that Rosecrans assigned him to command the Federal center. Major-General Alexander McCook’s Twentieth Corps held the right, which included Lee and Gordon’s Mill.
Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. 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.
Rosecrans, fighting in a densely forested area deep in hostile territory and believing he was heavily outnumbered, stayed largely on the defensive. His men performed well given the circumstances, but a feeling pervaded among the rank and file that their fragile line could be broken at any time. And Rosecrans did nothing to dispel this feeling among the troops.
Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederate corps attacked the Federal center; it was 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. A Federal general called this a “mad, irregular battle, very much resembling guerrilla warfare on a vast scale, in which one army was bushwhacking the other, and wherein all the science and the art of war went for nothing.”
Bragg had narrowly missed breaking the Federal line and getting between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. The Federals still held all the main roads into 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 Catoosa Station near Ringgold, about 20 miles away. Longstreet and his staff started riding for Bragg’s headquarters at 4 p.m., with the rest of his troops following. 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 at 8 p.m. He had suffered heavy losses and had few men left that had not yet seen action. He had also received word that Longstreet’s corps was arriving to reinforce Bragg. But with Dana present, presumably to find a reason to replace him, 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 the Twentieth Corps were moved north to link with Thomas, and Crittenden’s two divisions of the Twenty-first Corps were moved behind the line to support whatever sector was threatened most. Rosecrans directed the troops on the frontline to build log breastworks.
On the Confederate side, Bragg reported, “Night found us masters of the ground, after a series of very obstinate contests with largely superior numbers.” He called for a council of war around 9 p.m. Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk was the first to arrive, and Bragg surprised him with the announcement that the entire army command would be reorganized in the face of the enemy:
- Polk would command 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 would command the left (south) wing, which included his arriving corps, Buckner’s corps, and Major-General Thomas C. Hindman’s division of Polk’s corps
Bragg stated that he was making these changes to strengthen communication among the high command. But it was bound to cause animosity, especially since only two of the four lieutenant-generals were given wing commands, while one (Hill) was to report to Polk and the other (Buckner) was to report to Longstreet. Hill, who did not attend the council of war because he got lost in the dark, was not informed of this change. Longstreet 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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