After a day of terrible fighting on September 19, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was still situated on a line running from north (left) to south (right). Major-General William S. Rosecrans, army commander, placed most of his strength on the left to block the La Fayette road and other roads leading to Chattanooga. Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth 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; specifically, Major-General John C. Breckinridge’s division, on the extreme right, was to attack first. Polk did not inform either Hill or Breckinridge of this, even though Breckinridge and Polk shared the same campfire the night before. Hill did not know about any of this until a courier delivered Bragg’s orders to him that morning. Hill read the orders and was displeased that his corps was to be subordinated to Polk. Hill 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. Rosecrans then busied himself with moving units around the battlefield wherever the fighting seemed heaviest. Around 10:30 a.m., Thomas asked to be reinforced by Brigadier-General John M. Brannan’s division in the center. Rosecrans said, “Tell General Thomas our line is closing towards him and to hold his ground at all hazards, and I will reinforce him with the entire army if necessary. Tell General Brannan to obey General Thomas’s orders.”
Moving Brannan’s division caused concern for Brigadier-General Joseph J. Reynolds, whose division had been on Brannan’s left. This meant that Reynolds’s right needed support from the nearest division remaining, which belonged to Brigadier-General Thomas J. Wood. Rosecrans told his aide-de-camp, Major Frank S. Bond, “If Brannan goes out, Wood must fill his place. Write him that the commanding general directs him to close to the left on Reynolds and support him.”
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.” Rosecrans did not read the order, or else he might have corrected the contradictory language Bond had used. 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.
To Wood, the order “was clear and undoubted. It clearly told me I was to withdraw my division from the line, and passing northward and eastward immediately in rear of the line of battle, to find General Reynolds’s position, to close upon him and support him.” Wood moved his division out of the Federal line, thereby opening a major gap between the Brotherton and Viniard houses and creating what 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,” but it also cost him Hood. As he sent his troops into the breach, Hood was struck in the leg by a minie ball that shattered the bone. He was carried from the field and his leg was amputated; the loss of this aggressive commander would seriously hinder the Confederate assault.
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 far to their left. They seemed everywhere victorious.”
Rosecrans ordered a general retreat to Chattanooga, and Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. 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.
According to Longstreet, he visited Bragg’s headquarters around 3 p.m., and instead of finding Bragg joyous over the breakthrough in the center, he was “disturbed by the failure of his plan and the severe repulse of his right wing.” Longstreet requested reinforcements from the right wing, to which Bragg replied, “There is not a man in the right wing who has any fight in him.” Unbeknownst to Longstreet, Bragg had sent three messengers to Polk with orders to renew the fighting in his sector, but Polk did not comply.
Rosecrans’s chief of staff, Brigadier-General James A. Garfield, met with Thomas near Rossville and sent a dispatch to Rosecrans at 3:45 p.m.:
“I arrived here ten minutes ago, via Rossville… The hardest fighting I have seen to-day is now going on here. I hope General Thomas will be able to hold on here till night, and will not need to fall back farther than Rossville; perhaps not any… I think we may in the main retrieve our morning disaster. I never saw better fighting than our men are now doing… If we can hold out an hour more it will be all right…”
Rosecrans wrote Garfield at 5:30 to assist in preparing defenses at Chattanooga. When Garfield told Thomas that Rosecrans also ordered Thomas to withdraw “to a position in the rear,” Thomas replied, “It will ruin the army to withdraw it now. This position must be held until night.” Garfield agreed and considered Rosecrans’s order discretionary. He informed Rosecrans that Thomas remained “standing like a rock,” and Thomas was soon nicknamed “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
As darkness approached and Confederate pressure intensified, Thomas issued orders to withdraw. The Federals, struggling to disengage from such a fierce contest, fell back 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 two-day fight was the most terrible battle fought in the war, excepting Gettysburg, and the most terrible ever fought in the Western Theater. Both commanders lost nearly 30 percent of their armies in the struggle. The Federals sustained 16,179 total casualties (1,656 killed, 9,749 wounded and 4,774 missing), including seven brigade commanders, from 57,840 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 everywhere. Thomas, who had seven divisions, remained intact at last news. Granger, with two brigades, had gone to support Thomas on the left. Every available reserve was used when the men stampeded… Troops from Charleston, Florida, Virginia, and all along the seaboard are found among the prisoners. It seems that every available man was thrown against us.”
Rosecrans argued that Chickamauga could not be considered a defeat since his army still held Chattanooga. While President Abraham Lincoln did not agree, he recognized the significance of holding Chattanooga, as he wrote Halleck, “I think it very important for General Rosecrans to hold his position at or about Chattanooga… If he can only maintain his position… the rebellion can only eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals.”
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 in the war.
While this was a major Confederate victory, Thomas saved the Federal army from complete destruction. Bragg did not consider this a victory because his primary objective–moving around the enemy left and getting between the Federals and Chattanooga–was not achieved. 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, D.H. 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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