Dawn broke chilly over the Chickamauga battlefield on September 21. Dead and wounded troops lay throughout the devastated field, among strewn horse carcasses, weapons, and equipment. General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, was still unaware that he had won a tremendous victory by sending Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s demoralized Federal Army of the Cumberland back north to Chattanooga. In fact, Bragg did not even know where the Federals were.
Bragg directed Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, commanding the right (north) wing of the Confederate army, to advance skirmishers to “find and feel” the enemy’s positions. Bragg then went off to meet with Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding the left wing. Longstreet did not know where the enemy was either, but he proposed a general advance by the entire army toward Chattanooga. Bragg was reluctant to move because he had sustained heavy casualties, the men were exhausted, supplies were scarce, and he was still uncertain of the enemy’s condition or intentions. Bragg’s ill health also played a role in his indecisiveness.
Instead of advancing, Bragg spent most of the day dispatching scouts to pinpoint the Federals’ location. After determining that two major enemy forces were at Rossville and Chattanooga, Longstreet suggested that the Confederates should either get into the rear of Rosecrans’s army or advance into eastern Tennessee and confront Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville.
Meanwhile, Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his Confederate cavalry to an elevated position south of Rossville, where he could see how demoralized the Federals truly were. Sensing a golden opportunity to destroy the enemy, Forrest sent a message to Polk around 9 a.m.: “We are in a mile of Rossville… I think they are evacuating as hard as they can go. They are cutting timber down to obstruct our passage. I think we ought to press forward as rapidly as possible.”
Forrest waited an hour but got no response. He then wrote directly to Bragg urging him to quickly send the infantry to finish Rosecrans off, as “Every hour is worth a thousand men.” When Bragg did not respond, Forrest rode to his headquarters to plead his case.
Bragg refused to renew the attack because he had lost 30 percent of his men, including 10 generals. Half his artillery horses were dead, and a forward movement would pull the army too far from the railroad, which was needed to resupply his army. Forrest said, “General Bragg, we can get all the supplies our army needs in Chattanooga.” But Bragg still refused. The Confederate army was almost just as demoralized in victory as the Federal army was in defeat. As Forrest stormed off in disgust, he asked, “What does he fight battles for?”
Rosecrans’s Federals spent most of the 21st withdrawing into Chattanooga. A detachment of five divisions under Major-General George H. Thomas held defensive positions at Rossville Gap all day, awaiting another Confederate attack.
Rosecrans tried to downplay the significance of his defeat by arguing that he still held the vital railroad city of Chattanooga, and the Federal grip on eastern Tennessee, which held most of the Confederacy’s coal and nitre needed for foundries, remained unbroken. Rosecrans issued congratulations to his men: “You have accomplished the great work of the campaign; you hold the key of East Tennessee, of Northern Georgia, and of the enemy’s mines of coal and nitre.”
President Abraham Lincoln knew better. After receiving word of the defeat late on the 20th, he woke his secretary, John Hay, early next morning and said, “Well, Rosecrans has been whipped, as I feared. I have feared it for several days. I believe I feel trouble in the air before it comes.” The president grieved for not only the defeat but for the death of his brother-in-law, Confederate Brigadier-General Ben Hardin Helm, who commanded the division that included the “Orphan Brigade.”
Rosecrans’s confident façade in front of his men was not reflected in his messages to Washington. He wrote, “Our loss is heavy and our troops worn down… We have no certainty of holding our position here. If Burnside could come immediately it would be well; otherwise he may not be able to join us unless he comes on the west side of the river.”
Lincoln ordered Burnside to lead his army out of Knoxville to reinforce the Federals at Chattanooga. He then wrote Rosecrans, “Be of good cheer. We have unabated confidence in you and your soldiers and officers. In the main you must be the judge of what is to be done. If I was to suggest, I would say save your army by taking up strong positions until Burnside joins you, when I hope you can turn the tide… We shall do our utmost to assist you.”
Both Rosecrans and the Federal high command had been assured by Burnside that he was heading down to join forces with Rosecrans’s army. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck informed Rosecrans, “Nothing heard from General Burnside since the 19th. He was then sending to your aid all his available force.” But Burnside was still at Knoxville, with no intention of moving any time soon.
Meanwhile, Forrest’s Confederate horsemen probed Thomas’s defensive line sporadically throughout the day. Thomas informed Rosecrans and advised that he withdraw his men to join the rest of the army in Chattanooga. Rosecrans agreed, and Thomas began his withdrawal around 9 p.m. Lincoln wrote Rosecrans asking him to “relieve my anxiety as to the position and condition of your army.” Rosecrans would respond the next morning.
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