Late in June of 1863, Ulysses S. Grant was completing his attempt to take Vicksburg. Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee was beginning his second invasion of the North and was moving his army into Pennsylvania. While these major moves were being made, William S. Rosecrans began moving his army that had been motionless at Murfreesboro since January. Rosecrans had replaced Don Carlos Buell in command of his force.
William S. Rosecrans
Washington wanted Rosecrans to make a move to capture the city of Chattanooga. The city held strategic importance because it controlled a rail junction that, if captured by the North, would weaken the movement of rebel supplies and troops. The city would also give the Federals a base to launch an attack against Atlanta and the Deep South.
Rosecrans decided to move west and south around the Confederate army under Braxton Bragg. This forced the Confederate Army of Tennessee to retreat to Chattanooga, TN. Rosecrans, after this successful flanking maneuver, did not move for six weeks. Following this inaction, Rosecrans then decided to once again flank Bragg and crossed the Tennessee River to the west of the city of Chattanooga in August of 1863. In response to Rosecrans’ maneuvers, Bragg abandoned the city and moved 25-miles south to Lafayette, Georgia.
Rosecrans decided to pursue the rebel army, believing that they were in a complete retreat. This resulted in Rosecrans’ army being spread out of a front that was 40-miles long under McCook on the Federal right, Thomas in the center, and Crittenden on the left. However, Bragg had different plans that Rosecrans believed. Bragg had received 9,000 men under Simon Bolivar Buckner who arrived from east Tennessee and detachments from Joseph Johnston and his army in Mississippi.
In addition to this, Bragg was also going to receive reinforcements from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Divisions under Hood and McLaws were sent west under James Longstreet. Bragg had a great opportunity to destroy Rosecrans’ army as he had the numbers and the Federal force was divided. With this help coming to Bragg, he decided to launch an offensive against Rosecrans and his Federal army. To trick the Union force, Bragg sent “deserters” to tell them that the Confederate army was retreating. The goal of this was to lure the three separate Union forces into the mountains where Bragg could destroy each individually. Rosecrans fell for this deception.
However, due to the lack of faith in Bragg by his subordinate officers, the initiative was not seized. On September 10th through the 13th, the lieutenants under Bragg hesitated and questioned their commander’s order to attack isolated pieces of the Union army. This hesitation gave George Thomas and his Federal force time to move back from an exposed position to the passes through Missionary Ridge. Rosecrans saw these maneuvers and began concentrating his army in the valley of the West Chickamauga Creek.
With Thomas escaping, Bragg pivoted and decided to head north to attack Crittenden and his Federal corps. This corps contained about 14,000 men situated at Lee and Gordon’s Mills on the west side of Chickamauga Creek. Bragg, even without McLaws having arrived yet, still had a two-to-one advantage over the Federals with John Bell Hood having arrived on the 18th. However, Braggs delay gave the corps under Thomas and McCook time to reunite with Crittenden. Had Bragg attacked on the 18th, he could have crushed Rosecrans’s flank and the one Union corps there.
By the 19, Rosecrans had his army stationed on the Lafayette Road to the north of Lee and Gordon’s Mills. This was an important strategic position because if it were to fall into rebel hands, Rosecrans would be cut off from Chattanooga and be vulnerable to utter destruction.
Fighting Begins at Chickamauga
Shortly after dawn on the 19th, Union and Confederate patrols ran into one another triggering the battle. Forrest’s cavalry division accidently encountered a brigade of Federals from Thomas’ corps. Both the Union and Confederates sent in reinforcements until a major battle had erupted. The fighting took place throughout the day in undergrowth and woods that were so thick they resemble the Wilderness. The men under Thomas were in a curved line along the Lafayette Road and saw the most intense action of the battle. The Union line was pushed back about a mile but were able to regain their position along the Lafayette Road when McCook’s corps arrived.
September 19 Map
At night on the 19, Longstreet finally reached Bragg and his army with two more brigades and Bragg set about reorganizing his army into two different wings.The left wing was put under Longstreet and the right under Leonidas Polk. Bragg planned for Polk to push the left of the Federal line away from the Lafayette Road and for Longstreet to then apply the crushing blow.
The Battle of Chickamauga Continues
On the 20th, the battle began late as Pope delayed for several hours. Pope saw little success in pushing the Federals under Thomas, who were behind defensive breastworks, back. In response, Bragg canceled the echelon orders and had Longstreet move forward with his attack at 11:30 a.m. During the fighting, Rosecrans moved a brigade to the left from the right wing of his army, believing that a gap in the lines had developed. This movement created a real gap in the Federal line and Longstreet took advantage of this, moving his five divisions through the gap. McCook’s command collapsed and a third of the Federal army fled from Chickamauga Creek to Chattanooga. With the men in blue, four division commanders, two corps commanders, and Rosecrans fled the battlefield as well.
September 20 Map
In response to this break of the Federal army, Longstreet ordered his reserves into the fight and asked Bragg for reinforcements. However, Bragg did not send any reinforcements, much to Longstreet’s chagrin. Longstreet continued the attack with the men he had. When Longstreet began to press the attack, they met a Union force under Thomas who refused to retreat. This line was formed on a ridge at ninety degree angles to their original line. Thomas took charge of these men who did not flee and made a final stand against the Confederates. Thomas received support from Gordon Granger who was in command of a Union reserve division. Together, THomas and Granger held off a Confederate attack from three sides until dark when they pulled back through McFarland’s Gap to Chattanooga.
Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest wanted to chase the Union army, however, Bragg would not do so. This started a rupture in Bragg and Longstreet’s relationship that would result in Longstreet being sent against Burnside and being absent for the Battle of Chattanooga. The Confederates suffered 18,000 casualties, this was more than 30% of his effective force. Those casualties included 10 Confederate generals. On the opposite side, the Union force suffered 16,000. Bragg did win the battlefield and the battle, however, he failed to capitalize on his victory in any real strategic way. Nathan Bedford Forrest, in response to Bragg’s lack of aggression, stated, “What does he fight battles for?”
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