Streetwise Professor

September 20, 2017

Remember Chickamauga!

Filed under: Civil War — The Professor @ 5:28 pm

The Battle of Chickamauga took place on 19-20 September, 1863, making today (and yesterday) the 154th anniversary of the battle. And a brutal battle it was. It ranks only behind Gettysburg in terms of total casualties–about 35 thousand as compared to 46 thousand for the three day Pennsylvania battle. However, casualties at Chickamauga almost equal as a percentage of forces engaged: 28 percent of combatants fell in each. It was one of the few battles in which the Confederates suffered a substantially larger number of casualties than their Federal foes:  Confederate losses at Chickamauga were about 2,300 greater than Union casualties (as compared to a disparity of only 180 at Gettysburg). Indeed, since the Confederates lost relatively few prisoners at Chickamauga, whereas the Federals lost many, the disparity in killed and wounded was even greater.  The total casualties, and the percentage losses, at Chickamauga far exceed those at Antietam.

Chickamauga was a meeting engagement fought in dense woods. These factors made it an extremely chaotic struggle. Divisions and even brigades were thrown from the march into advances through the woods, with no idea of what was in front of them and usually without proper support on the flanks. There were multiple instances in which one force moved undetected through the underbrush to fall on an unsuspecting enemy’s flank, routing him, only to be surprised, flanked, and routed in turn. Some brigades were routed multiple times. Unlike Gettysburg, where artillery could be used to great effect in open fields and from high ground, the effectiveness of artillery at Chickamauga was limited by the sharply limited visibility in the dense forests, and several batteries were surprised and captured because their attackers were on them before the gunners were aware of their presence. The limited effectiveness of artillery also meant that the vast bulk of the casualties were inflicted by musketry, usually delivered at very short range.

Given the confusing nature of the battle, after action reports and battle histories are confusing and contradictory. The battle spawned numerous controversies, most notably between Union commander William S. Rosecrans and division commander Thomas J. Wood. Rosecrans’ order to Wood to move his division, based on faulty information, opened a gap in the Union line which Longstreet’s massive force poured through and split the Union army in two. (Although I should note that given the thinness of the Federal line, and the mass and depth of Longstreet’s column, I think it is highly likely that his attack would have pulverized the Union line even had Wood’s division remained in place. Longstreet rolled over Davis’ division to Wood’s right with hardly a hesitation.)

One of my first Civil War memories is my grandfather explaining the Rosecrans-Wood controversy. I was 9, and we were sitting at the dinner table at a lodge in Lake Kabetogema, Minnesota, where my grandfather went fishing every year. He had Tiparrilo boxes, each one representing a Union division: Reynolds’ (in which my GGGF fought), Brannan’s, and Wood’s. He showed that the existence of Brannan’s division between Wood’s and Reynolds’ made it impossible for Wood to obey literally Rosecrans’ order for “Wood to close up on Reynolds, and support him.” So Wood (represented by a moving Tiparillo box) had to fall back, march behind Brannan’s box, and the move forward behind Reynolds’.

My most tangible piece of family Civil War history is from Chickamauga. My grandmother’s grandfather, George Immel, was a soldier in the 92nd Ohio Infantry, and during the battle was an aide to his brigade commander John Turchin (nee Ivan Turchininov). Immel had been born in Germany, which his parents fled in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. His mother was distressed that he enlisted: she lamented that she left Germany so that her son would not be conscripted, and here he goes and volunteers to fight in a new country. Turchin’s brigade turned in one of the best performances of the battle, capped with a mad charge across McDonald Field at the end of the fight to open up an escape route for the defeated Yankees. One of George’s memories that he passed down was his recollection of Chickamauga. What he remembered most was the sound. Continuous musketry from morning until well after dark on both days. In his three years of service, he never experienced the like in volume or duration. (His other Civil War memory that was passed down is from the March to the Sea. He loaded up on loot from South Carolina plantations, but eventually tired of his load, and dumped it all.)

The best history of the battle is David Powell’s multi-volume A Mad, Irregular Battle. I agree with most of the interpretations of the often conflicting evidence, except in the case of the fighting around Viniard Farm, which I have studied intensively over the years (and which was chaotic even by Chickamauga standards), and Horseshoe Ridge/Snodgrass Hill.  My favorite Chickamauga book is Archibald Gracie IV’s The Truth About Chickamauga, which he wrote primarily to give proper credit to his father, a Confederate brigade commander whose unit (according to the book) launched the attack that drove the Federals from their last-stand line on “Horseshoe Ridge.” Gracie convincingly argues that the markers and monuments in that area are wrong and misplaced, and were positioned to exaggerate the feats of the brigade of one of the Park commissioners: most historians have perpetuated the official version and slighted Gracie’s, but I think this is mistaken. Gracie spent years corresponding with veterans, and assembled a powerful case. It can be dry reading at times, but it is true original scholarship.

(Archibald Gracie IV was on the Titanic, but survived. He wrote the an book about the tragedy, but his health was devastated by hypothermia experienced during the sinking, and he died eight months later. His father was killed in the trenches at Petersburg in December, 1864, less than 15 months after his moment of glory in the Georgia woods.)

There is a current connection here. General Gracie’s grandfather was a New York merchant who built Gracie Mansion–now the home of New York mayor Bill de Blasio. The Gracie family had a cotton export business in Alabama, which is what brought Archibald Gracie III to Mobile before the war. Ironically, the hard left mayor is on a mission to cleanse New York of any traces of Confederate heritage. Well, in a way he lives in one, though perhaps I shouldn’t give such a hysterical iconoclast any ideas!

Chickamauga was a devastating defeat for the Union Army of the Cumberland. The defeat stung, so when they achieved stunning victories later in the war, first in the storming of Missionary Ridge, later in smashing the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Franklin, they exulted by shouting “Remember Chickamauga!” as a battle cry.

And it should be remembered. Like many western battles, Chickamauga is shaded by more well-know eastern fights. (Stones River/Murfreesboro is even more obscure, even though the percentage losses there were over 31 percent, well in excess of any major battle in the war.) It deserves more attention, because in the Georgia pines tens of thousands of Americans North and South, and of all ranks, displayed in abundance the virtues and vices that were commonplace in America’s most important historical episode. Courage there was in abundance. There was inspired leadership, and command ineptitude. Like the war overall, the battle gave birth to bitter controversies that outlived the principals. It was arguably the greatest tactical victory in the war (rivaled only by Nashville), but was strategically barren. It’s worth knowing more about, and I hope this short post is intriguing enough to entice you into doing so.

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10 Comments »

  1. Every Confederate who enlisted as an officer, including every traitorous politician and plantation owner, should have been hung or exiled, with all their property confiscated and redistributed evenly among the conscripted confederate enlistedmen and freed slave. Many who faught so “nobly” in the Civil War became terrorists in the years afterwards.
    We must never forget our history, even the shameful parts, but the subsequent monuments to “Confederate Glory” all have to come down.

    Comment by AtomicZeppelinMan — September 20, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

  2. Thanks Prof, very interesting. I don’t know much about this battle or its aftermath so forgive these basic questions. On the battle itself, was it only an accidental victory for the Confederacy? Or was the addition of the Confederate “easterners” under Longstreet into the army a factor contributing more than simply the admittedly positive impact from the addition of sorely needed reinforcements? Regarding the aftermath, is it correct that Bragg “threw the victory away”, that he could have but failed to retake Chattanooga? Perhaps the aftermath supports the idea that the victory itself was accidental, a tactical success that could not be exploited at the strategic level – a blip against the otherwise ongoing trend of Union advances in the theatre?

    Comment by Jan Hards — September 20, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

  3. @Jan-Glad you liked it. Bragg (the Confederate commander) needed every man that he had. Longstreet’s two divisions (which arrived without artillery) were only a portion of the reinforcements he received. Buckner’s Corps from eastern Tennessee and Walker’s Division, sent from Mississippi, were also essential: one of Buckner’s divisions (Bushrod Johnson’s) was responsible for the actual breakthrough (Buckner’s Corps being assigned to Longstreet’s wing). I wouldn’t say that the ANV divisions did more than their fair share. Some parts (e.g., Humphrey’s Brigade) did very little.

    The aftermath is one of the controversies. Forrest claimed that Bragg could have easily taken Chattanooga, but given the horrific casualties his army had suffered, and the ordinary disorganization and exhaustion that comes with a large battle–even a victory–I don’t think it was a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. Victories are often as debilitating as defeats, and that was certainly true of Chickamauga. Further, given the Army of Tennessee’s balky and divided command structure, and the incredible animosities that were rife in the upper ranks, it is heroic to assume that even had Bragg given the orders to move on Chattanooga, that they would have been carried out. Bragg had been frustrated for weeks by the chronic misfiring of his plans due to command friction and incompetence. That wasn’t going to change just because of a largely accidental victory.

    Bragg’s victory was largely (IMO) the result of Rosecrans’ blundering. The latter put his army in a false position, and in scrambling to recover, created disorder in command structure, with divisions from different corps scrambled together. The fact that he issued a direct order to a division commander is an indication of this. He also deferred excessively to Thomas (perhaps betraying severe insecurity), leading to an over concentration on his left and a weak right. He also engaged in, or permitted subordinates to engage in, attacks when his goal should have been to concentrate and defend.

    Bragg made many blunders of his own, and the dysfunctional Confederate command structure led to numerous fiascos both before (e.g., McClemore’s Cove) and during the battle. I consider this another example of a general losing a battle, rather than one winning it. Thus, in that sense the victory was accidental, and came at such a cost that following up would have been very difficult. At best Bragg could have destroyed Rosecrans’ army (no small victory), but he still would have been penned in by the mountains surrounding Chattanooga.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 20, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

  4. I suppose the Civil War was a consequence of flaws in the Constitution. Differences that should have been settled by routine political wrangling couldn’t – or at least weren’t – resolved under the constraints of the C.

    Comment by dearieme — September 21, 2017 @ 5:02 am

  5. Prof – thank you for your response. I keep meaning to dust off and re-read Shelby Foote’s great history of the war and this exchange has pushed this higher up my mental do list.

    I recall that Brixton Bragg had terrible relationships with his immediate subordinates but was close to Jefferson Davis and this was a reason he survived so long as he did as the commander of the Army of Tennessee.

    Comment by Jan Hards — September 21, 2017 @ 6:01 am

  6. @AZM,

    Officers are “commissioned”, not enlisted. Would you consider the Hartford Convention of 1814 treason? How about today’s Calexit? Not condoning the South’s slavery, but there is no settled answer to secession even today. I wouldn’t call it treason, just a different idea about our federal system being a voluntary state, not coerced.

    Comment by The Pilot — September 21, 2017 @ 9:02 am

  7. @Pilot. Thank you. I lose my sh*t whenever anyone says officer so-and-so enlisted. Um, then he’d be an ENLISTED man, not an officer.

    On the substance, victor’s justice seldom works out well. Even for the victor. Prior to 1861 there was a dramatic schism in Americans’ interpretation of the Constitution. Most Southerners considered themselves to be faithful adherents to the true spirit and intent of the Constitution. Most Northerners the same. Problem was, they had very different views of the Constitution, but were able to coexist until the stakes became too great. Slavery is what turned what could have been a largely intellectual disagreement into a split. But in 1861 virtually every Southerner would have objected violently to the accusation that he (or she) was a traitor. To them, it was the usurping Yankees who were subverting the Constitutional order of 1787.

    There were those who in 1865 and the years immediately following wanted to adopt @AZM’s policy. That would have been a recipe for unending internecine conflict. Reconstruction violence on steroids. Lincoln and many others recognized this and wanted to avoid it. Fear of unending guerrilla war was one motive for Grant’s relatively easy terms at Appomattox. The rough formula settled on was that Southerners had to pledge loyalty to the Union, and that there would be no denial of rights, let alone mass prosecutions for treason. This is how a semblance of peace was achieved.

    Most of the remainder of the 19th century and the pre-WWI 20th century were focused on how to reintegrate the nation. Compromises were required. The greatest tragedy is that black liberties were one of the things traded away in order to achieve a degree of intersectional harmony.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 21, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

  8. Professor, the same thing happened after the Boer war 1899-1901

    Comment by Andrew — September 22, 2017 @ 6:24 am

  9. @SWP – dare I say that slavery existed in the “North” as well as the “South”? And that every Confederate was pardoned, save one – the guy who ran Andersonville? Dare I say that the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves in Confederate territory? And that it took the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery everywhere?

    Dare I say that the preservation of the Union was the thing that both North and South wanted – in different ways. Lincoln’s first Inaugural explicitly stated that he was not out to abolish slavery where it existed. The Corwin Amendment, which was never passed, but was signed by Buchanan, would have prohibited the federal government from interfering with state institutions (including slavery), and was an attempt to preserve the Union, one of a few.

    Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural was quite different, and quite gracious. Seems to me that there was a lot of honor in the conduct of both sides at Appomattox. The Confederates even got to keep their weapons (for hunting).

    All of that (and more) is a bit outside of your very good battle description, of course.

    “No plan survives actual battle”

    Comment by elmer — September 22, 2017 @ 8:21 am

  10. My own GGGF (or so) served in the Union Army at Chickamauga as a private. He was wounded and did time as a prisoner in Andersonville. He limped for the rest of his life upon return to the farm in Indiana.

    Bragg’s replacement, Johnston, held a high reputation with Sherman if I recall. He played the retreat to Atlanta perfectly and delayed Sherman at every opportunity. Johnston’s replacement, Hood, was an idiot and the destruction of his army in front of Franklin and Nashville

    Comment by Whitehall — October 3, 2017 @ 6:56 am

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