Today is the sesquicentennial of the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga. This was the most brutal, sanguinary Civil War battle west of the Appalachians, and the second bloodiest of the entire war. It was also a swirling, confusing affair, a meeting engagement between two armies on the move that metastasized as units arrived on the battlefield. The Union army was marching hard to get back to Chattanooga; the Confederates were trying to interpose themselves between the Federals and their base. The conflict started towards the north, and then moved progressively south with charge and countercharge, as new units marched onto the field. The confusion was compounded by the fact that most of the battle was fought in dense woods broken only by scattered clearings. Regimental officers could not see their entire battle lines because of the timber and battle smoke that hung thick in the woods. There were numerous successful flank attacks at the brigade and division levels because units became separated in the woods, leaving open flanks; attackers pounced on these exposed flanks undetected because of the thick foliage.
Bumbling generalship and command strife also contributed to the confused nature of the fighting. The most egregious blunder was of course Union commander Rosecrans’ order to move Thomas J. Wood’s division out of line based on a misapprehension: Rosecrans’ aide could not see Brannan’s division in the heavy timber, and thought there was a gap in the line between Wood’s division and Reynolds’s. Acting on this report, Rosecrans thought he was closing a gap when he ordered Wood to “close up” on Reynolds, but he was really opening one: Wood had to move out of line to get around Brannan in order to reach Reynolds. Through this opening James Longstreet’s corps poured through, routing the entire Union right and center. (It is quite possible that Longstreet’s attack would have been nearly as successful even if Wood stayed in line. The Union divisions in front of his corps were small, and had taken heavy casualties the day before, and Longstreet attacked in mass and had great superiority of numbers at the point of attack. For instance, Longstreet’s left smashed right through Davis’s division in minutes, and would have done so even if Wood had been in line: it is quite possible that Wood’s two small brigades would have been similarly overwhelmed had they not moved.) That tactical error was just the culmination of a series of Rosecrans’s mistakes. His scattered and hasty advance south of the Tennessee River based on a belief that the Confederates were in disorganized retreat from Chattanooga made him vulnerable to defeat in detail by the massing Confederates. He was racing back to Chattanooga to escape the trap he had so injudiciously thrown his army into.
But Rosecrans was not the only blunderer. Confederate commander Bragg frittered away the golden opportunity of trapping Rosecrans, due in part to his inept planning, and in part to the fact that his subordinates so heartily disliked him that they did not execute his orders efficiently. Neither commander exerted any real control on the 19th, the day of the meeting engagement, but when the lines stabilized on the 20th, Bragg’s attack on the Union left was woefully executed at huge loss, again largely due to Bragg’s inability to get recalcitrant corps commanders to implement his plan, and the incompetence of those corps commanders (notably Polk).
As a result, this was not a battle of generalship (except in the negative sense). It was a soldier’s battle. On the first day in particular, moreover, it was not really a single battle, but a series of disjointed actions fought at close range between regiments, brigades, and divisions.
The Chickamauga battlefield was one of the first preserved by the Federal government, and is almost entirely intact. Moreover, due to its early preservation, veterans of the battle erected numerous monuments marking where they fought. The War Department (which managed the Park at the time of its creation and for some years afterwards) also erected numerous plaques describing the movements of each brigade involved in the battle. Most of the markers are accurate. One exception is around Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge. Gracie’s The Truth About Chickamauga does a good job at explaining how that part of the battlefield was mismarked, and why. (In a nutshell: the process of placing markers and writing the descriptions was dominated by a figure, Henry Boynton, who wanted to exaggerate the role played by the brigade to which he belonged.)
I’ve walked pretty much every foot of the battlefield, on multiple occasions. You really have to do that if you want to understand the action, and appreciate the conditions. Two pieces of advice if you want to do the same, especially in the summer. 1. Check for ticks (especially if you’re blonde!). 2. Watch for snakes. Both are abundant in those Georgia woods. Then there was that time I almost stepped on a wild turkey, which flew up right into my face. I don’t know who was more surprised or freaked out, me or the turkey. (Don’t go there!)
My grandfather first took me to the battlefield when I was 9, as part of an epic Civil War trip that was the genesis of my interest in the War. We started at Shiloh, then Vicksburg, then Corinth, then Chickamauga-Chattanooga, then Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Richmond, and Antietam, before completing the journey in Gettysburg. Now that’s a helluva trip, and my grandfather was an excellent storyteller who helped bring the battles to life. I have the vivid memory of him illustrating the Wood-close-up-on-Reynolds story using Tiparillo boxes on the kitchen table.
My great-great grandfather George Immel fought in the battle, as a member of the 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Ironically, given the blogging proclivities of his descendant, he was an orderly to his brigade commander, Brigadier General Ivan Basil Turchin, nee Turchaninov (Ива́н Васи́льевич Турчани́нов), a Russian emigre. Turchin was quite a character, as was his formidable wife, who intervened personally with Lincoln to save Turchin’s career after he had been relieved from command for sacking the town of Athens, Alabama in retaliation for guerrilla attacks on his brigade. He went all Russian, in other words.
There is one story of the battle that was passed down through the family. George said that the most remarkable thing about the battle was the continuous noise, from all directions. The roar was unceasing on Saturday the 19th until night fell (though there was also a night attack by Cleburne’s division that evening). Then it began again the next morning, and didn’t stop until late in the day.
Turchin’s brigade played a rather prominent role in the battle. It helped stop the attack of Cheatham’s division near Brock Field on the 19th, then later in the day led a counterattack that flanked elements of Bates’s and Law’s brigade that had penetrated the Union center around the Brotherton House. On the 20th, it was in Thomas’s main line on the Union left, and behind some log barricades repulsed the attacks of Cleburne’s division. (It was a part of Reynolds’ division, which Wood was supposed to close up on.) During the final Union retreat, the brigade executed a bayonet charge through the McDonald Field, driving off the Confederates who threatened to cut off the escape route to Chattanooga.
That is the story of just one brigade, but overall the battle was fought largely at the brigade level. On the Union side, divisions from the three main corps (XIV, XX, and XXI) were jumbled together, and only the commander of the XIV corps (George Thomas) really exercised any control over his entire unit: the other corps commanders (McCook and Crittenden) were rendered almost supernumerary, and Thomas ended up commanding large portions of their units. Moreover, the terrain made controlling larger units almost impossible, so much of the battle devolved into brutal firefights between brigades.
Although it is a fascinating battle to study, with many stories of great personal bravery, ultimately all it produced was a monstrous casualty list. It was almost utterly devoid of strategic impact. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland escaped by a hair’s breadth back to Chattanooga, and Bragg’s Army of Tennessee did not pursue (to the fury of Nathan Bedford Forrest). A desultory siege followed, but Lincoln rushed reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Tennessee while Bragg’s Army declined in numbers when Longstreet, disgusted by Bragg’s leadership, took off to attack Knoxville. Under the command of Grant, the reinforced Federal forces drove Bragg from the heights overlooking Chattanooga. (The 92nd Ohio participated in the decisive charge on Missionary Ridge.)
During this attack, the Union soldiers who had been defeated 150 years ago today shouted “Remember Chickamauga!” as their battle cry. I remember it, and you should too.