Civil War Series

The Battes for Chickamauga


(click on image for a PDF version)
The strength of Cheatham's Confederate division's attack necessitated several reinforcements to Richard Johnson's and Palmer's Union divisions. The help of Reynolds and Van Cleve's Federals finally caused Cheatham's withdrawal.

On Cheatham's left, Stewart's division attacked in column and drove back elements of Palmer, Van Cleve, and Reynolds. Stewart's momentum carried him across the Lafayette Road near the Brotherton Farm, penetrating the developing Federal line. Farther to the south, Jefferson C. Davis's Federal division encountered Confederates east of the Chattanooga-Lafayette Road.

As a result of the southward flow of the fighting, units that had fought in the opening actions had disengaged and were resting and reorganizing.

The defeat of Cheatham's division by Johnson, Palmer, and Van Cleve did not prove decisive, and again it was Bragg's turn to alter the balance. Since early morning Major General Alexander Stewart's division had been waiting patiently near Thedford's Ford. Around noon Bragg ordered Stewart to report to Polk and enter the battle. Stewart marched north through the forest to the Brock Farm, where he encountered Wright's retreating brigade. Apprised of Van Cleve's position on his left, Stewart resolved to strike that unit on his own authority. Forming his division into a column of brigades, he turned west with Brigadier General Henry Clayton's brigade in the lead. Confronting Beatty's Dick's, and Grose's Federals, Clayton's troops stood their ground and fired until their ammunition was expended. Stewart then replaced Clayton's men with Brigadier General John Brown's brigade. With a yell Brown's regiments drove Beatty's and Dick's troops from the woods east of the LaFayette Road. There Brown paused, his energy momentarily spent.


Sensing that the Federals who had withdrawn behind Reynolds's guns in the Brotherton Field were shaky, Stewart committed his last brigade, Brigadier General William Bate's, Bate burst from the forest shortly after 3:30 P.M. and quickly routed Van Cleve's division. Hazen's brigade, which was nearby replenishing ammunition, attempted to assist Van Cleve but was also swept westward. At approximately the same time, Colonel James Sheffield's brigade from Hood's division entered the fight on Bate's right and drove back Grose's and Cruft's brigades. A counterattack by Brigadier General John Turchin's brigade of Reynolds's division halted Sheffield, but for a time nothing could stop Bate's rampaging Confederates. With Van Cleve's soldiers fleeing madly before him, Bate raced through the Brotherton Field and finally into the south end of the Dyer Field. There Stewart and Bate paused to survey their surroundings. They had created a major rupture in the Federal line, but without reinforcement they could not remain in their advanced position. Seeing Federal troops approaching from both flanks, Stewart sadly ordered Bate to withdraw east of the LaFayette Road.

During his march north Stewart had passed behind Bushrod Johnson's division of Hood's corps. This division remained undisturbed until shortly after 2:00 P.M. when it was approached by Brigadier General Jefferson Davis's two-brigade division of the Twentieth Corps. Ordered north by Rosecrans from Crawfish Spring, Davis quickly found himself in trouble. On Davis's left Colonel Hans Heg's brigade was counterattacked by Johnson, who forced it across the LaFayette Road. Having vanquished the immediate Federal threat, Hood ordered the Confederate advance to continue. Johnson crossed the LaFayette Road with two brigades abreast and one in reserve, but his neat formations soon unraveled. On his right Colonel John Fulton's brigade drifted to the northwest, where it routed King's brigade and inadvertently assisted Bate in clearing the Brotherton Field. On Johnson's left Brigadier General John Gregg's regiments were checked by Wilder's brigade, which now occupied a reserve position at the western edge of the Viniard Farm. When Gregg was seriously wounded, his brigade advanced no further, Called forward by Johnson, Brigadier General Evander McNair's brigade also fragmented, with two regiments briefly crossing the LaFayette Road and the remainder following Fulton to the northwest.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Stewart's penetration across Lafayette Road was a crisis for the Federals. Stewart had attacked without support. As a result, Palmer's, Reynolds's, and Van Cleve's divisions were able to stop Stewart. The arrival of Negley's division, and the movement of Brannan's, forced Stewart back to the east side of the road.

Bushrod Johnson's division attacked to the south of Stewart, but was in turn driven back by Federals. In the area of the Viniard Farm, Davis's division, aided by Wood's, fought elements of Confederate divisions under Bushrod Johnson and Hood. Hood's attack drove Davis and Wood back, but Wilder's brigade, fighting on foot from a well-chosen position, stopped Hood's attack. The arrival of Sheridan's division stabilized the situation for the Federals.

At the northern part of the field, Cleburne's fresh division, supported by Cheatham's, attacked at dark striking Thomas's troops. This confusing flight was inconclusive, and Thomas pulled back that night to better defensive positions.

As Johnson's attack stalled, Brigadier General Thomas Wood's two-brigade division reached the field. Ordered northward around 3:00 P.M. from Lee and Gordon's Mill, Wood posted Colonel George Buell's brigade north of the Viniard House, then continued up the LaFayette Road with Colonel Charles Harker's brigade. Arriving in the rear of Fulton's and McNair's regiments, Harker fired into the backs of the surprised Confederates. The unexpected fire stunned Johnson's men, and they fled to safety in the woods east of the road. Aware that he was isolated, Harker quickly withdrew to the west, South of Harker, Buell's men had hardly taken position when they were assaulted by part of Brigadier General Evander Law's division. Passing behind Johnson's command, the brigades of Brigadier Generals Jerome Robertson and Henry Benning pushed southwest toward the Viniard Field. Brushing aside Brigadier General William Carlin's brigade of Davis's division, they violently struck Buell and sent him flying behind Wilder's line. Rushing forward, Robertson's and Benning's men reached a drainage ditch in front of Wilder's position but could advance no further.

Several times before sunset Crittenden, Wood, and Davis mounted unsuccessful counterattacks to regain the ground around the Viniard House. In one of these futile advances brigade commander Hans Heg was mortally wounded leading his men toward the LaFayette Road. Finally, late in the day Rosecrans threw into the fight at Viniard's virtually his last reserve. When Wood's division had left Lee and Gordon's Mill, its place had been taken by Sheridan's division of McCook's corps. Now Sheridan was needed at Viniard's to strengthen the efforts to regain the LaFayette Road. Leaving one brigade at the mill, Sheridan marched north with the brigades of Colonels Luther Bradley and Bernard Laiboldt. Bradley's brigade entered the fight first and, although its commander was wounded, it carried the day. Heavily outnumbered, Robertson's and Benning's men finally relinquished their hold on the Viniard Field and withdrew eastward into the forest. Behind them the field was carpeted with the dead and wounded of both sides, silent testimony to the intensity of the struggle for its possession.



As night approached, the sounds of conflict were gradually dying away when, suddenly, on the north end of the battlefield the roar of gunfire broke out anew. Trying to preserve his original concept of driving the Federals southward, Bragg in mid-afternoon had ordered Daniel H. Hill to send Major General Patrick Cleburne's division to join Polk's effort on the army's right. By 6:00 P.M. Cleburne was in position behind Walker's corps facing the Winfrey Field. That sector had been quiet for several hours as the fighting had migrated to the south. Nor did the Federal units west of the Winfrey Field desire to upset the equilibrium. Thomas had chosen a better defensive position nearer the LaFayette Road, and he had begun to withdraw his divisions to the new line. Momentarily left behind was Richard Johnson's division, which would cover the withdrawal of Thomas's other units. Ready to assist Johnson was Baird's division, now reconstituted after its morning rout.

At sunset Cleburne's division swept forward with all three brigades abreast. On Cleburne's right Brigadier General Lucius Polk's brigade overlapped Colonel Philemon Baldwin's position. In the center Brigadier General Sterling Wood's brigade crossed the Winfrey Field to hit Baldwin frontally. On the left Brigadier General James Deshler's brigade headed through the woods toward the brigades of Brigadier General August Willich and Colonel Joseph Dodge. Amid the smoke from burning underbrush and the gathering darkness, Cleburne's assault soon degenerated into chaos. Advancing to support Baldwin, some of Baird's men mistakenly fired into their friends, who returned the fire. Attempting to lead a counterattack, Baldwin was killed. On the Confederate side part of Wood's brigade disintegrated, while Deshler's brigade missed the Federal line entirely. As Brigadier General Preston Smith led his brigade forward to support Deshler, he mistakenly rode into Federal lines and was shot down by Dodge's brigade. Smith's killers then found themselves surrounded. By 9:00 P.M., when the confusing melee ended, Johnson and Baird had been driven back to Thomas's new line, leaving the Winfrey Field to Cleburne's exhausted men.


The Winfrey Field fight was sputtering to a close when the leaders of the Army of the Cumberland gathered in the modest cabin of widow Eliza Glenn on the south edge of the battlefield. The discussion quickly focused upon courses of action for the next day. The choices were: attack, retreat, or stand firmly on the defensive. With only five relatively fresh brigades, the army had been too badly hurt to go on the offensive. Retreat was also out of the question, especially with Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana present. If the army held its ground on the next day, Bragg might retreat, as he had done after Perryville and Stones River. Thus Rosecrans concluded that the Army of the Cumberland must stand. Thomas would maintain his present position, a roughly north-south line with a salient bending east of the LaFayette Road to encompass the Kelly Farm. On Thomas's right, McCook would withdraw from the Viniard Field and anchor his right near the Widow Glenn's. Crittenden would place his two weakened divisions in reserve behind the army's right center. Granger, who had reached Rossville with part of the Reserve Corps, was telegraphed to be prepared to support Thomas if necessary.


Little more than two miles away at Thedford's Ford, Bragg met individually with his commanders. Unhappy with the disjointed way in which the battle had been fought and perhaps distrustful of Hill and Buckner, Bragg had decided to divide his army into two wings. First to arrive was Leonidas Polk. Although he harbored grave reservations about Polk's competence, Bragg felt compelled to give his most senior subordinate a wing commander's role. Polk's right wing consisted of Hill's corps, Walker's corps, and Cheatham's division. With those forces Polk would initiate the army's assault on the Federal left at daybreak. Beginning with Polk's rightmost division, the attack would roll southward sequentially and drive the Federals away from Chattanooga. Aware that James Longstreet had reached the area, Bragg assigned him the left wing, composed of Hood's corps, Buckner's corps, and Hindman's division of Polk's corps. When Longstreet finally appeared around 11:00 P.M., he too received his instructions, then lay down in the woods to rest. Only the army's third lieutenant general, Harvey Hill, was unapprised of the plan, although he learned from a staff officer that he had been subordinated to Polk.

Upon leaving Bragg, Polk rode to his own headquarters near Alexander's Bridge. He was accompanied by Major General John Breckinridge, one of Hill's division commanders. While Polk and Breckinridge chatted, Polk's staff prepared written orders for Hill, Walker, and Cheatham and dispatched them by courier. Walker and Cheatham received their assignments, but the courier seeking Hill could not find him. Returning to headquarters, the courier was not permitted to disturb anyone, so he returned to his unit without transmitting the vital information that Hill had not received his orders. Similarly, Breckinridge apparently left Polk's camp with no inkling that a dawn attack was contemplated and that his division was to initiate it. As for Hill himself, when he reached Alexander's Bridge around 4:00 A.M. the guards that had been posted to guide him had retired for the evening. Disgusted, Hill turned and rode to join his corps near the Winfrey Field. He was still unaware of his role in the coming day's fight.


During the night of September 19 a weather front passed over the battlefield, causing the temperature to plummet and increasing the suffering of the thousands of wounded lying in the woods. In the valley of Chickamauga Creek dense fog developed. Elsewhere, the smoke from the previous day's battle hung heavily in the air. Awakening around 5:00 A.M., Polk soon discovered that no orders had reached Hill. In haste, Polk's staff drafted new orders to Breckinridge and Cleburne and sent them off shortly after 5:30 A.M. Thirty minutes later, a courier found Hill in company with his two subordinates just west of the Winfrey Field. In a written response to Polk, later amplified verbally to Bragg, Hill complained that several things would have to be done before his corps could attack. His line overlapped adjacent units and would have to be adjusted; the enemy line had not been reconnoitered and would have to be scouted; and his own troops had not finished receiving their breakfast rations. Disgruntled, Bragg acquiesced in the delay.

While the Confederates dawdled, Rosecrans rode to the north end of his line. There he found the intersection of the Lafayette and McFarland's Gap roads unprotected. To cover the junction, Thomas requested Major General James Negley's division, a Fourteenth Corps unit in McCook's sector. Rosecrans approved the request, specifying that McCook was to replace Negley. Riding southward a little later, Rosecrans discovered that Negley had not been relieved. Ordering Negley to send his reserve brigade to Thomas at once, Rosecrans told Crittenden to fill Negley's place. After visiting McCook, Rosecrans again rode northward, He found Negley still in position, with Wood's division just arriving. Impatiently Rosecrans ordered Wood to expedite the relief of Negley's remaining brigades. Camp gossip later asserted that Rosecrans had sulfurously berated Wood in front of his staff, but Wood categorically denied that such an altercation had occurred. Chastised or not, Wood placed Buell's and Harker's brigades, plus Colonel Sidney Barnes's brigade from Van Cleve's division, into Negley's position.

Previous Top Next