Civil War Series

The Battes for Chickamauga



The first detailed accounts of the Battle of Chickamauga appeared in newspapers published shortly after the conclusion of the action. Inaccurate in many details, these hasty efforts nevertheless represented the first attempt to analyze the battle. In 1883 the story of Chickamauga assumed its modern form with the publication of The Army of the Cumberland by Henry Cist. A partisan staff officer of Rosecrans, Cist argued vigorously that the Federal defeat was primarily due to the incompetence of staff Major Frank Bond and the malevolence of Brigadier General Thomas Wood. Embellished over the years, Cist's analysis remains today the prevailing account of Chickamauga's pivotal events.

A decade later, Henry Boynton, another Rosecrans partisan and veteran of the battle, became the dominant member of the Chickamauga Park Commission. Like Rosecrans, Boynton maintained that Chickamauga had to be fought to secure Chattanooga, and thus was a Federal victory. While carefully locating many Federal markers, Boynton also skewed the interpretation of the field in favor of certain units, especially his own. The 1890 publication of Chickamauga battle reports in Volume XXX of the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies notwithstanding, Cist's and Boynton's highly opinionated version of the battle was enshrined in the public mind by 1900.


Cist and Boynton had their detractors, notably maligned participants like Wood and veterans whose units had been slighted, but their objections were ignored. In 1911, Archibald Gracie son of a Confederate participant, published The Truth About Chickamauga. Initially conceived as an effort to tell the Confederate side of the story, Gracie's work ultimately became an attack upon Boynton's placement of Federal units on Snodgrass Hill. Too narrow in scope and too technical in nature to have much of an impact on Chickamauga historiography, Gracie's book failed to produce a successful reinterpretation of the battle.

Since Gracie's time, many biographers have addressed Chickamauga as part of larger studies, often relying upon the Cist-Boynton versions in the process. Especially notable in this regard was William Lamers's 1961 biography of Rosecrans, The Edge of Glory. In the same year popular author Glenn Tucker published the first single-volume account of the Chickamauga Campaign in modern times. Filled with personal vignettes, Tucker's book relied heavily upon Cist's and Boynton's work but tempered some of their more partisan judgments. For the next thirty years, Tucker's Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West was the standard account of the battle.

Although scholarship has greatly improved since Tucker's day, many myths remain to be exorcised from the Chickamauga story. In 1971 Thomas Connelly resurrected the reputation of the Army of Tennessee in Autumn of Glory but continued the traditional bashing of Braxton Bragg. Fortunately, recent work by Judith Hallock and Steven Woodworth has finally begun to give Bragg his due. Some improvement has also been made on the Federal side, with the publication in 1992 of Peter Cozzens's This Terrible Sound, a full account of Chickamauga that has superseded Tucker's work. Still, as Cozzens's massive study proves, the Cist-Boynton version of events remains alive and well today.


Unlike their commander, other soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland remained on the battlefield. Around the Kelly Field Thomas's four divisions still held their breastworks. On the ridge bending westward from the Snodgrass House a less organized but equally determined stand was made by men from many commands. First to reach the elevation later known as Snodgrass Hill or Horseshoe Ridge was Negley with Colonel William Sirwell's brigade. Negley had been on his way to join Thomas in late morning when a staff officer had brought him a verbal order to gather artillery on the ridge. Thomas wanted the artillery to cover his left flank, but the message was garbled or Negley, ill with diarrhea, misunderstood it. By the time Negley and Sirwell collected more than forty guns, the Confederate breakthrough had occurred. Soon hundreds of soldiers came pouring through the woods, many without organization or commanders. Mostly from Brannan's and Van Cleve's divisions, many demoralized men could not be rallied. Others decided to make a final stand on the ridge.

Arriving with the mob was Brannan, who attempted to bring order from the chaos. Asking Negley for assistance, Brannan received Sirwell's largest regiment, the Twenty-first Ohio. Armed with the five-shot Colt revolving rifle, the regiment anchored the right of the rallying fragments. Doubting that Brannan's rabble could stand for long, Negley decided to remove the artillery to McFarland's Gap. Not long after Negley departed, Stanley's brigade arrived, having been forced westward by Govan's attack. Although Stanley was soon wounded, his men occupied the section of ridge immediately south of the Snodgrass House. They were joined on their left by Harker's brigade, driven from the Dyer Field by Kershaw. In such fashion a new Federal line formed, not by conscious design but by the determination of hundreds of men to be driven no further. First to test that line was Kershaw's brigade. Several times Kershaw's regiments ascended the ridge, only to be beaten back by the concentrated fire of the defiant Federals. On Kershaw's right, Humphreys's brigade also approached the Federal line, but Humphreys deemed the Federal position too strong and held his men back.


While Kershaw and Humphreys battled Brannan's and Wood's men on the eastern end of Horseshoe Ridge, Bushrod Johnson was ascending the western end without opposition. After easily driving across the Dyer Field, Johnson had gained a ridge overlooking the Federal trains fleeing westward on the Dry Valley Road. For a time he contented himself with using his artillery to stampede the teamsters while his infantry rested. A little before 2:00 P.M. he turned his division northward toward Horseshoe Ridge. Climbing a spur on the western end of the wooded ridge, Johnson sensed that he was positioned on the flank of Federal troops facing Kershaw and Humphreys. Momentarily lacking McNair's (now Colonel David Coleman's) brigade, which was still reorganizing east of the Dyer Field, Johnson deployed Fulton's and Sugg's brigades before sending them toward the sounds of firing. As they reached the top of the main ridge they were surprised to meet a fresh Federal force climbing the opposite side.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Union elements that survived the breakthrough form a defensive position on hills near the Snodgrass Farm and face mostly to the south. Despite repeated assaults, Confederates are not able to take the ridge until evening. Most of the Federal units have already withdrawn to Rossville and established defensive positions along Missionary Ridge.

At evening, Polk's wing renews its assault on the Kelly Farm defenses. The Union line at this end of the field is also pulling back, and the Confederates capture only a few hundred Federals.

The two Confederate wings will meet that night in what they would later call a triumphal celebration, but most of the Federal army had been able to withdraw in the direction of Chattanooga, contrary to Bragg's plan of September 16.

The force that met Johnson consisted of two brigades of Brigadier General James Steedman's division of Granger's Reserve Corps. Originally posted at McAfee's Church east of Rossville, Granger and Steedman had listened all morning to the sounds of battle three miles to the south. At last, unable to restrain himself further, Granger ordered Steedman's two brigades and Colonel Daniel McCook's brigade to march to Thomas's aid. As they neared Thomas's flank they were harassed by some of Forrest's dismounted troopers. Deflected westward from the LaFayette Road by Forrest's artillery, Granger's men headed for the rear of the Federal position on Horseshoe Ridge. Leaving McCook's brigade north of the McDonald House to cover the rear, Granger and Steedman continued southwestward until they reached Thomas's beleaguered men. Ordered to prolong Brannan's line to the west, Granger sent Steedman's division into action on the run. With Brigadier General Walter Whitaker's brigade on the left and Colonel John Mitchell's brigade on the right, Steedman stormed up the hill into the teeth of Johnson's advance.

For the remainder of the afternoon the battle lines swayed back and forth across the top of the ridge as repeated Confederate assaults were repulsed, only to be renewed with greater effort.

The shock of Steedman's attack caused Johnson's men to recoil down the hill. Following the retreating Confederates too closely, Steedman's men found themselves exposed and withdrew to the crest of the ridge. For the remainder of the afternoon the battle lines swayed back and forth across the top of the ridge as repeated Confederate assaults were repulsed, only to be renewed with greater effort. When Coleman's brigade finally appeared, Johnson threw it into his subsequent attack. In addition, his pleas for assistance resulted in Hindman's division being sent to add weight to his efforts. Deas's and Manigault's brigades formed on Fulton's left and participated in one charge but were so exhausted from their earlier exertions that they were useless thereafter. Similarly, Anderson's Brigade filled the gap between Johnson and Kershaw and made its own unsuccessful assault against the hill. Obviously, Johnson's and Hindman's men no longer had the offensive punch needed to carry the commanding Federal position, especially after Van Derveer's brigade arrived from Kelly Field to strengthen the defense.

As Bragg dolefully rode away, Longstreet returned to the Dyer Field. There he finally began to impose some central direction upon the disjointed Confederate assaults fuvitilely smashing themselves against the ridge.

For some time the developing fight for Horseshoe Ridge did not gain Longstreet's attention. After the initial breakthrough he visited his right flank at the Poe Field, ordered Buckner to deploy more artillery, then sat down to a convivial lunch with his staff. Summoned by Bragg, he asked for reinforcements even though he had not yet committed his own reserve, Preston's division. Depressed that another victory was slipping from his grasp, Bragg claimed that Polk's right wing was too badly hurt to provide assistance. As Bragg dolefully rode away, Longstreet returned to the Dyer Field. There he finally began to impose some central direction upon the disjointed Confederate assaults futilely smashing themselves against the ridge. Missing since Hood had been carried from the field, that central direction could possibly have swept the haggard Federal defenders from their fiery Gibraltar before nightfall. Now Longstreet would have to race the sun as well as defeat the enemy. With only one last unit to deploy, he called Preston's division forward.



Around 4:30 P.M. Brigadier General Archibald Gracie's brigade reached the foot of Horseshoe Ridge. Taken under fire instantly, Gracie's troops began the first of several attempts to seize the eastern end of the ridge. On their left, Colonel John Kelly's brigade joined the assaults, with similar lack of success. By the time Colonel Robert Trigg's brigade arrived on Kelly's left, Gracie's and Kelly's men had lost their momentum. Gracie had gained the edge of the first knoll southwest of the Snodgrass House but could go no further, while Kelly was still at the foot of the ridge. With Trigg's fresh regiments at hand, Preston decided to make one last effort before darkness enveloped the field. Sensing a slackening of Federal fire on his left, he sent Trigg up a ravine in hopes of flanking the troops facing Kelly. Without opposition, the brigade crossed the ridge, then turned eastward. In the gloom Trigg's and Kelly's brigades encircled remnants of three Federal regiments. Except for the wounded and the dead, these regiments were the last Federals on Horseshoe Ridge. Where had the remainder of the Army of the Cumberland gone?

Around 4:30 P.M., in response to an order from Rosecrans, Thomas ordered a general retreat, beginning with the four divisions holding Kelly Field. Reynolds's division began the delicate movement, with Turchin's brigade in the lead. Finding skirmishers of Liddell's division blocking the way, Turchin led a wild charge which brushed them aside and cleared the McFarland's Gap Road. After Reynolds, it was Palmer's turn to go. Having already sent Hazen's brigade to Horseshoe Ridge, Palmer extracted his remaining two brigades with increasing difficulty. Seeing the retreat, the Confederates redoubled their attacks against the Federal position. As Johnson's and Baird's units struggled to disengage, Stewart's, Cleburne's, and even some of Cheatham's men closed in around them. Johnson's three brigades escaped relatively intact, but Baird lost heavily, especially in prisoners. Leaping the works, the Confederate infantrymen raised a victory shout that was heard far to the east, where Bragg was sitting disconsolately on a log.


Before leaving Horseshoe Ridge, Thomas placed Granger in charge of the defense, but Granger remained only a little longer than Thomas. When he departed, no one coordinated the Federal withdrawal from the ridge. As sunset approached, Steedman disengaged his division and quietly withdrew to the north without being noticed by Bushrod Johnson or Hindman. Similarly, Brannan and Wood managed the withdrawal of their troops without reference to Steedman's departure. Left behind in the center of the position were three regiments, all of which had been temporarily attached to either Steedman or Brannan. The Twenty-second Michigan and the Eighty-ninth Ohio regiments had entered the fight with Whitaker's brigade and had been ordered to remain in place by one of Steedman's staff officers. The Twenty-first Ohio regiment had been given to Brannan by Negley early in the afternoon. It too was told by persons seemingly in authority to hold its position with the bayonet. Decimated by casualties and out of ammunition, the three regiments heroically held their position until surrounded and captured by Preston's Division.

...the Army of the Cumberland appeared to be evacuating Chattanooga. Bragg therefore ordered a pause to reorganize his shattered units and gather the spoils of war, which lay everywhere on the field.

As darkness shrouded the battlefield of Chickamauga, few on either side were aware that the struggle had ended. During the night Thomas withdrew his intact units to positions around Rossville Gap and across Chattanooga Valley. Behind this new line broken units reconstituted themselves. Unaware that the Army of the Cumberland was gone, the Army of Tennessee bivouacked where they lay, expecting to renew the contest on the following day. Only gradually did the Confederate commanders realize that they held the field alone. Immediate pursuit was tempting, but practical considerations ruled it out. Bragg's army had lost more than 17,000 men killed, wounded, and missing. Many of the troops that had arrived by rail had brought no transportation with them, and the battle had seriously depleted the number of serviceable artillery horses. There was no pontoon train available for crossing the Tennessee River. Besides, the Army of the Cumberland appeared to be evacuating Chattanooga. Bragg therefore ordered a pause to reorganize his shattered units and gather the spoils of war, which lay everywhere on the field.

Holding Missionary Ridge only long enough to regain its composure, the Army of the Cumberland soon withdrew into Chattanooga. Rosecrans's command was badly hurt, having lost more than 16,000 men killed, wounded, and missing in the battle. Many of the wounded had been left to the Confederates, either on the battlefield or at field hospitals that could not be evacuated. Although the army had saved most of its trains, large quantities of arms, ammunition, and materiel had been left behind. Nevertheless, most of the men were not demoralized and still retained confidence in Rosecrans. Using old Confederate works as a foundation, engineers quickly designed a strong defensive line. Digging with great energy, the Army of the Cumberland soon felt secure from a frontal attack. Its supply situation was much more tenuous because the Confederates controlled the easiest routes to the Stevenson supply base. Still, as long as Chattanooga remained in Federal hands, both Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland could truthfully claim that the objective of the campaign had been attained. Similarly, for Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, as long as they were denied possession of Chattanooga the great victory of Chickamauga would remain incomplete. Clearly, the iron hand of war had not yet finished its work in the shadow of Lookout Mountain.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Back cover: Detail from The Battle of Chickamauga by James Walker, courtesy of U.S. Army Historical Collection.
Previous Top