The Battle of Chickamauga
President Lincoln had long favored eastern Tennessee as a region to be controlled by Union forces. There was a great deal of Union sympathy in the mountainous and hilly area where large slave-holding plantations did not take hold. After long months of recuperating from the Murfreesboro battle in January, General Rosecrans started a drive in August to gain control of southeastern Tennessee.
“Some of Bragg's people set up the ‘rebel yell.’ It was taken up successively and passed round to our front, along our right and in behind us again until it seemed almost to have got to the point whence it started. It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard.” — Ambrose Bierce, on Rosecrans's staff at the Battle of Chickamauga
Rosecrans did well. He maneuvered his army in swift marches that forced Bragg's Army of the Tennessee out of one position after another until Bragg had to give up the key city of Chattanooga. At the same time, Burnside moved against Knoxville and occupied that small city in early September.
Among those killed during the Battle of Chickamauga was a teenaged girl who had disguised herself as a soldier so that she could fight with the Union forces. Also killed was Confederate brigadier general Ben Hardin Helm, Mary Lincoln's brother-in-law and a good friend of President Lincoln.
Rosecrans was not content to remain the occupier of Chattanooga. He kept pressing Bragg southeast until Bragg was south of the Georgia state line. Confident of keeping Bragg on the run, Rosecrans split his army into segments and pressed down the hilly Georgia roads, but Bragg was being reinforced by Longstreet's 12,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia. When Bragg had these men — he now outnumbered the Federals by 10,000 soldiers — he made a quick reversal and staged an attack on Rosecrans.
The three columns of Rosecrans's army would have made easy pickings for Bragg's army, but delays and poor planning kept Bragg's subordinates from launching an effective attack, and several small skirmishes alerted Rosecrans to Bragg's trap.
On September 13, Rosecrans began regrouping his troops on the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, south of the Tennessee-Georgia border. Patrols from both sides engaged in a number of small skirmishes near the creek on September 18, and the Battle of Chickamauga began with a vengeance the next day.
The Battle Begins
Bragg's strategy was to attack Rosecrans's left flank and smash the Union army by forcing it into a valley from which it could not retreat back to Chattanooga. However, assaults by Confederate troops were met with a withering response from soldiers commanded by George Henry Thomas. The day's fighting in the area's thick woods degenerated into vicious hand-to-hand combat that brought the Confederates only very small gains and heavy casualties on both sides.
Confederate general Leonidas Polk was instructed to perform a sideways attack against Thomas early on September 20, but Polk delayed the assault. Bragg then ordered Longstreet to conduct an all-out frontal attack, which proved successful. Rosecrans, unable to see a large section of his troops, erroneously believed there was a break in his lines and sent an entire division to fill it, leaving a gap on the Union right. Longstreet's forces barreled through this gap, overrunning Rosecrans's headquarters and forcing more than half of his army into a retreat back to Chattanooga.
“The Rock of Chickamauga”
Rosecrans himself was swept up in the retreat, leaving Thomas to command what was left of the Union force. Thomas bravely refused to retreat and rallied his troops to form a defensible line on the ridge of Snodgrass Hill. For the remainder of the day, Longstreet and Polk sent wave after wave against the Union forces, but they were unable to dislodge them. As a result of his stalwart defense, Thomas received the nickname “the Rock of Chickamauga.”
The casualty list for both the Union and Confederate armies in the Battle of Chickamauga was an astounding 28 percent, reports Civil War Day by Day. The Federals suffered a total of 16,170 dead, wounded, or missing; Confederate losses for the two-day battle totaled 18,545 men.
Thomas finally realized the futility of his position and ordered his men to withdraw to Chattanooga as night fell. The Confederates won a victory, but Thomas's bravery in the face of terrible odds helped keep the Union army from being completely destroyed as it retreated. The Confederate casualties included ten of Bragg's generals, a situation that so depressed him he failed to attack the Union forces in retreat toward Chattanooga. Bragg's inaction, which allowed the Union forces to regroup and fortify in Chattanooga, greatly angered his subordinates. Longstreet and Polk demanded that he be dismissed, and Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to serve under him any longer.
But despite Bragg's failure to strike a decisive blow against the Union army, the Confederate victory at Chickamauga did wonders to revive the flagging spirits of the South, which had suffered the twin defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg.