This year, 2013, is the sesquicentennial of the third full year of combat actions of the American Civil War, which Atlanta played a primary role within. By September 1863, it had become the primary target for the combined Union efforts in the Western Theater, due to a number of logistics and transportation factors, resulting in the first Union Army invasion of Georgia. To get to the Gate City of the South, however, the combined Union heavy force, under the overall command of the much beloved but relatively incompetent Major General William Starke Rosecrans would first have to face down and defeat one of the finest armies ever assembled in all of military history, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by the erratic and somewhat inept General Braxton Bragg. The first full day of combat, Friday, September 18, 1863, had mostly featured smaller nit actions and a whale of a lot of maneuvering to contact in the thick, brushy and hilly terrain. The second day, Saturday, September 19, had featured intense sustained combat on either side of the LaFayette Road, neither side gaining any real advantage but both sides suffering unprecedented casualties. A reduced corps under Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet arrived after nightfall to bolster Bragg’s southern portion of the main line, while Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps repositioned in strength on the northern portion of the line. Both corps were to attack at daylight.
Sunday morning dawns with a blood red sun through the fog and battle haze, but no sounds of gunfire reach Bragg’s headquarters. What has gone wrong? Riding forward to recon the ground personally, the only sound he hears is axes chopping and trees falling within the Union lines a few hundred yards away, as they continue to strengthen their positions. Continuing on, he finds the troops on the right flank drawing their rations and not even close to being ready for battle. No doubt throwing one of his famous temper tantrums, Bragg sends for Polk and his corps and divisional commanders. The divisional commanders all stated that they had received their final orders at 7:25 a.m., but Lieutenant General Daniel H. Hill (of Polk’s Corps) claimed this was the first he had heard of any attack order. It is known that there was some serious infighting between the Confederate high command, and that a rift over who was senior to whom had developed between Polk and Hill. Bragg himself was one of the most widely despised officers in the entire Confederate army, hated and distrusted by officer and enlisted man alike, which only increased the communication problems. The only certainty was that no attack went off at dawn, and the Union line gained in strength by the hour.
About 9:30 a.m. the attack finally got underway, in front was the former U.S. Vice-President and Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge (of Hill’s Corps) leading his division as part of a three brigade front. Moving forward about 700 yards, Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin H. Helm’s Brigade is the first to make contact, with the 2nd and 9th Kentucky and 41st Alabama Infantry Regiments storming the barricades held by Union Brigadier General John H. King’s 3rd Brigade (Brigadier General Absalom Baird’s 1st Division, Thomas’ XIV Corps). Rather than following in line to the left, again for some unknown reason, no brigade comes up on Helm’s left to support him, allowing enfilade fire to hit him from the Union forces now to his left.
The assaulting regiments are nearly torn to pieces, and the Union lines hold fast. Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother-in-law, was mortally wounded and died later that day. What was left of his brigade, along with Confederate Brigadier Generals Daniel W. Adams and Marcellus A. Stovall’s Brigades, moved further to the right and around the line of long fortifications, where they run headlong into and capture a two-gun artillery battery, and push back the extreme left of Baird’s Division. Stovall’s Brigade finally halts just to the Union left and rear at the LaFayette Road and Adam’s moves up to his right in the Kelly Field.
Acting against specific orders, Polk had both sent in his units one at a time rather than as a united front, and had held back Major General William H.T. Walker’s Corps in reserve. To try and shore up this failed attack, Walker is sent in about 11:00 a.m., with orders to attack the same set of fortifications. Once again each brigade is thrown into the battle as they come into line, rather than as divisional or corps sized assaults, and once again their attack is halted and repulsed. Another brigade commander is killed during this action, Confederate Colonel Peyton H. Colquitt.
A little to the south and the left, at about 10:00 a.m., Cleburne’s Division is ordered into the fight. Ordered to “dress” (come up alongside in proper military parade ground formation) on Breckinridge, who was already heavily engaged, he instead moved too far to the left and his units milled about getting organized for some time before committing to battle. His three divisions eventually stormed the very heavily defended ramparts held by Union Major General John M. Palmer’s 2nd Division (Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps), but were thrown back with very heavy losses.
This piecemeal advance of regiments and brigades continued on down to the left of Polk’s command, but while inflicting heavy casualties on the Union defenders, proved unable to bring enough force at any one point to break the strong line of emplacements. Throughout the morning, Thomas shifted his units around to meet each newly developing threat, and Polk’s tactics initially were not able to counter this.
Just then, one of those odd little incidents of history occurred, that changed literally everything. About 10:00 a.m., Union Captain Kellogg of Thomas’ staff was riding from his location to Rosencrans’ headquarters, to deliver a message. As he passed by Brannon’s assigned position just north of the Brotherton farm, for some reason, he failed to see the men in their entrenched position. Kellogg reported this to Rosencrans a few minutes later, who believed without confirmation that this meant that a hole existed in his lines, and promptly issued orders for Union Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood to move his 1st Division from in front of the Brotherton cabin north to link up with Major General Joseph J. Reynold’s 4th Division and close this supposed gap.
Rosencrans had been having just as many infighting problems with his top commanders as Bragg, and Wood just happened to have been personally and profanely berated by Rosencrans for failure to promptly obey orders just an hour previous. Wood knew full well that Brannan was exactly where he was supposed to be, and despite the warnings of his own staff officer that such a move would be disastrous, decided to follow his orders to the letter. Wood’s Division moved out at 11:15 a.m., opening up a nearly 1,500 foot wide undefended gap in the lines in the process.
Just on the other side of the LaFayette Road at the Brotherton Cabin, across from the very spot Wood’s men had just left, stood 16,000 fresh and unbloodied men of Longstreet’s Corps, drawn up in line of battle.
Longstreet’s men had moved up into position during the night, and it took several hours to get them fed and resupplied for the coming assault. It was not until just before 11:00 a.m. that he was able to advise Bragg that he was fully in position and ready to step off. Bragg then gave the go ahead, and Longstreet moved forward into one of the luckiest accidents in military history.
Fully expecting to run headlong into the same strongly defended line of emplacements that had tied up Polk all morning, Longstreet had arrayed his main assault force into a powerful, compact formation. Surviving elements of three additional divisions had been rearranged into three divisions of eight brigades total, commanded as a corps by Hood. Directly adjacent to the south stood another division commanded by Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman, with three brigades arrayed two forward, one in reserve. An additional division (Confederate Brigadier General William Preston’s) moved up in reserve to Hindman’s left and rear.
No more than five minutes after Wood’s Division moved out of their position, four Confederate brigades assaulted side by side in a 3,500 foot wide front (from left to right, Brigadier Generals Arthur M. Manigualt’s, Zach C. Deas’, John S. Fulton’s (Johnson’s), and Evander McNair’s) across the Lafayette Road, the right two brigades smashing immediately through the his just-abandoned breastworks. Raising their rebel yells, the leading regiments brushed aside what little resistance was left in the nearly empty Union trenches and plunged ahead, passing on either side of the Brotherton cabin and headed across the open fields to a treeline several hundred yards ahead at the double-quick.
The left two front brigades (Hindman’s Division) moved forward at the same time, but ran into well defended log breastworks after about 300 yards. Moving at the double quick, Dea’s and Manigualt’s Brigades assaulted the works without faltering, driving Union Brigadier General William P. Carlin’s 2nd Brigade (Davis 1st Division, XX Corps) out of their trenches and back in wild disorder. Union Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s 3rd Division had also been shifting north just behind Carlin’s position, but it was also driven off the field by the fury of Hindman’s attack.
Brannon’s men soon found themselves under attack from three sides, and pulled back to the north. Wood’s Division, hastily turning to go back to their original position, were pushed back also from the brunt of McNair’s men advancing up the Dyer Road. One after another, Union regiments on line abandoned their position under pressure from the massive Confederate attack, until the right (southern) side of their lines completely collapsed.
The rout of most units in this part of the field became complete. With his headquarters under threat of capture and a wild confusion of men and horses swirling around him running to the rear, Rosencrans himself joined the flight of roughly half his army (his headquarters was only about one-half mile directly behind the Brotherton Cabin). Abandoning the field with him was his aid, Union Brigadier General, and later President, James A. Garfield. Rosencrans headed dejectedly back to Chattanooga, believing that Thomas’ men have been routed as well, and the field already lost. Garfield accompanied his commander north to the outskirts of Chattanooga, then turned back to try and help save the rest of his army.
Thomas soon realized that with Rosencrans abandoning the field, all hope for victory was gone and the best he could do is fight a rear guard action to save as much of the army as he can. Leaving his men still successfully holding off Polk in the entrenchments along the Lafayette Road, he moved his headquarters and what was left of units from the southern flank back to Snodgrass Hill, in the northwestern corner of the battlefield. With the broken and shattered remains of 19 infantry regiments and two artillery batteries, he set up a line of defense around the top of Snodgrass Hill and the adjoining Horseshoe Ridge, under the direct command of Wood and Brannan. All were terribly low on ammunition and no resupply or reinforcement was thought possible. Thomas did not intend to perform a suicidal last stand, but try and hang on to his position as long as practicable.
Longstreet moved fast, right on Thomas’ heels, and knew if he could throw him off the small hill that he could then cut up the Army of the Cumberland by piecemeal as it retreated back to Chattanooga. He sent Bragg an urgent request for all available reserves, so to finish the battle as quickly as possible. Bragg replied that there are no available reserves (a conscious lie), stating that everyone on the field was now committed with either his corps or Polk’s, and Polk’s men were “too badly beaten” to be shifted to his attack.
About 1:30 PM, Longstreet’s attack on Thomas’ new position opened up with Confederate Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw’s Division (McLaw’s) attack up the slope of Snodgrass Hill, from the southeast. His force nearly gained the crest of the hill before being violently thrown back. Kershaw was followed in rapid succession by a continuous series of assaults all along Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, each one being beaten back with increasingly heavy casualties on both sides.
About 3:30 PM, with Longstreet’s assaults nearly piercing his lines at several points, and his line of men becoming dangerously low, Thomas turned to look to the north and his line of retreat, wondering if the time had come to leave. Just then he spotted a column of infantry heading his way. Thinking that there were no reserves that could be sent his way, he started to prepare what defense against them that he could hastily muster, when their colors finally caught the breeze. It was Union Major General Gordon Granger with two brigades of his Reserve Corps, coming up from their position at Rossville, Georgia. Granger had observed Longstreet’s men piling into Thomas, and in a great fury violated his specific orders from Rosencrans, and moved some of his reserves up to relieve Thomas’ beleaguered post.
Going immediately into action, they shared the ammunition they had brought up with Wood’s and Brannan’s men, and jump into the line of entrenchments just in time to meet another Confederate assault. It, too, was beaten back, along with the next, and the next. As sunset approached, almost everyone along the Union line has completely run out of ammunition, and the Confederates were massing for another assault. Granger gives the order to fix bayonets.
Three more subsequent assaults were thrown back at the very crest of the hill in fierce hand to hand combat. At 5:15 PM, in the midst of yet another Confederate attack, Thomas received word from his absent commander Rosencrans, now safely in Chattanooga, ordering him to take charge of remaining forces and move them in a “threatening” manner to Rossville. He immediately passed word along to the other commanders, and makes preparations to pull out at sunset.
Just as the sun sets and Thomas’ men start to pull out of their positions, another strong Confederate charge sent Longstreet’s men up over the crest of both Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, into the midst of the retreating regiments. Massive confusion erupted, with many whole Union companies and regiments being made prisoner, and others managing to slip away without harm. His men exhausted but with “their dander up,” Longstreet and Polk both beg permission to chase after the retreating Union army, but Bragg refused.
Terribly shaken by his own severe casualties, and typically fretting over what he should do next, Bragg instead did nothing. Thomas slipped away unmolested back to Rossville with the remnants of his command, and Rosencrans immediately began reorganizing his shattered army within the strong fortifications of Chattanooga. Not until September 22 does Bragg finally move the Army of Tennessee up to Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga, only to find it was far too late to finish what had started off so well.
The Angel of Death was ever present during the two days of vicious fighting. Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, with over 16,000 casualties among the 58,000 Union soldiers, and 18,000 casualties among the 66,000 Confederate troops. Only the three days at Gettysburg produced a higher casualty figure. Dozens of officers on both sides were killed in the close proximity fighting, including 1 Union and 3 Confederate Generals.
Most of the dead were buried in unmarked trenches dotted around the battle areas, but one private lies today in the only marked grave on the battlefield. Private John Ingram, who had lived with his family in this area before the war, was a close friend of the Reed family. Finding his body among his fellow slain of the 1st Georgia Infantry Battalion, they buried him near where he fell and maintained his grave for many years.
The Union army was terribly affected by their defeat here, but in their despair they found a true hero. Thomas’ stand was widely publicized by Northern newspapers desperate for some good news from Chickamauga, dubbing him the “Rock of Chickamauga” for his stand at Snodgrass Hill. Rosencrans’ faired less well, relieved of his command soon after in favor of Thomas, for his continued displays of shear incompetence.