I’ll introduce my rather scant summary remarks on Chickamauga by stating that I have found it to be one of the most interesting campaigns of the War to study. It was my intent to build up to it with a biographical sketch on George Thomas, and to then look at the Battle through his eyes. However, I’ve had my own blood campaign the past week with clots and the first hospitalization of my life. I simply have had concentration problems.
The Battle is essentially a two-day affair on the 19th and 20th, though some interesting fighting occurred on the 18th as well. That day, Braxton Bragg was intent on interposing his forces between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. His optimism was bolstered by reinforcements that had come from Virginia in the past 24 hours. Cavalry skirmishing ensued, with the Union getting the best of it, being armed with Spencer repeating rifles. The so-called “Lightening Brigade” of Col. John Wilder was the first unit in the Union army to be outfitted with this state-of-the-art weaponry – firing about 14 shoots per minute as compared to just 2-3 of the typical rifle in the Civil War. Again on the 20th, this brigade held off a break-through Confederate division of Gen. Thomas Hindman, causing him to believe for a time that a new Federal Corps had mysteriously appeared on the field. Wilder was himself in awe of this new capacity, writing that “It actually seemed a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps; and I had it in my heart to order the firing to cease, to end the awful sight.”
The heat of the battle arrived on the 19th along the Chickamauga Creek. The Union line held against repeated assaults by Bragg’s men. Even heavier fighting followed on the 20th, as a total of eight brigades from the Army of Northern Virginia under James Longstreet arrived to achieve a breakthrough of the Federal line in the afternoon. One-third of the Union forces, including Rosecrans himself, were driven from the field. On Horseshoe Ridge was the soon-to-be-called “Rock of Chicamauga” George Thomas, who rallied sundry forces and held onto an area called Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill. This allowed for a successful Union retreat to Chattanooga. Though the day was a Confederate victory, the Union still held onto Chattanooga, and the forces of Rosecrans were not defeated. Two months later, the fighting would open again.
Chickamauga was the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, trailing only Gettysburg and making it the deadliest event in the Western theatre. Casualties totaled more than 16,000 for the Federals and 18,000 for the Confederates. Bragg’s failure to pursue the Union and defeat them soundly appears historically as a probable failure to expand his victory, thus rendering it ultimately as a strategic defeat.
The unique geographical features of every battlefield contribute to the final story, and Chicamauga is an especially unique example. The swampy terrain and thick woods made it a particularly deadly place to fight. Whereas in “Indian talk” the word Antietam was rendering an innocuous title of “slow-moving water,” in Cherokee the word Chicamauga meant “River of Death.” And whereas Antietam was shallow and oft flowing through open spaces, the Chicamauga was heavily tree-lined with large roots and trunks, deep, and often bordered by rocky banks. There were thickets everywhere, preventing commanding officers from any broad view of movements… with the armies often stumbling into one another. Coordinated efforts were exceedingly difficult and often impossible to achieve.
Chicamauga = River of Death = one nasty place to be.