September of 1863 saw the most significant defeat of the Union Army in the American Civil War. West Chickamauga Creek still flows peacefully near where the battlefield lays. The Battle of Chickamauga marked the end of the Chickamauga Campaign and the Union offensive in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia.
Major General William Rosecrans of the Union Army of the Cumberland, and General Braxton Bragg of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, led their forces towards what was to become the battle with the greatest casualties, (estimated at 34,624 total) after the Battle of Gettysburg, in the Civil War.
The Confederate Army had retreated to Chattanooga after their loss during the Tullahoma Campaign in the summer of 1863. Urged on with orders from General-in-chief Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln, Rosecrans moved quickly to take Chattanooga.
Seizing the city would open the door for the Union to advance toward Atlanta which could assure victory of the war. Located on the navigable Tennessee River, Chattanooga was a vital rail hub, with lines going north toward Nashville and Knoxville and south toward Atlanta, and an important manufacturing center for the production of iron and coke. Situated between Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Raccoon Mountain, and Stringer's Ridge, Chattanooga, "Gateway to the Deep South", was a strategic site and important defensible position. Rosecrans was determined to gain occupancy and control there. Once he had Chattanooga under his command, he would have easier access to Atlanta, the "Heart of the South".
Rosecrans had consolidated his forces from Tennessee and Georgia in early September and ousted Confederates out of Chattanooga further south. Determined to gain Chattanooga once again, Bragg made the decision to meet part of the Union army, hopefully defeating them in order to reoccupy Chattanooga. Bragg stretched out his Confederate Army from a point near Reed's Bridge on the north to Lee and Gordons Mill on the south, roughly following Chickamauga Creek. The Union Army began to move north on the west side of the creek towards Chattanooga to regroup after encountering stiffer than expected rebel resistance. On the evening of September 18, 1863, Braxton Bragg ordered Army of Tennessee forces to take the crossings over Chickamauga Creek. Bushrod Johnson captured Reed's Bridge and advanced on LaFayette Road. During the night Union forces moving to destroy the bridge ran into Johnson's men. Thinking this was a rear guard action, General George Thomas ordered a division to attack the troops that had crossed the river. The Union division ran headlong into rear elements of advancing Rebels at Jay's Mill.
The commanding officers and their forces met in battle in a thick, forested area where neither side could see more than 150 feet, which is less than the range of a rifle and a canon would have been useless. It was an unexpected site of battle, a choice of fate, and neither side had time to form battle lines -- much of the fighting became a necessity of hand-to-hand combat.
Marching north on September 18, Bragg's cavalry and infantry met with Union forces and gave a strong blow to the Union army, but were unable to break their lines. On the 19th Bragg once again began attacking the Union line where it had been weakened. Sometime during the morning of the 19th Rosecrans was misinformed that there was a gap in his line. When moving units to reinforce the gap that was not there, Rosencrans created a gap that the Confederates, led by James Longstreet, were able to take advantage of and drive a third of the Union army from the field, including Rosencrans. Although the Rebels launched determined assaults on these forces, the Union army held until after dark when they gave up the field leaving it to the Confederates. The Union retreated to Chattanooga and the Rebels surrounded them on nearby heights.
Bragg ordered Daniel Harvey Hill's corps to attack the Union line at dawn. Ordered to begin the attack immediately, Hill delayed until 9:00am. As the attack began, Hill's men pierced the Union line, moving on Thomas' flank. The men had driven into the rear before being repulsed by reinforcements.
Veteran commander James Longstreet, who arrived during the night, ordered John Bell Hood to cover his flank during an attack in support of Hill's drive. Hood stumbled upon the weakened gap that Rosencrans had mistakenly created in the Union line. As Rebel troops advanced the Federal line crumbled on both sides.
Rosencrans issued a telegram from Chattanooga to his superiors in Washington saying, "We have met with a serious disaster...we have no certainty of holding our position here." The Confederate Army regained control of Chattanooga until November of that year when the Union Army renewed attacks and were victorious in gaining control of Chattanooga.
The 5,300 acre Chickamauga Battlefield is now a National Military Park.
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