As pointed out in the first two installments of this series on the Battle of Chickamauga, this year, 2012, is the sesquicentennial of the early part of the American Civil War, which Atlanta played a primary role within, at least during the latter stages. 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.
On Saturday morning, September 19, after a long night of shifting his forces about to meet the developing Confederate threat, Union Major General George H. Thomas’ XIV Corps arrives at Kelley’s field on the Lafayette Road, with Brigadier General John M. Brannon’s 3rd Division immediately moving eastward to make contact with the Confederate force already moving up in that same vicinity. About 7:30 a.m. Brannon’s men suddenly encounter dismounted troops in the vicinity of Jay’s Mill and both sides open fire. There is no opportunity for either side to get organized, and the fight rapidly turns into a confused melee, with men firing every which way and seeking whatever cover they can in the surrounding forest. A few minutes into the fight none other than Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest himself comes charging up, pistol in one hand, saber in the other, and begins bellowing orders. The dismounted troops are part of his Cavalry Corps, detailed to protect the northern flank of the Confederate lines. Quickly, his men get into line, lying down in the damp grass side by side and begin to return a disciplined fire into the Union ranks. Casualties are high, nonetheless, for the legendary cavalry commander, who loses almost 25 percent of his men in the first hour alone.
Both Forrest and Brannan quickly call for reinforcements, in short order Union Colonel John M. Connell’s 1st and Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer’s 3rd Brigades (of Brannon’s 3rd Division) arrive to shore up the Union line, while Confederate Major General William H.T. Walker and Brigadier General St. John R. Liddell bring their divisions to Forrest’s aid. The fight grows almost by itself, very soon additional units begin pouring into the rapidly growing battle, extending the lines a few hundred yards to each side, then to a half-mile, very soon a full mile, and then before the morning is out a nearly four mile wide solid front of combat exists over the fields and forest from near Lee and Gordon’s Mill all the way up to well north of Jay’s Mill. Throughout the early afternoon assault after assault pushes one side back a bit, then the other, neither side gaining any real ground or advantage. Both lines are in close contact the entire time, with appallingly high casualties piling up by the minute.
From this point on through the end of the day the battle is a ‘soldier’s fight,’ as the thick woods and disordered array of combat units make it nearly impossible for commanders on either side to make informed tactical decisions. Both lines overlap at several points, and hand-to-hand combat is commonplace across the fields.
Starting a little after noon, Thomas begins shifting his forces north, to oppose Confederate forces coming on line against his left flank. This opens up a hole in the main Union line that is quickly exploited by three brigades of Confederate Major General Alexander Stewart’s Division. Attacking straight across the Lafayette Road at the Brotherton farm, they succeed in breaking the thin Union line. Following his lead, just to the left at the nearby Viniard Field, Confederate Brigadier Generals Jerome B. Robertson’s and Henry L. Benning’s Brigades (of Hood’s Division) storm across the LaFayette Road and push the Union forces out of their entrenchments and back about 200 yards.
By this point the Confederates have nearly split the Union forces in half, and control their main line of communication to Chattanooga. Worse for Rosecrans, the momentum of their attack is carrying them straight towards his headquarters, across Brotherton Field at Widow Glenn’s cabin.
With the breach made, all that was needed to completely break the Union lines and carry the day was reinforcements sent hurried-up to back up the wildly successful attack. Resistance in the retreating Union units is stiffening, and the breakthrough is bogging down after a few hundred yards advance. Benning requests not only infantry reinforcements but also artillery to counter the batteries directly in front that were shattering his ranks. Stewart’s Division fairs a little better, with Union batteries exhausting their loads of cannister before his own attack draws too close.
Rosecrans sends word to his units to hold “at all costs,” and they respond well, putting up a solid wall of resistance even while their own ranks are blown apart. Several witnesses mention that whole companies simply ceased to exist in the rain of lead balls and iron shot. In typical Bragg fashion, however, no reserves were ordered in to exploit the situation. Without fresh men and ammunition the breakthrough halts before any serious gain can be made. As darkness falls Hood’s brigades hold their line, relieved later in the night, while Stewart’s men stay put and hastily dig in just west of the Lafayette Road.
Just after sunset, Confederate Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Division (Lieutenant General Daniel H. Hill’s Corps) is sent in from it’s reserve position up to the right of the line, and immediately swings into battle with it’s three brigades. Hitting Thomas’ units in the process of shifting positions, another fierce hand to hand combat ensues across nearly a mile wide front, pushing the Union line back nearly three-quarters of a mile. Within an hour, however, it is too dark to see anything except the brilliant muzzle flashes seemingly coming from all directions, and both sides break contact and pull back after again suffering high casualties. The long day of fighting finally draws to a close without either side having gained any significant advantage.
By the end of fighting for the day, the Union lines are compacted into a three mile wide continuous front, and all night long the men dig in and wait for the coming onslaught. Thomas’ men construct a mile long series of heavily reinforced above ground log emplacements rather than entrenchments during the night, along and just to the west of Alexander’s Bridge Road. Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, dispatched from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce the Georgia defenses, finally arrives at Bragg’s headquarters with the rest of his men about 11:00 p.m. Bragg divides his forces into two corps, giving Longstreet command of the left and Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk (the Episcopalian Bishop of Louisiana in civilian life) command of the right.
All through the night both sides shift their positions in preparation for the next day’s action. The Union right moves back away from the Viniard Field to the Glenn Field at Crawfish Springs Road, “refusing” the Confederate line which stays near the Lafayette Road all night. On the north end of the line Cleburne’s Division is reorganized and reinforced by Breckinridge’s Division to the right, extending the line to Reed’s Bridge Road and facing due west. Forrest’s Cavalry had confirmed that the line outflanked the Union defenses, and stays to the right to guard their own flank.
Bragg gives orders that night for Polk’s Corps to attack at daybreak in force on the extreme right, to be followed by attacks all down his line and then followed in the same manner by Longstreet’s on the left. Both corps were to hit the Union line with every man they had, no reserves were to be kept back, and the attack was to be maintained until the Union line broke.
In the next and final installment, we’ll look at the third and final day of combat at Chickamauga, Sunday, September 20, 1863.