Battle of Chickamauga: Confederates Stop Retreating and Fight
The summer of 1863 dealt the Confederacy two major blows. On July 3, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg ended in a Union victory after the failure of the gallant but doomed Pickett’s Charge. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had no choice but to end his invasion of the North and retreat back to Virginia, his army significantly weakened by more than 23,000 casualties. The very next day, June 4, the key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, fell to Union General Ulysses S. Grant after a grueling 40-day siege. The Confederacy was now split in two, its leading army beaten back, and Southern prospects looked grim.
The situation had also worsened for the Confederacy in middle Tennessee throughout the spring and summer of 1863. Union General William Rosecrans had adopted a winning strategy, cleverly moving his Army of the Cumberland around the flanks of the Confederate Army of Tennessee led by General Braxton Bragg. Rosecrans’s constant outmaneuvering of his smaller foe kept pushing the Confederates back without having to engage in significant combat; at a loss of less than 570 total casualties, Rosecrans’s moves pushed Bragg out of middle Tennessee completely, forcing the Southerners into a defensive position in the southeastern corner of the state, in Chattanooga.
The relentless Union pressure did not stop there. With more maneuvering, Rosecrans compelled the Confederates to abandon Chattanooga and retreat into the northwestern corner of Georgia, the Army of the Cumberland occupying this important railroad junction and manufacturing center without a battle on September 9. Rosecrans believed his strategy was unstoppable, convinced the Confederates did not have the will or numbers to stop him, and would only keep retreating.
Ten days later, however, Rosecrans learned how wrong he was. The Confederates were done retreating, and Bragg was determined to win Chattanooga back. His army had been strengthened by reinforcements from both the West and the East (General Lee sent General James Longstreet with men from the Army of Northern Virginia to help Bragg). Bragg had been sending some of his men to the front with orders to surrender to the Northern army, pretending they were deserters and spreading tales that the Confederates were dispirited and had no fight left in them.
As it turned out, they had plenty of fight. Beginning Sept. 19, 1863, just when it seemed the Confederacy was failing, the two-day Battle of Chickamauga was fought in the upper northwest corner of Georgia near West Chickamauga Creek. After a staggering combined total of nearly 35,000 casualties, the South had the victory it desperately needed and the Union army was in retreat (only the Battle of Gettysburg, with its combined total of over 46,000 casualties, was deadlier in the entire four-year history of the Civil War).
These two newspaper articles were published the day the Battle of Chickamauga began. The first, from a Northern paper, is convinced that the Army of the Cumberland truly was unstoppable, and that the end of the Confederacy was near. The second article, from a Southern paper, shows that the Confederates knew very well what was at stake in the upcoming clash.
This article was published by the Nashville Union on September 10 and reprinted by the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) on Sept. 19, 1863:
From Rosecrans’ Army
A letter from Trenton, Ga., 10th instant, to the Nashville Union, says:
“The invincible Army of the Cumberland is moving steadily on. Chattanooga is now occupied by Gens. Wood and Van Cleve; Rome, Ga., will be this week, and then goodbye to the Confederacy. There is much valuable information from this front which I am not at liberty to mention or publish; rest assured, however, that all is right, and the news would, if at present politic to publish, cause such rejoicing at home as was never known or dreamt of. Bragg’s army is perfectly demoralized and disheartened, as hundreds of deserters will testify. The desertions from his army now are not merely privates. Field staff, and line officers are coming, or rather pouring, in daily. I have met with several respectable, wealthy citizens who own slaves, and they are very willing to give them up for the sake, as they say, of restoring the old flag, and seeing it wave again over their once happy and prosperous country. The name of Rosecrans is a terror to the rebels, and especially to the rebel soldiers. They say he cannot be whipped, and that they are willing to surrender rather than fight another battle.”
This article was published by the Rebel on September 17 and reprinted by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Sept. 19, 1863:
(From the Rebel, of the 17th.)
The curtain is about to roll up on the principal act in the great drama of the War in the West. The bustle of preparation, the hurrying to and fro of the participants therein, and the other indications of the grand but terrible tragic performance about to be enacted, are upon a much more extensive scale than ever before. The audience await the commencement with anxious expectancy—almost with eagerness. An ominous silence precedes the signal which will summon armed hosts to meet in the shock of battle, and the resound of clashing steel and the echoing boom of the distant gun is heard already in anticipation. A mighty stake depends upon the issue to the Confederate people. Not alone the freedom from Yankee restraint and Yankee tyranny, of the gallant citizens of two gallant States, and the recovery of hundreds of square miles of loyal Southern territory, but perhaps the fate of the nation hangs upon the result. Little wonder that men gaze with suspended breath upon the stirring scene, and listen with anxious ear to every report borne back from the mysterious, silent front.
…A larger Southern army confronts the Federal invader than was ever before arrayed against him in the Department of the West…The rapid reinforcement of this invading army of Yankees looks as if their commander had determined to make a vigorous resistance before yielding back the territory he has acquired with so little loss; yet we cannot believe the resolution is unaccompanied with misgivings as to the result. The Yankees have not forgotten the memorable 31st of December, and the grave-dotted plains around Murfreesboro. The same defiant, desperate and brave army confronts them now, strengthened in numbers, elated with confident hope, and burning for a renewal of the contest, not now, thank Heaven, quite so unequal. Bragg is pressing them toward the river. The hour of meeting cannot much longer be deferred. Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee! Thousands of hearts are swelling with unuttered prayers for your success; the eyes of your fair countrywomen are following your advancing banners, and their very pulses throb in unison with the merry drums that summon you to glorious battle. Forward, in the name of liberty, and God defend the right!
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