Battle of Chickamauga Ends with Confederate Victory
When Union General William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland occupied the key railroad junction and manufacturing center of Chattanooga, Tennessee, without firing a shot on Sept. 9, 1863, it seemed his careful strategy was working splendidly. Throughout the spring and summer Rosecrans had been pushing Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee out of middle Tennessee—not by engaging in combat—but rather by expertly maneuvering around the Southerners and continually forcing them to retreat. After occupying Chattanooga the 60,000-man Army of the Cumberland moved into Georgia, expecting the Confederates to retreat all the way to Atlanta.
It did not happen that way. Instead, the Confederacy decided to make a stand. Despite reeling from the summer’s major defeat at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the fall of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, the South somehow marshaled its resources and sent reinforcements to Bragg’s beleaguered army, swelling its number to 65,000 men. Renewed and determined, the Army of Tennessee surprised its pursuing foe by turning the tables and attacking them on Sept. 19, 1863. The resulting two-day Battle of Chickamauga gained the Confederacy an important victory, sending the Union army retreating back to Chattanooga and boosting Southern morale.
There was heavy fighting both days of the battle. The Union army had been widely scattered in its movements out of Tennessee into Georgia, and on the first day Bragg hoped to defeat it piecemeal even as the Federals hurried to consolidate their forces. Some of Bragg’s key subordinates openly disliked him, and the resulting disharmony and poor communication squandered several good chances the Confederates had of smashing the Union army while its various units were moving into position. The first day’s combat ended in a draw.
On the second day a miscommunication error led to Rosecrans repositioning a division to shore up a gap in his lines that did not exist. Ironically, in making its movement the reassigned Union division created a gap precisely at the point where Confederate General James Longstreet was hurling three divisions. The Southerners poured through the gap and sent Rosecrans and many of his officers and men fleeing back to Chattanooga. It would have turned into a rout if not for the brave action of some Union soldiers who made a stand on Horseshoe Ridge, led by General George H. Thomas—whose fierce resistance that day earned him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.” Thomas and his men grimly held on, withstanding multiple charges from the Confederates all afternoon long, not giving up and retreating to Chattanooga until the day ended.
With a combined total of nearly 35,000 casualties, the Battle of Chickamauga was the second-deadliest clash of the Civil War (second only to Gettysburg, which caused more than 46,000 casualties). The Union campaign into Georgia had been halted. The Confederacy gained a much-needed victory, and for the time being stopped the Union’s momentum.
The following 11 newspaper articles give various perspectives on the second day’s fighting and the eventual Confederate victory. Some are news reports about the battle itself; others report on some effects of the battle, such as the reaction on Wall Street; still others make pointed editorial comments.
This brief notice in a Northern paper was one of the first reports that Rosecrans and the Union army had lost the Battle of Chickamauga. It was published by the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) on Sept. 22, 1863:
The Great Battle!
Rosecrans Badly Whipped!
He Retreats to Chattanooga
Louisville, Sept. 21—1 A.M.
Our army under Rosecrans has been badly beaten and compelled to retreat to Chattanooga, by Bragg, with heavy reinforcements from Lee, Beauregard and Joe Johnston.
The military occupation of the wires will prevent the transmission of further particulars tonight.
This article was another early Northern report of the Union loss, although it is quick to defend Rosecrans. It was published by the New Haven Daily Palladium (New Haven, Connecticut) on Sept. 21, 1863:
The Battle in Georgia
The mystery which has been hanging over the whole field is cleared up with a terrible distinctness. In accordance with the real policy throughout the war, they have again concentrated their troops upon a decisive point and outnumbered us. Bragg fell back from Chattanooga towards Rome [Georgia]. His army was demoralized to a great extent but, having a strong position, could not be immediately attacked by Rosecrans. Johnston was at once ordered to join him with his army made useless by the fall of Vicksburg; all that could be possibly spared from Lee’s army was sent to him and, by harsh conscription, every possible man within reach was driven into the ranks. All these combinations made him [Bragg] formidable. He advanced and fought Rosecrans Saturday; attacked in force, in their usual style, now his center, then one of the wings, but failed to gain the day. Sunday, they defeated him [Rosecrans]. That, in brief, is the story. How great the disaster, we know not, but it is to be hoped that [Union General] Burnside, whose army has been much strengthened, is near at hand. If not, the consequences must be very disastrous to our cause in that section. This is Gen. Rosecrans’s first repulse; we may feel assured that his army was greatly inferior [in size] to his foe’s and even now we have some hope that his skill will retrieve his loss.
This Northern report also supports Rosecrans. It was published by the New York Daily Tribune (New York, New York) on Sept. 22, 1863:
Gen. Rosecrans’s Position
Yesterday’s advices from Gen. Rosecrans were much less favorable than those of Sunday. Painfully meager and confused as are all the accounts, it is evident that the Army of the Cumberland has been pretty roughly handled, and that Gen. Rosecrans has deemed it prudent to withdraw his forces and fall back on Chattanooga. We have as yet no means of estimating his losses, and are without any information on which it is possible to base an opinion as to the effect of the present repulse on the campaign. It seems clear enough, however, that there was nothing like a rout or overwhelming disaster. Our troops were hard pressed, their lines in many cases were broken, and the fortunes of the field were plainly adverse; yet the dispatches thus far received agree in the statement that they held at the end of the battle the ground on which they began to fight. Accepting that as true, we must conclude that the condition of his army after the battle determined Gen. Rosecrans to retreat, or that he found his communications endangered by the flank movement in which Johnston probably persisted. Whatever the reason, the retreat was in good order, and, so far as is known, was attended with no loss.
On the causes of the defeat, if such it be, we do not care to speculate till they are better known. It is sufficient to suggest that Gen. Rosecrans was pursuing an offensive campaign, and that it seems to have been necessary to divide his forces in such a way that the Rebels were able to deliver their attack on one portion of his army, and to disorganize that portion while the remainder were coming up. Yet even this opinion is an inference, and may be controlled by a fuller account of the facts. Whether correct or not, we see no reason to withdraw any part of the confidence heretofore reposed in Gen. Rosecrans. He may have lost a battle, that is the fortune of war; but there is nothing to show that he has lost any part of his courage or capacity. Outnumbered he undoubtedly was, but we do not believe that any troops under his control were kept out of the fight.
Still we are far from thinking the campaign at an end, or its objects abandoned. General Rosecrans has received a check, his army is weakened, his plans impeded, but it is delay, not defeat, that we have to deplore. His position at Chattanooga is a strong one, his communications secure. We shall look speedily for more cheering news of his prospects; at least for confident assurances that the Rebels have already delivered their heaviest blow.
This Northern report does not explicitly blame Rosecrans, although it does point out that his troops were “scattered and unprepared.” It was published by the New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette (Concord, New Hampshire) on Sept. 23, 1863:
Gen. Rosecrans has met with a serious disaster in Northern Georgia, some twenty or thirty miles south of Chattanooga. After the evacuation of that stronghold, the rebels retreated towards Rome and Atlanta, and army correspondents told us that they were completely demoralized and discouraged, that they were deserting by thousands, and that Bragg could not oppose the onward march of Rosecrans. Our forces advanced some twenty or thirty miles into Georgia. In the meantime Bragg received heavy reinforcements from Lee in Virginia and Johnston—raising his force to some 65,000—and on Saturday last he made a vigorous attack upon the scattered and unprepared forces of Rosecrans. He was successful at first, driving our army back, with loss; but after six or seven hours hard fighting, principally with muskets, our forces recovered the lost ground; and at night the battle ceased, to be renewed the next day. Our loss is reported “heavy” in wounded, but “light” in killed.
On Sunday the battle was renewed and the general result is told in few words by the telegraph as follows: “Our army, under General Rosecrans, has been badly beaten and compelled to retreat to Chattanooga.” We have no particulars.
This Southern report shows a cautious approach to the news of the victory the Confederacy needed so badly. It was published by the Daily Columbus Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia) on Sept. 23, 1863:
The Battle near the Chickamauga
While the reports that have reached us of this great and bloody engagement give us strong hopes of a final and decisive victory, it would be affectation to attempt to conceal fears that will arise. The fact that the battle had raged for two days without fully breaking the enemy’s line shows the desperate and determined character of the conflict, and forbids us at present from indulging unmixed anticipations of a signal victory to our arms. But the advantages appear to have been greatly on our side, and the dispatches of Gen. Bragg and his army reporter are in the highest degree encouraging. Heaven grant that the sunshine of victory may soon dispel all our misgivings and cause us unalloyed rejoicing in the assurance of a triumph decisive of the campaign!
…P.S. The telegraphic reports received this morning are more assuring. The enemy appears to have been driven from all his positions, and our troops seem flushed with victory.
This Southern report is more certain of victory. It was published by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Sept. 23, 1863:
Our Victory Complete
Richmond, Sept. 22—Ten miles south of Chattanooga via Ringgold, 21st.—The enemy retreated on Chattanooga last night, leaving their dead and wounded in our hands. His loss is very large, in men, artillery, small arms, and colors.
Our loss is heavy, but not yet ascertained.
The victory is complete, and our cavalry is pursuing. With the blessing of God, our troops have accomplished great results against largely superior numbers. We have to mourn the loss of many gallant men and officers.
Brig. Gens. Preston, Smith, Helm and Deshler were killed. Maj. Gen. Hood and Brig. Gens. Adams, Gregg and Brown were wounded.
This article was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on Sept. 22, 1863:
‘The Next Great Victory.’
“The next great victory of the Union armies will probably be won by Rosecrans and Burnside in Northern Georgia, over Bragg and Longstreet.”—Exchange.
What a sad commentary on the above is the late news we have received from Rosecrans’s army. A great many would-be war prophets make frequent and frightful mistakes in their figuring now-a-days. When will the chaps learn wisdom?
This notice was published by the Daily Constitutional Union (Washington, D.C.) on Sept. 23, 1863:
The agitation in Wall Street, New York, caused by the reverse to Rosecrans, was intense. The fluctuations in stocks and depreciations were very heavy.
This notice was published by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Sept. 23, 1863:
We understand that “Chickamauga,” the name of the creek upon which the recent severe battles have taken place, signifies in the Indian tongue “the river of death.” How appropriate to the terrible scenes which have lately been enacted on its banks!
This article, in which we see some blame starting to be passed around, was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on Sept. 23, 1863:
“It is evident that Rosecrans is greatly outnumbered. Surely it would have been infinitely better to have had the twenty thousand men of Gen. Steele, who are operating away up the Arkansas River, cooperating with General Rosecrans at this critical moment.”—N.Y. Times.
If a Democratic paper were to make comments of this character, the Abolition press would cry out, “There, you are embarrassing the Government, you are exulting over our defeats, etc.” These fellows desire a monopoly of speech as well as of plunder.
This article points the finger of blame squarely at the Lincoln Administration. It was published by the Crisis (Columbus, Ohio) on Sept. 23, 1863:
Bad News from the Army of Rosecrans!
The Cincinnati Gazette of this (Monday) morning editorially sums up its latest telegraphic news to the effect that Rosecrans has been badly worsted in battle, and in a tone of great despondency as to the safety of his whole army. Should these fears be realized, who will dare excuse or palliate the act of the Administration in keeping at least a hundred thousand veteran troops in the Northern States to overawe voters! The soldiers were raised to meet the Confederates; they are kept here for the benefit of mere abolition politics. Where is the honesty, where the patriotism of the Administration?
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