Battle of Chickamauga: Reports of the First Day’s Fighting
Throughout the spring and summer of 1863, Union General William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland outmaneuvered Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, for the most part avoiding combat and yet—through a series of clever troop movements—nonetheless pushing the Southern army out of middle Tennessee. On September 9 the Union army captured the key railroad junction and manufacturing center of Chattanooga, Tennessee, again without a battle. Bragg retreated into northwestern Georgia; Rosecrans was convinced his enemy was completely discouraged, and expected the Confederates to keep retreating all the way to Atlanta.
However, Bragg was done retreating. In a stunning reversal the Confederates went on the offensive, launching an attack that began the two-day Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19, 1863. The Union army had been widely scattered in its movements out of Tennessee into Georgia, and Bragg hoped to defeat it piecemeal even as the Northerners hurried to consolidate their forces.
The first day’s fighting, while fierce and full of charges and countercharges, ended in a draw with heavy losses on both sides. On Day 2 the Southerners prevailed, pushing the Army of the Cumberland out of Georgia and making it retreat all the way back to Chattanooga. The sudden and unexpected Confederate victory boosted Southern morale, but the deadly battle caused a great deal of mourning in households both North and South: with a combined total of nearly 35,000 casualties, the Battle of Chickamauga was the second-deadliest clash of the Civil War.
This article breaking the news of the battle’s first day of fighting was published by the Daily Washington Chronicle and reprinted by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia, although representing a Union point of view) on Sept. 21, 1863:
A Battle in Northern Georgia—
Severe Fight with Rosecrans’ Army
(Special dispatch to the Daily Washington Chronicle.)
Nashville, Tenn., September 20.—There has been great excitement here all day, as it became known early this morning that Bragg and Rosecrans had met in battle. From officers who have arrived I learn that Bragg, reinforced by at least one division from Lee’s army, attacked Rosecrans yesterday morning, causing considerable confusion in Thomas’s corps. The fight took place in Walker County, which is full of creeks and mountains. As near as I can learn, it was drive on one side and then on the other, neither gaining much advantage. The divisions of Generals Van Cleve and Reynolds suffered to some extent, and after losing much ground recovered it. There was considerable hand to hand fighting, and several pieces of artillery were captured, recaptured, and lost again. As at the Battle of Stone River, Generals Palmer and Negley maneuvered their respective divisions splendidly, and assisted Van Cleve in recovering lost ground. The artillery was not called into requisition in all the divisions. The 10th Indiana suffered most, and lost all its field officers. The 31st Illinois, the 40th Kentucky and 2d Ohio also assisted in the brunt of the action. It is believed at General Granger’s headquarters that the struggle ended yesterday with no Federal disadvantages, though the most absurd rumors have prevailed the entire day (the Secessionists here had Generals Negley, Stanley and Palmer killed, but news of an official character states that neither are injured). The presumption is that (considering Burnside has not established communication with Rosecrans) General [Bragg], who was in command, calculated to crawl in between the two [Union] armies, crush Burnside’s force, which was comparatively small, and then pounce upon Rosecrans, thus whipping us by detail. In this no doubt he has failed, as the Confederate forces stumbled against Thomas’s corps of Rosecrans’s army. There would, probably, have been no vacillating upon our side, had it not been that the respective commands were under marching orders, and moving independently. Our latest dispatches, received at General Granger’s, are of a nature which must enlist no apprehensions as to the result. We are anxiously awaiting news detailing its continuation, which, it is expected, took place today.
(From the Associated Press.)
Headquarters, Army of the Cumberland,
Three Miles [from] Crawfish Springs.
September 19, 1863.—An engagement began this morning at 11 o’clock with an attack on General Thomas’s troops, forming the left wing. It was so light at first as to induce the belief it was a feint. McCook and Crittenden’s troops (the right wing) were thrown in as convenience offered. The main portions of each wing were, at the time, on the march.
The fight on the left became very desperate, and the Confederates were repulsed, but on being reinforced they regained their position, from which they were subsequently again driven. After a desperate engagement, continuing for an hour and a half, Thomas charged a distance of nearly a mile, punishing the foe severely. At about two o’clock the Confederates made a dash at Carter’s command, composed of Van Cleve’s and Reynolds’s troops. Van Cleve’s were struck in the right flank, and being vigorously pushed, fell back until Carter’s were broken, and the troops much scattered. Thomas on the left, and Davis on the right, then threw their forces vigorously toward the Gap. After a hard fight they recovered the ground. The Confederates were apparently endeavoring to get between us and Chattanooga. The general engagement was ended by 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
Palmer, who had gathered the scattered forces, and Negley, who had been sent from the right flank to feel the Confederate centre, pushed forward and reestablished the parallel along Chickamauga Creek.
The country is level, thickly overgrown with small timber and brush, unfavorable for artillery, and hence very little of the ground has been used for that purpose.
The casualties in wounded are heavy, but surprisingly light in killed, for so heavy a musketry engagement.
The fight on the left was a continual roll of musketry for hours. No general officers were injured.
…The 79th Indiana recovered battery H, 5th Artillery, which was lost. They recaptured it.
The fight is not yet over. It will probably be renewed tomorrow.
This article was published by the Daily Richmond Examiner (Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital) on the front page of its Sept. 21, 1863, issue:
Important News from Georgia and Tennessee—
Battle Order from General Bragg
General Bragg issued the following battle order on the 17th:
Headquarters Army of Tennessee,
In the field, Lafayette, Ga.
General Orders, No. 180.
The troops will be held ready for an immediate move against the enemy. His demonstrations on our flanks have been thwarted, and twice has he retired before us when offered battle. We must now force him to the issue. Soldiers, you are largely reinforced—you must now seek the contest. In doing so, I know you will be content to suffer privations and encounter hardships. Heretofore you have never failed to respond to your General when he has asked a sacrifice at your hands. Relying upon your gallantry and patriotism, he asks you to add a crowning glory to the wreaths you wear. Our credit is in your keeping. Your enemy boasts that you are demoralized and retreating before him. Having accomplished our object in driving back his flank movement, let us now turn on his main force and crush it in its fancied security. Your General will lead you. You have but to respond to assure us of a glorious triumph over an insolent foe. I know what your response will be. Trusting in God and the justice of our cause, and nerved by the love of the dear ones at home, failure is impossible, and victory must be ours.
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