By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Many say that Chickamauga is an Indian word that means “river of death”. And, the battle of Chickamauga was the biggest and the most severely fought battle between the Confederate and Union armies. It was just in time that William Rosecrans realized that he might be in some danger and pulled his Federal Army back.
Reinforcements Reach Bragg
After being chased out of Tennessee, Braxton Bragg was waiting to strike back at William Rosecrans’s forces. He was aware of the fact that Rosecrans was scattered all over north Georgia. So, his plan was to hit these Union forces while they were scattered and before they could come together.
He wanted to move forward through part of Rosecrans’s line so that he would intrude into the army of Tennessee between the Federals in Chattanooga. After that, the Confederates would make an attempt to drive the Federals into a place named McClemore’s Cove, a cul de sac. There, it would not be easy for the Union troops to escape once the Confederates encircled them.
When two-thirds of James Longstreet’s men reached in time to fight in the battle, Braxton Bragg had around 70,000 soldiers. During the course of the civil war, it was one of those unusual times when in one of the biggest battles of the conflict, a major Confederate army had more men than the Union Army.
This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Just like the terrain at Shiloh, the landscape around Chickamauga creek was heavily wooded. On September 18, there were some small skirmishes. But the proper battle started on September 19. And it started much in the same way as the battle of Gettysburg had started. Some of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry unexpectedly encountered the Union infantry. And, as had happened in Gettysburg, both sides quickly sent reinforcements forward.
What had started as a small skirmish, rapidly spiraled into a full-fledged battle as the fighting spread and escalated. The Confederate army continued to make attempts to get around the Union left flank. They wanted to get in between the Federals and the road to Chattanooga. But because of the landscape, their action was confused. Their brigades fought terrible little fights, and even regiments and sometimes divisions would have these small battles that would flare up and then die down.
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Initial Success for the Confederate Army
John Hood’s division from Lee’s army tasted a little bit of success, but in reality, none of the sides got an upper hand or any major advantage when the fighting stopped at the end of the day on September 19. Both sides prepared themselves for a bigger battle the next day.
That night, Longstreet arrived at Bragg’s headquarter. There, after a discussion, Bragg announced that Longstreet would be given half of the army the next day.
Basically, Longstreet didn’t have an idea what was happening but he was going to command the left wing of Bragg’s army. Bishop Polk would command the right-wing. The plan was that on the 20th, the assault by the Confederate Army would begin from the right on Polk’s flank and will keep the Federals engaged all along this extensive battle line. They would then and work their way toward Longstreet’s end of the line.
Bragg’s Plans Fail?
The fight on the 20th did not work out according to the plan. When Bragg woke up, he didn’t hear the sound of any firing, as he was expecting the assault to begin early. He waited but nothing happened. So, he sent couriers to check with Polk, who was found having a leisurely breakfast. He was the one who was to make the attacks. So, finally, Bragg stepped in and ordered the assaults to begin.
There was not much headway until, just by luck, a Union officer thought he had spotted a gap in Rosecrans’s line. Rosecrans pulled out one unit from another point in the line to plug the gap. But, the fact was that there was no gap, but when the division pulled out, it resulted in a gap and the moment that gap appeared, Longstreet’s troops launched a massive attack right through that gap in the Union lines.
Chickamauga: Bragg’s Great Victory
The Confederate army was tremendously lucky here. They destroyed the right third of the Army of Cumberland. The entire right-wing of Rosecrans’s army ran for safety. In any case, a big chunk of the Union Army was leaving the battlefield including Rosecrans. And many of those didn’t stop until they had reached the outskirts of Chattanooga.
The Confederate army sensed their first great victory on the battlefield. Bragg was still unsure that he had actually won. That was until one soldier, who had been captured by the Federals but managed to escape and made his way back, said on seeing Bragg, “Yes, we have a victory general, a great victory.”
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The Biggest Battle of the West
Chickamauga was the biggest battle that was fought in the west during the civil war. For the end of the Union line, it was a shattering defeat. The Confederate Army captured 8,000 men, 15,000 muskets, 51 cannons, and a huge amount of material. The casualties were enormous with the Confederates losing 18,500 of their men while the Federals lost 16,000 of theirs.
It was the greatest tactical victory of the Confederate army in the west and also the last major victory in the battlefield for the Confederacy in the entire war.
Common Questions about Battle of Chickamauga
Braxton Bragg wanted to move forward through part of William Rosecrans’s line so that he would intrude into the army of Tennessee between the Federals in Chattanooga. After that, the Confederates would make an attempt to drive the Federals into a place named McClemore’s Covec. There, it would not be easy for the Union troops to escape once the Confederates encircled them.
A Union officer had thought that he had spotted a gap in Rosecrans’s line. Rosecrans pulled out one unit from another point in the line to plug the gap. But, the fact was that there was no gap, but when the division pulled out, it resulted in a gap and the moment that gap appeared, James Longstreet’s Confederate troops launched a massive attack right through that gap in the Union lines.
In the Battle of Chickamauga, the Confederates lost 18,500 of their men while the Federals lost 16,000 of theirs.