September 20, 1863 (Sunday)
William Rosecrans, commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, knew he could not attack. The previous day’s fighting along the Chickamauga had left his army wounded, and now only five brigades remained fresh. For him, reinforcements could not possibly come quickly enough, and they most certainly would not come on this day. He believed himself to be facing perhaps as many as 120,000 Rebels. The true number was about half that. Retreat, as well, seemed impossible. He knew the fate that had befallen other officers before him who had beat hastily towards the north. No, his army would stay and they would receive the enemy’s attacks, and if fortune was with them, the Federals would withstand the strike.
Through the cold night, Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee heard the axes of the enemy felling trees, while the spades dug rifle pits. The only thing that was certain across those dark spaces was that the Federals were not retreating. Everything else was in flux and confusion. Late the previous evening, Bragg had completely reorganized his army, placing half under the newly-arrived James Longstreet, and half under Leonidas Polk. This effectively demoted several high ranking generals, of whom D.H. Hill was the highest.
General Hill commanded a corps, answering to no one but Bragg. Now, he was under Polk, yet was not informed of the change. Bragg had passed it off upon Polk, who, in turn, passed it off upon a courier, who, after searching for some amount of time, could not find Hill and returned to his own camp.
This courier carried with him not only news of Hill’s new and lesser rank, but written orders of the roll he was to play in the morning’s battle. Hill’s Corps, with General John Breckenridge’s Division in the lead, was to begin the attack against the Federal left flank. Though the courier bears some of the blame, most was held by General Bragg himself as Breckenridge had spent a good deal of time in his company the night before.
And so when dawn finally broke, General Hill was still missing. It was only then that Polk took command, sending orders to Hill’s divisional commanders to attack at once. When this message was delivered, however, the courier found Hill in a meeting with his commanders. Hill refused to go into action right away. It was the first he had heard of the plan, he claimed, and wouldn’t be able to move “for an hour or more.”
By this time, Bragg was personally on the scene and berated both Polk and Hill. The main complaint lodged by Hill was that the lines had not been reconnoitered, and for that, he could not be blamed. His corps had been on the Confederate left the previous evening as per orders issued before the reorganization and had just arrived on the right. There was no cavalry on his flanks and nobody seemed to know anything.
General Rosecrans’ line was in two main segments. George Thomas commanded the left, while Alexander McCook held the right. Believing that Bragg’s main goal was to retake Chattanooga, he was determined to hold Thomas’ line, which blocked the roads leading into the city. Knowing this, Thomas called upon Rosecrans for reinforcements.
Rosecrans was not deaf to Thomas’ call, and pulled brigades from his right to strengthen his left. This became a farcical debacle. General James Negley commanded one of Thomas’ Divisions. He had been too far to the right to take much part in the initial struggle. Seeing this, Rosecrans ordered Thomas Wood’s Division from Thomas Crittenden’s Corps to fill the gap left by Negley. Wood apparently misunderstood the orders and moved his division to support Negley, not replace him. This put him a third of a mile behind the actual line.
When Rosecrans noticed, he let loose his rage upon General Wood, who finally moved into his proper position, replacing Negley’s Division. What nobody seemed to notice until now was that Negley’s Division was made up of three brigades, while Wood’s had only two. If Wood were left on his own, he would open up a brigade-size gap in the Federal line. Without orders, Negley left one of his brigades behind.
Finally, at 9:30am, the Confederate attack began. Breckenridge’s Division stepped off, followed en echelon by Patrick Cleburne on his left. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troopers also joined in, greatly impressing General Hill. They came screaming with violence, hurling themselves against breastworks constructed by four different divisions. But it was futile. Even without the reserves called for by General Thomas, the Federals beat back the storming Rebels, whose wave crested and receded through the mid morning, leaving thousands of wounded and dead behind.
Through the morning attacks, the Union center, held by Joseph Reynolds’ Division, had been lightly hit. When word came for yet more reinforcements to be shifted to the left, Rosecrans turned to General John Brannan, commanding the division on Reynolds’ right. Though Reynolds told Brannan that he could probably hold his own if Thomas really needed him, it was Thomas that canceled the order. Thomas, however, neglected to tell anyone but Brannan about it.
To fill the gap that would have been made if Brannan had left, Rosecrans ordered General Wood, who was on Brannan’s right, to shift to the left. Wood followed the orders to the letter, even though his own skirmishers were engaged and Brannan was still in position. This created a division-size gap in the Federal line, one that General Jefferson C. Davis, whose division was in reserve, was rushing to fill when James Longstreet launched the second Confederate assault.
When John Bell Hood’s Rebels smashed into the Federal line, it was already in confusion and crumbled easily. So quickly it came, and unexpected, that General Rosecrans himself was forced to flee as thousands of Confederates broke through and captured his headquarters.
“All became confusion,” remembered General Gates Thruston, who witnessed the route. “No order could be heard above the tempest of battle. With a wild yell the Confederates swept on the far to their left. They seemed everywhere victorious.” General Rosecrans did not stop until he reached Chattanooga.
And yet, there was still Thomas. The Federal right had collapsed, but the reinforced left had remained. An excited General Longstreet wanted to follow the retreating Yankees, battering them all the way back to Chattanooga. General Bragg, however, was in a foul mood. The battle might have been going in their direction, but it was not moving according to his machinations. He had dreamed of rolling up the Federal left with Polk’s wing, not routing the Federal right with Longstreet’s.
Longstreet was completely taken aback, and immediately assumed that Bragg somehow believed that the battle had been lost. With nothing left to do, Longstreet rode back to his line, which was now facing a new Federal defensive position created by Thomas, whose troops now seemed to be in a U-shape, clinging as they were to the aptly-named Horseshoe Ridge. As Longstreet scouted the line, he could not see that Thomas’ line was disjointed. The two sides of the “U” did not meet, and left a half-mile gap between them.
The Rebels under James Longstreet had attacked, but it was mostly in a piecemeal fashion until his entire line was ablaze. Charge after charge they threw upon the southern-facing line of Horseshoe Ridge, but with each they were hurled back. Longstreet unleashed his artillery upon the eastern-facing portion, hoping to aide General Polk in a full assault that would certainly come quickly. While waiting, he sent troops from Simon Buckner’s Corps into the hastily-filled gap between Thomas’ two lines. They were slow to gain ground, but when they finally broke through, they bagged three entire regiments and ultimately doomed Thomas’ position.
While Polk had ordered D.H. Hill to attack well before Longstreet got into position, Hill was again slow. Around the time that Buckner gained his ground, Hill attacked in earnest. This was all too much, and Thomas was forced into a full retreat with the westering sun. They fled through McFarland’s Gap and did not stop their flight until they landed in Rossville on the outskirts of Chattanooga.
It was a complete Confederate victory, but all sense was lost in the dark. The men were scattered and low on ammunition, and though there was an enemy to pursue, neither Longstreet nor Bragg knew where they had gone. Perhaps by the light of day, all would be revealed.
For now, anyway, the fighting along the Chickamauga was at an end. Both armies paid dearly for their toils, with a combined roll of 30,000. Rosecrans lost 1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, and 4,757 captured or missing. Bragg, the attacker, faired much worse, suffering 2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, 1,468 missing.1
- Sources: Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn; Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens. [↩]