A Multitude of Missed Opportunities – The Battle of Chickamauga, Day One

September 19, 1863 (Saturday)

Despite slowness and mistakes, the previous day had not ended in disaster from William Rosecrans’ Federal Army of the Cumberland. Braxton Bragg’s attempt to get around the Union left with three columns from his Army of Tennessee was stymied by two small Yankee brigades. They held for much longer than expected, but still Rosecrans did little to help.

sept19chickamaugabattleBy the end of the day, Roscrans’ main line remained untouched. However, he had ignored the threat on his left for too long, focusing instead upon his center where Confederates under Leonidas Polk had been demonstrating. Through the night, he haphazardly rushed units from George Thomas’ XIV Corps to his left. Additionally, two brigades from the Reserve Corps had arrived late the previous night.

For Braxton Bragg, the victory was partial. Being so, he only wished to continue the plan left unfinished from the day before. As the sun rose above the frosted valley, Bragg called for a strike up Chickamauga Creek to crash into the Federal left at Lee & Gordon’s Mill. It called for several simultaneous crossings and called for John Bell Hood’s makeshift corps, which had already crossed, to press ever onward. As his other plans, this was a sound one. But he issued no direct orders to make it happen.

To pull this off, the Rebels had to act in concert. But no officer received instructions on when his neighboring divisions were about to move. Hood received no orders at all. Falling in behind him, W.H.T. Walker’s Reserve Corps were also left to languish. Bragg himself was with Simon Buckner’s Corps and Benjamin Cheatham’s Division (from Polk’s Corps), watching the troops cross the Chickamauga. He suspected that they were slipping in behind the Federal left. He was wrong.

Bragg had been warned all through the night that Rosecrans was sending reinforcements down the Chickamauga to strengthen his left. It was a fine guess that Bragg was no longer able to slide Buckner and Cheatham behind the enemy lines. But by late morning, Bragg would suss this out for himself.

Rosecrans did some shuffling, sending much of Thomas’ Corps to bolster his own left. With both sides tossing thousands of troops here and there, sparks were bound to fly. As Thomas was about to commit one of his brigades to attacking what he believed was an isolated Rebel brigade, they ran into Nathan Bedford Forrest’s skirmishers, accidentally uncovering the Rebel flank. Soon, Thomas advanced a second brigade, which uncovered Forrest’s entire line and the rear of W.H.T. Walker’s. Together, they pushed the Southerners back to the creek, but were themselves driven back by the arrival of Cheatham’s Confederate Division upon their own flank.

This seemed to calm things down a bit, giving Bragg time to rethink his plan. He could either continue his attack, which now appeared to be on the Union center, or he could shift troops farther to his right and seek the new Union flank. But instead, Bragg would attempt both while simultaneously doing neither.


As for Rosecrans, he was busy not sending reinforcements to General Thomas, who was desperately calling for them. The closest troops were those under Thomas Crittenden’s XXI Corps, but for a long time Rosecrans denied even that. As the mid-morning melted away, Rosecrans finally understood that the main Rebel attack was falling upon General Thomas on his left, and he finally sent Crittenden’s men to assist. He also sent two divisions from Alexander McCooks’s XX Corps, leaving only two divisions to hold his right flank.

In the early afternoon, after each side was afforded time to straighten their lines and stiffen their collars, the fighting resumed. Thomas, who now commanded a diverse collection of men from all four of Roscrans’ corps, advanced upon Cheatham’s Rebels, who had crossed the Chickamauga and were advancing themselves. It was sheer numbers that beat them back. Over 10,000 Federals collided with 6,000 Rebels from Tennessee. At first, it was a stalemate, with only marginal Union success on Thomas’ left. Through exhaustion and forty minutes of brutality, a lone Union brigade charged and began to drive them back for near a mile.

With clear successes on the Union left, Rosecrans decided to turn his attention to the right. For this, he sent Jefferson C. Davis’ Division forward, hoping it would run into Hood’s left, which Rosecrans apparently thought to be the Confederate army’s left. In this he was mistaken. Davis advanced, but without clear instructions, he inadvertently opened a huge gap in the Federal line and found few Rebels.


Through the afternoon, Bragg ordered one small attack after the other to peck away at the Federal center and left. Little but blood could be wrung from this, as the Federals counterattacked to regain the ground. He never ordered a large scale attack to hit the Federal reinforcements marching up the road. Had he done so, he might have turned the new Union right.

Late in the day, around 3pm, came a smashing Confederate success. Several brigades from Buckner’s Corps attacked and stove in the Union center. If supported, the end of the battle might have been near. But soon, the Federals regrouped and, through reinforcements, decimated Buckner’s flank, throwing the Rebels back to their own line. At 4pm, after Buckner was in a retreat, Hood’s divisions, without orders to do so, advanced.

Just as Hood did not aid Buckner, Buckner did not aid Hood. Had they advanced together, the story might have been different. But since “piecemeal” was the watchword, Hood attack, but after a vicious counter upon his left (where Buckner could have been), it was beaten back.

Bragg still had one small and pointless attack left in him. He had ordered Patrick Clebourne’s Division from D.H. Hill’s Corps to speed to the right and continue the attack that W.H.T. Walker’s men had started earlier in the day. The light was fading, and by the time they arrived, it was nearly dark. Clebourne’s attack drove in the Federal left about a mile, but whatever they attained was muffled in the cold nightfall.


The day of brutal fighting had left both armies in sad shape, but both expected victory to come. Rosecrans called a council of war, gathering together the commanders whose men had died in the woods and thickets that day. Very little came from the meeting, apart from General Thomas’ notion that the left had to be reinforced. Rosecrans followed the advice. He placed six divisions on the left, with two on the right and two in reserve. Though seemingly sound, the Federals would soon discover that they had not enough troops to cover the ground.

Braxton Bragg did not call a formal council of war, but instead completely reorganized his entire army. James Longstreet was soon to arrive and because of this, Bragg wanted to give the veteran corps commander the whole left wing. Longstreet’s wing would consist of his own corps, as well as Buckner’s, and would be augmented by Thomas Hindman’s Division, previously of Polk’s Corps. The right wing would be under Polk, who retained Cheatham’s Division from his own corps, as well as D.H. Hill’s and Walker’s Corps.

While this was a fairly bad idea in itself, Bragg made it worse by not telling everyone involved. D.H. Hill wouldn’t hear about it until the next morning. More unforgivable, Bragg ignored all the evidence that Rosecrans had shifted his position, and was convinced that come dawn, he could turn the Federal left (which was now actually the Federal center).

James Longstreet
James Longstreet

Polk, whose wing was to start off the rolling attack with his own right flank, was given no written orders. He left Bragg’s headquarters with verbal instructions to step off at dawn. By 10pm, Bragg was asleep in his bed.

An hour later, James Longstreet arrived and was in a very foul mood. He had been met at the depot by nobody and had to wander through the darkness to find Bragg’s headquarters, narrowly escaping capture by roving Federal cavalry. Roused from his slumber, Bragg explained to Longstreet that he was now in command of half the army. He handed him a map and explained that the attack would start on the right. Longstreet left, groping through the night to find his new headquarters. And through at night, the new Confederate command structure would devolve into absolute chaos.1

  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. []
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5 thoughts on “A Multitude of Missed Opportunities – The Battle of Chickamauga, Day One

  1. Missed opportunities is an understatement, if only Lee and company had agreed to let Longstreet leave a week earlier. I’d say this battle was pretty ‘pre-decisive’.

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