Bragg’s Rebels Stumble Across the Chickamauga

September 18, 1863 (Friday)

Bushrod Johnson was almost the man for the job!
Bushrod Johnson was almost the man for the job!

Confederate General Braxton Bragg was fairly certain that his plans were finally set. He had started, stopped, and started again his Army of Tennessee. Or, rather, he started half of it. Only two corps, under Simon Buckner and W.H.T. Walker, were to cross Chickamauga Creek to attack the Federal left flank. It ignored D.H. Hill’s Corps on the left, Leonidas Polk’s Corp, somewhat in the middle, and the reinforcements arriving not too far away near Ringgold. Fortunately, Bragg quickly turned cold on his new new plan and whipped up a yet another new one before the dawn.

The Confederate reinforcements consisted, thus far, of three brigades. Two were from Joe Johnston’s Army of Relief still hovering somewhere in the Mississippi area, and one was the vanguard of James Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia. They were placed under an umbrella held by General Bushrod Johnson, and joined by his own brigade, which had previously been part of D.H. Hill’s Corps. Longstreet’s five other brigades were still arriving.

As if he suddenly remembered he had a whole extra division to play with, Bragg altered his plan to include them. Prior to the change, Bushrod Johnson’s only orders were to cross Chickamauga Creek with the aid of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry. Nothing about a battle was mentioned. But through the stillness of morning, Johnson received new orders. Following his crossing, he was to turn left and “sweep up the Chickamauga, toward Lee and Gordon’s Mills.”

This would be the crux of the flank attack. No longer were Walker and Buckner the spearheads. Johnson’s hastily patched-together division of reinforcements were to pick up Walker and Buckner (both crossing at separate points beyond the Federal flank), and crash into the Union troops. Holding the Yankees in place would be Polk’s Corps, facing them from across Chickamauga Creek. Polk was to join the attack, crossing if he could. This plan was, in short, pretty good.

But it had its problems. First, Bragg set no starting time. Though Johnson’s Provisional Division was already en route, neither Walker nor Buckner had any idea when to make their crossing. And speaking of Walker and Buckner – they were both supposed to cram their respective Corps down the same road to get into position.

These movements had not gone unnoticed. The Federal cavalry under Col. Robert Minty, had spotted Johnson’s advance, and sent troopers across at Reed’s Bridge to contest it. This small contingent held Johnson up for hours as he probed with skirmishers and scouts. He formed a long line of battle while bits of Forrest’s Cavalry sported with their Northern counterparts.

This is an incredibly huge map.
This is an incredibly huge map.

Finally clearing the way, Johnson restarted near the noon hour, as Minty called upon John Wilder’s Mounted Infantry for reinforcements. Wilder had been holding Alexander’s Bridge, the next crossing upstream from the contested Reed’s Bridge. Thus far through the warm dawn, the coming Rebels from Walker’s Corps had not been seen. There had been a slight scrap with some Rebel cavalry on their way to join Forrest, but it was a quiet, though ominous, morning. Soon that would change.

Wilder had flung skirmishers across the bridge, where they were unexpectedly roused by the advance of Walker’s Confederates. Uncertain when exactly to attack, Walker began to move when he learned of the skirmish with the cavalry near to Alexander Bridge. Wilder’s Federals were surprised, but quickly regained composure, holding back the Rebel van, while systematically falling back to the bridge, which they swiftly dismantled.

Forrest and Minty duking it out across Reed's Bridge.
Forrest and Minty duking it out across Reed’s Bridge.

But it was only a small portion of Walker’s Corps that was attempting to cross. The remainder slid a short distance downstream to exchange shots with more of Wilder’s Yankees from the other side of the Chickamauga. By 3pm, the Federals had almost accidentally managed to block two crossings, holding back upwards of 20,000 Rebels with, perhaps, 3,000 mounted troopers. Only Simon Buckner had crossed. Though it was completely uncontested, he halted immediately after, and waited for Walker and Johnson to appear on this right. But Walker and Johnston would be a long time coming. Both were hotly engaged with the Federals at their respective bridges, neither searched out a better crossing.

It was into this mess that John Bell Hood, division commander in Longstreet’s Corps, arrived. It was 3pm and he had just detrained at Ringgold when he was handed orders from Bragg to push the flank attack onward. But before this could happen, the Federals pulled out. Through a bit of exaggeration, Col. Minty had come to believe that Wilder’s Mounted Infantry had retreated. This was not true, but how was he to know? Since being cut off from the main force would make for a disastrous end to an otherwise successful day, he decided to fall back as well.

In falling back, he came to main Federal line, here under the command of the brash General Wood of Thomas Crittenden’s Corps. At first, Wood didn’t buy it, but decided to humor Col. Minty. Soon, however, he was very convinced that an entire Rebel division was about to make the Federal left an incredibly uncomfortable spot.

John Bell Hood dove right in.
John Bell Hood dove right in.

Hood, along with Forrest, pushed their troops across Chickamauga Creek and were marching quick. But it was not quick enough. The afternoon had turned to dusk, which had turned thick to darkness. The nightfall was first punctuated by newly-arrived Federal infantry. Then it was peppered. Before long, Hood and Johnson halted. Neither knew the ground well enough to send their division into that dark and tangled mass.

The day was over. Bragg’s half-hearted plan had achieved half-desired results. Through the day, Union General William Rosecrans had tried to concentrate his army near Lee & Gordon’s Mills. While Crittenden was already in place, George Thomas’ and Alexander McCook’s Corps were not. By nightfall, they still wouldn’t be. Through the night, Braxton Bragg would cross another division (from Polk’s Corps) and order D.H. Hill’s Corps to slide to the right as compensation. Neither commander could do much shuffling, and so both more or less agreed to pick up where they left off come dawn the next morning.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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Bragg’s Rebels Stumble Across the Chickamauga by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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