Planning for the second day
At Braxton Bragg's headquarters at Thedford Ford, the commanding general was officially pleased with the day's events. He reported that "Night found us masters of the ground, after a series of very obstinate contests with largely superior numbers." However, his attacks had been launched in a disjointed fashion, failing to achieve a concentration of mass to defeat Rosecrans or cut him off from Chattanooga. Army of Tennessee historian Thomas Connelly criticized Bragg's conduct of the battle on September 19, citing his lack of specific orders to his subordinates, and his series of "sporadic attacks which only sapped Bragg's strength and enabled Rosecrans to locate the Rebel position." He wrote that Bragg bypassed two opportunities to win the battle on
Bragg's inability to readjust his plans had cost him heavily. He had never admitted that he was wrong about the location of Rosecrans' left wing and that as a result he bypassed two splendid opportunities. During the day Bragg might have sent heavy reinforcements to Walker and attempted to roll up the Union left; or he could have attacked the Union center where he knew troops were passing from to the left. Unable to decide on either, Bragg tried to do both, wasting his men in sporadic assaults. Now his Army was crippled and in no better position than that morning. Walker had, in the day's fighting, lost over 20 per cent of his strength, while Stuart and Cleburne had lost 30 per cent. Gone, too, was any hope for the advantage of a surprise blow against Rosecrans.
Bragg met individually with his subordinates and informed them that he was reorganizing the Army of Tennessee into two wings. Leonidas Polk, the senior lieutenant general, was given the right wing and command of Hill's Corps, Walker's Corps, and Cheatham's Division. Polk was ordered to initiate the assault on the Federal left at daybreak, beginning with the division of Breckinridge, followed progressively by Cleburne, Stewart, Hood, McLaws, Bushrod Johnson, Hindman, and Preston. Informed that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet had finally reached the vicinity after a long train journey from Virginia, Bragg designated him as the left wing commander, commanding Hood's Corps, Buckner's Corps, and Hindman's Division of Polk's Corps. Longstreet did not personally receive these orders until 11 p.m. The third lieutenant general of the army, D.H. Hill, was not informed directly by Bragg of his effective demotion to be Polk's subordinate, but he learned his status from a staff officer.
What Hill did not learn was his role in the upcoming battle. The courier sent with written orders was not able to find Hill and returned to his unit without informing anyone. Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, one of Hill's division commanders, was at Polk's headquarters but was not informed that his division was to initiate the dawn attack. At 5 a.m. on September 20, Polk was awakened on the cold and foggy battlefield to find that Hill was not preparing to attack. He prepared new written orders, which reached Hill about 6 a.m. Hill responded with a number of reasons for delaying the attack, including readjustments of the alignment of his units, reconnaissance of the enemy line, and issuing breakfast rations to his men. Reluctantly, Bragg agreed.
On the Union side, Rosecrans held a council of war with most of his corps and division commanders to determine a course of action for September 20. The Army of the Cumberland had been significantly hurt in the first day's battle and had only five fresh brigades available, whereas the Confederate army had been receiving reinforcements and now outnumbered the Federals. Both of these facts ruled out a Union offensive. The presence of Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana at the meeting made any discussion of retreating difficult. Rosecrans decided that his army had to remain in place, on the defensive. He recalled that Bragg had retreated after Perryville and Stones River and could conceivably repeat that behavior.
Rosecrans's defensive line consisted of Thomas in his present position, a salient that encompassed the Kelly Farm east of the LaFayette Road, which Thomas's engineers had fortified overnight with log breastworks. To the right, McCook withdrew his men from the Viniard field and anchored his right near the Widow Glenn's. Crittenden was placed into reserve and Granger, still concentrated at Rossville, was notified to be prepared to support either Thomas or McCook, although practically he could only support Thomas.
Still before dawn, Baird reported to Thomas that his line stopped short of the intersection of the LaFayette and McFarland's Gap Roads, and that he could not cover it without weakening his line critically. Thomas requested that his division under James Negley be moved from McCook's sector to correct this problem. Rosecrans directed that McCook was to replace Negley in line, but he found soon afterward that Negley had not been relieved. He ordered Negley to send his reserve brigade to Thomas immediately and continued to ride on an inspection of the lines. On a return visit, he founded Negley was still in position and Thomas Wood's division was just arriving to relieve him. Rosecrans ordered Wood to expedite his relief of Negley's remaining brigades. Some staff officers later recalled that Rosecrans had been extremely angry and berated Wood in front of his staff, although Wood denied that this incident occurred. As Negley's remaining brigades move north, the first attack of the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga started.
The battle on the second day began at about 9:30 a.m. on the left flank of the Union line, about four hours after Bragg had ordered the attack to start, with coordinated attacks planned by Breckinridge and Cleburne of D.H. Hill's Corps, Polk's Right Wing. Bragg's intention was that this would be the start of successive attacks progressing leftward, en echelon, along the Confederate line, designed to drive the Union army south, away from its escape routes through the Rossville and McFarland Gaps. The late start was significant. At "day-dawn" there were no significant defensive breastworks constructed by Thomas's men yet; these formidable obstacles were built in the few hours after dawn. Bragg wrote after the war that if it were not for the loss of these hours, "our independence might have been won."
Breckinridge's brigades under Brig. Gens. Benjamin Helm, Marcellus A. Stovall, and Daniel W. Adams moved forward, left to right, in a single line. Helm's Orphan Brigade of Kentuckians was the first to make contact with Thomas's breastworks and Helm (the favorite brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln) was mortally wounded while attempting to motivate his Kentuckians forward to assault the strong position. Breckinridge's other two brigades made better progress against the brigade of Brig. Gen. John Beatty (Negley's division), which was attempting to defend a line of a width more suitable for a division. As he found the left flank of the Union line, Breckinridge realigned his two brigades to straddle the LaFayette Road to move south, threatening the rear of Thomas's Kelly field salient. Thomas called up reinforcements from Brannan's reserve division and Col. Ferdinand Van Derveer's brigade charged Stovall's men, driving them back. Adams's Brigade was stopped by Col. Timothy Robbins Stanley's brigade of Negley's division. Adams was wounded and left behind as his men retreated to their starting position.
Taken as a whole, the performance of the Confederate right wing this morning had been one of the most appalling exhibitions of command incompetence of the entire Civil War.
—Six Armies in Tennessee, Steven E. Woodworth.
The other part of Hill's attack also foundered. Cleburne's division met heavy resistance at the breastworks defended by the divisions of Baird, Johnson, Palmer, and Reynolds. Confusing lines of battle, including an overlap with Stewart's division on Cleburne's left, diminished the effectiveness of the Confederate attack. Cheatham's division, waiting in reserve, also could not advance because of Left Wing troops to their front. Hill brought up Gist's Brigade, commanded by Col. Peyton Colquitt, of Walker's Corps to fill the gap between Breckinridge and Cleburne. Colquitt was killed and his brigade suffered severe casualties in their aborted advance. Walker brought the remainder of his division forward to rescue the survivors of Gist's Brigade. On his right flank, Hill sent Col. Daniel Govan's brigade of Liddell's Division to support Breckinridge, but the brigade was forced to retreat along with Stovall's and Adams's men in the face of a Federal counterattack.
The attack on the Confederate right flank had petered out by noon, but it caused great commotion throughout Rosecrans's army as Thomas sent staff officers to seek aid from fellow generals along the line. West of the Poe field, Brannan's division was manning the line between Reynolds's division on his left and Wood's on his right. His reserve brigade was marching north to aid Thomas, but at about 10 a.m. he received one of Thomas's staff officers asking for additional assistance. He knew that if his entire division were withdrawn from the line, it would expose the flanks of the neighboring divisions, so he sought Reynolds's advice. Reynolds agreed to the proposed movement, but sent word to Rosecrans warning him of the possibly dangerous situation that would result. However, Brannan remained in his position on the line, apparently wishing for Thomas's request to be approved by Rosecrans. The staff officer continued to think that Brannan was already in motion. Receiving the message on the west end of the Dyer field, Rosecrans, who assumed that Brannan had already left the line, desired Wood to fill the hole that would be created. His chief of staff, James A. Garfield, who would have known that Brannan was staying in line, was busy writing orders for parts of Sheridan's and Van Cleve's divisions to support Thomas. Rosecrans's order was instead written by Frank Bond, his senior aide-de-camp, generally competent but inexperienced at order-writing. As Rosecrans dictated, Bond wrote the following order: "The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him." This contradictory order was not reviewed by Rosecrans, who by this point was increasingly worn-out, and was sent to Wood directly, bypassing his corps commander Crittenden.
Wood was perplexed by Rosecrans's order, which he received around 10:50 a.m. Since Brannan was still on his left flank, Wood would not be able to "close up on" (a military term that meant to "move adjacent to") Reynolds with Brannan's division in the way. Therefore, the only possibility was to withdraw from the line, march around behind Brannan and form up behind Reynolds (the military meaning of the word "support"). This was obviously a risky move, leaving an opening in the line, but Wood had already been berated earlier that day for not promptly obeying an order, and was not inclined to question this one, even though a ride to Rosecrans's headquarters would have taken less than five minutes. Wood spoke with corps commander McCook, and claimed later that McCook agreed to fill the resulting gap with XX Corps units. McCook maintained that he had not enough units to spare to cover a division-wide hole, although he did send Heg's brigade to partially fill the gap.
At about this time, Bragg also made a peremptory order based on incomplete information. Impatient that his attack was not progressing to the left, he sent orders for all of his commands to advance at once. Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart of Longstreet's wing received the command and immediately ordered his division forward without consulting with Longstreet. His brigades under Brig. Gens. Henry D. Clayton, John C. Brown, and William B. Bate attacked across the Poe field in the direction of the Union divisions of Brannan and Reynolds. Along with Brig. Gen. S. A. M. Wood's brigade of Cleburne's Division, Stewart's men disabled Brannan's right flank and pushed back Van Cleve's division in Brannan's rear, momentarily crossing the LaFayette Road. A Federal counterattack drove Stewart's Division back to its starting point.
Longstreet also received Bragg's order but did not act immediately. Surprised by Stewart's advance, he held up the order for the remainder of his wing. Longstreet had spent the morning attempting to arrange his lines so that his divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia would be in the front line, but these movements had resulted in the battle line confusion that had plagued Cleburne earlier. When Longstreet was finally ready, he had amassed a concentrated striking force, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, of three divisions, with eight brigades arranged in five lines. In the lead, Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson's division straddled the Brotherton Road in two echelons. They were followed by Hood's Division, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Evander M. Law, and two brigades of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws's division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw. To the left of this column was Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman's division. Brig. Gen. William Preston's division of Buckner's corps was in reserve behind Hindman.
"The scene now presented was unspeakably grand. The resolute and impetuous charge, the rush of our heavy columns sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the onward dash of artillery and mounted men, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke, the noise of fire-arms—of whistling balls and grape-shot and of bursting shell—made up a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur."
—Confederate Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson
Longstreet gave the order to move at 11:10 a.m. and Johnson's division proceeded across the Brotherton field, by coincidence to precisely the point where Wood's Union division was pulling out of the line. Johnson's brigade on the left, commanded by Col. John S. Fulton, drove directly through the gap. The brigade on the right, under Brig. Gen. Evander McNair, encountered opposition from Brannan's division (parts of Col. John M. Connell's brigade), but was also able to push through. The few Union soldiers in that sector ran in panic from the onslaught. At the far side of the Dyer field, several Union batteries of the XXI Corps reserve artillery were set up, but without infantry support. Although the Confederate infantrymen hesitated briefly, Gregg's brigade, commanded by Col. Cyrus Sugg, which flanked the guns on their right, Sheffield's brigade, commanded by Col. William Perry, and the brigade of Brig. Gen. Jerome B. Robertson, captured 15 of the 26 cannons on the ridge.
As the Union troops were withdrawing, Wood stopped his brigade commanded by Col. Charles G. Harker and sent it back with orders to counterattack the Confederates. They appeared on the scene at the flank of the Confederates who had captured the artillery pieces, causing them to retreat. The brigades of McNair, Perry, and Robinson became intermingled as they ran for shelter in the woods east of the field. Hood ordered Kershaw's Brigade to attack Harker and then raced toward Robertson's Brigade of Texans, Hood's old brigade. As he reached his former unit, a bullet struck him in his right thigh, knocking him from his horse. He was taken to a hospital near Alexander's Bridge, where his leg was amputated a few inches from the hip.
Harker conducted a fighting withdrawal under pressure from Kershaw, retreating to Horseshoe Ridge near the tiny house of George Washington Snodgrass. Finding a good defensible position there, Harker's men were able to resist the multiple assaults, beginning at 1 p.m., from the brigades of Kershaw and Brig. Gen. Benjamin G. Humphreys. These two brigades had no assistance from their nearby fellow brigade commanders. Perry and Robertson were attempting to reorganize their brigades after they were routed into the woods. Brig. Gen. Henry L. Benning's brigade turned north after crossing the Lafayette Road in pursuit of two brigades of Brannan's division, then halted for the afternoon near the Poe house.
"My report today is of deplorable importance. Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run."
—Telegram to U.S. War Department, 4 p.m., Charles A. Dana
Hindman's Division attacked the Union line to the south of Hood's column and encountered considerably more resistance. The brigade on the right, commanded by Brig. Gen. Zachariah Deas, drove back two brigades of Davis's division and defeated Col. Bernard Laiboldt's brigade of Sheridan's division. Sheridan's two remaining brigades, under Brig. Gen. William H. Lytle and Col. Nathan Walworth, checked the Confederate advance on a slight ridge west of the Dyer field near the Widow Glenn House. While leading his men in the defense, Lytle was killed and his men, now outflanked and leaderless, fled west. Hindman's brigade on the left, under Brig. Gen. Arthur Manigault, crossed the field east of the Widow Glenn's house when Col. John T. Wilder's mounted infantry brigade, advancing from its reserve position, launched a strong counterattack with its Spencer repeating rifles, driving the enemy around and through what became known as "Bloody Pond". Having nullified Manigault's advance, Wilder decided to attack the flank of Hood's column. However, just then Assistant Secretary of War Dana found Wilder and excitedly proclaimed that the battle was lost and demanded to be escorted to Chattanooga. In the time that Wilder took to calm down the secretary and arrange a small detachment to escort him back to safety, the opportunity for a successful attack was lost and he ordered his men to withdraw to the west.
"Whether he did or did not know that Thomas still held the field, it was a catastrophe that Rosecrans did not himself ride to Thomas, and send Garfield to Chattanooga. Had he gone to the front in person and shown himself to his men, as at Stone River, he might by his personal presence have plucked victory from disaster, although it is doubtful whether he could have done more than Thomas did. Rosecrans, however, rode to Chattanooga instead."
—The Edge of Glory, Rosecrans biographer William M. Lamers
All Union resistance at the southern end of the battlefield evaporated. Sheridan and Davis's divisions fled toward Missionary Ridge, taking with them elements of Van Cleve's and Negley's divisions. Rosecrans, Garfield, McCook, and Crittenden, although attempting to rally retreating units, soon joined them in the mad rush to safety. Near McFarland's Gap, Rosecrans and Garfield paused, deciding that Garfield would return to find Thomas while Rosecrans went to Chattanooga to organize his returning men. The provost marshal of the XIV Corps met Crittenden around the gap and offered him the services of 1000 men he had been able to round up during the retreat. Crittenden refused the command and continued his personal flight.
The entire Army of the Cumberland did not flee, however. Thomas's four divisions still held their lines around Kelly field and a strong defensive position was attracting men to Snodgrass Hill. Brannan and Wood began rallying men there and received a regiment from Negley's division, the 21st Ohio, a unit armed with five-shot Colt revolving rifles, to anchor the right flank of the position. Historian Steven E. Woodworth called the actions of the 21st Ohio "one of the epic defensive stands of the entire war." The 535 men of the regiment expended 43,550 rounds in the engagement. Stanley's brigade, which had been driven to the area by Govan's attack, took up a position on the portion of the ridge immediately south of the Snodgrass house, where they were joined by Harker's brigade on their left. This group of randomly selected units were the ones who beat back the initial assaults from Kershaw and Humphrey. Soon thereafter, the Confederate division of Bushrod Johnson advanced against the western end of the ridge, seriously threatening the Union flank. But as they reach the top of the ridge, they found that fresh Union reinforcements had arrived.
Throughout the day, the sounds of battle had reached 3 miles north to McAfee's Church, where the Reserve Corps of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger was stationed. Granger eventually lost patience and sent reinforcements south without receiving explicit orders to do so—the two brigades of Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman's division and the brigade of Col. Daniel McCook. As the men marched, they were harassed by Forrest's dismounted cavalrymen and artillery, causing them to veer toward the west. McCook's brigade was left behind at the McDonald house to guard the rear and Steedman's two brigades reached the Union lines in the rear of the Horseshoe Ridge position, just as Johnson was starting his attack. Granger sent Steedman's men into Johnson's path on the run.
Several attacks and counterattacks shifted the lines back and forth as Johnson received more and more reinforcements—McNair's Brigade (commanded by Col. David Coleman), and Deas's and Manigault's brigades from Hindman's division—but many of these men were exhausted. Van Derveer's brigade arrived from the Kelly Field line to beef up the Union defense. Brig. Gen. Patton Anderson's brigade (Hindman's Division) unsuccessfully attempted to assault the hill in the gap between Johnson and Kershaw. Despite all the furious activity on Snodgrass Hill, Longstreet was exerting little direction on the battlefield, enjoying a leisurely lunch of bacon and sweet potatoes with his staff in the rear. Summoned to a meeting with Bragg, Longstreet asked the army commander for reinforcements from Polk's stalled wing, even though he had not committed his own reserve, Preston's division. Bragg was becoming distraught and told Longstreet that the battle was being lost, something Longstreet found inexplicable, considering the success of his assault column. Bragg knew, however, that his success on the southern end of the battlefield was merely driving his opponents to their escape route to Chattanooga and that the opportunity to destroy the Army of the Cumberland had evaporated. After the repeated delays in the morning's attacks, Bragg had lost confidence in his generals on the right wing, and while denying Longstreet reinforcements told him "There is not a man in the right wing who has any fight in him."
Longstreet finally deployed Preston's division, which made several attempts to assault Horseshoe Ridge, starting around 4:30 p.m. Longstreet later wrote that there were 25 assaults in all on Snodgrass Hill, but historian Glenn Tucker has written that it was "really one of sustained duration." At that same time Thomas received an order from Rosecrans to take command of the army and began a general retreat. Thomas's divisions at Kelly field, starting with Reynolds's division, were the first to withdraw, followed by Palmer's. As the Confederates saw the Union soldiers withdrawing, they renewed their attacks, threatening to surround Johnson's and Baird's divisions. Although Johnson's division managed to escape relatively unscathed, Baird lost a significant number of men as prisoners. Thomas left Horseshoe Ridge, placing Granger in charge, but Granger departed soon thereafter, leaving no one to coordinate the withdrawal. Steedman, Brannan, and Wood managed to stealthily withdraw their divisions to the north. Three regiments that had been attached from other units—the 22nd Michigan, the 89th Ohio, and the 21st Ohio—were left behind without sufficient ammunition, ordered to use their bayonets. They held their position until surrounded by Preston's division, when they were forced to surrender.
"While Rosecrans went to Chattanooga, Thomas and two thirds of the Union army were making a desperate yet magnificent stand that has become a proud part of the military epic of America. Thomas, Rosecrans' firm friend and loyal lieutenant, would thereafter justly be known as the Rock of Chickamauga."
—The Edge of Glory, Rosecrans biographer William M. Lamers
Thomas withdrew the remainder of his units to positions around Rossville Gap after darkness fell. His personal determination to maintain the Union position until ordered to withdraw, while his commander and peers fled, earned him the nickname Rock of Chickamauga, derived from a portion of a message that Garfield sent to Rosecrans, "Thomas is standing like a rock." Garfield met Thomas in Rossville that night and wired to Rosecrans that "our men not only held their ground, but in many points drove the enemy splendidly. Longstreet's Virginians have got their bellies full." Although he admitted that the troops were tired and hungry and nearly out of ammunition, he added "I believe we can whip them tomorrow. I believe we can now crown the whole battle with victory." He urged Rosecrans to rejoin the army and lead it, but Rosecrans, physically exhausted and psychologically a beaten man, remained in Chattanooga. President Lincoln attempted to prop up the morale of his general, telegraphing "Be of good cheer. ... We have unabated confidence in you and your soldiers and officers. In the main, you must be the judge as to what is to be done. If I was to suggest, I would say save your army by taking strong positions until Burnside joins you." Privately, Lincoln told John Hay that Rosecrans seemed "confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head."
The Army of Tennessee camped for the night, unaware that the Union army had slipped from their grasp. Bragg was not able to mount the kind of pursuit that would have been necessary to cause Rosecrans significant further damage. Many of his troops had arrived hurriedly at Chickamauga by rail, without wagons to transport them and many of the artillery horses had been injured or killed during the battle. Furthermore, the Tennessee River was now an obstacle to the Confederates and Bragg had no pontoon bridges to effect a crossing. Bragg's army paused at Chickamauga to reorganize and gather equipment lost by the Union army. Although Rosecrans had been able to save most of his trains, large quantities of ammunition and arms had been left behind. Army of Tennessee historian Thomas L. Connelly has criticized Bragg's performance, claiming that for over four hours on the afternoon of September 20, he missed several good opportunities to prevent the Federal escape, such as by a pursuit up the Dry Valley Road to McFarland's Gap, or by moving a division, such as Cheatham's, around Polk to the north to seize the Rossville Gap or McFarland's Gap via the Reed's Bridge Road.
The battle was damaging to both sides in proportions roughly equal to the size of the armies: Union losses were 16,170 (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, and 4,757 captured or missing), Confederate 18,454 (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, and 1,468 captured or missing). These were the highest losses of any battle in the Western Theater during the war and, after Gettysburg, the second highest of the war overall. Although the Confederates were technically the victors, driving Rosecrans from the field, Bragg had not achieved his objective of destroying Rosecrans, nor of restoring Confederate control of East Tennessee.
"It seems to me that the elan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga. ... He fought stoutly to the last, but, after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope. That 'barren victory' sealed the fate of the Confederacy."
—Confederate Lt. Gen. D.H. Hill
On September 21, Rosecrans's army withdrew to the city of Chattanooga and took advantage of previous Confederate works to erect strong defensive positions. However, the supply lines into Chattanooga were at risk and the Confederates soon occupied the surrounding heights and laid siege upon the Union forces. Unable to break the siege, Rosecrans was relieved of his command of the Army of the Cumberland on October 19, replaced by Thomas. McCook and Crittenden lost their commands on September 28 as the XX Corps and the XXI Corps were consolidated into a new IV Corps commanded by Granger; neither officer would ever command in the field again. On the Confederate side, Bragg began to wage a battle against the subordinates he resented for failing him in the campaign—Hindman for his lack of action in McLemore's Cove, and Polk for his late attack on September 20. On September 29, Bragg suspended both officers from their commands. In early October, an attempted mutiny of Bragg's subordinates resulted in D.H. Hill being relieved from his command. Longstreet was dispatched with his corps to the Knoxville Campaign against Ambrose Burnside, seriously weakening Bragg's army at Chattanooga.
The Chickamauga Campaign was followed by the Battles for Chattanooga, sometimes called the Chattanooga Campaign, including the reopening of supply lines and the Battles of Lookout Mountain (November 23) and Missionary Ridge, (November 25). Relief forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant broke Bragg's grip on the city, sent the Army of Tennessee into retreat, and opened the gateway to the Deep South for Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's 1864 Atlanta Campaign.
Much of the central Chickamauga battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.