- 19 Sep 2021 13:40
September 20, Sunday
As the morning nears dawn, about the time Bragg’s attack south of Chattanooga should be starting, General Hill finally learns from his division commanders of Bragg’s orders for the assault. He then decides that his men must eat breakfast before they fight. He notifies Polk, saying his forces will not be ready to attack for “an hour or more.” Hour after hour passes. In the meantime, Bragg is fuming as his disbelief mounts. At last he sends a staff officer to find out what is wrong. The officer returns to report that he found Polk reading a newspaper and waiting for his breakfast. Bragg, according to one account, thereupon “uttered a terrible exclamation, in which Polk, Hill and all his generals were included.” Then he personally orders the battle to begin. It is 9:45 am.
Breckinridge’s three brigades lead the assault on the Federal left; two of them drive around the end of Thomas’ position and smash into Negley’s regiments, which are just arriving from farther south. Negley’s lead brigade, commanded by Brigadier General John Beatty, is forced back until it is behind the Federal left flank. One of Beatty’s regiments, from Indiana, has to change front from north to south as the Confederates storm in behind it. One of Breckinridge’s brigades is led by Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law of Mary Lincoln, a graduate of West Point and Harvard, and a man much admired by the President. Most of Helm’s troops are Kentuckians. while the war lasts these soldiers can never return to their Union-held state; they are therefore known as the Orphan Brigade. the Orphans manage to advance to within thirty yards of Thomas’ lines, but the fighting is murderous. General Helm is mortally wounded by a bullet fired from the ranks of a Federal Kentucky regiment. For a brief moment, Breckinridge’s division actually seizes the road to Chattanooga, but it can’t hold on. Beatty is meanwhile desperately calling for help. The other two brigades of Negley’s division never arrive, partly because Negley’s replacement in McCook’s front line, General Thomas J. Wood’s division, hasn’t appeared. When Rosecrans discovers that Wood has failed to march his men forward from their position in reserve, he rushes to confront the division commander and loses his temper, delivering a blistering rebuke accusing Woods of endangering the safety of the entire army and ordering him to move at once. Although this blistering public rebuke must be profoundly resented by Wood, he says nothing and quickly moves his division into position, freeing Negley’s remaining troops.
The attack by Breckinridge is followed by that of the next Confederate division in line, under General Cleburne. As Cleburne’s men forge ahead through a pine forest they are suddenly confronted by a line of Federals sheltered behind a formidable log breastwork. The Confederate line is staggered by volleys of musketry and deadly salvos of canister. One of Cleburne’s brigade commanders, General James Deshler, is struck in the chest by a shell and his heart is torn from his body. Unable to break the Federal line, the Confederates take shelter behind the trees and blaze away at the defenders. As Cleburne’s assault grinds to a stop, General Polk commits Walker’s and Cheatham’s divisions. Once again the Confederate troops charge toward those forbidding log breastworks. Once again they are thrown back with heavy losses.
Thomas’ messages asking for reinforcement are practically continuous now, and Rosecrans is pulling units away from the right flank of his line and sending them to Thomas as fast as he can free them. Then, about 10:30 am, one of Thomas’ staff officers, Captain Sanford Kellogg, returns from Rosecrans’ headquarters with alarming news: Passing along the Federal lines, he has noted a gap near the center, presumably at a point where a division has been pulled out to help Thomas. Whatever the reason, there is a hole, he tells Thomas, between the division of General Wood and the division to the north under Reynolds. Thomas immediately notifies Rosecrans—and Rosecrans reacts instantly with an urgent message to Wood: “The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him.” Wood is puzzled. He knows that there is no gap. The division of General Brannan is between Wood and Reynolds, although drawn back into the forest, where it apparently had been invisible to Captain Kellog. Nevertheless, Wood is reluctant to invite another dressing down for not obeying Rosecrans’ commands. He begins to move his division behind Brannan to join Reynolds. Around 11:30 am Rosecrans orders Davis forward from his position in reserve to the south to take Wood’s place. At the same time two of Sheridan’s brigades, in the line to the right of Wood, are sent north to support Thomas. Now two Federal divisions and part of a third are in sidelong motion, and there is a quarter-mile gap in the center of the line where Wood had been.
At this moment, entirely by chance, James Longstreet unleashes three divisions—Hood’s and Johnson’s abreast, Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw’s behind—directly into the Federal gap. As the juggernaught of 23,000 troops storm across the La Fayette road and through the fields of the Brotherton farm, stark panic strikes the Federal right. Despite heavy losses, Johnson’s right-flank brigade under General Evander McNair surges toward two batteries of Federal artillery. The gunners fire round after round into the gray tide and, as the Confederates swarm over their cannon, fight hand to hand. In desperation some artillerymen hurl grapeshot and shells with their bare hands. Just as Johnson’s men pause in a clearing near the Dyer farm to catch their breath, Hood rides up, his left arm still in a sling from the wounding at Gettysburg, and orders them to resume their advance. Johnson gets his troops to their feet once again. With a shout along their entire front, the Confederates rush forward and penetrate into the woods, over and beyond the enemy’s breastworks. Suddenly a brigade of Federals counterattack, and Hood himself is shot—pierced by a Minié ball in the right leg. He topples off his horse and is caught by Texans of his old brigade. As Confederate reserves come into action, Hood is tenderly borne to the rear, where the broken leg is amputated.
On Hood’s left, Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s division is likewise gaining ground. In minutes the first Federal line, Jefferson Davis’ division, is shattered and fleeing in panic. The fugitives plow into the ranks of the second line, Sheridan’s division, throwing those troops into disorder. Soon the better part of McCook’s corps is streaming rearward, toward Rosecrans’ headquarters at the Glenn house. The only one of McCook’s units to offer resistance is a brigade commanded by Brigadier General William H. Lytle, a popular author and poet who has become a hard-fighting and capable commander. Lytle halts on a hill just north of the Glenn house, telling his officers that the brigade will die in their tracks, with their harness on. Then, as Hindman’s Confederates surge toward the front and both flanks, Lytle decides on a desparate stratagem. Spurring his horse to the front of the Federal line, he shouts to his outnumbered command, “All right, men, we can die but once. This is the time and place. Let us charge.” The hopeless attack is shattered almost immediately. Lytle is shot in the spine but continues to ride among his men until three more bullets knock his to the ground. With their commander dying, the survivors join the stampede for the rear. At Rosecrans’ headquarters, Charles Dana, who has been awake for much of the previous two nights, is stretched out on the grass sleeping. At the onset of Longstreet’s attack he is awakened by the most infernal noise he has ever heard. He sits up on the grass, and the first thing he sees is Rosecrans crossing himself—the general is a very devout Catholic, and if he’s crossing himself they are in a desparate situation. Dana leaps on his horse, and no sooner collects his thoughts and looks around toward the front, where all the din is coming from, when he sees the Federal lines break and melt away “like leaves before the wind.” Rosecrans calmly tells his staff that if they care to live any longer to get away from there as the “graybacks” come on with a rush. The whole right of the Federal army has apparently been routed. A mile or so to the northeast, Longstreet is jubilant. “They have fought their last man,” an artilleryman hears him say, “and he is running.” Bragg’s instructions were to exert pressure on the left, to drive Rosecrans’ army toward McLemore’s Cove. But, except for Wilder’s brigade, which has been harassing the flank of Hindman’s division, the Federal right has disintegrated. Bushrod Johnson has begun to wheel toward his right, and Longstreet urges him on. If he can destroy Thomas, Rosecrans’ entire army will be a shambles.
The Federals have been fighting with their backs to Missionary Ridge; with heavy fighting continuing across the Rossville road to the north, the only avenue of retreat left to the soldiers fleeing before Longstreet is McFarland’s Gap, leading through the ridge to the west. Toward this narrow opening now pour the disorganized units from the army’s shattered right wing—the better part of five Federal divisions. A reporter from the Cincinnati Gazette watches from the crest of the ridge: “Men, animals, vehicles, became a mass of struggling, shouting, frightened life. Everything and everybody appeared to dash headlong for the narrow gap, and men, horses, mules, ambulances, wagons, artillery carriages and caissons were rolled and tumbled together in a confused, inextricable, and finally motionless mass, completely blocking up the mouth of the gap.” Rosecrans tries to reach Sheridan for help; the commander is repulsed by “a storm of canister and musketry.” All becomes confusion, no order can be heard above the battle. The Confederates sweep on far to the left, and Rosecrans is borne back in the retreat. At the mouth of McFarland’s Gap, Rosecrans and his chief of staff, Brigadier General James A. Garfield, try to take a side road back toward the left wing and George Thomas, but enemy forces block their way; instead they push on through the gap five miles farther to Rossville.
There, amid what an eyewitness describes as “driving masses of teamsters, stragglers and fugitives,” the two men pause to consider—and to rest their horses, blown by the swift ride. There is another crossroad at Rossville, and therefore another opportunity to join Thomas. But the sounds of battle are now barely audible; is he still fighting? Rosecrans and Garfield dismount and put their ears to the ground. They can hear little except occasional distant musketry. They seek information from some disheveled soldiers around them—and are told that “the entire army is defeated and in retreat to Chattanooga.” The same soldiers say they are from Negley’s division; that unit, they declare, has been “knocked all to pieces.” Here is dismaying news. When Rosecrans had last seen Negley, the division commander was on his way to join Thomas with two brigades; if Negley’s command is shattered, the entire left wing is doubtless defeated and in disarray. Rosecrans is upset and distracted. Nevertheless, he is determined to try to join Thomas and save what he can of the wrecked army. He orders Garfield to proceed to Chattanooga and prepare the defenses there. The Confederates are sure to attack the town and much needs to be done; he issues a long list of instructions. At this, Garfield demurs. Rosecrans, he says, must go to Chattanooga himself to lay out a new defensive line and position the returning units along it. The orders will be complicated, and Rosecrans can spell them out more effectively than anyone else. “I can go to General Thomas and report the situation to you,” Garfield says, “much better than I can give those orders.” Rosecrans agrees and makes his way north.Severely shaken, he arrives at the headquarters building in Chattanooga at 4 pm. He is by then unable to dismount or to walk unassisted. His aides help the distraught general into the house. Once inside, Rosecrans slumps in a chair, his head in his hands, the picture of despair. Charles Dana arrives in Chattanooga soon afterward and sends a grim telegram to Washington. “My report today is of deplorable importance,” it begins. “Chichamauga is as fatal a day in our history as Bull Run.”
The battle is, in fact, far from over. George Thomas, still only vaguely aware of what has occurred to the rest of Rosecrans’ army, is engaged in the fight of his life. The right of his line, Brannan’s division and part of Wood’s, faces south from the crest of an elevation that projects from Missionary Ridge. A part of this rise is known as Snodgrass Hill, after a family that lives nearby; the whole of the eminence may not have had a name, but it quickly acquires one—Horseshoe Ridge. The main line, held by Baird’s, Johnston’s, Reynolds’, and Major General John Palmer’s divisions, faces east from their original positions near the La Fayette road. To the rear of the position are the roads leading west to McFarland’s Gap, and north to Rossville and Chattanooga. As a result of Thomas’ repeated calls for reinforcements, he now has under him units from three of Rosecrans’ corps—perhaps half of the Army of the Cumberland. And he is also collecting a ragtag-and-bobtail assortment of units from company to brigade strength, plus a number of soldiers of all ranks who have become separated from the rest of the army during the hard fighting on the right. Many officers are behind the breastworks fighting as enlisted men. The stolid Thomas isn’t given to dramatics, but as he rides along the lines his very presence bolsters the morale of his battered, powder-stained soldiers. Among all his other worries, Thomas is concerned about the location of Sheridan’s division. He had asked this morning to have Sheridan sent up from the Federal right but has heard nothing since. At last, around 2 pm, he sends a messenger to find out what is wrong. The courier quickly returns to report that a large forces is approaching from the right rear, behind Reynolds. From the crest of Snodgrass Hill, Thomas peers out over the field. He can see troops coming through the dust—and they are wearing blue. Can that be Sheridan at last? But Thomas is a careful man, and there have been reports that some Confederates in this battle have blue uniforms. He instructs an officer nearby to have his men wave Union flags. The flags quickly draw fire. These are hostile forces—Longstreet’s men, and they are renewing the attack.
Thomas orders a brigade under Brigadier General William B. Hazen into the line on Snodgrass Hill. The new arrivals are scarcely in position behind some low breastworks, when the Confederate storm bursts. The slope in front of the brigade is open ground, and in a moment it is covered with heavy masses of the enemy making for the top. Hazen’s regiments are lying flat. The foremost springs to its feet, delivers its volley, and goes down again to reload, and the next regiment behind rises to fire and falls flat while the third puts in its work, and so on. The attacking Confederates, several brigades under the overall direction of General Kershaw, push to within forty paces of the Federal line. There they meet such heavy and sustained fire that Kershaw orders them back. He strikes again and again, one ferocious assault after another. He finally stops because his troops are out of breath. Next Bushrod Johnson’s and Thomas Hindman’s divisions launch another series of charges, aimed like a battering ram at Thomas’ right at rear. It is evident to Thomas that the crisis is at hand; if he cannot push Johnson and Hindman back, his escape route will soon be cut off. Worse, his soldiers are running out of ammunition. The men on Horseshoe Ridge are desperately snatching cartridges from the dead and wounded. For a time it looks as if the Federal line will break. The Confederates even succeed in driving the Federals from the crest, until General John Beatty rallies his brigade and leads it back up the hill. The crest is retaken, but Thomas and his troops are in dire straits and there is no solution in sight. Then, suddenly help is at hand.
All during the fighting yesterday and for most of the morning today, Major General Gordon Granger and his Reserve Corps—consisting in its entirety of three inexperienced brigades—have stood guard with increasing impatience over the Rossville road three miles north of the fighting, as ordered by Rosecrans. At 11 am, while Polk’s divisions march to attack Thomas, Granger—a short pugnacious West Pointer—watches the dust rising in the distance. As the sounds of battle come rumbling over the fields and more dust and battle smoke rises into the air, Granger almost explodes with pent-up frustration. He climbs up on a haystack and stares into the distance through his field glasses, and at last he can stand it no longer. He utters an oath and declares, “I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders!” he commands Colonel Dan McCook to guard the road with his brigade and within minutes is marching off to join Thomas with the remainder of his corps: a single division under General Steedman. At Snodgrass Hill, with Hindman, Johnson, and Kershaw pounding him from the south, General Thomas stares through his field glasses at the enormous column of dust approaching from the north. Once again he and his officers wonder who is coming. The usually imperturbable Thomas is so jumpy that his horse begins fidgeting, making it impossible for him to use his field glasses. A few minutes later Granger and Steedman are on the scene, and the defenders feel “a throb of exultation.” The newcomers have brought not only fresh soldiers, but also fresh supplies of ammunition.
The burly Steedman gallops into action at the head of his division. When an Illinois regiment wavers in the face of Confederate fire, Steedman snatches up its flag and turns to face the enemy alone. “Go back, boys, go back,” he roars, “but the flag can’t go with you!” The men rally and charge once again. Steedman’s horse is shot out from under him, and the general is badly bruised by the fall, but he continues to lead his men on foot, flag in hand. Steedman’s troops extend the line on Brannan’s right, where Hindman’s Confederates are threatening to flank the Federals. In the twenty minutes that follow, Steedman’s green soldiers smash Hindman’s attack—but at a terrible cost. Of Steedman’s 3,500 Federals, twenty percent are killed or wounded in those few minutes; among the casualties are six regimental commanders.
By now all of Thomas’ units have taken heavy casualties. The total number of men who serve under him during the day will be estimated at 25,000; by one account only a quarter of these troops are still in action when Granger shows up. Since morning, Thomas has fought virtually every brigade in Bragg’s army, and toward the end he is fighting them all—Polk’s troops as well as Longstreet’s. and still Thomas holds. As the shadows deepen, Longstreet redoubles his effort. He commits his single remaining division, Brigadier General William Preston’s, and by early evening he is hitting the Federal line at every point. By Longstreet’s own estimate he sends a total of twenty-five attacks against the Federals. One of the last, and perhaps the fiercest, is the charge of a newly enlisted brigade led by Brigadier General Archibald Gracie Jr. Leaping over the bodies of the dead and dying from earlier assaults, Gracie’s troops claw their way to within feet of the Federal breastworks. In places, the opposing soldiers grapple hand to hand before Gracie’s decimated regiments fall back.
Around 4 pm James Garfield shows up, having made a perilous trip down the Rossville road accompanied by two orderlies and a captain acting as a guide. They have come under sharp fire; both of the orderlies have been killed and the captain injured. Garfield’s horse, badly hurt, manages to get him to Thomas before it collapses. At last Thomas learns what has happened to the rest of Rosecrans’ army and receives instructions from Rosecrans to withdraw immediately. That is manifestly impossible. “It will ruin the army to withdraw it now,” Thomas tells Garfield. “This position must be held until night.” Garfield accordingly dispatches a message informing Rosecrans in Chattanooga that Thomas is fighting off the Confederates and is “Standing like a rock.” Reprinted in newspapers all over the country, the message will make a hero of the doughty XIV Corps commander, who will be known for the rest of his life as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”
As twilight descends over the battlefield, Thomas goes to work to get his men safely away. The Confederate attacks are continuing with undiminished intensity, and Thomas is once again running low on ammunition as he begins his withdrawal. His plan is to withdraw his divisions in sequence, starting with the southernmost, under Reynolds. Each division is to march behind those still in line toward the safety of McFarland’s Gap. But at 5:30 pm, as Reynolds is leaving, St. John Liddell’s Confederates suddenly launch a savage blow straight toward him, endangering the entire Federal position. General Thomas, who is on the scene, commandeers the brigade led by General John Turchin and wheels the troops around, ording them to clear out the oncoming Confederates. Turchin launches a furious attack and sends the Confederates reeling back, in the process capturing 200 prisoners. Then Turchin rejoins Reynolds’ retreating division. One by one, the hard-pressed units leave the field and hurry toward safety. In the end only three regiments remain on Snodgrass Hill, two from Ohio and one from Michigan. They are still fighting off attacks, and as the rest of the Federals begin their movement toward McFarland’s Gap the three regiments are threatened anew. Out of ammunition and with another another attack forming, they fix bayonets and meet the the oncoming charge with one of their own. So impetuous is this countercharge that one regiment, with empty muskets and cartridge-boxes, breaks through the enemy’s line, which, closing in its rear, carries it off in the undertow. The countercharge is gallant but ineffective. There is little the Federals can do without ammunition, and within minutes the bloodied defenders are surrounded and overwhelmed by General Preston’s Confederates. In the three regiments, 322 soldiers are killed or wounded and 563 captured. Only one of the six regimental flags is saved.
The last Federal survivors slip away after darkness falls, when the Confederate fire is diminishing. Without light, Bragg’s troops are beginning to fire into one another from the opposite sides of the salient. It has been a brilliant withdrawal under the nose of the enemy. The Federal escape chafes Longstreet, but his troops are only too pleased to discover that their enemy has retreated. When the Confederates realize what has happened, they produce a loud and prolonged din of Rebel yells to celebrate their victory. The sound seems to envelop the fleeing Federals. For the soldiers in blue, the march to Rossville is grim. All along the road, for miles, wounded men are lying. They have crawled or hobbled slowly away from the fury of battle, become exhausted, and lain down by the roadside to die. Some are calling the names and numbers of their regiments, but many have become too weak to do this; by midnight the column has passed by.
General Thomas collects his battered forces at Rossville and forms new lines in expectation of further fighting. The Confederates, as well, make preparations for more action. Longstreet orders his line to remain as it is with ammunition boxes to be filled, stragglers to be collected, and everything in readiness for pursuit in the morning. Polk gets Bragg out of bed to report that the Federal army is in full flight and can be destroyed before Rosecrans has a chance to throw up adequate defenses. But Bragg cannot be induced to look at it in that light, and refuses to believe that they have won a victory. Bragg’s generals produce a Confederate soldier who had been captured and then escaped. He had seen the Federal disarray himself and is brought before Bragg to testify that the enemy is indeed in full retreat. Bragg will not accept the man’s story. “Do you know what a retreat looks like?” he asks, acidly. The soldier stares back and says, “I ought to, General; I’ve been with you during your whole campaign.”
Other fighting includes skirmishes at Hornersville, Missouri; and Carter’s Depot and Zollicoffer in eastern Tennessee; an affair on Shaver Mountain, West Virginia; and a ten-day Federal expedition from Paducah, Kentucky, to McLemoresville, Tennessee.
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.