As we have discussed in previous blogs, The Battle of Chickamauga, was the biggest battle ever fought in Georgia, and took place on September 18-20, 1863. With 34,000 casualties, it is the second bloodiest engagement of the war; only the Battle of Gettysburg, was deadlier. After Rosecrans’ troops pushed the Confederates out of Chattanooga, Bragg called for reinforcements and launched a counterattack on the banks of nearby Chickamauga Creek. Over two days of battle, the rebels forced Rosecrans to give way, with heavy losses on both sides.
By mid-September, Chattanooga was in Federal hands, and Union soldiers were spread across south Tennessee, north Alabama, and north Tennessee. All seemed to be coming up aces for William Rosecrans, but Braxton Bragg was determined to put up a fight.
Braxton Bragg concentrated his forces in Lafayette, Georgia, and determined to reoccupy the valuable Chattanooga. By September 17, Bragg had been reinforced with the eastern divisions of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood and the Mississippi division under Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson. John Bell Hood, we know was a guest at our Clisby Austin house after his injury received during the battle. With renewed confidence that Chattanooga could be recaptured, Bragg marched his army to the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, hoping to position his troops between Chattanooga and the Federal army, cutting off their line of retreat. As Bragg’s infantry crossed the creek on the 18th, they skirmished with Federals. Bragg had been hoping that his advance would be a surprise; Rosecrans, however, had observed the Confederates marching in the morning and anticipated Bragg’s plan. By the time Bragg’s army crossed the creek, Union reinforcements had arrived.
On the early morning of September 19, the two armies met in the woods lining the banks of Chickamauga Creek. Throughout the day, Bragg’s men gained ground but could not break the extended Union line despite a series of aggressive attacks. Confederate luck changed when, at 11 p.m., Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s divisions arrived at Chickamauga, giving the Confederate force superior numbers. Bragg divided his army into two wings: Longstreet commanded the left; Lt. Gen. Leonidas K. Polk took charge of the right. The thick forests made it difficult for large bodies of troops to maneuver. At one point, a body of Confederates achieved a breakthrough and threatened to seize the Lafayette Road, but Northern reinforcements regained the lost ground. At the end of the day, the Union troops had withstood repeated attacks without losing their connection to Chattanooga. That night they pulled back to a defensive position along the Lafayette Road, which they strengthened by constructing log breastworks.
An unusually cold night for mid-September added to the distress of wounded and unwounded alike. The Confederates at least had the water of Chickamauga Creek to drink. Other than Crawfish Springs well to the south of most of their line, Union troops had precious little from which to refill their canteens.
The battle resumed at 9:30 a.m. the next morning, September 20, with coordinated Confederate attacks on the Union left flank. About an hour later, Rosecrans, believing a gap existed in his line, ordered Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood’s division to fill the gap. Wood, however, knew that the order was a mistake; no such gap existed in the Federal line, and moving his division would, in turn, open a large swath in the Union position. However, Wood had already been berated twice in the campaign for not promptly following orders. To avoid further reprimand, he immediately moved, creating a division-wide hole in the Union line. This was the chance that the Confederates needed. Longstreet massed a striking force, led by Hood. Longstreet’s men surged through the gap that Wood had created, and Union resistance at the southern end of the battlefield evaporated as Federal troops, including Rosecrans himself, were driven off the field and back to Chattanooga. Some Northern soldiers eventually formed a line on a series of steep, wooded knolls known as Snodgrass Hill or Horseshoe Ridge. Although the Confederates continued to attack Snodgrass throughout the afternoon, they were unable to capture the position. Late in the afternoon, Union general Thomas, who earned the name the “Rock of Chickamauga” for his outstanding performance that day, withdrew his forces from the battlefield back toward Chickamauga to the safety of a gap in Missionary Ridge.
Though Longstreet and his fellow general Nathan Bedford Forrest wanted to pursue the enemy the following morning, Bragg was preoccupied with the toll taken on his army by the battle at Chickamauga. Ten Confederate generals had been killed or wounded, including the fiery Texan John Bell Hood (whose leg was amputated and he recovered as he know in Tunnel Hill), and overall Confederate casualties numbered close to 20,000. The Union suffered some 16,000 casualties, making the Battle of Chickamauga the costliest one in the war’s western theater.
Come out and see us the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center, and see where John Bell Hood recovered from his nearly fatal injury received during this infamous battle.