With the approach of Memorial Day, it seems fitting to devote this week’s blog to one of the Civil War’s most notable, if lesser known battles, Chickamauga Creek.
This blog marks my third venture into writing about significant Civil War battles. The first one dealt with the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, two pivotal battles that saved the Union. The second one focused on the battle of Shiloh and the rise of U.S. Grant. Both are available as articles on amazon.com/Kindle Books. Here, I continue the thread addressed in the second article, which follows the career of U.S. Grant. In this blog, Grant, as a Major General, is named commander of all Union armies, save for a small area in the southwest, and immediately exercises his authority to relieve beleaguered General William Rosecrans following the disaster at Chickamauga Creek, south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The counterattack led by General George H. Thomas, who replaced Rosecrans, drove the Rebels back into northern Georgia and opened the gateway to the South for Union follow up and ultimate Confederate collapse.
The year 1863 saw a continuation of the fearful struggle of the Civil War. In early 1863, after the battle at Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Confederate General Braxton Bragg withdrew his forces southward leaving Union General William Rosecrans (“Old Rosy”) in possession of that town. The spring of 1863 saw U.S. Grant driving down the Mississippi River as part of the renewal of his campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, some 200 miles upriver from New Orleans, Louisiana. In northern Virginia, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s attacks caused withdrawal of Union General Joseph Hooker’s forces north from Chancellorsville, Virginia and across the Rappahannock River. In July, a major Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the second attempt by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to invade the north was repulsed by Union forces led by General George Meade. However, there were events shaping up in western Tennessee as well which were also significant.
With the approach of Memorial Day, it seems fitting to devote this week’s blog to one of the Civil War’s most notable, if lesser known, battles, Chickamauga Creek.
President Abraham Lincoln wanted Rosecrans to get moving in Tennessee as well to keep pressure on the Confederates in as many places at one time as possible. In August, 1863, the skillful maneuvering of the Union Army of the Cumberland led by Rosecrans had feinted Confederate General Braxton Bragg into abandoning Chattanooga, a vital railroad junction, and to pull back his army into northern Georgia. This very successful result obtained with relatively few Union casualties caused Rosecrans to be hailed as a hero in his native Ohio. But it was soon followed by Rosecrans overextending his lines as he chased Bragg through mountain gaps below Chattanooga and presaged a Union disaster that was soon to follow at Chickamauga Creek (a Cherokee word meaning “River of Blood,” according to some historians), just south of Chattanooga.
But a heavily reinforced Bragg halted his retreat from Chattanooga and turned on the pursuing Federal army. Engaging Rosecrans along Chickamauga Creek, the collision of the two opposing armies resulted in a bloody two-day battle. When a poorly worded order caused one of Rosecrans’s divisions to pull out to support another unit, a huge, two mile gap was created in the Union line which was exploited by Confederate General James Longstreet as attacking Rebel troops poured through the gap and overran the Federals. Rosecrans ordered General Thomas to take over as Rosecrans was forced to fall back to Chattanooga. For his valiant efforts in shielding Rosecrans’s withdrawal, Thomas became known as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”
The devastating Union loss at Chickamauga Creek on September 19-20, 1863, could have spelled doom for Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland. But Confederate General Braxton Bragg, appalled at his own losses, hesitated in following up the Rebel triumph by allowing Rosecrans to retreat to Chattanooga and thereby preserve his army while Bragg occupied Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, mountains south of Chattanooga. Bragg had followed the retreating Rosecrans from Chickamauga and taken possession of Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga and also occupied Lookout Mountain, west of Chattanooga, which Rosecrans had abandoned. Rosecrans also lost control of the Tennessee River and River Road to Bridgeport. Chickamauga became the worst Union loss in the Western Theater. These circumstances in Grant’s view justified Rosecrans’s replacement, effectively ending his military career.
Bragg’s mistakes ultimately led to a Union triumph after Grant, in October, 1863, ordered Rosecrans to be replaced by General Thomas. This order had come about after Grant had received a personally delivered notification from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton naming him as commander of the newly formed Military District of Mississippi. This district combined the departments of Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee under Grant’s command and included all of the territory from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River north of the area occupied by Banks forces in the southwest.
Combined Federal forces led by Thomas, Hooker, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, under Grant’s overall command, led their troops in attacks on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain causing the Rebels to retreat in chaos and ultimately led to the resignation of Bragg. The pell-mell pullback of Rebel troops from Missionary Ridge was particularly galling as the Rebel position had been supposedly impregnable.
The Union victory ultimately opened the way for Sherman’s campaign to Atlanta and subsequent epic march to the sea. Confederate armies would never mount another counterattack and would be reduced to parrying Union blows like an aging, worn out, and overmatched fighter. It marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
As a long time resident of the Los Angeles vicinity there were many times that I drove south on the I-405 freeway past LAX airport. The first off ramp west past the airport is Rosecrans Blvd. With my continuing interest in the Civil War over the years and in particular my research for this blog, I came to realize and understand General Rosecrans’s contribution to the war effort for the Union cause.
In this era of electronic communications not everyone has the chance to read books on the Civil War. Hopefully this blog will help to fill the gap in knowledge that may be present in those who are interested in this area but do not have the time to read deeply about it.
Copyright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.