AS JUNE WORE ON, ROSECRANS AND HIS ARMY of the Cumberland approached the end of their six-month convalescence from the rigors of Stones River. The narrowness of his escape from total disaster on that field having convinced him more than ever of the wisdom of meticulous preparation—which, as he saw it, had made the hairbreadth difference between victory and defeat—he would no more respond to prodding now than he had done in the months leading up to that horrendous New Year’s confrontation just short of Murfreesboro. Directly or indirectly, but mostly directly, Lincoln and Stanton and Halleck all three had tried their hand at getting him to move: to no avail. He would not budge, though he would sometimes agree blandly, as if for the sake of prolonging the argument, that an advance was highly desirable.
Immediately after Chancellorsville, for instance, when Stanton reported—quite erroneously—that Hooker had inflicted as many casualties as he suffered, Rosecrans replied: “Thanks for your dispatch. It relieves our great suspense. What we want is to deal with their armies. Piece for piece is good when we have the odds. We shall soon be ready here to try that.” So he said. But May went by, and still he would not budge. “I would not push you to any rashness,” Lincoln wrote, “but I am very anxious that you do your utmost, short of rashness, to keep Bragg from getting off to help Johnston against Grant.” The Ohioan’s answer was both prompt and brief: “Dispatch received. I will attend to it.” But he did not. June came in, and still he would not budge. “If you can do nothing yourself,” Halleck wired, “a portion of your troops must be sent to Grant’s relief.” Old Rosy was unperturbed by this threat of amputation. “The time appears now nearly ripe,” he responded, “and we have begun a movement, which, with God’s blessing, will give us some good results.” He omitted, however, a definition of “nearly.” June wore on; he would not budge. By June 16 Lincoln’s patience was exhausted, and he had the general-in-chief put a point-blank question to the Middle Tennessee commander: “Is it your intention to make an immediate movement forward? A definite answer, yes or no, is required.” Halleck asked for a yes or a no, but Rosecrans gave him both. “In reply to your inquiry,” he wired back, “if immediate means tonight or tomorrow, no. If it means as soon as all things are ready, say five days, yes.”
At any rate this fixed the jump-off day; Washington settled back to wait for word, June 21, that the Army of the Cumberland was in motion. What came instead, by way of anticlimax on that date, was another wire, so little different in substance from the many received before that the whole sheaf might have been shuffled and refiled, indiscriminate of sequence, with little or no disturbance of its continuity, since in point of fact it had none. Bulky though it was—Old Brains had already complained to Rosecrans of the strain his frequent telegrams had placed on the military budget—the file was not so much a series of pertinent dispatches as it was a loose collection of secondhand maxims designed to strengthen his brief for refusing to expose his troops to bloodshed. “We ought to fight here,” he wired, “if we have a strong prospect of winning a decisive battle over the opposing force, and upon this ground I shall act. I shall be careful” he added, “not to risk our last reserve without strong grounds to expect success.” It was exasperating, to say the least; for it was becoming increasingly apparent, on evidence supplied by himself, that what Old Rosy was doing was fighting a verbal holding action, not so much against the rebels in his front as against his own superiors in his rear. Lincoln’s patience almost snapped again. Three days later, however—on June 24, in a telegram headed barely two hours after midnight—the longed-for word came through: “The army begins to move at 3 o’clock this morning. W. S. Rosecrans, Major General.”
The “strong grounds” on which he based his expectation of success were twofold, logistical and tactical, and he had neglected no detail in either category. Logistically he had adopted what might be called a philosophy of abundance. His requisitions, submitted practically without remission, reflected a conviction that there simply could not be too much of anything. As long ago as mid-April, for example, one of his brigadiers had been awed by the sight, at the Murfreesboro depot, of 40,000 cases of hard bread stacked in a single pile, while there were also gathered roundabout, in orderly profusion, such quantities of flour, salt pork, vinegar, and molasses as the brigadier had never seen before; he marveled at the wealth and prodigality of the government he was defending. Nor was food by any means the commander’s sole or even main concern. Operating as he would be in a region that called for long supply trains and numerous cavalry to guard them and protect the flanks and front of the infantry line-of-march, he had put in for and received since December 1 no fewer than 18,450 horses and 14,067 mules. Exclusive of culls, this gave him—or should have given him, according to the quartermaster general, when combined with the number shown on hand—a total of 43,023 animals, or about one for every two men in his army. Rosecrans did not consider this one beast too many, especially since he had evacuated some 9000 of them as unserviceable and was complaining even then that over a fourth of those remaining were worn out. So it went; he kept demanding more of everything. The same applied to men. He had, as of mid-June, a total of 87,800 effectives, a considerable preponderance when compared to his estimated total for Bragg of 41,680 of all arms. However, this left out of account the necessary garrisons for Nashville, Donelson, Clarksville, and other such vital places in his rear—including Murfreesboro itself, when move-out time came round—which reduced, or would reduce, his total to 65,137 strictly available for the offensive. That was still a preponderance, but it was scarcely a man too many, as he saw it, to assure him what he called “a strong prospect of winning a decisive battle over the opposing force.” Moreover, to this would be added, as he had complained soon after the bloodletting at Stones River, multiple difficulties of terrain. “The country is full of natural passes and fortifications,” he informed the impatient Washington authorities, “and demands superior forces to advance with any success.”
Lacking what he considered strength enough to assure a victory as the result of any direct confrontation, he had decided to depend instead on guile, and with this approach to the problem he began to perceive that the tricky terrain of which he had complained in January could be employed to his advantage. Bragg had his infantry disposed along the near side of Duck River, two divisions at Shelbyville under Polk and two at Wartrace under Hardee, about twenty miles from Murfreesboro and roughly half that far from Tullahoma, his headquarters and supply base on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad leading down across Elk River and the Tennessee, respectively twenty-five and sixty miles in rear of the present line of intrenchments north of the Duck. Just to the front of this line, and occupied by rebel outpost detachments, an almost mountainous ridge, broadening eastward into a high plateau, stood in the path of a direct advance by the superior blue force. Formerly Rosecrans had seen this as a barrier, further complicating the tactical problem Bragg had set for him, but presently he began to conceive of it as a convenient screen, behind which he could mass his army for a surprise maneuver designed to turn the graybacks out of the works they had spent the past five months improving. Four main passes, each accommodating a road, pierced the ridge and gave access to the lush valley just beyond. In the center were Bellbuckle Gap, through which the railroad ran, and Liberty Gap, a mile to the east, with a wagon road also leading down to Wartrace. The remaining two gaps, Guy’s and Hoover’s, were respectively six miles west and east of the railroad, the former accommodating the Shelbyville pike and the latter the macadamized road from Murfreesboro to Manchester, which was sixteen miles east of Wartrace and twelve miles northeast of Tullahoma. It was in this tangled pattern of gaps and roads, so forbidding at first inspection, that Rosecrans found the answer to the problem Bragg had posed him.
He had no intention of advancing due south, through Bellbuckle or Liberty Gap, for a frontal assault on the Confederate intrenchments, which presumably was just what Bragg was hoping he would do. Nor was it any part of his design to launch an isolated attack on either of the rebel corps alone, since their positions were mutually supporting. His plan was, rather, to outflank them, thereby obliging the graybacks to come out into the open for a fight against the odds—or, better yet, to throw them into headlong retreat by threatening their rear, either at Tullahoma, where their supplies were stored, or somewhere else along the sixty brittle miles of railroad leading down past the Alabama line. This could be done, he figured, by forcing one of the outer gaps, Guy’s or Hoover’s, and swinging wide around the western or eastern flank of the rebel infantry. The western flank was favored by the terrain, which was far more rugged to the east; but it also had the disadvantage of being the more obvious, and therefore expected, approach. Then too, Polk’s was the stronger of the two enemy corps, Hardee’s having been weakened by detachments sent to Johnston in Mississippi. Rosecrans weighed the alternatives, one against the other, and chose the eastern flank. He would send his main body, the two corps of Thomas and McCook, southeastward through Hoover’s Gap, then down the macadamized road to Manchester, from which place he could lunge at Tullahoma, in case the rebels remained in position north of the Duck, or continue his march southeastward for a strike at some point farther down. By way of initial deception, however, he would feint to the west, sending Granger’s corps through or around Guy’s Gap and down the pike toward Shelbyville, thus encouraging his opponent to believe that it was there the blow would land. Simultaneously—and here was where the deepest guile and subtlety came in—he would feint to the east with Crittenden’s corps, through Bradyville toward McMinnville: with the difference that this supplementary feint was intended to be recognized as such, thereby convincing Bragg (who, he knew, took great pride in his ability to “see through” all such tactical deceptions) that the main effort was certainly in the opposite direction.… Looking back over the plan, now that he had matured and refined it during months of poring over maps and assembling supplies, meantime resisting impatient and unscientific prod-dings from above, Old Rosy was delighted with his handiwork. And indeed he had good cause to be pleased by the look of the thing on paper. If he reached the unfordable Tennessee before the rebels did, he would be between them and Chattanooga, his true goal, the capture of which he knew was one of Lincoln’s fondest hopes; he could turn on the outnumbered and probably demoralized Bragg, who would be confined by necessity to the north bank of the river, and destroy him at his leisure. Or at its worst, if the Confederates somehow avoided being cut off from a crossing, he still would have driven them, brilliantly and bloodlessly, out of Middle Tennessee.
Secrecy being an all-important element of guile, he played his cards close to his vest. He said nothing of the particulars of his plan to either his subordinates or his superiors when, on June 16, he confided to the latter—prematurely, as it turned out—that he would advance in “say five days.” Not even on June 24, in the telegram sent at 2.10 in the morning to announce that the army would be on the march within fifty minutes, did he say in what direction or strength the movement would be made. He was taking no chance on a Washington leak, even at that late hour, though of course his corps and division commanders had been informed of their share in the grand design and told to have their units deployed on schedule. Gordon Granger, with the one division remaining in his reserve corps after heavy detachments for garrison duty at Nashville and other points, began his march down the pike toward Shelbyville, preceded by a full division of cavalry, with instructions to kindle campfires on a broad front every night in order to encourage Polk, and therefore Bragg, to believe that this was the Federal main effort. Crittenden, one of whose three divisions remained on guard at Murfreesboro, began to execute the transparent feint eastward in the direction of McMinnville with the other two, preceded by a brigade of cavalry. George Thomas, whose four-division corps was much the largest in the army, took up the march for Hoover’s Gap and Manchester, followed by Alex McCook, who had been told to make a disconcerting attack on Liberty Gap with one of his three divisions, thereby fixing Hardee in position at Wartrace, just beyond the gap, while Thomas circled his flank to threaten his rear. As usual, with Old Rosy in charge, no detail had been neglected. The foot soldiers were massed in their respective assembly areas, all ten divisions of them under carefully briefed commanders, and staff officers checked busily to see that all was as it should be, not only among the combat elements, but also in the rear echelon, including the various supply trains loaded with rations for twelve days. Nothing that could be calculated had been overlooked. Half the beef had been salted, for example, and loaded in wagons for ready distribution, while the other half was on the hoof: self-propelled, so to speak, for speed and ease of transportation.
Whereupon, just as the troops stepped out in the predawn darkness, beginning to weave the network of marches designed to accomplish Bragg’s discomfiture, something uncalculated—indeed, incalculable—occurred. What Rosecrans later described as “one of the most extraordinary rains ever known in Tennessee at that period of the year” began to fall; “no Presbyterian rain, either,” an Illinois soldier called it, “but a genuine Baptist downpour.”
That was only the beginning. Crittenden afterwards maintained that, from this day forward, it “rained incessantly for fifteen days,” and reports by lesser commanders bore witness to the difficulties involved. “Rain poured in torrents the entire night”; “Train not up in consequence of difficult traveling”; “Wet weather all day”; “Troops and animals much jaded.” There was small comfort in knowing that the rain also fell on the rebels, but the men derived a kind of bitter satisfaction from the knowledge that they could learn to put up with almost anything. “It rained so much and so hard,” one declared, “that we ceased to regard it as a matter of any consequence and simply stood up and took it, without attempting to seek shelter or screen ourselves in the least. Why should we, when we were already wet to the skin?” Besides, they had been heartened at the outset, before the fields and secondary roads were churned shin-deep in mud, by reports of a solid achievement that opened the way for the column under Thomas, who had been given the leading role in the present act of the drama Rosecrans was directing. More specifically, the accomplishment had been scored by Colonel John T. Wilder’s brigade of Major General J. J. Reynolds’ division.
It had been Wilder, a former Indiana industrialist, who surrendered Munfordville to Bragg, together with more than 4000 soldiers and 10 guns, as an incident of the Confederate advance into the Bluegrass region of Kentucky the previous September. The memory of that still rankled, and Wilder and his command, two regiments of fellow Hoosiers and two from Illinois, exchanged soon after their captors released them on parole—though not in time to fight at Perryville—were determined to make the rebels pay for that indignity. Just now they were in an excellent position to do so, for they were the lead element of the column that would deliver the main effort intended to throw Bragg into confusion. Moreover, they were superbly equipped for the work at hand, both in mobility and firepower, partly as a result of efforts by Rosecrans and partly as a result of efforts of their own. Short of cavalry, the army commander had mounted two of his infantry brigades, and one of these was Wilder’s, who had also seen to it that his troops were armed with seven-shot Spencer carbines, the first unit in the West to be so accoutered. He had done this by signing a personal note upon which security bankers in his home town of Greensburg had a vanced funds for purchase of the Spencers, the men having agreed to periodic deductions from their pay in order to reimburse their commander, pending their own reimbursement by the army once the red tape had been cleared away. So armed and mounted, 2000 strong, they left their camps above Murfreesboro at exactly 3 a.m. and by midmorning were herding enemy pickets into the northern mouth of Hoover’s Gap, the prompt seizure of which was prerequisite to the success of the whole campaign. Wilder did not hesitate in fear of a trap or ambush, but plunged straight ahead through the three-mile-long pass with all the strength and speed he could muster, his mounted infantry driving the graybacks before them with the considerable help of their rapid-fire weapons. The works at the southern end of the gap were taken in a rush, together with the silk-embroidered colors of the 1st Kentucky Infantry, an elite Confederate outfit. Unlimbering their six guns, the Hoosiers and Prairie Staters broke up a savage counterattack and held the pass alone until the other two brigades of the division came plodding up to reinforce them, swinging their caps and cheering despite the rain. As a result of Wilder’s daring and resolution, and at a relatively minor cost of 14 killed and 47 wounded, the way now lay open for an advance by Thomas around Hardee’s flank and into his rear.
Bragg personally was not in good shape, either physically or mentally, for resisting the strain his opponent was about to apply as a test of his staunchness and perception. He had weathered the criticisms leveled at him by his chief subordinates, the steady depletion of his army by detachments ordered to Pemberton and Johnston, and the near-fatal illness of his wife, only to undergo a siege of boils which, by his own admission, had culminated in “a general breakdown” of his health by early summer. None of these troubles, particularly the last, had had the effect of sweetening his temper, lengthening his patience, or enabling him to abide the shortcomings of his associates, most of whom he considered unfit for their present duties. Unfortunately, too, these various woes and discomforts had served to increase, if anything, his accustomed savagery of looks and reflexes. “This officer in appearance is the least prepossessing of the Confederate generals,” the ubiquitous Colonel Fremantle had recorded in his diary when he visited Bragg that spring, en route from Texas to Richmond. “He is very thin; he stoops; and has a sickly, cadaverous, haggard appearance; rather plain features, bushy black eyebrows which unite in a tuft on the top of his nose, and a stubby, iron-gray beard; but his eyes are bright and piercing. He has the reputation of being a rigid disciplinarian, and of shooting freely for insubordination. I understand he is rather unpopular on this account, and also by reason of his occasional acerbity of manner.”
Not that the Tennessee commander lacked grounds for pride in what he and his men had accomplished during their sojourn in the lush Duck River Valley. After all—though admittedly it was with the determined co-operation of an adversary who resisted all urgings to advance—he had held his ground and managed to feed and refit his badly outnumbered army in the process. “Our transportation is in fine condition,” Polk was writing home, “horses and mules all fat, and battery horses and batteries in fine condition. The troops have plenty of clothes and are well shod. We have plenty of food also, and so far as the fields before us are any indication, there never was such a wheat harvest.” Moreover, despite the permanent loss of some 6000 men at Murfreesboro and the detachment since of at least that many more, including Breckinridge’s whole division, Bragg’s mid-June strength of 46,250 effectives (for once in this war, at any rate, a Union commander had underestimated the force arrayed against him) was appreciably greater than it had been before New Year’s. Primarily he had accomplished this by rigid enforcement of the conscription laws in the region threatened by a Federal advance, for he knew only too well that this might be his last chance to get at this particular reservoir of manpower, Davis having given him permission beforehand to fall back across the Tennessee as soon as he judged the pressure against his front to be insupportable. Rosecrans, however, for all his underestimation of Bragg’s strength, had exerted almost no pressure at all in the past five months; so that Bragg had had ample opportunity to drill and condition his soldiers for the work that lay ahead. This was the sort of thing he did best, and the results had been gratifying. Even Fremantle, a product of the most rigid sort of training, admitted that the citizen soldiers “drilled tolerably well, and an advance in line was remarkably good.” That was high praise indeed from an officer of the Coldstream Guards, though he could not repress a shudder on observing that some of the men had removed their jackets because of the heat and marched past the reviewing stand in shirt sleeves. When he expressed a desire to see them “form squares,” he was told by his host that they had not been taught this maneuver, since “the country does not admit of cavalry charges, even if the Yankee cavalry had the stomach to attempt it.” Similarly, he noted that the absence of the bayonet as a standard piece of equipment was a matter of small concern to the troops, “as they assert that they have never met any Yankee who would wait for that weapon.” This last, of course, was far from true—as any stormer of the Hornets Nest or the Round Forest could have testified—but it was a measure of the men’s high spirits that they made the claim to the credulous Englishman, who closed the account of his visit by remarking that “the discipline in this army is the strictest in the Confederacy.”
In round numbers, 32,000 infantry and artillery were with Polk and Hardee on the Shelbyville-Wartrace line, while 14,000 cavalry were with Wheeler and Forrest, strung out for thirty miles east and west, respectively, with headquarters at McMinnville and Columbia. These 46,000 effectives, comprising the Army of Tennessee, did not include some 15,000 under Buckner, who was charged with the defense of Knoxville against Burnside. That general, what time he was not fulminating against the Copperheads in his rear, was known to be preparing for an advance by the Army of the Ohio, though he had been crippled even more sorely than Bragg by detachments sent to Mississippi. To help discourage the threat in that direction, and also to continue the harassment of his Middle Tennessee opponent’s lines of supply, Bragg had recently agreed to a proposal by John Morgan that he stage another of his famous “rides” into Kentucky with his 2500 Bluegrass troopers. Nettled by the defeats suffered in late March and early April at Milton and Liberty—he had in fact accomplished nothing significant since his spectacular Christmas Raid, hard on the heels of his marriage to Mattie Ready—Morgan had sought permission to extend his field of operations beyond the Ohio River, for the double purpose of carrying the scourge of war into the heartland of the North and restoring the glitter to his somewhat tarnished reputation; but Bragg (unlike Lee, who assented, though with misgivings, to a somewhat similar proposal by Jeb Stuart that same week in Virginia, preliminary to his crossing of the Potomac) had withheld approval of this extension of the raid, not wanting the Kentuckian and his men to be too far away in case Rosecrans lurched into motion in their absence. As it turned out, however, when he received word from his outposts on June 24 that the Federals were indeed in motion, not only on the left and right but also against his center, Morgan was already beyond reach, and Bragg did not discover until some weeks later, along with news of the disastrous consequences, that the freewheeling cavalryman had simply disobeyed the restrictive portion of the orders he had received.
Just now, though, Bragg had troubles enough on his hands, without looking afield for others. Correctly identifying the movements on Bradyville and Guy’s Gap as feints, he left Crittenden and Granger to the attention of Forrest and Wheeler, and concentrated instead on opposing with his infantry the more immediate danger to his front. On the 25th he counterattacked at Liberty Gap, which had fallen to McCook the previous evening. Hardee failed to drive the bluecoats from the pass but he did succeed in holding them there, and Bragg, encouraged by this, sent orders for Polk to advance next day through Guy’s Gap, then swing east for a descent on the rear of the troops opposing Hardee. Polk, as usual, protested, and Bragg as usual insisted. He reversed himself that night, however, on learning that the column under Thomas was approaching Manchester, still preceded by Wilder’s rapid-firing horseback infantry and followed by Crittenden, who had abandoned his feint toward McMinnville and turned south at Bradyville. There was nothing for it now, as Bragg assessed the situation, but to call off the proposed attack on Liberty Gap and fall back on Tullahoma to protect his base and his present flank and rear. This he did with all possible speed, though the going was heavy; Polk left Shelbyville early on the 27th and did not reach Tullahoma, eighteen muddy miles away, until late next afternoon, soon after Hardee completed his march down the railroad in the rain. At any rate Bragg’s army now was concentrated, protected by works prepared in advance, and he was determined to give the Yankees battle there.
Once more Rosecrans was unco-operative. Having reached Manchester the day before, June 27, he spent a day replenishing supplies brought forward on the hard-surfaced pike, and then resumed his march, not toward Tullahoma, as Bragg expected, but southeastward as before, toward Hillsboro and Pelham, still threatening the railroad on which his adversary depended for subsistence. At a council of war held on the night of the 28th, when Polk expressed some uneasiness that the Federals would continue their previously successful tactics by circling the right flank, Bragg taunted him by asking: “Then you propose that we shall retreat?” The bishop did indeed. “I do,” he said firmly, “and that is my counsel.” Hardee was less positive; he thought perhaps protection of the rear could be left to the cavalry while the infantry fought in its present intrenched position, outflanked or not; Rosecrans might gain the Confederate rear only to find the Confederates in his own. Bragg adjourned the council without making any definite decision. He would await developments, he said.
Developments were not long in coming. Granger and McCook had occupied Shelbyville and Wartrace that same day, moving in behind the departed graybacks, and though Rosecrans had no intention of attacking Tullahoma from the north, the presence of these two divisions at the crossings of the Duck was a menace Bragg could not ignore. Meanwhile Thomas, with McCook’s other two divisions in support and Crittenden close behind, continued his march from Manchester to Hillsboro, a dozen miles due east of Bragg’s right flank, and sent Wilder’s hard-riding foot soldiers—already dubbed “The Lightning Brigade” as a result of their rapid seizure of Hoover’s Gap on the opening day of the campaign—ahead to Pelham for an independent crossing of Elk River and a strike at the railroad near Decherd or Cowan, twenty miles in rear of the rebel works at Tullahoma. High trestles over gorges along this mountainous stretch of the line presented inviting targets, since the destruction of even one of them would be about as effective, so far as the flow of supplies was concerned, as the destruction of them all. Wilder’s men rode fast and hard, anticipating further revenge for the Munfordville indignity. Reaching Decherd on June 28, they attacked a small detachment of rebel guards and drove them from a stockade: only to discover that a railroad might be vulnerable in some ways, yet still be highly defensible in others. No less than six gray regiments of infantry, responding to a telegraphic summons from the guards, arrived suddenly aboard cars from up the line. The blue raiders had barely time to get away on their horses, avoiding capture by the superior force and contenting themselves with the wrecking of an alternate trestle near Winchester, on the branch line to Fayetteville. Next morning, after a fireless bivouac in the brush, they tried the main line again, this time below Cowan, but with similar results; the ultramobile Confederate infantry once more drove them off before they could inflict any serious damage. Wilder fell back toward Pelham, pausing near Sewanee to wreck another trestle on the branch line to Tracy City, then continued his withdrawal, hastened by the interception of information that Forrest was on his trail. Aided by a driving rain, which obliterated his tracks, he eluded his pursuers and rode back into Manchester at noon of the 30th. Though he had failed to carry out his primary assignment, which had been to interrupt traffic on the Nashville & Chattanooga by destroying one of its main-line trestles, he had at any rate demolished one on each of the two branch lines, east and west, and he reported proudly that he had done so without the loss of a single man on the three-day expedition deep in the enemy rear. Thankful for what he had done, rather than critical for what he had not done, both Thomas and Rosecrans praised him highly for his resourcefulness and daring.
So did Bragg, though indirectly, not so much in words as by reaction. Wilder’s strike, deep in his rear, plus the presence of Thomas on his flank with eight divisions, convinced him at last that retreat was the wisest policy at this juncture. The two-day wait having gained him time for removal of his stores and heavy equipment, he issued orders on the last night of June for a withdrawal. At Decherd next day he asked his corps commanders for advice: “The question to be decided instantly [is] shall we fight on the Elk or take post at the foot of the mountain at Cowan?” Polk favored Cowan, but Hardee was more explicit. “Let us fight at the mountain,” he advised. Bragg did neither. The retreat being under way, he preferred to continue it rather than risk a long-odds battle with the unfordable Tennessee immediately behind him. While the infantry plodded southward under the unrelenting rain, Forrest guarded the rear. On July 3, with Polk and Hardee safely across Sewanee Mountain and out of the unsprung trap Old Rosy had devised, Federal cavalry in heavy numbers forced the pass near Cowan, and as the rear-guard Confederate troopers fell back rapidly through the streets of the town a patriotic lady came out of her house and began reviling them for leaving her and her neighbors to the mercy of the Yankees. “You great big cowardly rascal!” she cried, singling out Forrest himself for attack, not because she recognized him (it presently was made clear that she did not) but simply because he happened to be handy; “why don’t you turn and fight like a man instead of running like a cur? I wish old Forrest was here. He’d make you fight!” Old Forrest, as she called him, did not pause for either an introduction or an explanation, though later he joined in the laughter at his expense, declaring that he would rather have faced an enemy battery than that one irate female.
Bragg could find nothing whatever to laugh about in his present situation. He had saved his army, but at the cost of abandoning Middle Tennessee. Moreover, with every horseback mile a torture to his boils, he was nearer than ever to the physical breakdown of which he had spoken earlier, and when a solicitous chaplain remarked from the roadside that he seemed “thoroughly outdone,” he replied: “Yes, I am utterly broken down.” Nor did he deny that he had been outdone tactically as well. “This is a great disaster,” he confided dolefully, leaning from his saddle to whisper the words into the chaplain’s ear.
Beyond Cowan he transferred to a railway car for less discomfort and more speed. After pausing at Bridgeport to send a dispatch notifying the Adjutant General of his retreat, he reached Chattanooga early on July 4, at about the same time his telegram reached Richmond, where it served as a forecast of even darker ones that followed at staggered intervals with the staggering information of what had occurred on that same day at Gettysburg, Helena, and Vicksburg. Meantime his army continued its withdrawal. Descending the slopes of the Cumberland Plateau, it entered the lovely Sequatchie Valley, then turned south along the right bank of the Tennessee for a crossing downstream at Bridgeport, just beyond the Alabama line. Here Forrest gave over his rearguard duties to a brigade from Cheatham’s division, which was charged with maintaining a temporary bridgehead to discourage pursuit, and crossed the river in the wake of the rest of the army on the night of July 6, just three days short of the anniversary of his crossing northward as the spearhead of the advance into Kentucky. After a year of marching nearly a thousand miles and fighting two great battles, both of which he claimed as victories though both were preludes to retreat, Bragg was back where he started.
Rosecrans was willing to leave him there for the present. At a cost of 570 casualties, including less than a hundred dead and barely a dozen missing, the Federals had captured no fewer than 1634 prisoners—many of them Middle Tennessee conscripts who came into the northern lines of their own accord, wanting no more of the war now that their homeland was no longer being fought for—and had inflicted, despite their role as attackers, about as many wounds as they had suffered. They were proud of themselves and proud of the chief who had planned and supervised the campaign that ended, so far as the foot soldiers were concerned, with Bragg’s retreat across the Elk on July 2. On that day, having moved into the abandoned rebel works at Tullahoma, they settled down for the first true rest they had enjoyed since setting off in their predawn marches from Murfreesboro, nine days back. Rain and mud, short rations, and all too little sleep had been their portion all this time; “It would be hard to find a worse set of used-up boys,” an Indiana infantryman confessed. But they were well enough rested, a few days later, to cheer heartily at the news of Vicksburg’s fall. Tremendously set up by their own recent success in a campaign which even the enemy newspapers were already calling “masterful” and “brilliant,” they figured that Chattanooga was next on the list, and they were ready to take it whenever Old Rosy gave the word.
In Washington, too, there was delight that the campaign had gone so well, although the fact that so much had been accomplished with so little bloodshed seemed rather to validate the opinion, urged for months, that the issue could have been forced much sooner to the same conclusion with a corresponding gain in time. The first discordant note, struck amid the general rejoicing, was sounded by Stanton on July 7 in a telegram informing Rosecrans that Vicksburg had fallen and that the Gettysburg attackers were in full retreat. “Lee’s army overthrown; Grant victorious,” the Secretary wired. “You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?” Nettled that the goading thus was resumed almost before his weary men had time to catch their breath and scrape the mud from their boots and clothes—not to mention that the taunt preceded any official congratulations for an achievement which even the enemy had begun to refer to as masterful—Rosecrans managed, as was usual in such verbal fencing matches with his superiors, to give as good as, if not better than, he got. “You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from Middle Tennessee,” he replied on that same day. “I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.” Four days later, in hope of avoiding further prods and nudges of this kind, he listed for Halleck some of the difficulties he faced. These included the necessary replacement of a 350-foot railroad bridge across Duck River, as well as a long trestle south of there, the relaying of several miles of track, both on the main line down to Tullahoma and on the branch line out to Manchester and McMinnville, and the construction of new corduroy roads in order to get his wagon trains across the seas of mud. Then too, he noted, there was the problem of Burnside and his delayed advance on Knoxville, which would not only protect the flank of the Army of the Cumberland when move-out time came round, but would also complicate matters for the enemy on the opposite bank of the Tennessee. In short, Rosecrans wanted it understood by the general-in-chief and those with whom he was in daily contact, meaning Stanton and Lincoln, that “the operations now before us involve a great deal of care, labor, watchfulness, and combined effort, to insure the successful advance through the mountains on Chattanooga.”
The result was that Halleck stepped up the prodding. “You must not wait for Johnston to join Bragg,” he wired on July 24, “but must move forward immediately.… There is great dissatisfaction felt here at the slowness of your advance. Unless you can move more rapidly, your whole campaign will prove a failure.” A confidential letter written that same day put the issue even more bluntly: “The patience of the authorities here has been completely exhausted, and if I had not repeatedly promised to urge you forward, and begged for delay, you would have been removed from your command.” This was a familiar threat, and Rosecrans met it much as he had done before. “I say to you frankly,” he replied on August 1, “that whenever the Government can replace me by a commander in whom they have more confidence, they ought to do so, and take the responsibility of the result.” He followed this with an expanded list of the difficulties in his path, but once more with results quite different from the ones he had hoped to bring about. “Your forces must move forward without further delay,” Halleck snapped back at him three days later. “You will daily report the movement of each corps till you cross the Tennessee River.” Rosecrans could scarcely believe his eyes. But when he inquired, by return wire, “if your order is intended to take away my discretion as to the time and manner of moving my troops,” Old Brains replied that this was precisely his intention: “The orders for the advance of your army, and that its movements be reported daily, are peremptory.” On August 6, a Thursday, the Middle Tennessee commander started a dispatch with what seemed a definite commitment—“My arrangements for beginning a continuous movement will be completed and the execution begun by Monday next”—only to proceed at once to enlarge on the difficulties and to request either that the order be modified or else that he be relieved of his command. He may or may not have been bluffing; in any case it did not work. Halleck was relentless. “I have communicated to you the wishes of the Government in plain and unequivocal terms,” he replied next day. “The object has been stated, and you have been directed to lose no time in reaching it. The means you are to employ, and the roads you are to follow, are left to your own discretion. If you wish to promptly carry out the wishes of the Government, you will not stop to discuss mere details.”
Old Rosy had one string left to his bow: an out-of-channels appeal made early that month to Lincoln, in hopes that he would intervene on the side of the field commander. “General Halleck’s dispatches imply that you not only feel solicitude for the advance of this army but dissatisfaction at its supposed inactivity,” he had written, thus extending to the Commander in Chief an invitation to step into the argument with a denial that this was so. On August 10—the “Monday next” which Rosecrans had set as the date on which he would march, though he did not—Lincoln replied at length. “I have not abated in my kind feeling for and confidence in you,” the letter began encouragingly, but then went into a review of the anxiety the writer had felt because of the Middle Tennessee general’s immobility while Bragg was sending troops to Johnston for the relief of Vicksburg. As strategy, Lincoln added, this “impressed me very strangely, and I think I so stated to the Secretary of War and General Halleck.” In the present case, moreover, he had doubts about the wisdom of accumulating such vast amounts of food and equipment as a prelude to the move on Chattanooga. “Does preparation advance at all? Do you not consume supplies as fast as you get them forward? … Do not misunderstand,” he said in closing. “I am not casting blame upon you. I rather think, by great exertion, you can get to East Tennessee. But a very important question is, Can you stay there? I make no order in the case—that I leave to General Halleck and yourself.” In other words, he would not intervene. Old Rosy’s bow was quite unstrung, even though the President ended his letter with further expression of his personal good will. “And now, be assured that I think of you in all kindness and confidence, and that I am not watching you with an evil eye. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”
Having lost this ultimate appeal for a delay, Rosecrans finally began his march on August 16. This time, the recuperative halt had lasted not six months, as at Murfreesboro, but six weeks. It was time enough, however, for his purpose. Now as then, once he got moving he moved fast, with much attention to detail and much dependence on deception.
Burnside had begun his march on Knoxville the day before, after similar difficulties with the Washington authorities were brought to a head by a similar direct order for him to get moving, ready or not. In point of fact, despite the impatience of those above him, he had had excellent reasons for delay. First, when he was about to move in early June he was stripped of his veteran IX Corps, which went to Vicksburg under Parke. While waiting for its return he began assembling another, composed of inexperienced garrison troops brought forward from such places as Cincinnati, and sent a mixed brigade of 1500 cavalry and mounted infantry under Colonel William P. Sanders to look into conditions beyond the mountainous bulge of the horizon. Sanders, a thirty-year-old Kentucky-born West Pointer, set out on June 14, and in the course of the next nine days he not only disrupted rebel communications throughout East Tennessee, but also destroyed a number of bridges along the vital Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, including a 1600-foot span across the Holston River. He returned on June 23, elated by his success, which he reported was due in large part to the friendliness of natives whose loyalty to the Union had not been shaken by more than two years of waiting in vain for deliverance from Confederate oppression. Much encouraged, Burnside might have set out then and there with his green corps—thus matching Old Rosy’s advance on Tullahoma, which got under way next morning—except that it was at this point that John Hunt Morgan exploded in his rear, necessitating the employment of all his cavalry in a chase through the Copperhead-infested region north of the Ohio, which the raiders crossed near Brandenburg on the night of July 8 after a wild ride northward through Kentucky, capturing blue detachments as they went and provoking alternate reactions of fear and elation in the breasts of the loyal and disloyal in their path.
On July 2, about midway between Nashville and Barbourville, Morgan crossed the upper Cumberland with eleven regiments, 2460 men in all, and a section of rifled guns. Four of his five brothers rode with him, Calvin, Richard, Charlton, and Thomas, and his brother-in-law Colonel Basil Duke commanded the larger of his two brigades; so that the raid was in a sense a family affair. Indeed, in an even more limited sense, it was a private affair. His disobedience of Bragg’s orders regarding a crossing of the Ohio, which he had intended from the start, was based on the conviction that no mere “ride,” even if the itinerary included Louisville, Frankfort, and Lexington, would accomplish his objective of stopping Rosecrans or Burnside, who would simply let the Bluegrass region look out for itself while they marched south, respectively, through Middle and East Tennessee. On the other hand, a strike into Indiana and Ohio could not so easily be ignored, either by them or by their superiors, for political as well as military reasons. As for the danger, though admittedly it was great, Morgan thought it might not prove so extreme as it appeared. Boldness was sometimes its own best protection, as he had demonstrated often in the past, and this was the epitome of boldness. Once across the Ohio he intended to ride east, through or around Cincinnati, always keeping within reach of the river, which was reported to be seasonally low, for a recrossing into Kentucky whenever the pressure on the north bank grew too great. Or at the worst, if this maneuver proved impractical, he would continue east and north for a juncture with Lee in Pennsylvania and a return by easy stages to his proper theater of the war. This would be an affair not only for the history books and tactics manuals of the future, but also for the extension and enlargement of the legends and songs already being told and sung in celebration of earlier, lesser horseback exploits by Morgan and his “terrible” men: an inheritance, in short, to be handed down to Confederate patriots yet unborn, including the child his young wife was about to bear him down in Tennessee. And so it was; so it became; though not precisely in the form intended.
At least the beginning was propitious, the entry into Kentucky despite the presence of some 10,000 soldiers Burnside had posted along the Cumberland with instructions to prevent just that. The raiders penetrated the screen without encountering anything more substantial than a small detachment of cavalry beyond Burkesville, which they easily brushed aside. Late the following night, however, while taking a rest halt at Columbia, they heard bluecoats on the north bank of the Green preparing earthworks from which to challenge any attempt to cross the bridge. They were five companies of Michigan infantry, and next morning, not wanting to leave them active in his rear, Morgan sent in a demand for their surrender. “On any other day I might,” the Federal colonel replied, smiling, “but on the Fourth of July I must have a little brush first.” By way of testing his earnestness and the strength of his position, the raiders gave him what he sought: to their regret, for they were repulsed with a loss of 80 killed and wounded, out of less than 600 engaged, having inflicted fewer than 30 enemy casualties, most of whose hurts were superficial. Morgan crossed the river elsewhere, convinced by now that he should have done so in the first place, and pressed on through Campbellsville to camp that night near Lebanon, where he had his second fight next day. Here the challengers were a regiment of Union-loyal Kentuckians, whose colonel replied in the Wolverine vein to a note demanding instant capitulation. “I never surrender without a struggle,” he said grimly. This time the attack was made by both Confederate brigades for a quick settlement of the issue, however bloody. After some savage house-to-house fighting, the Federals fell back to the railroad station, where they finally yielded under assault. More than 400 prisoners were taken, along with valuable medical supplies, again at a cost of about 80 casualties for the attackers. But for Morgan personally the price was steeper than any comparison of cold figures could possibly indicate. Tom, the youngest of the brothers with him, was killed in the final volley fired before the white flag went up. The four surviving brothers buried him in the garden of a sympathetic Lebanon preacher, then resumed their ride northward, though with much of the glory and all of the gladness already gone from the raid for them.
In Bardstown on July 6, hoping to throw his pursuers off his trail, Morgan feinted simultaneously north and east by sending fast-riding columns toward Louisville and Harrodsburg, but swung the main body westward through Garnettsville to Brandenburg, where an advance detachment seized two small steamers for crossing the wide Ohio. This was accomplished between noon and midnight, July 8, despite some interference from a prowling Union gunboat that hung around, exchanging shots with the two rebel guns, till it ran out of ammunition. Their crossing completed, the raiders burned the steamers against the Indiana bank and pushed on six miles northward before halting for what little was left of the night. As they approached the town of Corydon next morning they found a sizable body of Hoosier militia drawn up to contest their entrance. Not wanting to take time to go around them, Morgan decided to go through them; which he did, scattering the home guardsmen in the process—they suffered a total of 360 casualties, of whom 345 were listed as missing—but at a cost to himself of 8 men killed and 33 wounded. Nor was that the worst of it. Taking the midday meal at a Corydon hotel, he learned from the innkeeper’s daughter that Lee had been whipped six days ago at Gettysburg and was on his way back to Virginia. This meant that Morgan’s alternate escape plan, involving a hookup with the invaders in Pennsylvania, was no longer practical, if indeed it had ever been. Apparently undaunted, he pressed on northward, that day and the next, through Palmyra to Salem, just over forty air-line miles from the Ohio and less than twice that far from Indianapolis. The Indiana capital was in a turmoil, its celebration of the great double victory at Gettysburg and Vicksburg brought to an abrupt and woeful end by news that Morgan was over the river with 10,000 horsemen and on his way even now to capture and sack the city. Church and fire bells rang the alarm, and a crowd turned out in front of the Bates House to hear Governor Morton read the latest dispatches. More than 60,000 citizens responded throughout the state to his appeal for militia volunteers, as many as possible of those who were immediately available being posted along the southern outskirts of the capital, toward Martinsville and Franklin, with orders to stop the gray raiders at all costs.
But they were not coming that way after all. Morgan had veered east from Salem on July 10, through Vienna to Lexington, where he allowed himself, if not his companions, the luxury of a night’s rest in a hotel—and narrowly avoided, as it turned out, the ignominy of being captured in bed by a detachment of blue troopers who rode up to the building while he slept, then fell back hastily when his orderly gave the alarm, never suspecting the prize that lay within their grasp. Doubling the column to regain the lead, the Kentucky brigadier took up a zigzag course next day, through Paris and Vernon, for a small-hours halt at Dupont. Back in the saddle by dawn of the 12th, he rode that night into Sunman, fifteen miles short of the Indiana-Ohio line, which he crossed next day into Harrison, barely twenty miles from downtown Cincinnati. With Vicksburg lost, Lee defeated, and Bragg in full retreat, his purpose was no longer to cut railroads, wreck supply dumps, or even disrupt communications—except, of course, to the extent that such depredations would serve to confuse his pursuers—but simply to stretch out the expedition and thus prolong the inactivity of Burnside, who could not advance on Knoxville, in conjunction with Rosecrans’ advance on Chattanooga, until his cavalry rejoined him. Morgan’s proper course, in line with this reduced objective, was to move rapidly, appear suddenly at unexpected points, and then slip away before the superior forces combined against him could involve him in time-consuming fights that would only serve to exhaust his men and horses. Yet there was the rub. In the past ten days he had covered nearly 400 miles, including the crossing of three major rivers, at a cost of some 500 casualties and stragglers. Men and horses were beginning to break down at an alarming rate, just as he was about to call on them for even more strenuous exertions. However, he had no choice in the matter. What had begun as a raid, a foray as of a fox upon a henhouse, had turned into a foxhunt—and, hunting or hunted, Morgan was still the fox. He pressed on, southeastward now, in the direction of Cincinnati and the Ohio, which he was obliged to keep close on his right for a crossing in case he was cornered.
Down to fewer than 2000 men, he rode fast that night through the northeast suburbs of Cincinnati, not wanting to risk their dispersion in the labyrinth of its streets or to expose them to the temptations of its downtown bars and shops, overburdened as some of them were already with plunder they had gathered along the way. He did not call a halt for sleep until the column reached Williamsburg late that afternoon, some two dozen miles beyond the city, having covered no less than ninety miles in the past day and a half. Next morning, July 15, Morgan was feeling confident and expansive as his troopers took up the march. “All our troubles are now over,” he told his staff, anticipating a three-day ride by easier stages to the fords upstream from Buffington, which he had had reconnoitered by scouts before he left Tennessee and which had been reported as an excellent point for a crossing back into Kentucky. While he traversed the southern tier of Ohio counties, through or around Locust Grove, Jasper, and Jackson, newspaper editors in his rear recovered sufficiently from their fright to begin crowing. “John Morgan’s raid is dying away eastward,” the Chicago Tribune exulted, “and his force is melting away as it proceeds. Their only care is escape and their chances for that are very slight.” This was on July 16, and two days later the editor felt spry enough to manage a verbal sally. “John Morgan is still in Ohio,” he wrote, “or rather is in Ohio without being allowed to be still.”
It was true; Morgan was still in Ohio, delayed by militiamen quite as determined as the Hoosiers he had encountered on his first day on northern soil. Bypassing Pomeroy that morning, 150 miles east of Cincinnati, he had had to call a halt at Chester, just beyond, to wait for stragglers: with the result that the head of the column did not approach the river above Buffington until well after dark. Here he received his worst shock to date. Swollen by two weeks of rain, the Ohio was on an unseasonal boom, and the fords—if they could be called that, deep as they were—were guarded by 300 enemy infantry who had been brought upstream on transports, together with two guns which they had emplaced on the north bank, covering the approaches to the shallowest of the fords. Moreover, if transports could make it this far upriver, so could gunboats; which was something the general had not counted on. Deciding to wait for daylight before attacking, he gave his men some badly needed sleep, then sent two regiments forward at dawn, only to discover that the bluecoats had abandoned their position in the darkness, tumbling their guns into the river unobserved and leaving the crossing unguarded for most of the night. However, there was no time for crimination or even regret for this lack of vigilance on the part of the scouts; for just then two things happened, both calamitous. A gunboat rounded the lower bend, denying the raiders access to the ford, and heavy firing broke out at the rear of the long gray line of weary men on weary horses. Two heavy columns of Federal cavalry, 5000 strong and well rested, had come up from Pomeroy after an overnight boat ride from downstream and had launched an immediate all-out attack on the raiders, who were wedged in a mile-long valley beside the swollen river, awaiting their turns at a ford they could not use. Morgan reacted with his usual quick intelligence, leading the head of the column out of the unblocked northern end of the narrow valley while the rear guard did what it could to fight off the attackers. But resistance quickly crumpled and the withdrawal became a rout. He was fortunate, under the circumstances, to lose no more than half of his command, including 120 killed or wounded and some 700 captured—Duke and two more of the Morgan brothers, Richard and Charlton, were among the latter—together with both of his guns and such of his wagons as had managed to keep up. One of these belonged to an old Tennessee farmer who had intended to trade for a load of salt at Burkesville, then return to his home on Calf-killer Creek, near Sparta. Unable to turn back for lack of an escort, he had stayed with the column, and now he found himself in far-off Ohio, beside an alien river, with Yankee troopers charging full-tilt at him and shooting as they came. Exhausted though he was, and badly frightened, he delivered extemporaneously one of the great, wistful speeches of the war. “Captain,” he said to an officer standing beside him amid the twittering bullets, “I would give my farm in White County, Tennessee, and all the salt in Kentucky, if I had it, to stand once more safe and sound on the banks of Calf-killer Creek.”
So would the thousand survivors who got away from Buffington with Morgan have liked to be back on their farms in Tennessee and Kentucky; but that was not to be, at least not soon, except for some 300 who made it across the river that afternoon at Blennerhassett’s Island, a few miles below Parkersburg, West Virginia. The ford was deep, the current swift, and a number of riders and their mounts were swept away and drowned. Moreover, the crossing had scarcely begun when the gunboat reappeared from below, guns booming, and slammed the escape hatch shut. In midstream aboard a powerful horse, Morgan himself could have made it across, yet he chose instead to return to the north bank and stay with the remaining 700 to the bitter end of what, from this point on, was not so much a raid as it was a frantic attempt to avoid capture by the greatly superior forces converging from all points of the compass upon the dwindling column of graybacks. Northward they rode, through Eagleport and across the Muskingum River, twisting and turning for six more days, still following the right bank of the Ohio in search of another escape hatch. But there was none; or at any rate there was none that was not blocked. On July 26, down to fewer than 400 now because of the increasing breakdown of their horses, the survivors were brought to bay at Salineville, on Beaver Creek, near New Lisbon, and there—just off the tip of West Virginia’s tiny panhandle, less than a hundred miles from Lake Erie and only half that far from Pittsburgh—Morgan and the 364 troopers still with him laid down their arms. In the thirty days since leaving Sparta on June 27, they had ridden more than 700 miles, averaging twenty hours a day in the saddle from the time they crossed the Ohio, and though they met with disaster in the end, they had at least accomplished their primary objective of preventing an early march southward by Burnside, in conjunction with Rosecrans’ advance on Tullahoma, which would have made Bragg’s retreat across the Tennessee a far more difficult maneuver than the unharassed withdrawal it actually was.
Morgan and his chief lieutenants, captured at Salineville and elsewhere, were brought in triumph back to Cincinnati, where Burnside pronounced them ineligible for parole. Nor was that the worst of it. Acting on misinformation that Abel Streight had been so treated after his capture in Alabama three months earlier, the authorities ordered that the Ohio raiders were to be confined in the State Penitentiary at Columbus for the duration of the war. And there they were lodged before the month was out. “My sleep was very much disturbed,” a Kentuckian recorded in his diary, “by the terrible impression made upon my mind by our confinement in such a place.” It was, he said, “enough to shock the sensibilities of any refined gentleman.” Now that Burnside had his hands on Morgan he was taking no chance whatever of his escaping. All visitors were denied access to the prisoners, even the general’s mother, presumably on the suspicion that she might smuggle in a bustle full of hacksaws. Hardest of all for them to bear, however, was the indignity of being dressed in convict clothes and shorn of their hair and beards. This last was the ultimate in inhumanity, according to one of the four reunited Morgan brothers, who had the full horror of war brought home to him by the loss of his mustache and imperial. Presently Governor Tod himself tendered what one of the captives called “a most untimely apology for an outrageous and disgraceful act.” The shearing had been an administrative error, the governor explained, but Morgan’s brother Charlton expressed a harsher opinion of the action. “The entire world will stamp it as disgraceful to this nation and the present age,” he fervently protested.
Pleased with the capture and prompt disposition of the raiders—and encouraged as well, although it scarcely bore out his previous contention that they had been waiting for just such a treacherous chance, by the failure of the Copperheads to come to the aid of these outlaws deep in his rear—Burnside ordered his cavalry to rejoin the three divisions of infantry marking time all this while on the line of the Cumberland, gave them a couple of weeks to rest and get their horses back in shape, and then came forward himself in mid-August to direct in person the maneuver he had devised, under pressure from Washington, for delivering East Tennessee from the grip of the rebels under Buckner. Like Rosecrans, who was to advance simultaneously on his right, he counted heavily on deception to offset the disadvantages of terrain, and in this connection, by way of increasing his opponent’s confusion and alarm, he had resolved to make his approach march in four columns. Two were of cavalry, one to advance on the left through Big Creek Gap and the other on the right through Winter’s Gap, while the third, made up of two divisions of infantry, marched between them on Kingston, which lay at the confluence of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers, forty miles below Knoxville, the objective of all three columns. The fourth, composed of the remaining infantry division, would move directly on Cumberland Gap, which the Federals had taken in June of 1862 and then been obliged to abandon when Bragg and Kirby Smith outflanked it on their way to Kentucky, a year ago this month, and which was occupied now by a garrison of about 2500 graybacks, well entrenched, heavily armed, and amply supplied with provisions for a siege. Burnside had some 24,000 effectives in all, a comfortable preponderance; but the way was long, the roads steep, and the adversary tricky. Consequently, he planned carefully and gave his full attention to details, substituting pack mules for wagons in his trains, for instance, and mounting the lead regiments of both infantry columns so that they would set a fast pace for the troops who slogged along behind them. Learning at the last minute that his long-lost IX Corps veterans were finally on the way to rejoin him, though sadly decreased by casualties and sickness in the Mississippi lowlands—the two divisions, in fact, were down to about 6000 men between them—he decided not to wait. They could join him later, after they had rested, got the fever out of their bones, and been brought back up to strength. Besides, having planned without them and waited all this time in vain for their return, he preferred to move without them. And once he got moving he moved fast, with a march that matched the mid-November performance of the Army of the Potomac when he shifted it from the upper to the lower Rappahannock by way of preparation for the mid-December nightmare at Fredericksburg, which had haunted him, waking or sleeping, ever since.
This time it was otherwise. Though the two marches were alike in the sense that he encountered no opposition en route, this one differed profoundly in that he encountered none at the end, either. Reaching Kingston on September 1, unchallenged, he entered Knoxville with the infantry main body two days later, to find that the mounted column that had proceeded by way of Winter’s Gap had arrived the day before. Buckner had pulled out, bag and baggage, abandoning everything east of Loudon and west of Morristown, except Cumberland Gap, which the one-division column was attacking from the north. Delighted by his first large-scale victory since Roanoke Island, nineteen months ago, Burnside made a triumphal entrance at the head of the two-division column, September 3, and was hailed by the joyous citizens as their deliverer from oppression; “a rather large man, physically,” an observer noted, “about six feet tall, with a large face and a small head, and heavy side-whiskers.” These last added considerably to the over-all impression of the general as “an energetic, decided man, frank, manly, and well educated.” He was, in brief, what was called a show officer. “Not that he made any show,” the witness added; “he was naturally that.”
Discontent with anything less than the whole loaf, he left two thirds of his infantry and cavalry to maintain his grip on Knoxville and that vital stretch of the only railroad directly connecting the rebel East and West, and set out three days later with the rest for Cumberland Gap, where the garrison still held out. He covered sixty miles of mountainous road in two days and four hours, completing the investment from the south as well as the north, and on the day of his arrival, September 9, forced the unconditional surrender of the 2500 defenders, together with all their equipment and supplies, including fourteen guns. Hearing next day from Rosecrans that Bragg was in full retreat upon Rome, Georgia, Burnside assumed that everything was under control in that direction; he turned his attention eastward instead, intending to complete his occupation of East Tennessee, to and beyond the North Carolina line, and to seize, by way of lagniappe, the important Confederate saltworks near Abingdon, Virginia. After a long season of blight and personal disappointment, he had rediscovered the heady delight of victory, and he was hard after more of the same.
With as little bloodshed—which, in effect, meant none at all—Rosecrans had marched on as rigid a schedule, over terrain no less forbidding, to accomplish as much against more seasoned defenders of an even tougher objective. For him too, once he got started, speed and dexterity were the keynotes. His army completed its crossing of the Tennessee on September 4, the day after Burnside rode into Knoxville, and five days later—September 9, the day Cumberland Gap came back into Union hands—he occupied Chattanooga, long recognized as the gateway to the heartland of the South, whose seizure Lincoln had said a year ago was “fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.” Not only were many Confederates inclined to agree with this assessment, but they also considered the fall of one to be quite as unlikely as the fall of the other. On the face of it, in fact, the western bastion seemed to them the stronger of the two. Though it lacked the protective genius of Lee, it had its geographical compensations, such as the Tennessee River to serve as a moat and the surrounding mountains and ridges to serve as ramparts in its defense, both of them the gift of God himself. “I tell you,” a high-ranking Deep South officer later told a Federal correspondent, “when your Dutch general Rosencranz commenced his forward movement for the capture of Chattanooga, we laughed him to scorn. We believed that the black brow of Lookout Mountain would frown him out of existence, that he would dash himself to pieces against the many and vast natural barriers that rise all around Chattanooga, and that then the northern people and the government at Washington would perceive how hopeless were their efforts when they came to attack the real South.”
In determining a solution to the problem during his six-week halt at Tullahoma and McMinnville, on the northwest side of the Cumberland Plateau, Rosecrans had reached deeper than ever into the bag of tricks that was always part of his military luggage. Bragg had Polk’s corps disposed for a close-up defense of the city and Hardee’s off to the east, protecting the railroad to Cleveland and beyond, while Wheeler’s cavalry guarded the river crossings below and Forrest’s those above. The obvious Federal strategy called for a movement toward the left, the better to make contact with Burnside. But this would not only take the army across the Sequatchie River and over Walden’s Ridge, away from its railroad supply line back to Nashville; it also had the disadvantage of being expected, with Bragg already half deployed to meet it. The alternative was a move to the right for a crossing downstream, in the vicinity of the new forward supply base at Stevenson, and this was the one Old Rosy chose. It too would have its drawbacks, once he was over the river, since it would give him a longer way to go and three steep ridges to cross before he got to Chattanooga; but the reward would be correspondingly great. That way, with skill and luck, he might trap Bragg’s whole army in its city fortress beside the river to the north, much as Grant had trapped Pemberton’s at Vicksburg. Or if Bragg grew alert to the danger in his rear and fell back southward, down the line of the Western & Atlantic Railroad to Dalton or Rome, Rosecrans might catch him badly strung out and destroy him. However, if either of these aims was to be accomplished, it was necessary meanwhile to keep his opponent’s attention fixed northward or northeastward, for the double purpose of making an undelayed crossing well downstream and a rapid march eastward, across the ridges in Northwest Georgia, to gain the rebel commander’s rear before he became aware of what was looming. And here again was where guile and deception came in.
Keeping his main body well back from the river to screen his true intention, he demonstrated upstream with three brigades. Every night they lighted bonfires in rear of all possible crossings, from opposite Chattanooga itself clear up to Washington, a distance of forty miles, and while special details sawed the ends from planks and threw the scraps into creeks flowing into the Tennessee, others pounded round the clock on empty barrels in imitation of shipyard workers, thereby encouraging rebel scouts across the way to report that boats were being constructed for an amphibious assault somewhere along that stretch of the river. On August 21, by way of adding punch to the show, a battery went into action on Stringer’s Ridge, directly across from the city, throwing shells into its streets and scoring hits on two steamboats at its wharf, one of which was sunk and the other disabled. Bragg’s reaction was to withdraw the brigade from the north-bank bridgehead he had been holding all this time near Bridgeport, fifty miles downstream, and before the week was out a crossing by the mass of the blue army was underway in that vicinity: by Thomas at Bridgeport itself, where pontoons were thrown in replacement of the burned railroad bridge: by McCook, twelve miles below at Caperton’s Ferry: and by Crittenden, ten miles above at Shellmound, which was twenty air-line miles due west of Chattanooga and twice that far by river. None of the three met any substantial resistance, so well had the upstream deception served its purpose. Except for Granger’s one-division reserve corps, on guard at the Stevenson depot of supplies, and the three detached brigades, which kept making threatening gestures to fix Bragg’s attention northward, Rosecrans had his whole army across the Tennessee by September 4, including all his artillery and trains loaded with ammunition enough for two great battles and rations for better than three full weeks, in case he remained that long out of touch with his base on the north bank. The main thing, as he saw it, was to keep moving and move fast. And that he did.
It took some doing, for the terrain was rugged; but Old Rosy had planned for that as well, directing the formation of company-sized details equipped with long ropes for hauling guns and wagons up difficult grades when the mules faltered. Perpendicular to his line of march, the three lofty ridges—actually long, narrow mountains, with deep valleys intervening—were Raccoon Mountain, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge. Lookout, which extended all the way to the bend of the river just below Chattanooga, was penetrated by only two gaps: Stevens Gap, 18 miles southwest of the city, and Winston Gap, 24 miles farther down. Rosecrans planned to use them both for a fast march eastward, sending Crittenden directly along the railroad, around the sheer north face of the mountain and into the city, which Bragg would probably evacuate when he learned that the other two corps were moving through the passes in his rear—McCook by way of Winston Gap, then around the lower end of Missionary Ridge, toward Alpine and Summerville, and Thomas by way of Stevens Gap, which also pierced Missionary Ridge within a dozen miles of LaFayette—for a blow at his vital and vulnerable rail supply line from Atlanta. Here again there were drawbacks, theoretical ones at any rate. The two outer columns, Crittenden’s and McCook’s, would be more than forty miles apart, and neither would be within a day’s march of Thomas in the center; Bragg might concentrate and strike at any one of the isolated three. But this too had been foreseen and guarded against by sending all but one brigade of the cavalry with McCook—who seemed most susceptible in that regard, being on the remoter flank—while the remaining brigade preceded Crittenden, ready to give warning in case such a threat developed. The main thing was speed, and this assured just that. Rosecrans rode with the trooperless middle column, not only to keep in closer touch with all three of his chief lieutenants, but also to act as a goad to Thomas, who had many admirable qualities but was known to be somewhat lethargic on occasion.
Proud in the knowledge that they were the first Federals to penetrate this region since the beginning of the war, the men reacted with enthusiasm to the march, particularly when they saw spread out before them such vistas as the one unrolled from atop Raccoon Mountain. “Far beyond mortal vision extended one vast panorama of mountains, forests, and rivers,” an Illinois veteran later wrote. “The broad Tennessee below us seemed like a ribbon of silver; beyond rose the Cumberlands, which we had crossed. The valley on both sides was alive with the moving armies of the Union, while almost the entire transportation of the army filled the roads and fields along the Tennessee. No one could survey the grand scene on that bright autumn day unmoved, unimpressed with its grandeur and the meaning conveyed by the presence of that mighty host.” Presently word came from Crittenden that Bragg had apparently had a similar reaction to the presence of all those bluecoats in his rear; for when the Kentuckian drew near Chattanooga on September 8 he learned that the Confederates were in mid-evacuation, and next morning, as the tail of the gray column disappeared through Rossville Gap and behind the screen of Missionary Ridge, the city fell without the firing of a shot. Rosecrans passed the word to the troops of the central column, who did their best to rock Lookout with their cheers as they slogged through Stevens Gap.
Simultaneously, scores of butternut deserters began to filter into the Union lines with reports of Bragg’s demoralization. He was in full flight for Rome or perhaps Atlanta, they declared, quite unmanned by this latest turning movement and in no condition to resist an attack if one could be thrown at him before he got there. Convinced that he had acted wisely in accepting the risk of dispersion for the sake of speed, Old Rosy urged his cheering soldiers forward, intent on giving the panic-stricken rebels what the deserters said would amount to a coup de grâce.
Rosecrans was partly right about Bragg, but only up to a point a good way short of the whole truth. The Confederate commander had been outsmarted, and he had fallen back in haste, even in some disorder, to escape the closing jaws of the Federal trap; but that was as far as it went. He was not retreating now, nor was he avoiding a fight. Rather, he was in search of one, although on different terms, having by now devised a trap of his own. As for the butternut scarecrows who had come stumbling into the northern lines, peering nervously over their shoulders and babbling of demoralization in the fleeing press of comrades left behind, Old Rosy would have done well to bear in mind some words one of his young staffers wrote years later: “The Confederate deserter was an institution which has received too little consideration.… He was ubiquitous, willing, and altogether inscrutable. Whether he told the truth or a lie, he was always equally sure to deceive. He was sometimes a real deserter and sometimes a mock deserter. In either case he was sure to be loaded.” In the present instance, a considerable number of them were indeed “loaded,” being scouts sent forth by Bragg himself, who had chosen them for their ability to be convincing in misrepresentation of the true state of affairs in the army that lay in wait for the exuberant bluecoats, just beyond the last of the screening ridges.
Bragg’s present aggressiveness had come only after six weeks of uncertainty and confusion following his retreat across the Tennessee. Hearing from Adjutant General Cooper on August 1 that the government was anxious to reinforce him with most of Johnston’s army, on condition that he recross the river for an attack on Rosecrans, he replied next day that he was willing, provided “a fight can be had on equal terms.” But three days later he withdrew the offer. “After fully examining all resources,” he wired, “I deem them insufficient to justify a movement across the mountains.” He meant the Cumberland Plateau, which he had just traversed and which by then was serving Rosecrans as a screen to hide his preparations for pursuit. He did not like having it there at all; he wished it could be abolished. “It is said to be easy to defend a mountainous country,” he complained to one of his corps commanders, “but mountains hide your foe from you, while they are full of gaps through which he can pounce upon you at any time. A mountain is like the wall of a house full of rat holes. The rat lies hidden at his hole, ready to pop out when no one is watching. Who can tell what lies hidden behind that wall?” Respectfully, while in this frame of mind, he informed Richmond that he declined to plunge his army into “a country rugged and sterile, with a few mountain roads only by which to reach a river difficult of passage. Thus situated,” he explained, “the enemy need only avoid battle for a short time to starve us out.” But he added, by way of final encouragement: “Whenever he shall present himself on this side of the mountains the problem will be changed.”
On the strength of this last, though disappointed that Bragg was unwilling to take the offensive, the authorities decided to reinforce him anyhow. In point of fact, even aside from the evidence that Joe Johnston seemed determined to do nothing with the troops standing idle in Mississippi all this time, they had no choice; repulses or surrenders at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Helena and Port Hudson, plus the loss of Middle Tennessee and Morgan’s raiders, all within a single month, had caused them to question whether the South could survive another large-scale defeat this soon, particularly one that would swing ajar the gateway to its heartland. Informed of Richmond’s decision, Bragg set about reorganizing his army so as to incorporate without delay the new brigades and divisions about to join or rejoin him from various directions. Indeed, reorganization had already begun on a limited scale. Hardee having been detached in mid-July to take over the mutinous remnant of Pemberton’s band of parolees awaiting exchange at Demopolis, the irascible and highly competent D. H. Hill, promoted to lieutenant general subject to congressional approval, had come from North Carolina to replace him. Likewise the dapper and experienced, if disgruntled, Tom Hindman arrived in mid-August from the Transmississippi, and a place was made for him by transferring the less distinguished Withers to an administrative post in his native Alabama. Soon afterwards Buckner was ordered to evacuate Knoxville, and having moved southwest to Loudon, where he burned the railroad bridge across the Tennessee, he continued his march to the Hiwassee, less than forty miles from Chattanooga. There he stopped, for the time being, under orders to contest an advance by Burnside, if one developed, and stand ready to join Bragg on short notice if one did not. By that time Breckinridge had arrived with the first of two divisions being sent from Mississippi. He rejoined his old corps, formerly Hardee’s, and Major General A. P. Stewart’s division was detached from Hill to be combined with Buckner’s and thus form a new third corps under the Kentuckian, who was summoned from the Hiwassee, Burnside having turned his attention elsewhere. When W. H. T. Walker joined Bragg with the second of the two divisions from Johnston, another division was organized by detaching and combining brigades from divisions already present, thus providing a fourth corps under his command. Practically overnight—that is, within a ten-day period extending from late August into early September—the Army of Tennessee had grown from two to four corps, each with two divisions, and a total strength of about 55,000 effectives, including cavalry.
Having in these eight infantry divisions 26 brigades with which to oppose 33 brigades in the eleven Federal divisions—considerably better odds, after all, than the ones he had prevailed against at Murfreesboro—Bragg developed, in the course of the reorganization of his expanded army, strong hopes of being able to defeat his adversary in pitched battle. He was not so sure, however, that this was what it would come to here, any more than it had at Tullahoma, where he had been outmaneuvered and given no real chance to defend a position he had been determined not to yield without a fight. In fact, there were signs that it would not. All this time Rosecrans had been demonstrating as if for a crossing well above Chattanooga, a repetition of the strategy that had won him Middle Tennessee, and Bragg had been reacting fretfully. Harvey Hill, for one, was quite unfavorably impressed. The junior lieutenant in Bragg’s battery a dozen years ago in Texas—George Thomas, now commanding a blue corps across the way, and John Reynolds, recently killed at Gettysburg, were the other two lieutenants—Hill had looked forward to the reunion at Chattanooga, but was received with none of the warmth he had expected from his chief. “He was silent and reserved and seemed gloomy and despondent,” Hill said later of his fellow North Carolinian. “He had grown prematurely old since I saw him last, and showed much nervousness.” Moreover, as the newcomer learned from those who had been with the army all along, this was not entirely due to worry about his opponent on the far side of the river. “His relations with his next in command (General Polk) and with some others of his subordinates were known to be not pleasant. His many retreats, too, had alienated the rank and file from him, or at least had taken away that enthusiasm which soldiers feel for the successful general, and which makes them obey his orders without question.” Fresh from the East, where he had been impressed by Lee’s great daring, always based on sound knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions, Hill was shocked by Bragg’s apparent ignorance of the enemy’s whereabouts and movements, which resulted in his maintaining a supine attitude while waiting for Rosecrans to show his hand. It was Hill to whom he described the Cumberlands as “the wall of a house full of rat holes,” and Hill afterwards recorded that he “was most painfully impressed with the feeling that it was to be a haphazard campaign on our part.”
However that might be, and it was as yet no more than an impression, it presently developed that Bragg had been quite right to suspect that Old Rosy was groping elbow-deep in his bag of tricks. No sooner was the Confederate reorganization completed than Bragg learned that the Federals were not only over the river, well downstream, but were also far in his rear, crossing Lookout and the other north-south Georgia ridges for a strike at the rail supply line whose loss would mean starvation for the defenders of Chattanooga. Determined not to be trapped as Pemberton had been at Vicksburg, he promptly evacuated the city and fell back southward through Rossville Gap to a position from which to block the continued advance of the three blue columns when they came around and over Missionary Ridge. His left was at LaFayette, two dozen miles from Chattanooga, and his right at Lee & Gordon’s Mill, twelve miles north, where the road from Rossville crossed Chickamauga Creek. Walker held the former, Polk the latter, and Hill and Buckner were posted in between, confronting the westward loom of Pigeon Mountain, a crescent-shaped spur of Lookout Mountain which inclosed the lower end of Missionary Ridge and its eastern valley, a cul-de-sac known locally as McLemore’s Cove. Bragg saw in this the trap he had been seeking, the trap he had encouraged Rosecrans to enter by sending out loaded deserters to dispel the Ohioan’s native caution and hasten his march with the promise of an easy triumph over a demoralized opponent. Wheeler and Forrest, who had been called in and now were operating respectively on the immediate left and right, toward Alpine and Rossville, were instructed to impede the advance of McCook and Crittenden from Winston Gap and Chattanooga. This would leave the balance of the army, some 40,000 infantry and artillery, free to concentrate against Thomas, who had a total of 23,000 effectives, and destroy him there in the fastness of McLemore’s Cove; after which the victors would turn on either or both of the remaining enemy columns, still well beyond supporting distance of each other, and administer the same annihilation treatment. Bragg so ordered on the evening of September 9, shortly after receiving from his scouts, civilian as well as military, reports that Thomas’s lead division had entered the cove that afternoon and made a sundown camp on upper Chickamauga Creek.
His plan combined the virtues of simplicity and power, and his orders were issued with the coolness of a gambler holding four aces against a splurger whose overconfidence had been nurtured by an inordinate run of luck. While Cleburne’s division of Hill’s corps attacked due west through Dug Gap, corking the Pigeon Mountain outlet and fixing the bluecoats in position, Hindman’s division of Polk’s corps would move southwest from Lee & Gordon’s Mill, up Chickamauga Creek, sealing the mouth of the cul-de-sac and striking the enemy flank and rear. Basically, the operation was intended to be like that of? meat-grinder, and if Thomas reinforced his lead division in the cove, so much the better; Breckinridge would be in support of Cleburne, Cheatham of Hindman, and the Federal reinforcements would only give them that much more meat to grind. Hindman set out an hour after midnight, September 10, and halted at dawn, four miles short of contact, waiting to hear from Cleburne. He had a long, tense wait. Finally a message came from Hill, protesting that he had not received his orders till after daylight, that Cleburne himself was sick in bed, with four of his best regiments absent on other duties, and that the proposed attack was risky in the first place, since Thomas had probably sent his lead division forward “as a bait to draw us off from below.” In short, Cleburne would not be coming; not this morning at any rate. Later in the day, while still maintaining his indecisive position short of contact, Hindman received a message from Bragg, urging him to finish up his work in the cove as quickly as possible, because Crittenden’s corps was on the march from Chattanooga by way of Rossville Gap, directly in his rear. This added fright to confusion, and after remaining all night in a position which he judged perilous in the extreme, the veteran of Prairie Grove decided next morning to withdraw the way he had come. By now, though, Bragg had sent Buckner to his support, with orders to force the issue promptly, and Cleburne was through Dug Gap; so Hindman returned southward. But when the two gray forces came together that afternoon in McLemore’s Cove there was nothing blue between them. Thomas at last had spotted the danger, despite his lack of cavalry, and withdrawn to the far side of Missionary Ridge.
Bragg was furious, blaming the lost opportunity on Hindman’s indecisiveness and Hill’s “querulous, insubordinate spirit,” while they in turn put the blame on him, claiming that their orders had been permissive rather than peremptory. However, he resolved to try again, in a different direction and with different commanders. Thomas had withdrawn to safety, but Crittenden had not. Polk having retired toward LaFayette at his approach, the Kentuckian had sent one of his three divisions to occupy Lee & Gordon’s Mill while the other two moved against Ringgold, a station on the railroad between Chattanooga and Dalton, in accordance with his orders to break the rebel supply line. Learning of this next morning from Forrest, who was patrolling that flank of the army, Bragg directed Polk to return to his former position with his own reunited corps and Walker’s, and attack the isolated Federals there at dawn, September 13. “This division crushed and the others are yours,” he told him. The bishop protested that Crittenden, taking alarm, had recalled the two divisions from their march on Ringgold and now had his whole corps posted for defense behind the Chickamauga at that point. This was quite true, as it turned out, but Bragg replied that it was no matter; Polk had four divisions to the enemy’s three, and he would send Buckner’s two to assist him in case they were needed, which seemed unlikely; the attack was to be launched on schedule, as directed. But when he reached the field at 9 o’clock next morning he found Polk on the defensive, still unwilling to advance lest he be swamped. Madder than ever, the terrible-tempered Confederate commander finally got Polk and Walker and Buckner into assault formation by noon and sent them forward—only to discover that Crittenden, after the manner of Thomas two days ago in McLemore’s Cove, had escaped the trap by withdrawing undetected beyond Missionary Ridge. In a rage of frustration and regret for the two rare chances he had lost in the past three days, Bragg pulled his whole army once more back to LaFayette, the best position from which to counter a thrust at his vital supply line by any one or all three of the blue columns across the way.
But there was small likelihood of any such thrust by then. The scales having fallen at last from his eyes, Rosecrans was doing all he could to get the three isolated segments of his army back together before they were abolished, one by one, by a rebel army which he now knew was not only not retreating in disorder, but also had been heavily reinforced. And now there followed a three-day interlude during which neither commander knew much of what the other was doing, although the graybacks at least had the physical advantage of standing still while their opponents tramped the dusty hills and valleys that lay between them and concentration. Presently the blue movements took on a new urgency, a new franticness, with the circulation of reports that Bragg was about to be even more substantially reinforced by troops already on the way by rail from Lee in Virginia; three divisions of them, rumor had it, under Longstreet. Old Rosy and his staff began to curse Burnside, who had turned east by now from Knoxville and Cumberland Gap instead of in their direction for the intended hookup: with the result, as they believed, that now it was they who were in grievous danger of being cut off from their base, exposed to the threat of starvation, and swamped by superior numbers, including a whole corps of hardbitten killers from the far-off eastern theater.
Meanwhile at LaFayette, where the Confederates were recovering from their recent fruitless exertions in McLemore’s Cove and near Lee & Gordon’s Mill, Harvey Hill marveled at the apparent casualness with which these Westerners, blue and gray alike, accepted the proximity of their adversaries just on the opposite side of the intervening ridge. It was quite unlike what he had known before, back in Virginia under Lee. “When two armies confront each other in the East, they get to work very soon,” he remarked to one of his veteran brigadiers. “But here you look at one another for days and weeks at a time.” The brigadier, a cockfight enthusiast, laughed. “Oh, we out here have to crow and peck straws awhile before we use our spurs,” he said.
All the same, as Hill, observed long afterwards in recording the exchange, “the crowing and pecking straws were now about over.” A dozen to twenty miles north of there, above Lee & Gordon’s Mill, the woods-choked field of Chickamauga awaited the confrontation that would result, within the week, in what would not only be the greatest battle of the West, but would also be, for the numbers engaged, the bloodiest of the war.
Reports that Longstreet was en route were true, but once more only up to a point, the difference being that this time the exaggeration was in the opposite direction, serving rather to deepen the blue commander’s fears than to heighten his expectations. Old Peter was coming with two, not three divisions; Pickett’s was still in no shape for another headlong commitment, and though it too had been detached from Lee, it was left behind to assist in the close-up defense of Richmond when the other two, under McLaws and Law—or Hood, as it turned out—passed through the capital on the first stage of their long ride to Northwest Georgia. The decision to send them to join Bragg had been arrived at during a White House conference in late August and early September, a conference not unlike the one that had preceded the march into Pennsylvania, except that this time the gray-bearded commander of the Army of Northern Virginia carried much less weight in council than he had done before his defeat at Gettysburg, which had been the direct result of the weight he exerted then in overriding the objections of Reagan. Besides, since that and the other early-July reverses in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Middle Tennessee, additional threats to the national existence had developed, including not only the menace to East Tennessee—which was lost while the conference was in progress—but also on the Atlantic seaboard, particularly at Charleston, and in the far-off Transmississippi. These too had served to strengthen the conviction that the country simply could not afford another defeat in the vital central theater, and therefore the decision had been to reinforce Bragg at the expense of all the others, including Lee, who would be left to face the victorious Meade with a greatly reduced force, and Beauregard, who was calling urgently for assistance in resisting an all-out Union amphibious effort to rock and wreck the cradle of secession.
Du Pont’s repulse, back in April, had resulted in some sour-grapes talk on the part of Gideon Welles to the effect that Charleston, “a place of no strategic importance,” had not been worth taking in the first place; but the failure rankled badly over the span of the next two months, with the result that he decided to try again with a more determined commander. Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote, apparently recovered from the wound he had suffered while clearing the lower Tennessee and the Cumberland, as well as the Mississippi down to Memphis, was the logical choice for the job and was appointed despite his reluctance to supersede his old friend Samuel Du Pont. He died in New York in late June, however, while on the way to his new post, and the position went instead to Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, head of the Bureau of Ordnance, inventor of the bottle-shaped gun that had done so much to give the Union its victories afloat, and an intimate friend of Lincoln’s during his command of the Washington Navy Yard in the first two years of the war. Described by a correspondent as “a light complexioned man of perhaps forty years of age,” though he was in fact in his mid-fifties, Dahlgren was “slight and of medium height, [with] pale and delicate features. His countenance is exceedingly thoughtful and modest … while his eye is inevitably keen, and his thin nostrils expand as he talks, with a look of great enthusiasm.” Welles believed this last proceeded from less admirable qualities than those the reporter discerned. “He is intensely ambitious,” the Secretary noted in his diary, “and, I fear, too selfish. He has the heroism which proceeds from pride, and would lead him to danger and death; but whether he has the innate, unselfish courage of the genuine sailor and soldier, remains to be seen.” Despite these doubts on the part of his superior, based in part on personal observation and in part on the fact that he had never been in action, Dahlgren was given command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which he took over as Du Pont’s successor in early July, together with special instructions covering the employment of his patched-up ironclads to effect the reduction of the South Carolina city, defiant behind the guns and obstructions around and in its harbor.
This time there was no plea from the Department that the army not be allowed to “spoil” the show by having a vital part in it. Rather, the admiral was to work in conjunction with Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore, who had arrived three weeks earlier to assume command of the 15,000 infantrymen, artillerists, and engineers assigned to take the lead in the opening phase of the combined attack. Fort Sumter was seen as the key to control of Charleston harbor, and Gillmore, a thirty-eight-year-old Ohio-born West Pointer—top man in the otherwise undistinguished class of 1849—had been called in, as a fortifications expert and a master of siege operations, to give an opinion on whether the army could reduce it. He replied that this could best be done by mounting heavy guns on the north end of Morris Island, held at present by the Confederates, and using them to knock the famed pentagonal fort to pieces; after which, as Gillmore saw it, the ironclads would be able to steam in and administer the same treatment to the city itself, on the far side of the harbor, until such time as the white flag went up. His plan approved, he got to work as soon as he arrived in mid-June, and by the time Dahlgren took over from Du Pont he was ready to launch his opening attack from Folly Island, where he had secretly massed a 3000-man assault force, against the adjoining southern end of Morris Island, preparatory to a drive up its narrow four-mile length to Cummings Point, which was less than 1500 yards from Sumter. On July 10, encouraged by a promotion to major general, he sprang a dawn attack which caught the rebels so thoroughly off guard that by noon he had the lower three fourths of the island in his grip. All that remained was Battery Wagner, dead ahead, and Battery Gregg, 1300 yards farther along on Cummings Point. His loss so far had amounted to scarcely more than a hundred men, only fifteen of whom were dead. Wasting no time, he ordered another all-out assault next morning. This too was launched with verve and determination, but with considerably less satisfactory results. The first wave made it up to Wagner’s parapet, only to be shattered by heavy volleys of grape and musketry, while the support formations were scattered by high-angle fire from Gregg. Within an hour the attackers lost 49 killed, 167 captured or missing, and 123 wounded, and so far as the repulsed survivors could see, these 339 casualties had been expended without any effect whatever on either the earthwork or its defenders, who kept up a deadly sniping at everything blue that showed above the level of the sandy ground out front.
Undaunted, Gillmore spent a week bringing up another 3500 soldiers and emplacing 41 guns for counterbattery work; then at noon of July 18 he opened fire, which was also the signal for Dahlgren’s monitors to close the range and pound both rebel works from the seaward flank. This continued for more than seven hours, and presently Battery Wagner ceased to reply, its cannoneers driven from their guns. Then at 7.30—the attack hour had been set for twilight so that the defenders would not be able to take careful aim—the Union guns fell silent too, ashore and afloat, and the 6000 Federals started forward on a necessarily narrow front of less than 200 yards. In the lead was a Massachusetts regiment, all-Negro except for its officers, who were mostly Boston bluebloods, including its young colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, whose mother had wept for joy at the sight of her boy leading black men forth to war; “What have I done, that God has been so good to me!” she cried at the grand farewell review staged in Boston in late May. In less than seven weeks, however, it developed that God had not been so good to her after all, unless what she wanted in place of her son was a fine bronze statue on the Common. The 1000-man rebel garrison came out of the bombproof to which it had retired at the height of the cannonade and met the attackers as it had done the week before, with even more spectacular results. Here in the East, on Morris Island just outside Charleston harbor, as formerly in the West, at Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson, Negro troops proved that they could stop bullets and shell fragments as well as white men; but that was about all. When flesh and blood could stand no more, the survivors fell back from the ditch and parapet, black and white alike, and returned to the trenches they had left an hour ago. Casualties had been heavy; 1515 of the attackers had fallen, as compared to 174 of the defenders, and next morning when the latter peered out of their sight slits they saw live and dead men strewn in piles and windrows, their bodies horribly mangled by close-up artillery fire, while detached arms and legs and heads were splattered all about. A brief truce sufficed for removal of the wounded and disposal of the slain, including the twenty-six-year-old Shaw, who had taken a bullet through the heart and was buried in a common grave with his Negro soldiers, nearly half of whom had been lost in the repulse.
Somewhat daunted, but still determined, Gillmore decided to settle down to regular siege operations and take Sumter under fire from where he was, the range being only about 3000 yards. From close up, he would batter Wagner and Gregg into submission, meanwhile bringing eighteen heavy guns to bear in a round-the-clock attempt to breach the fort less than a mile across the water from the inaccessible north end of the island. By mid-August three parallels had been drawn and advanced, preparatory to launching a sudden, swamping rush upon the stubborn earthwork dead ahead, and Sumter was being bombarded at a rate of nearly 5000 shells a week, its brick walls cracking and crumbling under the impact of 300-pound projectiles, the heaviest ever employed by rifled field artillery up to then. Another innovation was the use of calcium lights, which threw the ramparts of Battery Wagner into stark relief and helped to prevent the rebels from making nighttime sorties against the gunners and diggers in their immediate front. Still a third innovation was the establishment in the marshes between Morris and James islands, off to the left and about 8000 yards from downtown Charleston, of an 8-inch Parrott rifle—promptly dubbed the “Swamp Angel” by the engineers who sweated and floundered in the salty mud to place the big gun on its platform—for the purpose of heaving its 200-pound shells, specially filled for the occasion with liquid and solidified Greek Fire, into the city’s streets and houses. On August 21 the monster weapon was reported ready, and Gillmore sent a note across the lines demanding the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter; otherwise, he warned, he would open fire “from batteries already established within easy and effective range of the heart of the city.” No answer having been received by midnight, he sent word for the gun to go into action. At 1.30 a.m. the first shell was on the way. The sound of alarm bells and whistles, which reached them faintly across the nearly five miles of marsh and water, told the crew that the percussion-fuzed shell had found its mark, and they followed this with fifteen others, equally accurate, before dawn. At that time Gillmore received a message signed G. T. Beauregard, protesting his barbarity and rejecting his ultimatum that Wagner and Gregg and Sumter be abandoned. “It would appear, sir, that despairing of reducing these works, you now resort to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city,” the Creole hotly accused his adversary, and he predicted that this “mode of warfare, which I confidently declare to be atrocious and unworthy of any soldier … will give you ‘a bad eminence’ in history, even in the history of this war.” Gillmore replied that the city had had forty days’ notice, this being the length of time he had been battering at its gates, and despite the added protests of the Spanish and British consuls he ordered the bombardment resumed on August 23. Twenty more incendiary shells were fired, six of which exploded prematurely in the tube with spectacular pyrotechnical effects, and though no member of the crew was hurt by these sudden gushes of flame from the vent and muzzle, the gun itself was probably weakened. At any rate, on the twentieth shot the breech of the piece blew out of its jacket, just behind the vent, and the Swamp Angel ended her brief career of thirty-six rounds, thirty of which had landed squarely on target in the birthplace of secession, whatever “bad eminence” she might have gained for Gillmore in the process.
He made no attempt to replace the ruined cannon, believing as he did that he soon would have possession of Cummings Point, where the ground was firmer and the range to Charleston shorter. By August 26 his sappers were within 200 yards of Battery Wagner, and within another week the distance was half that. All this time, the bombardment of Fort Sumter had continued, with gratifying results. Most of its southern wall was down, and both the western and eastern walls were badly cracked. Practically every casemate had been breached. On the first night in September, when six of the monitors gave the crumbling fort a five-hour pounding, not a shot was fired from the rubble in reply. Gillmore stepped up the action against Wagner. On September 5 he began a relentless 42-hour cannonade during which no less than 3000 shells were rained upon the earthwork, preparatory to the final assault. But when the guns stopped firing in the predawn darkness of September 7, so that the infantry could rush forward and end the 58-day siege—in the course of which the Federals had suffered a total of 2318 casualties and inflicted 641—it was discovered that the Confederates had evacuated both Wagner and Gregg the night before, despite the constant deluge of metal, and withdrawn in rowboats to James Island. Once more, Beauregard’s uncanny sense of timing had not failed him. Advancing to emplace his heaviest guns on Cummings Point, from which he could resume his shelling of the city, Gillmore passed the word to Dahlgren that the army’s share of the operation had been accomplished. Morris Island had been occupied entirely and Fort Sumter had been neutralized; now the navy’s turn had come to take the lead. Proud Charleston would be brought to its knees if the ironclads would only steam across the harbor and bring it under the muzzles of their guns.
But could they? Dahlgren was far from certain: so little so, in fact, that he was unwilling to make the attempt until Sumter had not only been “neutralized,” as the army claimed, but taken. Moreover, he wanted the honor of doing the taking, and he believed he saw how this could be done without exposing his valuable monitors to sudden destruction by a torpedo or by point-blank fire from a gun kept hidden amid the rubble for that purpose. Constant shelling had tumbled the bricks of the south wall down to the water’s edge, affording an incline which, though steep and rugged, could be scaled without the delay the use of ladders would involve. If a surprise landing could be accomplished, a storming party would be into the place before its defenders even had time to sound the alarm. So at least the naval commander believed, or reasoned, when he called on September 7—the same day Morris Island fell to the army—for 500 naval volunteers to make a small-boat landing by the dark of the moon the following night. By way of preamble he sent in a demand for the fort’s surrender and received, at second hand, Beauregard’s reply: “Tell Admiral Dahlgren to come and take it.” That was just what he was preparing to do, and when the officer he had placed in charge of the venture expressed some doubts that it would succeed, Dahlgren scoffed at his fears. “You have only to go and take possession,” he assured him. “You will find nothing but a corporal’s guard.” Accordingly, the volunteers were loaded into some thirty assault boats and towed within half a mile of Sumter before moonrise the next night. No lights were shown and the oars were muffled, but the rebel lookouts spotted them anyhow and gave the alarm, including the firing of rockets, which was the signal for batteries on James and Sullivan’s islands to open fire on the waters near the fort. Caught under the resultant two-way barrage, the marines and sailors hurried ashore and were received by the 300-man garrison lying in wait for them with rifles, fire-balls, hand grenades, and brickbats, which combined to make conditions even worse on the beach than on the water. Five of the boats were captured, along with more than a hundred men and thirteen officers. The rest got away as best they could through the ring of fire, bringing their wounded with them. “Nobody hurt on our side,” Beauregard reported.
Dahlgren took the check as proof that he had been wise not to risk his iron flotilla in any such challenge to the alert and tricky rebels, but he could not escape the depression that proceeded from the knowledge that he had done no better, so far, than the man he had replaced. The enervating heat, plus long confinement in the poorly ventilated monitors, had impaired his health; moreover, he was often seasick, which caused him to lose caste with his sailors and perhaps with himself as well. Worst of all, though, was the gnawing sense of failure. Victory was the cure, he knew, but he would not risk the alternative, defeat, which in this case would be utterly disastrous, not only to his ships and men, but also to his career. Nothing helped, or even seemed to. “I am better today,” he confided in his journal, “but the worst of this place is that one only stops getting weaker. One does not get stronger.” Torn between desire and fear, ambition and indecision, he reacted physically to the mental strain. “My debility increases, so that today it is an exertion to sit in a chair. I do not see well. How strange—no pain, but so feeble. It seems like gliding away to death. How easy it seems! Why not, to one whose race is run?” It was scarcely to be expected, with the admiral in this frame of mind, that the navy would press matters beyond the point that had been reached when Morris Island fell. Nor did it. Dahlgren perceived that Sumter had become little more than an infantry outpost, its heaviest guns having been removed in secret to Sullivan’s Island during the two-month siege of Battery Wagner; Fort Moultrie was now the real obstacle to a penetration of the harbor, and the only way to close with it was by steaming through the torpedo-infested channel, which was something he was by no means willing to attempt. Meanwhile—illogically, but for lack of anything better in the way of employment for his vessels and their crews—he maintained an intermittent bombardment of Sumter. Formerly a brick masonry fort, it was now a powerful earthwork; the shells it absorbed only served to make it more impervious by stirring up and adding to the rubble any attackers would have to climb and cross, dodging fire-balls and grenades, in order to come to grips with the defenders. He had tried that once, however, and he had no intention of trying it again.
Gillmore at least had the satisfaction of knowing that he had carried out his primary assignment by securing possession of Morris Island, but even if he had had another intermediary objective in mind—which he did not—he would have had no way to get there, shipless as he was, with bottomless marshes on one flank, open sea on the other, and the mine-strewn harbor dead ahead. Like Dahlgren, he contented himself with lobbing projectiles into Sumter, barely 1400 yards away, or into Moultrie, twice that distance across the harbor mouth. By way of diversion he sometimes threw a long-range salvo or two at Charleston, which was about half a mile closer to Cummings Point than it was to the platform that had kept the ill-fated Swamp Angel out of the mud. None of these seemed to accomplish much, however. Sumter merely continued to squat there, defiant and misshapen—“a noble mass of ruins,” Beauregard called it, “over which still float our colors”—responding to hits by sending up puffs of brickdust, but otherwise appearing as indifferent as an elephant to flea bites. Moultrie did not even do that much, so far as the Federal spotters could see from a range of 2800 yards, and presently they left off shooting at it. As for Charleston itself, while banks moved their resources from the lower to the upper part of town and hospitals were evacuated in the impact zone, the chief complaint of those citizens who had recovered from their early panic and returned to their homes, keeping tubs of water handy in all the rooms for fighting fires, was that the scream of the Yankee shells disturbed their sleep. They were proud of themselves, proud of their defenders out on the firing line, and proudest of all of Beauregard, their original hero, to whom Congress afterwards tendered a joint resolution of thanks for “a defense which, for the skill, heroism, and tenacity displayed during an attack scarcely paralleled in warfare … is justly entitled to be pronounced glorious by impartial history and an admiring country.”
• • •
But that was later. The Richmond conference ended on September 7, a day that seemed more the occasion for alarm than for high-flown congratulations, least of all to Beauregard, since it was then that Morris Island fell and the Charleston commander stepped up his plea for reinforcements, predicting graver disasters unless the odds he faced were shortened. All the statesmen and generals knew, as they studied the situation from their council room in the White House, was that events appeared to be mounting rapidly toward an unwelcome climax—not only down the Atlantic seaboard, but also along the opposite end of the thousand-mile frontier. In that far-western quarter the odds were even longer and the enemy had mounted a two-pronged offensive designed to restore the northern two thirds of Arkansas, including its capital, to the domain of the Union. The Confederacy having been sundered by the loss of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Federals seemed to be losing no time in getting to work on the disconnected halves, particularly the one that lay beyond what Lincoln called the “unvexed” Mississippi.
One prong was being driven eastward from Indian Territory, with Fort Smith as its immediate goal, and the other was being driven westward from Helena, whose garrison, flushed by its success in breaking up the Independence Day assault, had been strengthened by the return of Frederick Steele’s division, which had gone downriver eight months ago with Sherman and now came back with the names of the many engagements of the Vicksburg campaign proudly stitched to its battle flags. Much to the disgruntlement of Prentiss, who submitted his resignation as a result, command of the inland expedition went to Steele, together with instructions to “break up Price and occupy Little Rock,” a hundred crow-flight miles away in the heart of the state. To do this he had two divisions of infantry, totaling only about 6000 effectives—“The sick list is frightful,” he reported—plus one division of cavalry, as large as the two of infantry put together, detached from Schofield. This mounted force, led by Brigadier General John W. Davidson, a forty-year-old Virginia-born West Pointer, left Bloomfield, Missouri, and proceeded south down Crowley’s Ridge to Clarendon, Arkansas, which it reached on August 8, to be joined nine days later by Steele, who marched his foot soldiers from Helena and took command of the combined 12,000. Shifting his base to De Valls Bluff, a dozen miles northwest, he spent another two weeks making final preparations and then on September 1, in accordance with his instructions, set out for the capital, just under fifty miles due west. By that date the opposite prong—a scratch collection of seven regiments, three composed of Union-loyal Indian volunteers and one of Negroes, all under James Blunt, the former Ohio doctor who had been promoted to major general as a reward for Prairie Grove—had attained its initial objective with a bloodless occupation of Fort Smith, 125 miles from Little Rock and just short of the western border. Back in mid-July, Blunt had prepared the way for this maneuver with an attack on the Confederates to his front at Honey Springs, fifty miles west of his goal, driving them south in disorder and destroying the stores they had collected for subsistence in that barren region of Indian Territory. Commanded by Brigadier General William Steele, a forty-year-old New Yorker and West Pointer who had married South, the rebel force of nine regiments, six of them Indian, was actually larger than Blunt’s; but when the action was joined the graybacks found to their dismay that their powder, imported from Europe by way of Texas, had turned to paste in their cartridge boxes. They ran and kept on running. Satisfied merely to have them out of the way for the time being, Blunt did not pursue. He returned instead to the Arkansas River to rest and refit his victorious 3000 multicolored troops, then turned east in late August to occupy Fort Smith on September 1, the day the other Steele started west from De Valls Bluff.
About this time, while events were heading up for the recovery of most of Arkansas, word came of a “raid” some 300 miles to the north, across the Missouri-Kansas line, that provoked more excitement and indignation throughout the country than any that had been staged in the course of the nearly four years since John Brown struck at Harpers Ferry. The difference was that this one, launched against the region where Brown had got his start, was not only a good deal bloodier, and therefore more atrocious, but was also as complete a success as the other had been a failure. Heavy detachments of troops from Schofield to Grant and Steele, well downriver, had emboldened the guerillas lurking in the Missouri brush: particularly Charles Quantrill, who had secured a captain’s commission from Richmond and was eager to justify his bars, as well as to pay off old scores from the prewar border troubles, by leading his irregulars on a more daring expedition than any they had attempted up to now. He favored a strike at Lawrence, an old-time abolitionist settlement forty miles beyond the Kansas line. At first his men would not agree, believing that the prize, though fat, would not be worth the risk; but two developments which occurred in rapid succession in mid-August changed their minds, adding a thirst for revenge to their already strong desire for loot. For the past three months the Federal commander of the District of the Border, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, had been arresting women charged with giving encouragement and assistance to guerillas, many of whom were their sons and brothers and husbands. This had enraged the men in the brush, who, whatever their excesses in other directions, had invariably maintained a hands-off attitude toward the mothers and sisters and wives of their Jayhawk adversaries. The prisoners were confined in certain buildings in Kansas City, and on August 14 one of these, a dilapidated three-story brick affair with a liquor shop on the ground floor, collapsed—as Ewing had been warned it might do—killing four of the women outright and seriously injuring several others. When news of this reached Quantrill’s men they promptly reconsidered their chief’s proposal for a raid on Lawrence. “We can get more revenge and more money there than anywhere else in the state of Kansas,” he told them. Then four days later Ewing announced in a general order that not only would more such arrests be made, but that “the wives and children of known guerillas, and also women who are heads of families and are willfully engaged in aiding guerillas, will be notified … to remove out of this district and out of the State of Missouri forthwith.” The order was dated August 18; “We could stand no more,” a guerilla who had lost a sister in the Kansas City tragedy wrote later. Next day Quantrill set out from Blackwater Creek in Johnson County, headed west for Lawrence with a column of just under 300 bloody-minded men.
The distance was over seventy miles and they made it in two days, riding strapped to their saddles the second night so that they could sleep without falling off their horses. While still in Missouri they encountered a party of 104 mounted Confederate recruits proceeding south under Colonel John D. Holt, who decided to take them along on the raid as a training exercise. These, plus a number of other volunteers picked up in the course of the ride to the border, brought the column to a strength of about 450 men by the time it drew rein at daybreak of August 21 on the outskirts of Lawrence. Three weeks past his twenty-sixth birthday, wearing a gaudy, low-cut guerilla shirt, gray trousers stuffed into cavalry boots, a gold-corded black slouch hat, and four revolvers in his belt, Quantrill assigned each unit its special mission, then led the howling charge that swept from the southeast into the streets of the sleeping town. Long since warned to expect no quarter, the raiders intended to give none. With the exception of a single adult male civilian—the hated Jayhawk chieftain Senator James H. Lane, who was to be taken back to Missouri alive, if possible, for a semi-public hanging—Quantrill’s orders called for the killing of “every man big enough to carry a gun.” First to fall, in accordance with these instructions, was the Reverend S. S. Snyder, sometimes lieutenant of the 2d Kansas Colored Infantry, shot dead under the cow he was milking in his yard. Next were seventeen recruits encountered in the otherwise deserted camp of the 14th Cavalry, several of them pistoled before they emerged from their blankets. Thus began a three-hour orgy of killing, interspersed with drinks in commandeered saloons and exhibitions of fancy riding. Men were chased and shot down as they ran; others were dragged from their homes and murdered in front of their wives and children; still others were smothered or roasted alive when the houses in which they hid were set afire. Holt and other less bloodthirsty members of the band managed to protect a few of the fugitives, but not many; Quantrill, who had lived for a time in Lawrence before the war, had prepared a vengeance list beforehand, and all who were on it and in town this morning were disposed of, except for the man whose name was at its head. Wily Jim Lane took flight in his nightshirt, warned by the first thunder of hooves as the guerillas swept in across the prairie, and hid out undetected in a cornfield until they rode away, leaving 80 new widows and 250 fatherless children weeping in the ruins of the town. Nearly 200 buildings had been wrecked or burned, including all three newspaper offices and most of the business district, for a property loss amounting to about two million dollars. In all, though not one woman was physically harmed, no less than 150 Kansans were killed, fewer than twenty of whom were soldiers and several of whom were scarcely more than boys. Not one of them sold his life dearly, however, for the only casualty the raiders suffered was a former Baptist preacher who got drunk, passed out, and was killed and scalped by an Indian when he was discovered, shortly after his friends had ridden away. His body was dragged through the streets behind a horse by a free Negro until it was stripped naked, and the grieving citizens pelted it with stones by way of revenge.
Loaded with booty, the rest of the guerillas had pulled out southward about 9 o’clock that morning, shortly after lookouts on Mount Oread reported a heavy column of troopers approaching from the north and west, beyond the Kansas River. Setting ambushes to delay his pursuers, who converged from all points of the compass as the news from Lawrence spread across the plains, and swerving aside in the twilight to avoid a blue garrison lying in wait for him at Paola, Quantrill made it back across the Missouri line next morning with nearly all of his command. At this point the order was “Every man for himself,” and the raiders faded into the brush by a hundred different trails to resume their various disguises as farmers, parolees, and Union-loyal residents of the scattered towns and hamlets. All who were detected subsequently were executed on the spot, as those had been who were caught up with when their horses went lame or collapsed from exhaustion during the chase across the prairie. “No prisoners have been taken, and none will be,” Ewing informed Schofield, and four days after what became known as the Lawrence Massacre he issued, at Jim Lane’s insistence, his famous General Order Number 11, directing the forcible removal of all persons, male or female, child or adult, loyal or disloyal, who lived more than a mile from a Federal post in the four Missouri counties south of the Missouri River and adjacent to the border. The time limit was fifteen days from the date of issue, August 25. By mid-September the order had been so effectively enforced that Cass County, which had had a population of 10,000 before the war, was occupied by fewer than 600 civilians; Bates County, directly south, had even less. Moreover, the vengeance-minded 15th Kansas Cavalry, delighted at having been given the assignment of seeing that Ewing’s order was obeyed, went through the region so enthusiastically with torch and sword, leaving nothing but chimneys to show where houses and cabins once had stood, that it was known for years thereafter as the Burnt District. Not that Quantrill was deterred. He collected his scattered guerillas, continued his depredations, including attacks on wagon trains and steamboats on the Missouri, and finally withdrew south in early October to winter in Texas with a force of 400 hard-bitten men, most of whom had been with him on the raid that nearly wiped Lawrence from the map.
By then the issue had been settled in central Arkansas, and though Steele had failed to “break up Price,” he had succeeded admirably in carrying out the rest of his assignment. In temporary command of the district after Holmes fell sick in late July, Price concentrated his 8000 effectives at Little Rock, squarely between the menacing blue prongs of Blunt and Steele, the former in occupation of Fort Smith, just under 150 miles to the west, and the latter advancing from De Valls Bluff, one third that distance to the east. Bracing to meet the nearer and heavier threat—Blunt had only about 4000 men, while Steele had three times as many—the bulky but agile Missourian intrenched a line three miles in length on the north bank of the Arkansas, protected by swamps in front and anchored to the river below the capital in his rear, access to which was provided by three pontoon bridges. Though he took the precaution of sending his accumulated stores to Arkadelphia, sixty miles southwest, he reported that his troops were “in excellent condition, full of enthusiasm, and eager to meet the enemy.” So was he, despite the known disparity in numbers, if the bluecoats would only attack him where he was. But Steele, as it turned out, had a different notion. Maneuvering as if for a frontal assault, he sent Davidson’s 6000 troopers on a fast ride south to strike the river well downstream from the Confederate position.
This was begun on September 6, and Price on that same day lost one of his two cavalry brigadiers, not by enemy action, but rather as the result of a quarrel between them. For the past two months Marmaduke had been openly critical of Lucius Walker’s failure to support him in the attack at Helena; now as they skirmished with the advancing Federals and the Tennessean gave ground under pressure, the hot-tempered Missourian accused him of outright cowardice. Walker replied, as expected, with a challenge which was promptly accepted, the terms being “pistols at ten paces to fire and advance,” and the former Memphis businessman fell mortally wounded at the second fire. The conditions of honor having been satisfied in accordance with the code—which, presumably, was one of those things the South was fighting to preserve as part of its “way of life”—presently, after a period of intense suffering by the loser, the Confederacy had one general less than it had had when the two men took position, ten paces apart, and began to walk toward one another, firing as they advanced.
Within four days of this exchange the South also had one state capital the less. Assisted no doubt by the resultant confusion across the way, Davidson got his horsemen over the river at dawn of September 10, moved them rapidly up the scantly defended right bank toward Little Rock, and after forcing a crossing of Bayou Fourche, five miles below the town, received its formal surrender by the civil authorities shortly after sundown. Price had reacted fast: as indeed he had had need to do, if he was to save his army. Outflanked by the cavalry while Steele kept up the pressure against his front, he withdrew from his north-bank intrenchments, set his pontoons afire to prevent the blue infantry from following in his wake, and put his troops on the march for Arkadelphia, to which point he had prudently removed his stores the week before. There on the south bank of the Ouachita he took up a new position extending fifty miles downstream to Camden, with detachments posted as far east as Monticello, about midway between the latter place and the Federal gunboats prowling unchallenged up and down the Mississippi. Steele did not pursue.
Casualties had been light on both sides in both operations—137 for Steele, 64 for Price; 75 for Blunt, 181 for Steele—but they were no adequate indication of what had been won and lost in the double-pronged campaign. “If they take Fort Smith, the Indian country is gone,” Holmes had remarked in February, and now in September his prediction had been unhappily fulfilled. Similarly, the loss of Little Rock—fourth on the list of fallen capitals, immediately following Jackson, which had been preceded the year before by Baton Rouge and Nashville—extended the Union occupation to include three fourths of Arkansas, a gain for which the victors presumably would have been willing to pay ten or even one hundred times the actual cost.
This too was included in the Richmond assessment of the over-all situation. Although, like Chattanooga and Cumberland Gap, Little Rock had not fallen by the time the White House conference ended on September 7—it fell three and the others two days later—its loss, like theirs, could be anticipated as a factor to be placed in the enemy balance pan alongside Fort Smith, Knoxville, and Morris Island, all of which passed into Federal possession while the council was considering what could best be attempted to offset the reverses lately suffered at Tullahoma, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Helena, and Port Hudson. Within that same horrendous span, late June through early September, only two events occurred which might have been considered as adding weight to the South’s high-riding opposite pan, one the New York draft riot and the other the Quantrill raid on Lawrence. However, both of these were not only comparatively slight, they were also of doubtful character as assets: especially the latter, which, if claimed, would expose the Confederacy to charges of land piracy, or worse, before the bar of world opinion. In strategic terms, moreover, the outlook was no less clear for being bleak. Rosecrans was over the Tennessee River, and unless Bragg could stop him—as, apparently, he could not—the Army of the Cumberland would be free to march southeast through Georgia to the coast, which would mean that the eastern half of the nation, already severed from the western half by the loss of the Mississippi, would itself be cut in two. In that event, nothing would remain to be governed from Richmond but the Carolinas and so much of Virginia as lay south of the Rappahannock, a political and geographical fragment whose survival was already threatened from the north by the Army of the Potomac, from the west by the troops now in occupation of Knoxville and East Tennessee, and from the east by the amphibious force holding Charleston under siege, all three of which had lately been victorious, to various degrees, under Meade, Burnside, and Gillmore.
Despite the fact that it now had some 20,000 fewer effectives than it had had three months ago when its commander urged a similar course of action under similar circumstances, Davis had warmed at first to Lee’s proposal, submitted at the outset of the strategy conference, that the Army of Northern Virginia once more take the offensive against Meade. On the last day of August Lee sent word to Longstreet, who had been left in charge on the Rapidan, to “prepare the army for offensive operations.” Old Peter replied that he would of course obey his chief’s instructions and had already passed them on to Ewell and A. P. Hill, but “I do not see that we can reasonably hope to accomplish much” by continuing to fight a war of stalemate and attrition. “I am inclined to the opinion that the best opportunity for great results is in Tennessee,” he asserted. “If we could hold the defensive here with two corps and send the other to operate in Tennessee with [Bragg’s] army, I think that we could accomplish more than by an advance from here.” This was written on September 2, the day Burnside’s cavalry rode into Knoxville, and two days later Rosecrans completed his crossing of the Tennessee River, posing the intolerable threat of a march through Georgia to the sea. Davis and Seddon—to whom Longstreet had written earlier, by invitation, renewing his pre-Gettysburg claim “that the only hope of reviving the waning cause was through the advantage of interior lines”—reacted with a sudden shift from approval of Lee’s proposal to approval of his lieutenant’s, except that they preferred that the Virginian himself go west to deliver in person the blow designed to bring Old Rosy to his knees. Lee demurred, asserting that the general already on the scene and familiar with the terrain could do a better job. Davis reluctantly acquiesced, and the final plan to reinforce Bragg from Virginia, though not to supersede him, was approved. On September 6 Lee sent word for his quartermaster to arrange for transportation by rail to Northwest Georgia for two of Longstreet’s divisions. Next morning the Richmond council adjourned, and he returned to Orange. By the following day, September 8, the designated troops were on the move.
Longstreet rode over to headquarters to bid his gray-bearded commander farewell. They talked for a while in the latter’s tent and then emerged. Lee said nothing more until the burly Georgian had one foot in the stirrup, prepared to mount. “Now, General, you must beat those people out in the West,” he told him. Old Peter took his foot from the stirrup and turned to face his chief. “If I live,” he said. “But I would not give a single man of my command for a fruitless victory.” This was a rather impolitic thing to say to a commander whose greatest victories had been “fruitless” in the sense that Longstreet meant, but Lee either missed or ignored the implication. He merely repeated that arrangements had been made and orders issued to assure that any success would be exploited. Then he watched the man he called “my old warhorse” mount and ride away, leaving him barely more than 45,000 troops with which to block or parry an advance by an army that lately had whipped him with nearly equal numbers and now had almost twice the strength of his own.
“Never before were so many troops moved over such worn-out railways,” a First Corps staff officer later wrote, though not quite accurately, since he left out of account (as most veterans of the eastern theater, together with most eastern-born or -trained historians, were prone to do in matters pertaining to the western theater) Bragg’s transfer of his whole army from Tupelo to Chattanooga by way of Mobile the previous year. “Never before were such crazy cars—passenger, baggage, mail, coal, box, platform, all and every sort wobbling on the jumping strap-iron—used for hauling good soldiers,” the staffer went on. “But we got there nevertheless.” Here too a degree of inaccuracy crept in; for out of a total of 12,000 men in the two divisions, only about 7500 reached the field in time for a share in the fighting that had begun before the first of them arrived. Primarily this was because the fall of Knoxville, just the week before, denied them use of the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, which up till then had afforded a direct 550-mile route from Gordonsville to Dalton. As a result, a roundabout route had to be taken—first by way of southern Virginia, then down through both of the Carolinas, and finally across the width of Georgia, with no possibility of using through trains because of the varying gauges of track on the dozen different lines—for a total distance of nearly 1000 miles from Orange Courthouse to Catoosa Station, which was within earshot of the battle they heard raging as they approached the end of their long journey through the heartland.
For the troops themselves—Deep Southerners to a man, except the Texans and Arkansans, now that Pickett’s Virginians had been detached—the trip had all the elements of a lark, despite the cramped accommodations, the thrown-together meals, and the knowledge that possible death and suffering awaited them at its end. Many of the Carolinians and Georgians—South Carolinians, that is; for there were no North Carolinians in Longstreet’s corps—passed through home towns they had not visited in two years, and though guards were posted at all the stops to assure that no unauthorized furloughs were taken, it was good to see that the old places were still there, complete with pretty girls who passed out delicacies and blushed at the whoops of admirers. For Hood’s men there was an added bonus in the form of their commander, who rejoined them when they passed through Richmond, where he was recuperating from his Gettysburg wound. Though his arm was still useless in a sling, he was unable to resist the impulse to come along when he saw, as he said later, that “my old troops, with whom I had served so long, were thus to be sent forth to another army—quasi, I may say, among strangers.” They cheered at the news that he was aboard and was going to Georgia with them. At Weldon, North Carolina, alternate routes—one via Raleigh, Charlotte, and Columbia, the other via Goldsboro, Wilmington, and Florence—relieved the strain on the overworked roads until they combined again at Kingsville, South Carolina, where a matron diarist watched the overloaded trains chuff past in what seemed a never-ending procession. “God bless the gallant fellows,” she wrote; “not one man intoxicated, not one rude word did I hear. It was a strange sight. What seemed miles of platform cars, and soldiers rolled in their blankets lying in rows with their heads all covered, fast asleep. In their gray blankets packed in regular order, they looked like swathed mummies.… A feeling of awful depression laid hold of me. All those fine fellows going to kill or be killed, but why? A word took to beating about my head like an old song, ‘The Unreturning Brave.’ When a knot of boyish, laughing young creatures passed, a queer thrill of sympathy shook me. Ah, I know how your homefolks feel. Poor children!”
From Branchville, immediately south of there, the route extended due west, via Augusta, to Atlanta, where it turned northwest and ran the final 125 miles northwest to the unloading point, four miles short of Ringgold and 965 circuitous miles from Orange. McLaws and Hood had four brigades each. Two of the former’s and one of the latter’s would not reach the field until the action had ended—neither would McLaws himself, who was charged with hurrying the last infantry elements northward from Atlanta; nor would a single piece of the corps artillery with which Alexander, still back in the Carolinas, was bringing up the rear—but the five brigades that did arrive in time were to play a significant part in the battle that was in progress when they got there. Hood arrived on September 18, had his horse unloaded from a boxcar, then mounted, still with his arm in its sling, and rode toward the sound of firing, some half a dozen miles away along the banks of a sluggish, meandering, tree-lined creek whose name he now heard for the first time: Chickamauga, an Indian word that meant “stagnant water” or, more popularly, “River of Death.” Before nightfall he and his three brigades had a share, by Bragg’s direction, in forcing a crossing of the stream at a place called Reed’s Bridge, near which they were joined next day by the two brigades from McLaws’ division.
Longstreet reached Catoosa Station the following afternoon, September 19, but found no guide waiting to take him to Bragg or give him news of the battle he could hear raging beyond the western screen of woods. When the horses came up on a later train, he had three of them saddled and set out with two members of his staff to find the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee. He was helped in this, so far as the general direction was concerned, by the rearward drift of the wounded, although none of these unfortunates seemed to know exactly where he could find their commander. Night fell and the three officers continued their ride by moonlight until they were halted by a challenge out of the darkness just ahead: “Who comes there?” “Friends,” they replied, promptly but with circumspection, and in the course of the parley that followed they asked the sentry to identify his unit. When he did so by giving the numbers of his brigade and division—Confederate outfits were invariably known by the names of their commanders—they knew they had blundered into the Union lines. “Let us ride down a little way to find a better crossing,” Old Peter said, disguising his southern accent, and the still-mounted trio withdrew, unfired on, to continue their search for Bragg. It was barely an hour before midnight when they found him—or, rather, found his camp; for he was asleep in his ambulance by then.
He turned out for a brief conference, in the course of which he outlined, rather sketchily, what had happened up to now in his contest with Rosecrans, now approaching a climax here at Chickamauga, and passed on the orders already issued to the five corps commanders for a dawn attack next morning. Longstreet, though he had never seen the field by daylight, was informed that he would have charge of the left wing, which contained six of the army’s eleven divisions, including his own two fragmentary ones that had arrived today and yesterday from Virginia. For whatever it might be worth, Bragg also gave him what he later described as “a map showing prominent topographical features of the ground from the Chickamauga River to Mission Ridge, and beyond to the Lookout Mountain range.” Otherwise he was on his own, so far as information was concerned.
Before the close of the Sunday that presently was dawning—September 20; the sun both rose and set at approximately straight-up 6 o’clock, for this was the week of the autumnal equinox—Old Peter was to discover that he was on his own in other ways as well. He was up and about at first light, correcting the faulty alignment of his wing and alerting his troops for their share in the attack Bragg had ordered to be opened “at day-dawn” on the far right, where Polk was in command, and then to be taken up in sequence by the divisions posted southward along the four-mile line of battle. Sunlight dappled the topmost leaves of the trees, then moved down the branches, but there was no sound of the firing Longstreet had been told to expect from the right as the signal for his own commitment on the left. An hour he waited, then another and another, and still there was no crash of guns from the north or word from headquarters of a postponement or cancellation of the attack. Like Lee at Gettysburg, where the shoe had been on the other foot, the burly Georgian scarcely knew what to make of this, except as an indication that such things were not ordered well in the western army. However, he was not of an excitable or even impatient nature, being rather inclined, as a matter of course, to take things as they came. Besides, whatever its cause, the present delay gave him time to examine and improve his dispositions, to familiarize himself at least to some extent with the heavily wooded terrain, and to learn a good deal more than Bragg had taken the trouble to tell him of what had happened, so far, on this confusing field where the two armies had come together for the fourth of their bloody confrontations, a year and a half after Shiloh, a year after Perryville, and nine months after Murfreesboro, all three of which it gave promise of exceeding, both in fury and in bloodshed, despite the apparent—and indeed, in the light of this indication of suffering to come, quite natural—reluctance of the two forces to resume what had got started here the day before.
Bragg now had on hand all the troops he was going to have for the battle. Each of his five corps had two divisions, except Longstreet’s, now under Hood, which had three or anyhow parts of three: Hood’s own under Law, McLaws’ under Kershaw, and one created the previous week, when two more brigades arrived from Mississippi and were combined with Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson’s brigade, detached from Stewart’s division of Buckner’s corps, to form a new provisional division under his command. Longstreet massed this three-division corps, the bulk of which had come with him from Virginia and comprised his Sunday punch, at the right center of his portion of the line, alongside Hindman’s division, which had been detached from Polk the day before. On the left and right, respectively on the outer and interior flanks, were Buckner’s two divisions under Preston and Stewart. Exclusive of Wheeler’s cavalry, patrolling southward beyond an eastward bend of the creek on which his left was anchored, Old Peter had some 25,000 effectives. Polk had roughly the same number in his wing, exclusive of Forrest’s cavalry on his right. Hill’s two divisions, under Breckinridge and Cleburne, were on the outer flank, and next to them, massed in depth along the center, were the two divisions of Walker’s corps, commanded by Brigadier Generals St John Liddell and States Rights Gist. Cheatham’s division was posted on the interior flank, adjoining Longstreet. All eleven of these divisions, six in the left and five in the right wing, had three brigades each, with the exception of Cheatham’s, which had five, and Liddell’s and Kershaw’s, which had two apiece; Polk had 16, Longstreet 17 brigades. Bragg’s total of 33 infantry brigades was thus the same as the number Rosecrans had in his eleven divisions, but the average blue division was somewhat larger than the average gray division, with the result that the Federals had some 56,000 infantry and artillery, as compared to the Confederate 50,000. However, this disparity was offset by the fact that Rosecrans had only just over 9000 troopers, while Bragg had nearly 15,000, so that the total for each of the opposing forces was approximately 65,000 of all arms. A further disparity in guns, 170 Federal and 200 Confederate, made little tactical difference on terrain so densely wooded that visibility seldom extended for more than fifty yards in any direction; Chickamauga was by no means an artillery contest. On the other hand, Rosecrans had the decided advantage of commanding an army he had trained and fought as a unit for nearly a year now, whereas a good third of Bragg’s had joined him during the past few weeks, including five brigades that had arrived in the past two days and a wing commander who had never seen the field by daylight until dawn of the second day of battle.
Already the effect of this had seemed likely to prove fatal. To judge from the poor showing the Confederates had made in failing to spring the trap on Thomas, nine days ago in McLemore’s Cove, and then again on Crittenden, two days later at Lee & Gordon’s Mill—both as a result of breakdowns along the unfamiliar chain of command—the evident inability of Bragg’s subordinates to work in harmony, either with him or with each other in the execution of carefully laid plans, certainly did not promise well for the outcome of future confrontations, which were unlikely to afford them any such lopsided numerical and tactical advantages as they had twice neglected. Bragg was so put out by this turn of events that he fell back on LaFayette and sulked for three whole days: during which time Rosecrans, thoroughly alarmed though unmolested, got his three divergent columns approximately back together and brought his reserve corps forward from Stevenson to Rossville. Crittenden remained at the foot of Missionary Ridge, near Lee & Gordon’s Mill, and Thomas shifted to Pond Spring, midway between Crittenden and his own former post at Stevens Gap, while McCook made a long march northward, in rear of Lookout Mountain, to take up the position Thomas had just vacated. By sundown, September 17, all this had been accomplished; Granger, Crittenden, Thomas, and McCook had their corps respectively in bivouac near Rossville Gap, Lee & Gordon’s Mill, Pond Spring, and Stevens Gap, each within about six miles of the next one up or down the line that more or less followed the course of Chickamauga Creek, just east of Missionary Ridge. Rosecrans could draw his first easy breath since his discovery, four days back, that the rebels, far from fleeing in fear and disorder, as they had encouraged him to believe, had been intent on destroying his divided army.
He would have breathed less easily, however, if he had known what his opponent was planning, and had in fact begun to do that day, by way of accomplishing his further discomfiture. Encouraged by word that Longstreet was close at hand with reinforcements from Virginia, Bragg had emerged Achilles-like from his sulk and put his troops in motion, once more with Old Rosy’s destruction as his goal. Marching north from LaFayette that morning, he massed his army before nightfall on the east side of Chickamauga Creek, his left at Glass’s Mill, a mile above (that is, south of) Lee & Gordon’s, and his right near Reed’s Bridge, five miles downstream. Polk advised a rapid march on Rossville Gap, the seizure of which would cut the Federals off from their new base at Chattanooga and thus oblige them to attack the Confederates in a position selected in advance; but Bragg had something more ambitious in mind, involving the cul-de-sac in which Thomas had nearly come to grief a week ago tomorrow. According to orders written late that night and issued before daylight, Polk would demonstrate on the left, fixing Crittenden in position, while Buckner and Walker—supported by Hood, who was scheduled to arrive in the course of the day—crossed by fords and bridges, well below, with instructions to “sweep up the Chickamauga, toward Lee & Gordon’s Mill.” As they approached that point, Polk was to force a crossing and assist in driving the outflanked bluecoats southward into McLemore’s Cove for another try at the meat-grinder operation. Wheeler’s horsemen would plug the gaps in Pigeon Mountain, preventing a breakout, and Forrest’s would guard the outer flank of the two corps—three, if Hood arrived in time—charged with executing the gatelike swing that was designed to throw Crittenden into retreat by bringing them down hard on his flank and rear. Meanwhile, opposite Glass’s Mill, Hill would hold the pivot and stand ready to strike at any reinforcements from Thomas, moving north from Pond Spring toward the mouth of the cove, and pack them back into the grinder. The attack was to open in the far right at Reed’s Bridge, and the jump-off hour was set for sunrise. Remembering what had happened near here a week ago, when a similar maneuver was attempted on a smaller scale, Bragg closed his field order with an admonition: “The above movements will be executed with the utmost promptness, vigor, and persistence.”
Perhaps, after all that had gone wrong before, this was more an expression of hope than an expectation. At any rate he was sorely disappointed. Already nervous about his left—“It is of utmost importance that you close down this way to cover our left flank,” he had wired Burnside yesterday, adding (though in vain, as it turned out) “I want all the help we can get promptly”—Rosecrans had taken alarm at sundown reports from scouts that there were rebels on the march in large numbers in the woods across the creek, and he had begun, accordingly, to sidle his army northward in the darkness. Moving Crittenden beyond Lee & Gordon’s to cover the Chattanooga-LaFayette road, he advanced Thomas to Crawfish Springs, a hamlet just in rear of Glass’s Mill, and McCook to the position Thomas had vacated at Pond Spring. By sunrise, as a result of these three shifts, his four corps—Granger had stayed put at Rossville Gap—were not only more tightly concentrated, the intervals between them having been reduced by half or better, but his left was also about two miles north of where it had been at sunset, when the southern commander made his calculations for an attack which thus was based on faulty or outdated information as to the blue dispositions. Then too, despite the closing admonition, there was the habitual lack of promptness in the movement of the various gray columns, plus what Bragg later referred to, rather charitably, as “the difficulties arising from the bad and narrow country roads,” not to mention the stinging opposition of Federal mounted units with their rapid-fire weapons. In any event, though crossings were effected late in the day—by Hood, who arrived with his three brigades about 4 o’clock, and Walker—Buckner, Polk, and Hill were still on the east side of the creek at nightfall, with six of the ten divisions now on the field. Buckner crossed in the darkness, as did one of Polk’s divisions; so that by daylight, September 19, Bragg had all of his infantry on the west bank except Hindman’s division and the two with Hill. He had scarcely accomplished a fraction of all he intended today, but at any rate he was at last in a position to launch the turning movement he had designed two nights ago.
Or so he thought, still basing his calculations on a belief that the Union left was at Lee & Gordon’s Mill. Actually, however, he was even wronger now than he had been the day before. Still concerned about his flank and his lines of supply and communication leading back to Chattanooga, Rosecrans had continued his sidling movement along the road toward Rossville Gap. Again leaving his position to be filled by McCook, Thomas marched across the rear of Crittenden in the darkness and extended the left another two miles north. By dawn, although Negley had not yet vacated Crawfish Springs and Reynolds was still en route, the Union-loyal Virginian’s other two divisions, under Brigadier Generals Absalom Baird and J. M. Brannan, were in position at the intersection of the LaFayette Road and the road leading east to Reed’s Bridge and west to McFarland’s Gap, two miles south of Rossville. Consequently—though Bragg not only failed to suspect it, but in fact continued to base his attack plan on a belief that the reverse was true—the Federal left extended beyond the Confederate right. As Harvey Hill said later, with all the wisdom of hindsight, “While our troops had been moving up the Chickamauga, the Yankees had been moving down, and thus outflanked us.”
The first real indication that this was so came in the emphatic form of an attack that struck and nearly crumpled the northern extremity of the Confederate line before it could begin the movement Bragg had ordered. Informed at sunup by an outpost colonel that the rebels had only a single brigade across the creek at Reed’s Bridge, directly to his front, Thomas decided, on the basis of this misinformation, to attack and abolish it then and there. Brannan’s division, advancing eastward, soon encountered Forrest’s cavalry, out on a prowl. Dismounting his troopers, Forrest skirmished briskly to delay the bluecoats while Walker was sending Gist to his assistance. Surprised and thrown into sudden retreat when the gray infantry struck, Brannan managed to rally on Baird, sent forward by Thomas to bolster the line; but not for long. Walker threw Liddell into the conflict alongside Gist, and the two of them, with Forrest still tearing at the blue flank, drove the Federals back on their line of departure, one mile east of the LaFayette Road. Finding himself with a good deal more of a fight on his hands than he had expected, Thomas by now had called for reinforcements, and Rosecrans, still concerned about his left, responded promptly by sending Palmer of Crittenden’s corps and Johnson of McCook’s. The latter got there first and went in hard, stemming the near rout that had developed. Once more the line of battle swayed indecisively until the weight of numbers told. Then the graybacks began to give ground, until they in turn were reinforced by two brigades from Cheatham and the balance was restored.
That was the pattern, here and elsewhere along the four-mile line today. Always the weight of numbers decided the issue at every point in what was patently a battle not of generals but of soldiers. (“All this talk about generalship displayed on either side is sheer nonsense,” Wilder declared long afterwards, looking back on the Chickamauga nightmare. “There was no generalship in it. It was a soldier’s fight purely, wherein the only question involved was the question of endurance. The two armies came together like two wild beasts, and each fought as long as it could stand up in a knock-down and drag-out encounter. If there had been any high order of generalship displayed, the disasters to both armies might have been less.”) What mainly distinguished the conflict from the outset was its fury. An Alabamian described the racket as “one solid, unbroken wave of awe-inspiring sound … as if all the fires of earth and hell had been turned loose in one mighty effort to destroy each other.” Fighting deep in the woods, with visibility strictly limited to his immediate vicinity, each man seemed to take the struggle as a highly personal matter between him and the blue or butternut figures he saw dodging into and out of sight, around and behind the clumps of brush and trunks of trees. “By the holy St Patrick, Colonel,” a Tennessee private replied when told to pick up the flag that had fluttered down when the color-bearer fell, “there’s so much good shooting around here I haven’t a minute’s time to waste fooling with that thing.” All such interruptions, or attempts at interruption, were resented, sometimes even by men of rank. Bedford Forrest, for example, flew into a towering rage at an infantry brigadier for distracting him with messages expressing concern for his flanks. When the first of these was brought to him by an aide—“General Forrest, General Ector directed me to say to you that he is uneasy about his right flank”—the cavalryman, who wore a linen duster over his uniform today with his sword and pistol buckled outside, replied laconically: “Tell General Ector that he need not bother about his right flank. I’ll take care of it.” Presently, though, the staffer was back with word that his chief was uneasy again, this time about his left. Forrest, who was busy directing the fire of a battery of horse artillery, gave a roar of exasperation. “Tell General Ector that by God I am here,” he shouted above the din of the guns, “and will take care of his left flank as well as his right!”
He did as he promised, but only by the hardest. All morning, here on the Confederate right, the struggle was touch and go, until the beginning was unrememberable and no end seemed possible. All there was was now, a raging fury. When an owl flew up, startled out of a tree by the battle racket, some crows attacked it in flight between the lines. “Moses, what a country!” a soldier exclaimed as he watched. “The very birds are fighting.”
By now it was past midday. Rosecrans came up from Crawfish Spring about 1 o’clock, riding toward the sound of guns, and established headquarters in a small log house belonging to Mrs Eliza Glenn, the widow of a Confederate soldier. Located on a commanding elevation a bit under two miles north of Lee & Gordon’s Mill and half a mile west of the road along with his army was deployed, this afforded him an excellent site, just south of the center of his line, from which to give close attention to his right, while the ablest of his corps commanders took charge of the left, which extended to the intersection not quite three miles to the north. Neatly dressed in black trousers, a white vest, and a plain blue coat, Old Rosy was in fine spirits, and with cause; Thomas had gotten the jump on the rebels this morning and seemed to be holding them handily with the reinforcements sent in prompt response to his request. Not even the capture, in the course of an early afternoon skirmish in the woods about a mile due east of headquarters, of some prisoners from Hood’s division—conclusive evidence that part at least of Longstreet’s corps, with an estimated strength of 17,000 effectives, was already on the scene—served to diminish the confidence displayed in the northern commander’s bearing. A reporter, observing the general’s flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, considered him “very handsome,” Roman nose and all, as he went over the growing collection of dispatches from subordinates, brought by couriers from all quarters of the field, and studied a rather sketchy map unrolled on the Widow Glenn’s parlor table. He was in such good spirits, in fact, that he took the occasion to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, the interrogation of a prisoner.
The man selected was a Texas captain, taken just now in the skirmish on the far side of the LaFayette Road. Rosecrans invited him to step outside, and the two sat together, apart from the officers of the staff, on a log in the side yard. Whittling as he spoke, the Ohioan conversed pleasantly for a time, then casually inquired about the Confederate dispositions.
“General, it has cost me a great deal of trouble to find your lines,” the captain answered. “If you take the same amount of trouble you will find ours.”
Smiling, Rosecrans went on whittling and asking questions, but to small avail. The prisoner, though he readily admitted that he was from Bragg’s army, could not recall what corps or division he belonged to.
“Captain,” Rosecrans said at last, “you don’t seem to know much, for a man whose appearance seems to indicate so much intelligence.”
Now it was the Texan’s turn to smile.
“Well, General,” he replied, “if you are not satisfied with my information, I will volunteer some. We are going to whip you most tremendously in this fight.”
Soon after the rebel captain had been taken to the rear—alternately reticent and voluble, but about as irksome one way as the other—there was evidence that his parting remark might well turn out to be an accurate prediction. Moreover, the evidence was not only promptly presented; it was also repeated twice in the course of the next four hours, in the form of three extremely savage attacks launched against as many parts of the Federal line by Stewart, Hood, and Cleburne, three of the hardest-hitting commanders in Bragg’s army.
So far, except for some minor skirmishing between the lines, there had been no action on the Union right with anything like the violence of the fighting that had continued all this time on the left, where Thomas was engaged with four of the eight blue divisions now on hand. Bragg had sent for Stewart’s division of Buckner’s corps, intending to throw it into the seesaw battle raging on the Confederate right; but Stewart—a forty-two-year-old Tennessean called “Old Straight” by his men, partly because of his ramrod posture, but mostly because he had taught mathematics at West Point, where he had acquired the nickname, and afterwards at Cumberland University—as he marched downstream through the woods, took a sudden turn to the west at about 2.30, either by design or error, and lunged instead at the enemy center, a mile south of where Bragg had intended to commit him. He struck Van Cleve’s division of Crittenden’s corps, which had seen no combat so far in the campaign and was unbraced for the shock. Having recently come into line after making their second night march in the past two days, Van Cleve and his men were not only considerably worn but were also as thoroughly confused as the Illinois soldier who later remarked wryly that “the reassembling of his three corps by Rosecrans was a tactical proceeding that even the privates could not make heads or tails of.” At any rate, the three brigades broke badly under the impact of a host of screaming rebels, hurled at them from the dense woods in their front. Crittenden himself and Van Cleve, who at fifty-four was the oldest Federal brigadier—a New-Jersey-born Minnesotan and a member of the West Point class of 1831, he had been twenty-five years out of uniform when the war came—did what they could to stay the rout, though with little or no success. Stewart’s troops made it up to and across the LaFayette Road to where the Glenn house, its yard crowded with staff orderlies and couriers and their mounts, was in plain view across the rolling landscape. But so, by now, was something else; two somethings else, in fact. Thomas’s two remaining divisions under Reynolds and Negley, hard on their way north to join him, were halted in their tracks, still in column and nearly a mile apart, then faced right and thrown without delay into the breach, which Thomas had already begun to narrow by sending Brannan’s troops—recovered by now, in part at least, from the mauling they had taken on the left—against its northern lip. As these three blue divisions converged upon his isolated gray one, Stewart fell sullenly back from contact, firing as he went. Half a mile east of the road he called a halt, and there, under cover of the woods he had emerged from, laid down a mass of fire that discouraged pursuit.
Hood was in position on the left of Stewart, due west of Alexander’s Bridge. At the height of the uproar to his right front, though he was without orders, he put his two divisions in line abreast, Johnson on the left of Law, and started them forward at about 4 o’clock, by which time the racket up ahead had begun to subside. Tramping westward through the woods and brush, the Texas brigade, on the far right, went past one of Stewart’s Tennessee regiments, which had just returned, blown and bloody, from its brief penetration of the Union line. “Rise up, Tennesseans,” one of the advancing soldiers called, “and see the Texans go in!” Too weary to reply, let alone stand, Stewart’s fought-out infantry lay there panting and watching as Hood’s men swept past them, first the skirmishers, then the solid ranks of the main body, the pride of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s hard hitters who had shattered many a Yankee line, from Gaines Mill to the Devil’s Den. Holding their attack formation as best they could in the heavy woods, these stalwarts broke into the clear near the LaFayette Road, a mile south of where Stewart had crossed it an hour ago, and went with a shout for a blue division drawn up to receive them on the west side of the road, apparently without supports on either flank.
It was Davis, of McCook. His three brigades were struck by the rebel six with predictable results; for though the bluecoats stood for a time, firing nervously but rapidly into the long line of attackers, the limit of their endurance was soon reached. Both overlapped flanks gave way at once, as if on signal, and the center promptly buckled under the strain. Once more, however, as the unstrung Federals fled westward and the Confederates pursued them to within plain view of the Widow Glenn’s, yelling for all they were worth, a pair of blue divisions—the last two of the ten that would reach the field today—arrived most opportunely from the south, with all the patness of the cavalry in light fiction. Wood’s division of Crittenden’s corps was in the lead, coming down from Lee & Gordon’s Mill, and now it was the rebels who were outflanked; Johnson had to call a halt to meet the menace to his left, as did Law, beyond him on the right. Davis rallied and led his fugitives back into the fight at about the same time Sheridan’s division arrived from Crawfish Springs to tip the balance in favor of the Union. Halted, Johnson had to yield to this new pressure, and Law was obliged to conform: especially when Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, still detached from Reynolds and held by Rosecrans in reserve for such emergencies, added the weight of its multishot carbines to the fray. The two butternut divisions fell back to the east side of the road, which then became and remained the dividing line between the Confederate left and the Federal right. Sheridan, in accordance with his instinct for aggression, tried to press matters with a charge, but was repulsed, and Hood settled into a new line about a mile in advance of his old one. On the right, as the men of the Texas brigade retired through the woods, badly cut up by Wilder’s rapid-fire weapons in the final stage of their withdrawal, they came back to where they had called on Stewart’s blown and bloody Tennesseans to “rise up … and see the Texans go in.” The regiment was still there, fairly well rested from its exertions, and one of its members did not neglect the opportunity thus afforded. “Rise up, Tennesseans,” he called, “and see the Texans come out!”
By now it was sunset and the third in this sequence of savage attacks was about to be launched at the far end of the line. Summoned for one more go at the Federal left, where the fighting had slacked as if by common consent though the issue was still in doubt, Cleburne left his position opposite Lee & Gordon’s at about the time Stewart’s drive on the enemy center was being repulsed and Hood’s was getting started against the right. Fording the Chickamauga well above Alexander’s Bridge, the use of which would have delayed their march, his men found the spring-fed water icy cold and armpit deep. Wet and chilled, they continued northward through the woods for another four miles to reach their jump-off position just after sundown. Across the way, Thomas now had five divisions, Reynolds having come on to join him while Negley stayed behind to plug the gap created when Van Cleve was driven rearward. “Old Pap,” as the solidly built Virginian’s soldiers liked to call him, had seen to it that Baird and Johnson, who were posted at the extremity of his line, were braced for the assault he was convinced would be renewed before the day was over, while Palmer, Reynolds, and Brannan, who continued his line southward in that order, were warned to be ready to lend a hand. When the sun went down behind Missionary Ridge and no new attack had developed, they began to tell each other he was wrong; until Cleburne exploded out of the darkling woods, directly in front of Baird and Johnson, and proved him emphatically right. The three gray brigades were in line abreast, covering more than a mile from flank to flank, with Cheatham in close support. Though little could be seen in the gathering darkness, the immediate impression was one of absolute chaos as Cleburne’s 5000 screaming men bore down on roughly twice that many defenders in the two blue divisions in their path. They charged with a clatter of musketry so tremendous that they seemed to be trying to make up for the disparity in numbers by the rapidity of their fire. That was in fact the case; Cleburne placed great stock in fast, well-aimed fire, and had drilled his troops relentlessly in rifle tactics, in and out of normal work hours, with just the present effect in mind. An Indiana captain later recorded that the advancing graybacks were “loading and firing in a manner that I believe was never surpassed on any battlefield during the rebellion,” and Cleburne himself declared soon afterwards that “for half an hour [the firing] was the heaviest I ever heard.”
This time there was no last-minute outside help; unlike Crittenden and McCook, Thomas had to fight with what he had when he was hit. After all, however, what he had was half the army, and though he lost a pair of guns, three stands of colors, some 400 captured men, and nearly a mile of ground on his outer flank, it was enough to stave off disaster. When full darkness put an end to what another Hoosier called “a display of fireworks that one does not like to see more than once in a lifetime,” the blue line was severely contracted but unbroken. Baird and Brannan were forced back to the LaFayette Road on the left and right, but the three divisions between them maintained an eastward bulge of about 600 yards at its deepest. Cleburne’s men, bedding down wherever they happened to be when the order reached them to stop firing, could hear the Federals hard at work beyond the curtain of night, felling trees to be used in the construction of breastworks along the contracted bulge of their new line. Shivering in their still-wet clothes, for the night was unseasonably cold for September, the listening Confederates knew only too well that they would have to try to overrun those breastworks in the morning.
Back at his campfire near Alexander’s Bridge, Bragg was telling his corps commanders—all but Longstreet, who would get his instructions when he arrived near midnight, and Hill, who afterwards explained that he had not been able to locate the command post in the darkness—that the army’s objective remained the same as yesterday: “to turn the enemy’s left, and by direct attack force him into McLemore’s Cove.” Kershaw arrived after dark with his two brigades, completing a fast march from the Ringgold railhead, and was sent at once to Hood. By way of final preparation, Breckinridge was ordered to take position on Cleburne’s right, extending the gray line northward in an attempt to outflank Thomas, while Hindman made a shorter march to get between Hood and Preston on the left. These three divisions, so far uncommitted, would complete the order of battle for tomorrow’s attack, which Polk was scheduled to open at dawn on the far right and which would then be taken up in sequence, corps by corps, all down the line.
Hill would later refer caustically to the disjointed sequence of attacks, in which he himself had taken no part except to detach one of his divisions, as “the sparring of the amateur boxer, not the crushing blows of the trained pugilist,” and Bragg in turn would describe the action, so far, as nothing more than “severe skirmishing” engaged in by his various corps and division commanders, for the most part on their own, “while endeavoring to get into line of battle.” But no one knew better than Rosecrans, across the way in the Widow Glenn’s lamp-lighted parlor, how near a thing it had been for him at times. In addition to the day-long pounding his left had managed to absorb—including the blood-curdling twilight assault by what sounded like tens of thousands of fiends equipped with the latest style rapid-fire weapons—two rebel penetrations, one of his center and one of his right, had surged to within plain view of army headquarters, and of these the second had come so close that he and members of his staff had had to shout at one another in order to be heard above the din.
Some measure of his mounting concern could be seen in a series of telegrams sent to the War Department in the course of the day by Charles Dana, who had arrived from Vicksburg the week before to continue his services as a behind-the-scenes observer for Stanton. “Rosecrans has everything ready to grind up Bragg’s flank,” he reported from Crawfish Springs that morning, and at 1 p.m. he followed this up—or, rather, he failed to follow it up—with a somewhat less encouraging or at any rate less emphatic message, sent as he left for the scene of the fighting three miles north: “Everything is going well, but the full proportions of the conflict are not yet developed.” By 2.30 the telegraph line had been extended to the Glenn house, and Dana kept the operator busy. “Fight continues to rage,” he wired. “Decisive victory seems assured.” At 3.20 he passed along a report from Thomas “that he is driving rebels, and will force them into Chickamauga tonight.” Though the center was being assailed by then, and the right was about to be, Dana was not fazed. “Everything is prosperous. Sheridan is coming up,” he announced at 4 o’clock. A near commitment at 4.30 as to the outcome—“I do not yet dare to say our victory is complete, but it seems certain”—was modified in the dispatch that followed at 5.20: “Now appears to be undecided contest, but later reports will enable us to understand more clearly.”
So it went; so it had gone all day. Despite his show of heartiness, what he mainly communicated was his confusion in attempting to follow a battle which, as he said, was “fought altogether in a thick forest, invisible to outsiders.” In that sense, even the army commander was an outsider. Except for a rearward trickle of reports, most of them about as disconcerted as Dana’s to Stanton, no one at headquarters could do much more than guess at what was happening in the smoky woods beyond the LaFayette Road. Rosecrans tried for a time, with the help of Mrs Glenn, to follow the progress of the fight by ear. She would make a guess, when a gun was heard, that it was “nigh out about Reed’s Bridge” or “about a mile fornenst John Kelly’s house,” and he would try to match this information with the place names on the map. But it was a far from satisfactory procedure, for a variety of reasons. The map was a poor one in the first place, and after a while the roar was practically continuous all along the front. A reporter thought he had never witnessed “anything so ridiculous as this scene” between Old Rosy and the widow. Presently, when Stewart’s men broke through the Federal center, she had to be removed to a place of greater safety, but Rosecrans, “fairly quivering with excitement,” continued to pace back and forth, rubbing his palms rapidly together as the sound of firing swelled and quickened. “Ah! there goes Brannan!” he exclaimed with obvious satisfaction. He might have been right; besides, the noise was about all he had to go on; but it did not seem to the reporter that the general understood the situation any better than the departed countrywoman had done. Still, he kept pacing and exclaiming, perhaps in an attempt to ease the tension on his nerves and keep his spirits up. “Ah—there goes Brannan!” he would say; or, “That’s Negley going in!”
Out on the line, when darkness finally put an end to the long day’s fighting, the troops had a hard time of it. “How we suffered that night no one knows,” a veteran was to recall. “Water could not be found; the rebels had possession of the Chickamauga, and we had to do without. Few of us had blankets and the night was very cold. All looked with anxiety for the coming of the dawn; for although we had given the enemy a rough handling, he had certainly used us very hard.”
Under such conditions, despite much loss of sleep both nights before, work on the construction of breastworks was welcome as a means of keeping warm, as well as a diversion from thoughts of tomorrow. For Rosecrans, however, there could be no release from the latter; it was his job. He could take pride in the fact that his line, though obliged to yield an average mile of ground throughout its length today, was not only intact but was also considerably shorter than it had been when this morning’s contest opened. Then too, word had come that Halleck at last was doing all he could to speed reinforcements to North Georgia; urgent appeals had gone from Washington to Burnside and Grant, at Knoxville and in Mississippi, directing them to send troops to Chattanooga in all haste, and similar messages had been dispatched to Hurlbut at Memphis, Schofield in Missouri, and John Pope in far-off Minnesota. It was a comfort to Rosecrans to know that in time there would be these supports to fall back on. Meanwhile, though, he had to fight with what he had on hand, and he was by no means sure that this would be enough, since prisoners had been taken from no less than a dozen regiments known to have arrived just yesterday from Virginia. How many others had come or were arriving tonight he did not know, for the captives were nearly as close-mouthed under interrogation as the Texas captain had been this afternoon, but intelligence officers had little trouble identifying these “Virginians” by their standard gray uniforms, which were in natty contrast to the “go-as-you-please” garments worn in the western armies. Occasionally, too, a scrap of information could be extracted by goading the prisoners into anger. “How does Longstreet like the western Yankees?” one was asked in a mocking tone, and he replied with a growl: “You’ll get enough of Longstreet before tomorrow night.”
This might be nothing more than wishful rebel thinking. On the other hand it might be an informed and accurate prediction. At any rate, whichever it was, Rosecrans decided—as he had done under similar circumstances on New Year’s Eve almost nine months ago—that he would do well to call a council of war for the triple purpose of briefing his principal subordinates on the over-all situation, of obtaining their recommendations as to a proper course of action, and of enabling him, at some later date, to shift at least a share of the blame in event of a defeat. Besides, he had a natural fondness for conference discussions, especially late-at-night ones, whether the subject was strategy or religion. The council accordingly convened at headquarters at 11 o’clock that evening. Most of those present, including the three corps commanders, had attended the conference held at the close of the first day’s fighting in the last great battle; the difference was in the staff. “Poor Garesché,” as Rosecrans had referred to the previous chief of staff after his head was blown off by a cannonball, had been replaced in January by Brigadier General James A. Garfield, a thirty-two-year-old former Ohio schoolteacher, lawyer, lay preacher, and politician, whose warm handclasp seemed to one observer to convey the message, “Vote early. Vote right,” and whose death, at the hands of an assassin who voted both early and right and then failed to get the appointment to which he believed this entitled him, would occur exactly eighteen years from today, partly as a direct result of what was going to happen here tomorrow. Big-headed, with pale eyes and a persuasive manner—like Hooker, he was a protégé of Secretary Chase’s, and up to now his most notable service in the war had been as a member of the court-martial that convicted Fitz-John Porter—Garfield opened the council by displaying for the assembled generals a map with the positions of all the Union divisions indicated, along with those of the Confederates so far as they were known; after which Rosecrans called for individual opinions as to what was to be done. McCook and Crittenden—the Ohioan, according to an obviously unfriendly fellow officer, had “a weak nose that would do no credit to a baby” and a grin that gave rise to “suspicion that he is either still very green or deficient in the upper story,” while the Kentuckian was characterized more briefly as “a good drinker,” one of those men, fairly common in the higher echelons of all armies, who “know how to blow their own horns exceedingly well”—had little to contribute in the way of advice, each perhaps being somewhat chagrined by the loss of one of his three divisions, detached that morning to reinforce the left, and somewhat subdued by the near-destruction of one of his remaining two in the course of the afternoon. Not so Thomas, who differed as much from them in outlook, or anyhow in the emphatic expression of his outlook, as he did in appearance. Ponderous and phlegmatic, he was described by another observer as “not scrimped anywhere, and square everywhere—square face, square shoulders, square step; blue eyes with depths in them, withdrawn beneath a pent-house of a brow, features with legible writing on them, and the whole giving the idea of massive solidity, of the right kind of man to ‘tie to.’ ” Though he slept through much of the conference—not only because it was his custom (he had done the same at Stones River) but also because he had spent the last two nights on the march and most of today under heavy attack—he repeated the same words whenever he was called on for a tactical opinion: “I would strengthen the left.” But when Rosecrans replied, as he did each time, “Where are we going to take it from?” there was no answer; Thomas would be back asleep by then, propped upright in his chair.
At the council held nine months ago in the rain-lashed cabin beside the Nashville pike, the discussion had centered mainly on whether the army should retreat; but here tonight, in the small log house on the field of Chickamauga, the word was used only in connection with the rebels. The decision, committed to paper for distribution as soon as it was reached, was that the Federals would hold their ground. Unless Bragg withdrew under cover of darkness—there was some conjecture that he might, though it was based more on hope than on tangible evidence, of which there was not a shred that indicated a change in his clear intention to destroy them—they would offer him battle tomorrow, on the same terms as today. At this late hour, in point of fact, that seemed not only the bravest but also the safest thing to do, considering the risk a retreating army would run of being caught, trains and all, strung out on the roads leading back through Rossville and McFarland’s gaps to Chattanooga, which was a good ten miles from the Widow Glenn’s. There would be minor readjustments, though not of Granger’s three-brigade reserve force, which was instructed to remain where it was, covering Rossville Gap and holding that escape hatch open in case of a collapse. To lessen the chances of this last, which would be most likely to occur as a result of a rebel breakthrough, Rosecrans directed that his ten-division line of battle along the LaFayette Road was to be strengthened by further contraction. Thomas would hold his five divisions in their present intrenched position on the left, and McCook would move his two northward to connect with Negley’s division, on Thomas’s right, while Crittenden withdrew his two for close-up support of the center or a rapid shift in whichever direction they were needed, north or south. When all this had been discussed and agreed on, Garfield put it in writing and read it back, and when this in turn had been approved it was passed to the headquarters clerks for copying. By now it was midnight. While the generals were waiting for the clerks to finish their task, Rosecrans provided coffee for a social interlude, the principal feature of which was a soulful rendition by “the genial, full-stomached McCook,” as one reporter called him, of a plaintive ballad entitled “The Hebrew Maiden.”
Possibly Thomas slept through this as well; possibly not. In any event, it was 2 o’clock in the morning before he returned to his position on the left, where he found a report awaiting him from Baird, who warned that his division, posted on the flank, could not be extended all the way to the Reed’s Bridge road, as ordered, and still be strong enough to hold if it was struck again by anything like the twilight blow that had sent it reeling for more than a mile until darkness ended the fighting. Thomas made a quick inspection by moonlight and arrived at the same conclusion, then sent a message back to headquarters, explaining the trouble and requesting that Negley, who had been halted and thrown in to shore up the crumbling center while on his way to the left that afternoon, be ordered to resume his northward march and rejoin his proper corps, the critical outer flank of which was in danger of being crushed for lack of support or turned for lack of troops to extend it. Rosecrans promptly agreed by return messenger, as he had done to all such specific requests from his senior corps commander; Negley would march at dawn. Reassured, Thomas at last bedded down under a large oak, one of whose protruding roots afforded a pillow for his head, and there resumed the sleep that had been interrupted, if not by McCook’s singing, then at any rate by the breakup of the council of war, some time after midnight.
He woke to Sunday’s dawn, already impatient for Negley’s arrival. The sun came up blood red through the morning haze and the smoke of yesterday’s battle, which still hung about the field. “It is ominous,” the chief of staff was saying, back at the Widow Glenn’s, as he pointed dramatically at the rising sun. “This will indeed be a day of blood.” Thomas needed no sign to tell him that, but he was growing increasingly anxious about his unsupported flank, which the army commander had assured him would be reinforced without delay. The sun rose higher. Presently it was a full hour above the land-line, and still Negley had not arrived. Rosecrans himself came riding northward about this time, however, and though his face was drawn and puffy from strain and lack of sleep, he spoke encouragingly as he drew rein from point to point along the line. “Fight today as well as you did yesterday,” he told his troops, “and we shall whip them!” This had a somewhat mixed effect. “I did not like the way he looked,” a soldier later recalled, “but of course felt cheered, and did not allow myself to think of any such thing as defeat.”
Bragg and his staff were up and mounted before daylight, waiting for the roar of guns that would signal Polk’s compliance with his orders, received in person the night before, “to assail the enemy on our extreme right at day-dawn of the 20th.” Perhaps by now, after the repeated frustrations of the past two weeks, the Confederate commander might have been expected to accept delay, if not downright disobedience, as more or less standard procedure on the part of his ranking subordinates—particularly Polk and Hill, the wing and corps commanders directly in charge of the troops who would open the attack—but such was not the case. Even if he had learned to expect it, he had by no means learned to take it calmly. Three months later, when he submitted his official account of the battle, his anger was still apparent. “With increasing anxiety and disappointment,” he wrote then, “I waited until after sunrise without hearing a gun, and at length dispatched a staff officer to Lieutenant General Polk to ascertain the cause of the delay and urge him to a prompt and speedy movement.”
By the time the aide located Polk, delivered the message, and returned, the sun was more than an hour high and Bragg’s impatience had been mounting with it. Not a gun had yet been fired, and across the way the Yankees were hard at work improving by daylight the breastworks they had constructed in the darkness. The thought of this was enough to sour a far sweeter disposition than Bragg would ever be able to lay claim to. Moreover, what the staff officer had to report on his return brought his chief’s wrath to what might be called full flower. He had found the bishop, he declared, “at a farm house three miles from the line of his troops, about one hour after sunrise, sitting on the gallery reading a newspaper and waiting, as he said, for his breakfast.” Hearing this, Bragg did something rare for him. He cursed—“a terrible exclamation,” the aide termed the outburst—then rode to Polk’s headquarters, intending no doubt to rebuke the wing commander in person, but found that he had just left for the front, remarking as he did so: “Do tell General Bragg that my heart is overflowing with anxiety for the attack. Overflowing with anxiety, sir.”
It was close to 8 o’clock by then, better than two hours past the hour scheduled for an advance on the far right, and Bragg learned from one of the bishop’s aides, who had remained behind, something of what had caused the mix-up and delay. Hill had not only failed to find army headquarters last night; he had also failed to locate Polk, who in turn had been unable to find him. As a result, unlike Cheatham and Walker, who had reported to headquarters the evening before, Hill had neither received his orders to attack nor been led to suspect that Bragg or anyone else had any such plans in mind for the two divisions on the northern flank. Learning of this for the first time from the courier who returned that morning from an unsuccessful all-night search for Hill, Polk sent orders directly to Breckinridge and Cleburne, bypassing the fugitive corps commander, for them to “move and attack the enemy as soon as you are in position.” Hill was with them when the message was delivered, and when they protested that their men were not only not “in position,” but had not had time to eat their morning rations, he backed them up with a note in which he blandly informed the wing commander that it would be “an hour or so” before the two divisions would be ready to go forward. It was this reply, received at about 7.30, that had caused the bishop—whose overflowing heart by now outweighed his empty stomach—to interrupt his breakfast on the farmhouse gallery, or perhaps not even wait any longer for it to be served, and set out instead for the front and a conference with Hill.
Bragg got there first, however, apparently by taking a shorter route. Trailed by his staff, he rode up to where Hill had established headquarters between Breckinridge and Cleburne, whose troops had still not been placed in attack formation and were just now being fed. When Bragg inquired testily why he had not attacked at daylight in accordance with last night’s order, Hill replied coolly and with obvious satisfaction, as he afterwards recalled, “that I was hearing then for the first time that such an order had been issued and had not known whether we were to be the assailants or the assailed.” Bragg’s anger and impatience had no discernible effect on him whatever. He would not be hurried. Miffed at having been cast in a role subordinate to that of the other two lieutenant generals, who had been made wing commanders while all he had under him was the corps he had brought onto the field, he was unmistakably determined, in the words of a later observer, “to assert to the limit what authority he retained.” Soon Polk arrived, but neither he nor Bragg, scarcely on speaking terms by now with one another, was able to get their fellow North Carolinian to hurry things along; Hill’s claim was that he could scarcely be held responsible for not obeying instructions that had not reached him. He took his time, and what was more he saw to it that his two division commanders took theirs as well. The troops were aligned punctiliously under cover of the woods, and all was reported ready, down to the final round in the final cartridge box, before Hill gave the nod that sent Breckinridge forward at 9.30, followed within fifteen minutes by Cleburne on his left, a full four hours past the time Bragg had set for the attack to open on the far right of the army.
Across the way, Rosecrans too had been having his troubles during the long delay, and though he began the day in a frame of mind that seemed cheerful enough for a man who had had but little sleep to ease the built-up tension on his nerves, he completely lost his temper before he returned to headquarters from his early morning ride along his still-contracting line of battle. Greeted by Thomas when he reached the left, he found him in high spirits over his successful resistance to yesterday’s frantic rebel attempts to drive him from the field. “Whenever I touched their flanks they broke, General; they broke!” he exclaimed. In point of fact, as the long silence continued on through sunrise and beyond, it had become increasingly apparent that they had learned their lesson; they seemed to want no more of it today. Still, it was strange to see the phlegmatic Virginian display such exuberance, even though it lasted only until he spotted a newsman riding with the staff; whereupon he flushed and withdrew at once into the habitual reserve which he used as a shield between himself and such people. He spoke instead of possible danger to his left. Scouts had reported that the Confederates, out beyond the screening woods and thickets, were continuing to shift in that direction. “You must move up, too, as fast as they do,” Rosecrans told him. Thomas agreed, but he also pointed out that this required more troops. There was the rub; Negley had not arrived. Rosecrans assured him that Negley was on the way by now, for he himself had seen to it in the course of his ride north along the line. Thomas was relieved to hear this, though he repeated that he would not consider his flank secure until reinforcements got there to extend and shore it up.
But when the Union commander rode back south, retracing his steps but not stopping now for speeches, he found to his chagrin that the reinforcements he had just assured Thomas were already on their way had not budged from their position in the center, where he had left them an hour ago with orders to march north. However, Negley had an excellent reason for his apparent insubordination. McCook still had not closed the gap created by Crittenden’s withdrawal in compliance with last night’s instructions, so that if Negley had pulled out in turn, as ordered, he would have left a mile-wide hole in the Federal center; which plainly, at a time when an all-out rebel assault was expected at any minute almost anywhere along the front, would not do. Nettled—as well he might be, for the sun was two hours high by now—Rosecrans hurried rearward and told Crittenden to return Wood’s division to the line in place of Negley’s, which then could be released to join Thomas, two miles away on the unshored northern flank. Next he rode south in search of McCook, whose slowness was at the root of the present trouble. Finding him, he stressed the need for haste and an early end to the grumbling confusion into which his two divisions had been thrown by a renewal of their sidling movement toward the left. All this time, though only by the hardest, Old Rosy had managed to keep a grip on his temper. But when he returned to the center and found Negley still in position, with Wood nowhere in sight, he lost it entirely. Pausing only long enough to order Negley to send one of his three brigades to Thomas at once, even though no replacements had arrived, he galloped rearward and presently came upon Wood, who was conferring with his staff about the unexpected and still pending movement back into line. “What is the meaning of this, sir?” Rosecrans barked at him. “You have disobeyed my specific orders. By your damnable negligence you are endangering the safety of the entire army, and by God I will not tolerate it! Move your division at once, as I have instructed, or the consequences will not be pleasant for yourself.” Wood, a forty-year-old Kentuckian, flushed at being upbraided thus in the presence of his staff, but as a West Pointer, a regular army man, and a veteran of all the army’s fights, from Shiloh on, he knew better than to protest. Choking back his resentment, he saluted and put his three brigades in motion.
The lead brigade was just coming into line, at about 9.45, when an uproarious clatter broke out on the far left, fulfilling Thomas’s prediction that his would be the flank the rebels would assault. From the sound of it, as heard by Rosecrans at the Widow Glenn’s, to which he had returned after venting his spleen in the encounter with Wood, they were putting in all they had.
They were indeed putting in all they had at that end of the line: not all at once, however, as the sudden eruption seemed to indicate by contrast with the silence which it shattered, but rather in a series of divisional attacks, as Bragg had ordered. Breckinridge struck first, on the far right. Though his left brigade came up against the north end of the mile-long curve of breastworks and was involved at once in an unequal fire fight, standing in the open to swap volleys with an adversary under cover, the other two found no such obstacle in their path. Thomas had prolonged his line by shifting one of Johnson’s brigades from his center, and the brigade detached in haste from Negley had just arrived to extend the left still farther, but there had not been time enough for felling trees, much less for the heavy task of snaking and staking the trunks into position to fight behind. As a result, the two gray brigades advancing southward down the LaFayette Road met and fought the two blue ones on equal terms, first with a stand-up exchange of volleys, face to face, and then, as the defenders began to waver, with a charge that drove them rearward in a rush. However, Thomas had made good use of the time afforded him by the delaying action. Two more brigades were at hand by then, one from Brannan, which he brought over from his right, and one from Van Cleve, which Rosecrans had sent double-timing to the left when the attack first exploded in that direction. Together they stalled the advance of the jubilant graybacks, and then with the help of the other two brigades, which rallied when the pressure was relieved, drove them back northward, restoring the flank that had crumbled under assault. There was, of course, the danger that they might be reinforced to try again in greater strength; in which case Thomas would be hard put to find reinforcements of his own, for Cleburne’s attack had been launched by now, due south of and adjoining Breckinridge, with such persistent savagery that not a man could be spared from the close-up defense of the long line of breastworks in order to meet a new threat to the left. All Thomas could do was continue what he had been doing ever since he reached the field; that is, call on Rosecrans for more troops from the right and center, which had been stripped to less than four divisions, as compared to the more than six already concentrated here.
Events would show that this was rather beside the point, however, for though the old one would continue with much of its original fury all morning, there was not going to be any new end-on threat to the Union left. Bragg had called for a definite series of attacks, beginning on his far right and continuing in sequence down the full length of his line, and neither Polk nor Hill (if, indeed, they were even aware of the Chancellorsville-like opportunity—which apparently they were not) was in any frame of mind to make suggestions, let alone appeals, to a commander who was already in a towering rage because his instructions had not been followed to the letter. Instead, they continued to hammer unrelentingly at the long southward curve of enemy breastworks, encouraged from time to time by reports such as one sent back by Brigadier General Lucius Polk, the bishop’s thirty-year-old nephew, whose brigade of Cleburne’s division smashed through the Federal outpost works, just in front of the center of the bulge, and drove the blue pickets back on their main line of resistance. Elated, he turned in mid-career to an officer on his staff. “Go back and tell the old general,” he said, meaning his uncle, “that we have passed two lines of breastworks; that we have got them on the jump, and I am sure of carrying the main line.” By the time this reached the wing commander, who was conferring with Cheatham, the brigade had been repulsed. But that was no part of the report, and Polk was as elated by the message as his nephew had been when he gave it to the aide. “General,” he told Cheatham, “move your division and attack at once.” The Tennessean, who had massed his five brigades in anticipation of the order, was prompt to comply. “Forward, boys, and give them hell!” he shouted, much as he had done nine months ago at Murfreesboro, and the bishop approved now, as he had then, of the spirit if not of the words his friend had chosen to express it. “Do as General Cheatham says, boys!” he called after the troops as they moved out.
But Cheatham had no greater success than Hill had had before him. His men went up to within easy range of the breastworks, which seemed to burst into flame at their approach, then recoiled, all in one quick involuntary movement like that of a hand testing the heat of a still-hot piece of metal. Walker’s two divisions, held in reserve till then, had much the same reaction when they were committed at about 10.45, shortly after Cheatham had been repulsed. By now the entire right wing was engaged, including Forrest’s dismounted horsemen, who went in with Breckinridge. “What infantry is that?” Hill asked in the course of a tour of inspection on the right. He had never seen troops like these in the East. “Forrest’s cavalry,” he was told. Presently, when Forrest himself came riding back to meet him, the North Carolinian removed his hat in salutation. “General Forrest,” he said, “I wish to congratulate you and those brave men moving across that field like veteran infantry upon their magnificent behavior. In Virginia I made myself extremely unpopular with the cavalry because I said that so far I had not seen a dead man with spurs on. No one could speak disparagingly of such troops as yours.” Whether the Tennessean blushed at this high praise could not be told, for in battle his face always took on the color of heated bronze. “Thank you, General,” he replied, then wheeled his horse and with a wave of his hand galloped back into the thick of the fight that had excited Hill’s admiration.
At no one point along the Confederate right had the issue been pressed to its extremity by the mass commitment of reserves to achieve a breakthrough. Rather, the pressure had been equally heavy on all points at once, as if what Bragg intended to accomplish was not so much a penetration as a cataclysm, a total collapse of the whole Union left, like that of a dam giving way to an unbearable weight of water. This was in fact what he was after, and at times it seemed to some among the defenders that he was about to get it. “The assaults were repeated with an impetuosity that threatened to overwhelm us,” according to John Palmer, whose division was on loan to Thomas from Crittenden. Except on the extended flank, however, where there had been no time to throw up breastworks, casualties had been comparatively light for the Federals, who were protected by the stout log barricade they had constructed overnight and improved during the four daylight hours which Hill’s delay had afforded them this morning. It was not so for the attackers; their losses had been heavy everywhere. “The rebs charged in three distinct lines,” an Ohio captain wrote, “but each time they charged they were driven back with fearfully decimated ranks.” Some measure of the truth of this was shown in the loss of those who led the frantic charges. Breckinridge, Cleburne, and Gist each had a brigade commander killed or mortally wounded in the course of this one hour: Brigadier Generals Ben Hardin Helm, who had married Mary Lincoln’s youngest sister and recently succeeded to command of the Orphan Brigade, and James Deshler, who had been exchanged, promoted, and transferred east after his discomfiture by Sherman at Arkansas Post, and Colonel Peyton Colquitt, who had taken over Gist’s brigade when that general was put in charge of the division Walker brought from Mississippi. Moreover, another of Breckinridge’s brigadiers, Daniel W. Adams, an accident-prone or perhaps merely unlucky Kentucky-born Louisianan who had lost an eye at Shiloh and been severely wounded again at Murfreesboro, was shot from his horse and captured when the attack that crumpled the Union flank was repulsed by reinforcements whose arrival was unmatched by any of his own. It had gone that way, with varying degrees of success, but nowhere with complete success, all along the front of the Confederate right wing. Still, with the evidence of the casualty lists before him, Bragg could scarcely complain of any lack of determination in the fighting, no matter how disappointed he was at the outcome so far of his attempt to smash Old Rosy’s left as a prologue to rolling up his entire line and packing it southward into McLemore’s Cove for destruction.
By 11 o’clock all five of Polk’s divisions had been committed. Now Longstreet’s turn had come. Bragg passed the word for Stewart to go in, and in he went, driving hard for the enemy breastworks at the point where they curved back to the LaFayette Road immediately opposite his position on the right of the Confederate left wing.
There Reynolds was posted, with Brannan on his right, one east and the other west of the road, the latter having pulled his division back about a hundred yards in order to take advantage of the cover afforded by some heavy woods in rear of a cleared field which would have been much harder to defend. Stewart hit them both, attacking with all the fury of yesterday, when he had shattered the blue line half a mile to the south and penetrated to within sight of the Widow Glenn’s before he was expelled. Today, though, there were breastworks all along the front, and he achieved nothing like his previous success. He was, in fact, flung back before he made contact, just as most of Polk’s attackers had been, and had to be content, like them, with laying down a mass of fire that seemed to have little effect on the defenders beyond obliging them to keep their heads down between shots. There was, however, a good deal more to it than that, even though the result would not be evident for a while. What Stewart mainly accomplished was a further encouragement of Thomas’s conviction that Bragg was throwing everything he had at the Union left, and this caused the Virginian to intensify his appeal for still more troops from the right and center, an appeal that had been communicated practically without letup, ever since the first attack exploded on his flank, by a steady procession of couriers who came to headquarters with messages warning that the left would surely be overwhelmed if it was not strengthened promptly.
Rosecrans still was quite as willing to do this as he had been earlier, when he said flatly that Thomas would be sustained in his present position “if he has to be reinforced by the entire army.” In point of fact, that was what it was fast coming to by now. Shortly after 10 o’clock, with Van Cleve’s remaining brigades already on their way north, McCook had been told to alert his troops for a rapid march to the left “at a moment’s warning,” and half an hour later the order came, directing him to send two of Sheridan’s brigades at once and to follow with the third as soon as the corps front had been contracted enough for Davis to hold it alone. This would put eight divisions on the left, under Thomas, and leave only two on the right, one under Crittenden and one under McCook, but Rosecrans was preparing to send still more in that direction if they were needed. His calculations—“Where are we going to take it from?”—were interrupted at this point, however, by another of Thomas’s couriers, a staff captain who, in addition to the accustomed plea for reinforcements, brought alarming news of something he had observed (or failed to observe) in the course of his ride from the left. Passing in rear of Reynolds, he had not seen Brannan’s troops in the woods to the south; consequently, he reported “Brannan out of line and Reynolds’ right exposed.” The same opinion, derived from the same mistake, was expressed in stronger terms by another Thomas aide, who arrived on the heels of the captain and declared excitedly that there was “a chasm in the center,” between the divisions of Reynolds and Wood, who had replaced Negley in the position on Brannan’s right. Apparently convinced by the independent testimony of two eyewitnesses, Rosecrans did not take time to check on a report which, if true, scarcely allowed time for anything but attempting to repair an extremely dangerous error before it was discovered and exploited by the rebels. Instead, he turned to a staff major—Garfield, he later explained, “was deeply engaged in another matter”—and told him to send an order to Wood at once, correcting the situation. The major did so, heading the message 10.45 a.m.
Brigadier General Wood, Commanding Division:
The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him. Respectfully, &c.
FRANK S. BOND, Major and Aide-de-Camp.
Wood received it at 10.55, barely more than an hour after the vigorous dressing-down Old Rosy had given him for slowness in obeying a previous order. This time he did not delay execution, although there was a degree of contradiction in the terms “close up on” and “support.” Nor did he take time to find and confer with Crittenden, who had been bypassed as if in emphasis of the need for haste expressed in the phrase, “as fast as possible.” McCook happened to be with him, though, when the message was delivered, and on receiving his assurance that Davis would sidle northward to fill the gap that would be left, the Kentuckian promptly began the shift the order seemed to require. There being no way to close on Reynolds without going around Brannan, who was in position on Reynolds’ right, Wood did just that. He pulled his division straight back out of line and set out, across Brannan’s rear, for the hookup with Reynolds. Riding ahead to scout the route, he encountered Thomas, told him of the order, and asked where his brigades should be posted in compliance. To his surprise, Thomas declared that Reynolds was in no need of support—he and Brannan had just repulsed Stewart without much trouble—but that Baird needed it badly, up at the far end of the line. Wood said that he was willing to go there if Thomas would take the responsibility for changing his instructions, and when the Virginian, duly thankful for a windfall that had plumped a full division of reinforcements into his empty lap, replied that he would gladly do so, Wood rode back to pass the word to his brigade commanders.
That was how it came about that in attempting to fill a gap that did not exist, Rosecrans created one; created, in fact, what Thomas’s overexcited aide had referred to, half an hour ago, as “a chasm in the center.” The aide had been mistaken then, but his words were now an accurate description of what lay in the path of Longstreet, who was preparing, under cover across the way, to launch an all-out assault directly upon the quarter-mile stretch of breastworks Wood’s departure had left unmanned.
Old Peter had followed the progress of the fight with mounting dissatisfaction. Up to now, the piecemeal nature of the attacks had given the battle an all-too-familiar resemblance to Gettysburg, and he wanted no more of that than he could possibly avoid. At 11 o’clock, with Polk’s wing unsuccessfully committed, he ventured a suggestion to the army commander, of whom he had seen nothing since the night before, “that my column of attack could probably break the enemy’s line if he cared to have it go in.” In referring thus to his entire wing as a “column of attack,” he was recommending that the attack in echelon, which in alley-fight terms amounted to crowding and shoving and clawing and slapping, be abandoned in favor of a combined assault, which amounted in those same terms to delivering one hard punch with a clenched fist. Just then, however, Stewart moved out alone on direct orders from Bragg, who had thrown caution to the winds—and science, too—by sending word for all the division commanders to go forward on their own in a frantic, headlong, unco-ordinated effort to overrun the Federal defenses. This was altogether too much for Longstreet. Though his admiration for the naked valor of the Confederate infantry was as large as any man’s, he had recently seen the South’s greatest single bid for victory turned into its worst defeat by a similar act of desperation in Pennsylvania, and he was determined not to have the same thing happen here in his home state if he could help it. He rode to the front at once to restrain Hood, whom he knew to be impetuous, from committing his corps before all three of his divisions, Johnson’s and Law’s and Kershaw’s, were massed to strike as a unit, together with Hindman’s on his left.
He got there just in time; Hood already had Johnson deployed, with Law in close support, and was about to take them forward. Longstreet had him wait for Kershaw, who formed a third line behind Law, and for Hindman, who dressed in a double line on Johnson, extending the front southward for a total width of half a mile. With Stewart engaged on Hood’s right and Preston held in reserve on Hindman’s left, Old Peter thus had four of his six divisions, eleven of his seventeen brigades, and some 16,000 of his 25,000 soldiers massed for the delivery of his clenched-fist blow. This was roughly half again more than he had had for the “charge” on the third day at Gettysburg, and not only were the troops in better condition here in Georgia than the ones had been in Pennsylvania, where four of the nine brigades had been shot to pieces in earlier actions, but they also had less than half as far to go before making contact, as well as excellent concealment during most of their approach. Longstreet apparently had no doubt whatsoever that the attack would be successful. Earlier that morning, speaking with what Hood described as “that confidence which had so often contributed to his extraordinary success,” he had assured the tawny-bearded young man “that we would of coursewhip and drive [the Yankees] from the field,” and Hood said afterwards: “I could not but exclaim that I was rejoiced to hear him so express himself, as he was the first general I had met since my arrival who talked of victory.” However, for all his confidence, Old Peter did not forget the dangers that lurk in military iotas. He saw to it, in person and with the help of his staff, that his preliminary instructions were followed to the letter. Then and only then, shortly before 11.15, he gave the order for the column to go forward, due west through the dense woods that had screened his preparations.
With barely a quarter mile to go before they reached it, Bushrod Johnson’s lead brigades crossed the LaFayette Road within ten minutes of receiving Longstreet’s nod. As they surged across the dusty road and the open field beyond—the field that Wood had recessed his line to avoid—they encountered galling fire from the left and right, where Hindman and Law were hotly engaged, but almost none from directly ahead. Welcome though this was, they thought it strange until they found out why. Entering the woods on the far side, they scrambled over the deserted breastworks and caught sight, dead ahead and still within easy reach, of the last of Wood’s brigades in the act of carrying out the order to “close up on and support” Reynolds. Yelling, the Confederates struck the vulnerable blue column flank and rear, sitting-duck fashion, and, as Johnson described the brief action, “cast the shattered fragments to the right and left.” Still on the run, the butternut attackers crashed on through the forest and soon emerged into another clearing, larger than the first, with Missionary Ridge looming westward beyond the tops of intervening trees. Here at last, after their half-mile run, they paused to recover their breath and alignment, and Johnson later communicated something of the elation he and those around him felt, not only at what they had accomplished so far, but also at what lay spread before them, stark against the backdrop of the green slopes of the ridge. “The scene now presented was unspeakably grand,” he declared in his report. “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 firearms—of whistling balls and grape-shot and of bursting shell—made up a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur.”
There was little time for admiring the view, however, since it included, in addition to the items mentioned, a number of hostile guns in furious action along a low ridge half a mile away, some firing southeast, some northeast, and some due east at him. Hood rode up amid the shellbursts, managing his horse with one hand because the other still hung useless in its sling. “Go ahead,” he told Johnson, who was realigning his three brigades, “and keep ahead of everything.” The Ohio-born Tennessean did just that. His men had taken a six-gun Federal battery soon after they crossed the road, but this had only sharpened their appetite for more. Resuming the advance, they quickly overran a position from which nine guns were firing, then plunged ahead to seize four more whose crews did not limber them in time for a getaway, as several others managed to do along that ripple of high ground overlooking a scene of moiling confusion in the enemy rear. Here Johnson called a halt at last, having accomplished a mile-deep penetration of the Union center, the destruction or dispersal of a whole brigade of bluecoats, and the capture of nineteen pieces of artillery, all between 11.15 and noon. Bracing his troops for a possible shock, he threw out skirmishers and sent word back to Longstreet of his need for reinforcements in case the enemy launched a counterattack at his isolated division, which had lost about one fourth of its strength in the course of its long advance. Such an attack did not seem likely, though, if he could judge by what he saw from where he stood. The blue army seemed to have come apart at the seams under the impact of that one savage blow, and its fugitives were streaming in disorder up the Dry Valley Road, which curved north and west across their rear, toward Missionary Ridge and the solitary notch that indicated McFarland’s Gap and possible deliverance from the terror that had suddenly come on them, less than an hour ago, after a morning of taking it easy while the battle raged at the far end of the line.
Hindman had had much to do with the creation of the blue confusion. Though he encountered a far greater number of Federals in the course of his advance on Johnson’s left, and thus was limited to a shallower penetration, this gave him the chance to inflict a far greater number of casualties, and that was what he did. Johnson had struck and shattered a single brigade, but Hindman served two whole divisions in that manner within the same brief span of time, converting McCook’s supposed defense of the Union right into the headlong race for safety which Johnson observed with such elation when he called a halt soon afterward on the ridge overlooking the Dry Valley Road, a mile beyond the point where he had pierced the enemy center. Much as the unmanned breastworks in his front had facilitated the Tennessean’s breakthrough, so did the Arkansan have the good fortune to find both Sheridan and Davis in motion when he hit them. The former, in compliance with his orders to reinforce the left, was marching north across the latter’s rear, and the latter was sidling in the same direction, under instructions to close the gap created by Wood’s abrupt departure, when they were assailed by Hindman’s yelling graybacks, who came swarming out of the woods before the pickets along the LaFayette Road had time to do more than get off a few wild shots by way of sounding the alarm. Davis’s men scattered rearward in a panic that soon infected Sheridan’s two lead brigades, whose ranks were overrun by the fugitives as a prelude to being struck by their pursuers, with the result that the two divisions were mingled in flight. “McCook’s corps was wiped off the field without any attempt at real resistance,” an Illinois colonel later testified, adding that he had seen artillerists cut the traces and abandon their guns in order to make a faster getaway, while others on foot, including some who might otherwise have been willing to stand their ground, were swept along by the mob, “like flecks of foam upon a river.” McCook himself was one of those flecks, and Sheridan and Davis were two more; but Brigadier General William H. Lytle was not. Commanding Sheridan’s third brigade, which had been left behind as a covering force southeast of the Widow Glenn’s, he ordered a countercharge in an attempt to stem the rout, but fell at the first rebel volley and died soon after his men ran off and left him, the only Union general, out of thirty of that rank on the field, to be killed or captured or even touched by metal in this bloodiest of all the western battles.
One check there was, and a bloody one at that, though not from McCook or either of his two division commanders. Detached from Reynolds, the Lightning Brigade was still posted in support of the Union right, and when Hindman routed the foot soldiers there, capturing guns and colors on the run, Wilder brought his mounted troops in hard on the rebel flank and opened fire with his repeaters. That tore it. The southernmost gray brigade lost its momentum, then collapsed in a rush as frantic as any on the other side, falling back all the way to the LaFayette Road and beyond. On the alert for some such reverse, however, Longstreet promptly threw in a brigade from Preston’s reserve division, restored the line with the help of the rallied brigade, and forced the mounted bluecoats westward in the wake of their companions, who had not paused to take advantage of this respite, but had used it rather to increase their lead in the race for McFarland’s Gap. Struck by an exploding shell, the Glenn house was afire by now, burning briskly under the noonday sun, with no sign of Rosecrans or his staff. Hindman called a halt, put his cannoneers to work shelling the throng of fugitives to the north and west on the Dry Valley Road, and began to reckon the fruits of his triumph, which were rich. He had taken 17 guns, ten of them abandoned, 1100 prisoners, including three full colonels, 1400 small arms, together with 165,000 rounds of ammunition, and five stands of colors, all within less than an hour and against a force considerably larger than his own.
Law and Kershaw had made similar gains, along with the infliction of a similar disruption, against much stiffer resistance by the defenders of the Union center. Watching Johnson’s cheering soldiers hurdle the unmanned breastworks in their front, Law saw that they were taking cruel punishment from the bluecoats on their northern flank as they poured through the gap; so with soldierly instinct he obliqued his three brigades to the right, intending to accomplish a double purpose, first of relieving the pressure on Johnson, by drawing at least a part of the fire, and then of widening the gap by dislodging Brannan, whose own flank had been exposed by Wood’s departure. Both of these objectives were attained in rapid order. Turning from the breakthrough on their right tomeet this sudden menace to their front, the Federals divided their fire and wavered in the face of what seemed to them a limited choice of falling back or being ground between two rebel millstones. They chose the former course, and chose it with an individual urgency in direct ratio to each regiment’s proximity to the threatened flank. Brannan’s line swung gatelike, hinged on its left at the juncture with Reynolds, who held firm despite a renewal of Stewart’s attack. Now it was Law’s troops who were hurdling unmanned breastworks. Moreover, just as Johnson had found one of Wood’s brigades defenseless in his path, so now did Law find one of Van Cleve’s in that predicament as a result of having been delayed in setting off on its march to reinforce Thomas. It too was struck and shattered, quite as abruptly as the other had been: except that this time there was retribution. Hearing the uproar in its rear, which signified the destruction of its companion brigade, Wood’s middle brigade was halted by its commander, Colonel Charles G. Harker, New Jersey-born, only five years out of West Point, and at twenty-five a veteran of all the western battles from Shiloh on. He faced his men about and launched a savage counterattack, not at Johnson, who had pressed on westward out of reach, but at Law, who had just knocked Brannan’s gate ajar and shattered Van Cleve’s sitting-duck brigade. Boldness paid off for the youthful colonel. Not only was Law stopped in his tracks by Harker’s unexpected lunge, but the Texas brigade on the open flank was driven rearward in what for a time had the makings of a large-scale repulse.
Returning from his hurried conference with Johnson, midway of that general’s exuberant advance, Hood arrived to find his old brigade in full retreat. This was a rare sight at any time, despite the reverse that had ended its brief penetration of the enemy line the day before, but it was particularly unwelcome in this apparent hour of victory. Blond and gigantic, though his useless arm prevented him from gesturing with his sword by way of emphasis, he rode among the fleeing Texans, exhorting them to stand their ground. They stopped in time to catch him as he toppled from the saddle, shot through the upper thigh by a rifle bullet that shattered the bone and necessitated a field amputation that would leave him barely enough of a stump to accommodate an artificial leg. As he fell he muttered incongruously, repeating in shock what he had said a few minutes ago to Johnson: “Go ahead, and keep ahead of everything.” These were thought at the time to be his dying words, a fitting valedictory to battle—such wounds were all too often fatal—but that was not to be the case, and besides he had the satisfaction, as he was being taken away on a stretcher, of knowing that the line had been restored by Kershaw. Bringing up his two brigades at the critical moment of the corps commander’s fall, the South Carolinian not only stemmed the incipient rout; he also resumed the advance, driving the resurgent bluecoats west and north with the help of the rallied Texans, who were eager now to get revenge for what had been done to them and their beloved Hood.
At this point, some time after noon, Longstreet rode up from the south, where he had repaired a similar reverse by sending in one of Preston’s brigades to shore up Hindman’s collapsed flank, and expressed great satisfaction at finding that all three elements of his clenched-fist blow—Hindman on the left, Johnson in the center, and Law and Kershaw on the right—had succeeded admirably, so far, in fulfilling his prediction that “we would of course whip and drive [the Yankees] from the field.” Up to now, this only applied to about one third of the blue army, including two complete divisions and portions of three others, but Old Peter believed he had solved the problem of how best to press the issue to its desired conclusion: “As our right wing had failed of the progress anticipated, and had become fixed by the firm holding of the enemy’s left, we could find no practicable field for our work except by a change of the order of battle from [a] wheel to the left, to a swing to the right.” Instead of pivoting on Preston, as originally intended, he proposed to pivot on Stewart, in the opposite direction. In other words, Bragg’s plan was not only to be abandoned; it was to be reversed. Pursuit of the remnant of the Union right, in flight for McFarland’s Gap across the way, could be left to Wheeler, whose troopers, after exchanging shots all morning with enemy vedettes across the creek below Lee & Gordon’s, had just forced a crossing at Glass’s Mill and driven the Federal horsemen southward, away from the battle which was then approaching its climax three miles north. Couriers were sent at once to have him take up the chase of the fugitives on the Dry Valley Road, which passed through nearby Crawfish Springs, while the gray infantry turned sharp right to complete—with the aid of Polk’s wing, which would have little to do but keep up the pressure it had been applying for better than three hours now, although without conspicuous success—the destruction of the remaining two thirds of the blue army. Law and Kershaw had faced in that direction already, drawn by the retirement of Brannan’s right, but instructions had to be sent to Johnson and Hindman, as well as to Preston, who was still holding the abandoned pivot, to form their three divisions on the left of Law and Kershaw, along a new east-west line from which Longstreet intended to launch one last clenched-fist blow that would result in a knockout victory over an adversary who presumably was groggy from the effects of the punch just landed in his midriff.
However desirable it might have been, there was no question of an immediate jump-off. Preparations involving a right-angle variation in the direction of attack for an entire wing of the army, as well as changes in the posting of practically all of the elements that composed it, would of course take time, since they would require not only a great deal of shifting of units, large and small, over considerable distances—Preston, the extreme example, had nearly three miles to go before his troops would be in position—but also a prerequisite restoration of control within the five divisions themselves, most of which had been severely disorganized by the mingling of regiments and brigades in the course of their furious breakthrough and their long advance over difficult terrain. Besides, Old Peter had never been one to begrudge time spent in preparation for the delivery of an assault, particularly in a situation such as the one that now obtained, with a good six hours of daylight still remaining and a single, well-co-ordinated effort being counted on to accomplish the objective. Orders had to be drawn up and distributed before they could be obeyed, and limber chests and cartridge boxes had to be refilled. Nor did he believe in neglecting the inner man; stomachs needed refilling, too, and that included his own. Before leaving on a tour of inspection, he directed that a lunch be spread for him to eat on his return. Dodging snipers, he reconnoitered the new defensive line the Federals had established, perpendicular to their old one along the LaFayette Road, along the irregular slopes of an eastern spur of Missionary Ridge; Snodgrass Hill was its name, according to Bushrod Johnson, whom he encountered in the course of his ride along the front. The Tennessean pointed out what he believed was “the key of the battle,” a point where the bluecoats clustered thickly on the wooded slope ahead. Longstreet looked at it carefully. “It was a key, but a rough one,” he said later. For the present, he instructed Buckner to establish a twelve-gun battery at the junction of the two wings, explaining that this would give him the advantage of enfilade fire down both segments of the Union line: the old one extending north, which had resisted Polk’s attacks all day, and the new one extending west, which he himself was about to test for the first time. Now as before, he seemed to have little doubt as to the outcome. “They have fought their last man, and he is running,” he said jovially, despite the evidence he had just seen to the contrary, when he returned to headquarters and sat down to his lunch of Nassau bacon and Georgia sweet potatoes. The former was an all-too-familiar item on the diet of all Confederates, East and West; “nausea bacon,” it was sometimes called; but not the latter—anyhow not in the theater in which Old Peter had done all his fighting up to now. “We were not accustomed to potatoes of any kind in Virginia,” he would remark more than thirty years later, still remembering the meal, “and thought we had a luxury.”
There were two interruptions, both of them drastic though only the first was violent. It came in the form of a shell that burst in the woods nearby, one of whose jagged splinters ripped through a book a mounted courier was reading and struck a staff colonel, knocking him from his place at the table and to the ground, where he lay gasping as if in the throes of death. Startled, his fellow staffers leaped up to staunch the expected flow of blood, but they could not find the wound. Reacting with his usual calm, Longstreet saw that the gasping was caused by a large bite of sweet potato, which had become lodged in the colonel’s windpipe when the iron fragment grazed him, and “suggested that it would be well to first relieve him of the potato and give him a chance to breathe. This done, he revived,” the general recalled; “his breath came freer, and he was soon on his feet.” That was the first interruption. The second came soon after the other officers rejoined their chief at the table, and if it was less violent it was also a good deal more alarming in the end. It came in the form of a message from Bragg, from whom the commander of the left wing had heard nothing since the night before, requesting his attendance at a conference a short distance in rear of the new mile-long line that was being formed in the woods to the west of the LaFayette Road. Longstreet promptly rode to meet him amid the wreckage of what had been the Union right, and after giving him a brief description of the rout that had resulted in the capture of some forty guns, together with thousands of small arms and prisoners and no less than two square miles of ground, explained his decision to wheel right instead of left, as originally instructed, in order to complete the destruction of what remained of the blue army.
Bragg did not seem to share his lieutenant’s enthusiasm, and when the latter went on to suggest that the left wing be reinforced from the right, which would have little more to do than hold its ground once the attack was resumed on the south, the North Carolinian broke in testily: “There is not a man in the right wing who has any fight in him.” Taken aback, Longstreet at last saw what the trouble was. Bragg was miffed because his design for herding the bluecoats into McLemore’s Cove had gone astray; or as the Georgian later put it, “He was disturbed by the failure of his plan and the severe repulse of his right wing, and was little prepared to hear suggestions from subordinates for other moves or progressive work.” In other words, if he could not win in just the way he wanted, he did not care about winning at all, or anyhow he wanted no personal share in such a victory. So at any rate it seemed. This fairly incredible impression was strengthened, moreover, by the manner in which Bragg brought the conference to a close. “If anything happens, communicate with me at Reed’s Bridge,” he said curtly, and he turned his horse and rode in that direction, which would place him well in rear of the stalled right, as far as possible from the scene of the critical attack about to be launched by Longstreet on the left.
Old Peter scarcely knew what to make of his chief’s reaction. “From accounts of his former operations, I was prepared for halting work,” he afterwards wrote, understating the case in an attempt to bring in a touch of humor that was altogether lacking at the time, “but this, when the battle was at its tide and in partial success, was a little surprising.” However, as he returned to his new-drawn line to give the signal that would launch the assault designed to complete his half-won triumph, he soon recovered his aplomb, if not his accustomed heartiness. “There was nothing for the left wing to do but work along as best it could,” he said.
Thus Bragg, in effect, removed himself from management of the battle, but only after his opponent had removed himself, in fact and person, not only from the battle but also from the field on which it was being fought. Whether out of petulance or panic, each of the two leaders reacted in accordance with his nature and his lights, for while the southern commander appeared to doubt that the contest was half won, Rosecrans had not seemed to question the evidence that it was considerably more than half lost. Not that he was a coward: Rich Mountain, Iuka, Corinth, and above all Stones River were sufficient refutation of the charge, and moreover his gloomy assessment was shared by those around him. With the exception of Lytle, whose sudden death was taken as confirmation of the majority opinion, no one with stars on his shoulders and a close-up look at the proportions of the rebel breakthrough failed to share the abrupt and general conviction that all was lost. Not only the army commander, but also his chief of staff, two of his three corps commanders, and four of his ten division commanders—in short, every man in charge of anything larger than a brigade on that quarter of the field—agreed that in the present instance, with the choice narrowed to flight or death or capture, discretion was the better part of valor. Practically of one accord, they all turned tail and ran and their troops ran with them, flecks of foam on the blue stream rushing northward up the Dry Valley Road and westward through McFarland’s Gap, eager to put the bulletproof mass of Missionary Ridge between themselves and their screaming gray pursuers.
Soon after getting off the order to Wood, Rosecrans had ridden to the right, accompanied by Dana and Garfield and several other members of his staff, intending to hurry the sidling movement that would thicken the thinned center. He was sitting his horse directly in rear of Davis, whose division was in motion, when Longstreet’s attack exploded dead ahead and to the immediate left front. Dana, who was badly in need of sleep, had dismounted for a nap in the grass; the first he knew of the impending breakthrough was when he was awakened by what he afterwards called “the most infernal noise I ever heard.” Startled—“Never in any battle had I witnessed such a discharge of cannon and musketry”—he looked up and saw something that alarmed him even more. Old Rosy was crossing himself. “Hello!” he thought. “If the general is crossing himself, we are in a desperate situation.” Sure enough, when he looked around he “saw our lines break and melt away like leaves before the wind.… The whole right of the army had apparently been routed.” Rosecrans by then had reached the same conclusion, for he turned to his staff and said in a voice surprisingly calm amid the confusion of the headlong rush which Dana would compare to melting leaves: “If you care to live any longer, get away from here.” His advice was so quickly taken that Dana did not even attempt a description of the dispersal or employ a single additional metaphor, mixed or otherwise. He simply remarked that “the headquarters around me disappeared.”
Others “disappeared” as rapidly, even though they were out of earshot of their chief’s advice. McCook’s third great battle was also his third rout, and the greatest of the three. Like Davis and Sheridan, he made a brief attempt to stem the tide, then took off rearward, a leader in the race for safety, and those of his men who had not already bolted were quick to follow his example. Crittenden, too, was a part of the crush, but strictly on an individual basis. He had no troops left under him anyhow, the last of his three divisions having been detached to Thomas by midmorning, though Van Cleve himself was swept from the field with the remnant of the brigade that was wrecked by Law. Similarly, Negley became a fugitive when he led his rear brigade off on a tangent, then found his way to the left blocked by Johnson’s mile-deep penetration of the center. A few among the responsible commanders, such as Wilder, maintained control of their units, but they were the exception. “Many of the officers of all ranks,” according to another Indiana colonel, “showed by their wild commands and still wilder actions that they had completely lost their heads and were as badly demoralized as the private soldiers.”
One among the exceptions was a young officer from McCook’s staff, who managed to skirt the confusion and get through to Thomas on the left. The Virginian told him to return the way he had come and bring up Davis and Sheridan to support his dangling right. He made it back to the Dry Valley Road, and as he rode westward alongside it—for the road itself was jammed with fugitives crowding it shoulder-to-shoulder and raising a waist-high cloud of dust—he appealed to various officers in the fleeing column, but to small avail. Although the rebel pursuit had broken off by now, they either would not believe him when he said so, or else they could not see in this any reason for slowing the pace of their retreat. “See Jeff, Colonel,” they told him, or “See Phil.” Appeals to the men themselves were even less successful. “We’ll talk to you, my son, when we get to the Ohio River!” one veteran replied, much to the amusement of his fellow trudgers. Finally, in McFarland’s Gap, the young staffer overtook Davis and Sheridan, and though the former expressed a doubtful willingness to give the thing a try, the latter wanted nothing further to do with the mismanaged contest he had just put behind him. “He had lost faith,” the colonel observed as he pushed on to gain the head of the column, up toward Rossville.
There where the road forked, one branch leading northwest to Chattanooga, the other east through Rossville Gap, then south to the field on whose opposite flank the scramble had begun—the distance in each case was about four miles—Rosecrans and the remnant of his staff drew rein to breathe their horses. By now the battle racket had died down, screened by the loom of Missionary Ridge, and though by dismounting and putting their ears to the ground they could hear the rattle of small arms, which signified that Thomas was still in action with at least a part of his command, the lack of any rumble from his guns seemed to indicate that the left wing had not fared much better than the right. If this was so, the thing to do was establish a straggler line on the outskirts of Chattanooga, where the two sundered portions of the army could be reunited and rallied for a last-ditch stand with the deep-running Tennessee River at its back. For his own part, Old Rosy was determined to return to the field and share with whatever troops were left the final stages of their withdrawal, leaving to his chief of staff the task of bringing the fugitives to a halt and putting them into a new defensive position before the gray wave of attackers swept over them again. However, when he turned to Garfield and began to tell him all that would have to be done—the selection of proper ground, the assignment of units to their places in line, the opening of new channels of supply and communication, and much else—the chief of staff, confused by the complexity of what he termed “the great responsibility,” made a suggestion: “I can go to General Thomas and report the situation to you much better than I can give those orders.” Rosecrans thought this over briefly, then reluctantly agreed. “Well,” he said, “go and tell General Thomas my precautions to hold the Dry Valley Road and secure our commissary stores and artillery. [Tell him] to report the situation to me and to use his discretion as to continuing the fight on the ground we occupy at the close of the afternoon or retiring to a position in the rear near Rossville.”
So while Garfield set out eastward on a ride that would take him in time to the White House—though not for long; the assassin’s bullet would find him before he had been four months in office—Rosecrans took the left-hand fork that led to Chattanooga. But now the shock set in. The nearer he drew to the city the more depressed he became, as if some sort of ratio obtained between his distance from the battlefield and his realization of the enormity of his position as a commander who had deserted his army in its bloodiest hour of crisis. When he pulled rein at last, about 3.30, in front of the three-story residence where departmental headquarters had been established eleven days ago, he was so exhausted in body and broken in spirit that he had to be assisted to dismount. “The officers who helped him into the house did not soon forget the terrible look of the brave man, stunned by sudden calamity,” an observer remarked, and added: “In later years I used occasionally to meet Rosecrans, and always felt that I could see the shadow of Chickamauga upon his noble face.”
Dana arrived immediately behind him, having become separated from the others in what he called “the helter-skelter of the rear.” That he too was much depressed by what he had seen, though his depression took a different form, was obvious from the wire he got off to Stanton at 4 o’clock, as soon as he had had time to catch his breath. “My report today is of deplorable importance,” he informed the Secretary. “Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run.” Still badly shaken, he described the onslaught of the rebels, which was unlike anything he had seen at Vicksburg, his one previous experience of war. “They came through with resistless impulse, composed of brigades formed in divisions. Before them our soldiers turned and fled. It was wholesale panic. Vain were all attempts to rally them.” He was as uncertain of what would happen next as he was of the army’s losses up to now, but he ventured a guess or two in both directions. “Davis and Sheridan are said to be coming off at the head of a couple of regiments in order, and Wilder’s brigade marches out unbroken. Thomas, too, is coming down the Rossville road with an organized command, but all the rest is confusion. Our wounded are all left behind, some 6000 in number. We have lost heavily in killed today. The total of our killed, wounded, and prisoners can hardly be less than 20,000, and may be much more.… Enemy not yet arrived before Chattanooga. Preparations making to resist his entrance for a time.”
Some of this was useful to the Washington authorities as an estimate of the situation resulting from the sudden turn of fortune—surprisingly so, in light of the fact that it amounted to little more than guesswork by a rattled nonprofessional who had seen only a portion of the field—but much of it was about as inaccurate as might have been expected. This last applied in particular to the reference to Thomas. Not only was he not “coming down the Rossville road,” as Dana claimed, but even as the telegrapher clicked away at the doleful message composed in haste and panic, the Virginian was fighting hard, resisting the combined assaults of both Confederate wings in a climactic struggle to maintain the integrity of the position he had held all morning against one. In the end—that is, before nightfall—his skill and determination in continuing this odds-on fight with what remained of the blue force after its commander had fled with a full third of the troops who had composed it at the outset, would win him the name by which he would be known thereafter: “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
Indeed, there was much about him that was rocklike, not alone in the sense of being “the right kind of man to tie to,” but also in appearance, especially when viewed from up close. According to a soldier observer, his “full rounded, powerful form,” six feet in height and well over two hundred pounds in weight, “gradually expands upon you, as a mountain which you approach.” Moreover, in addition to sheer bulk, he gave an impression of doggedness and imperturbability. “This army doesn’t retreat,” he had said in a similar crisis at Stones River, despite the evidence to the contrary, and it was obvious from his manner that the same thing applied here, so far at least as concerned the two thirds of the army still on the field and in his charge. Brannan’s gatelike swing had ended on the rising ground in his left rear; there he posted his division, extending his right westward along the convenient eastern spur of Missionary Ridge. Single brigades from the variously shattered and scattered commands of Wood, Van Cleve, and Negley, combined with those of Brannan, provided the equivalent of two divisions for the defense of this new line, and Thomas reinforced it further by detaching one brigade each from Johnson and Palmer, who stood at the bulging center of the north-south line confronting Polk. The east-west position was one of great natural strength, heavily wooded and uphill for attackers, but whether or not it could be held against as savage a fighter as Longstreet would depend in the final analysis on the troops who occupied it. Thoroughly aware of this, as he also was of the fact that they had already backpedaled once today under pressure from the same gray veterans who were massing now for a follow-up assault, Thomas moved among them in an attempt to stiffen their resolution for what he knew was coming. “This hill must be held and I trust you to do it,” he told Harker, who replied: “We will hold it or die here.” Thomas rode on, and presently came to one of Harker’s regimental commanders, Colonel Emerson Opdycke. “This point must be held,” he told him. The Ohio colonel agreed. “We will hold this ground,” he said, “or go to heaven from it.” Opdycke’s men nodded approval of his words, but whether they really meant it remained to be seen.
They meant it. About 2 o’clock, while Longstreet was returning from his unprofitable conference with Bragg, Kershaw assaulted the left of the new Federal position with the demidivision composed of his own South Carolina brigade and Barksdale’s Mississippians, now under Brigadier General Ben G. Humphreys. “Ranks followed ranks in close order, moving briskly and bravely against us,” a defender later wrote. These were the men who had taken the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard, eighty days ago at Gettysburg, and they were determined to do as well this afternoon at Chickamauga. They did not; not yet, at any rate. Harker’s troops, together with those in Brannan’s left brigade and the brigade from Palmer, under Brigadier General William Hazen, fired their rifles with such steadiness and precision that the gray ranks faltered, withered, and fell back. Kershaw, who had thought one hard rap would cause the bluecoats to continue their withdrawal, was unwilling to admit that this had been disproved so quickly. After a pause for realignment he again sent his two brigades forward against the Union there. The result was the same. They surged up the slope, then fell back down it, having taken losses quite as heavy as before. Still unconvinced, he tried a third assault, and suffered a third repulse. Such uphill work was about as exhausting as it was bloody. One regimental commander reported that his men were “panting like dogs tired out in the chase.” In the course of the last charge, he would recall, he had seen a fifteen-year-old soldier lagging behind and weeping, and when he told him that this was no time for hanging back out of fear, the boy explained that his trouble was not fright but exasperation. “That aint it, Colonel,” he wailed between sobs. “I’m so damned tired I can’t keep up with my company.” Convinced at last, and perceiving that even his full-grown men were winded, Kershaw called a halt at the base of the hill to watch for some sign that the Federals were weakening their left to meet the attack that was being launched by now against their right by Johnson and Hindman, off at the far end of the line.
Thomas might well have weakened his embattled left to reinforce his threatened right, outnumbered and overlapped as it was by the two butternut divisions being massed in the woods below, except that he received unexpected help at just this critical juncture. All morning, up near McAfee’s Church, which was two miles east of Rossville and about twice that distance from the hilly spur where Brannan staged his rally, Gordon Granger had fretted because his one-division Reserve Corps, charged with guarding the Rossville Gap in case it was needed as an escape hatch, was being kept from the battle he could hear raging to the south. About 11 o’clock—an hour and a half after Polk began his delayed attack and shortly before Longstreet scored the breakthrough that threw Davis and Sheridan off the field and swung Brannan out of his place in the disintegrating center of the Union line—he and his chief of staff climbed a haystack in an attempt to see something of what was going on. All they saw, far down the LaFayette Road, was a boiling cloud of dust and smoke with the fitful yellow flash of batteries mixed in at its base, but Granger soon arrived at a decision. “I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders!” he declared, snapping his glasses back in their case. The staffer was more cautious. “And if you go,” he warned, “it may bring disaster to the army and you to a court martial.” Granger was a career man, West Point ’45, and normally an avoider of such risks; but not now. “There’s nothing in our front but ragtag, bobtail cavalry,” he said. “Don’t you see Bragg is piling his whole army on Thomas? I am going to his assistance.” And with that he climbed down off the haystack and ordered Steedman to prepare to march at once with two of his brigades, leaving the third behind to continue holding the Rossville escape hatch open in the event of a collapse by the main body, which he would soon be joining, four miles south.
Within half an hour the march was under way. Granger’s remark that Bragg was “piling his whole army on Thomas” had been in error at the time he made it; Longstreet had not yet gone in. But now that the remaining half of the Confederate force had been committed, with the resultant abolition of the Federal right, the statement was in the rapid process of becoming quite literally true; so that Granger’s decision, though based in part on an erroneous assumption, turned out to be militarily sound; Thomas was indeed in need of help, and it was fortunate for him that Granger began his four-mile march before the need existed, let alone before it became acute. Even so, there were delays. About noon, a mile down the LaFayette Road, the lead brigade was taken under fire by a pair of batteries in position on the flank. Steedman was obliged to go from column of march into line of battle, facing east to meet this threat from what turned out to be a sizable detachment of Forrest’s men. Blue skirmishers, moving against the guns, caused the rebel troopers to give ground; yet when the skirmishers returned the graybacks followed, resuming their harassing tactics. Finally, in exasperation—for he was a short-tempered man at best—Granger sent for the third brigade to come down from McAfee’s Church and hold the troublesome horsemen off while he took up his march, southwest now across the fields and through the woods in order to approach the nearly beleaguered Thomas from the rear. A mile short of the blue flank the second delay occurred; but it was brief, consisting of nothing more than a short wait for part of Negley’s division to get out of the way, which it soon did, being hard on the go for Rossville and deliverance from chaos. The two columns passed each other, one headed into and the other out of the battle, and Granger rode ahead to report that his two brigades were close at hand.
He was a hard-mannered regular, originally from upper New York State, a veteran of Mexico and the Indian wars, shaggy in looks, brusque in speech, and not much liked—either by his troops, who resented a strictness that sometimes prescribed horsewhipping for minor camp offenses, or by his fellow officers, who found him uncongenial—but Thomas had seldom been as glad to see anyone as he was to see Granger, whom he greeted with a handshake and a smile that was all the broader because he had thought the column approaching his rear was hostile. That would indeed have been the final straw; for Kershaw’s attack was in full career on his left by now, and Hindman and Johnson were massing their divisions for an advance on the right, which they overlapped. When they began to move forward, out of the woods and onto an intervening ridge, Granger saw the problem at a glance. “Those men must be driven back,” he said. Thomas agreed. “Can you do it?” he asked. Granger nodded grimly. “Yes,” he said. “My men are fresh, and they are just the fellows for that work. They are raw troops and they don’t know any better than to charge up there.”
Whether the basis for their conduct was ignorance, sheer heroism, or a combination of both, the men of the reserve corps were indeed “the fellows for that work.” Steedman, who was forty-seven, Pennsylvania born, a former printer, Texas revolutionist, and Ohio legislator—“a great, hearty man, broad-breasted [and] broad-shouldered,” whose face, according to an admirer, was “written all over with sturdy sense and stout courage”—brought them up on the double and committed them with no more delay that it took to tell a staff officer to see that his name was spelled correctly in the obituaries. Leading the charge on horseback, he saw his green troops waver at their first sight of the enemy up ahead; whereupon he grabbed the regimental colors from an Illinois bearer alongside him and waved the rippling silk to draw their attention. “Go back, boys, go back,” he roared, “but the flag can’t go with you!” They did not go back; they went forward, still with Steedman in the lead, but now on foot; for the rippling blue of the colors had attracted the attention of the rebels, too, with the result that his horse had been shot from under him. Badly shaken by the fall, the general got up and hobbled forward, still brandishing the flag and roaring, “Follow me!” Ahead, the graybacks gave ground before such fury and determination, then rallied and counterattacked. However, the bluecoats had the ridge by then and held it, though at the cost of losing one fifth of their number within their first twenty minutes of combat. And that was only the beginning; they would lose as many more in the next three hours. In fact, of the 3700 men in the two brigades, nearly half—1788—would be casualties by sundown.
Steep though the price was, the gain was great. Not only had they shored up and prolonged Brannan’s overlapped western flank; they also had brought with them from McAfee’s Church a hard-hitting battery of three-inch rifles, which added the weight of their metal to the blue resistance, and no less than 95,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition. This last was in particular demand, because the army’s main ordnance supply train had been involved in McCook’s collapse and flight, and Thomas’s soldiers were burning up what they had on hand at a fearful rate; an Ohio regiment of 535 men, for example, would expend nearly 45,000 rounds of rifle ammunition before the day was over. In the face of such fiery opposition—an average expenditure of better than 80 rounds per man, including casualties—it was no wonder that Longstreet pronounced Johnson’s “key of the battle,” by which the Tennessean meant the hilly spur along whose slopes the east-west Union line was drawn, “a rough one.”
Returning from his conference with the disgruntled Bragg, Old Peter arrived to find Kershaw checked on the right and Johnson and Hindman just going in on the left. Like them, he had thought it probable that a determined nudge would persuade the bluecoats to continue their retreat, but when the second attack was repulsed—disclosing, as he said later, that the defenders were “full of fight, even to the aggressive”—he knew he was in for trouble. Hindman, who had been struck in the neck by a fragment of shell but declined to quit the field, agreed with this revised assessment, subsequently reporting that while he “never saw Confederate soldiers fight better,” he had “never known Federal troops to fight so well.” However, Longstreet wasted no time on regret that Kershaw had jumped the gun, committing his two brigades before the six at the far end of the line were ready, or that Johnson, conversely, had not swept around the open flank before Granger arrived to brace it. Instead, he sent word for them to keep up the pressure on the two extremities while Preston was massing his three brigades, only one of which had seen any action so far in the battle, for an assault on the blue center. Then at last, with Law coming in on Kershaw’s left and Stewart on his right, the second of Old Peter’s clenched-fist blows would dispose of what had survived the devastation of the first.
Shortly before 4 o’clock, Preston—“genial, gallant, lovable William Preston,” Longstreet called the forty-six-year-old Kentuckian, whom he met for the first time this afternoon—got his troops in position, two brigades advanced in echelon and one held in reserve, and sent them forward against the center of Brannan’s line. By now the defenders had improvised breastworks from stones and fallen trees, anything at all that would stop a bullet, so that when the attackers emerged from the woods at the foot of the slope they were met by heavy, well-aimed fire directed confidently at them from the crest ahead. They did not stop or attempt to return this fire until they were within eighty yards of the flame-stabbed smoke that obscured the enemy position. There they halted, exposed as they were, and engaged in a deadly exchange of volleys with the sheltered bluecoats for nearly an hour. “Only new troops could accomplish such a wonderful feat,” a general who opposed them declared; which perhaps was true (Hood’s Texans, for example, prided themselves on knowing when to stand and when to run, and in point of fact had chosen the latter course twice already on this same field, today and yesterday) except that it left out of account the determined example of the officers who led them. The two brigades were commanded by a pair of Alabamians, Brigadier General Archibald Gracie and Colonel John H. Kelly, both of whom had had considerable experience under fire. New York born—he had distinguished kinsmen in the Union ranks—Gracie was thirty, a graduate of Heidelberg and West Point and a merchant in Mobile before secession returned him to the profession for which he had been trained, while Kelly was only twenty-three, having left West Point as a cadet to go with his native state when the war began. Both had risen fast and far, but strictly on ability, beginning respectively as an infantry captain and an artillery lieutenant; Kelly, who had soldiers under him better than twice his age, had commanded a battalion at Shiloh, a regiment at Perryville and Murfreesboro, and now a brigade at Chickamauga, which would earn him a wreath for his three stars and make him the youngest general in the army. So led, Preston’s two committed brigades stood their ground and took their punishment, losing 1054 of their 2879 effectives in the process, but fixing the Federals in position while the divisions on their left and right were heartened by their example and Breckinridge finally got the twelve-gun battery posted near the junction of the two wings. Even Polk, across the way, came alive at last in response to the sustained uproar of the volleys Gracie’s and Kelly’s men were exchanging with their opponents, and sent word for his division commanders to match the pressure, there on the east, that Longstreet was exerting from the south.
No one knew better than Thomas, wedged as it were between anvil and sledge, that once the Confederates achieved this concert of action, east and south, the issue could not long remain in doubt. Moreover, though the two armies had begun the day with equal numbers and though each would suffer casualties of about one third its total strength before the battle ended, another third of the blue army had fled the field by early afternoon, which left Thomas with only about one third of the original Union force, as compared to Bragg’s two thirds; in short, after succeeding by default to the command, the Virginian faced odds of roughly two to one, with the additional disadvantage of being pressed from two directions, in each of which the enemy strength was about equal to both Federal wings combined. He knew that under these circumstances he would have to withdraw eventually, but he hoped to prolong the struggle until he could do so under cover of darkness. As late as 4 o’clock, when Garfield arrived with his absent chief’s suggestion for “retiring to a position in the rear,” Thomas declined even to consider a retreat by daylight. “It will ruin the army to withdraw it now,” he said. “This position must be held until night.” Before another hour had passed, however, with Preston clawing at him from below and the other rebel divisions of both wings increasing the tempo of their action and inching closer to his lines, he saw that to attempt a much longer delay would be to risk a breakthrough which would be even more costly to him than a daylight disengagement, dangerous though such a maneuver was said to be in all the tactics manuals. Accordingly, about 5 o’clock, while the sun was still an hour high, he settled on a plan for withdrawal, first on the left, where the pressure was less severe, and then on the right. The divisions along the north-south line would pull out in reverse order, first Reynolds, then Palmer, then Johnson, each passing in rear of the unit on its left; Baird would be last and would serve as rear guard on the march to McFarland’s Gap and Rossville, where a new line of battle would be formed to discourage pursuit beyond that point. Similarly, Brannan and Steedman, together with the brigades that had been used to reinforce them, would fall back in sequence from the east-west line, following the same route to comparative safety. Or so at any rate Thomas hoped, knowing full well that the execution of the orders designed to bring this about would be difficult at best.
Reynolds began the movement at 5.30, and for the next two hours, from broad daylight into darkness, the battle raged with a new intensity, a new sense of urgency, as various units of both armies, obliged by the attendant confusion to operate more or less on their own, attempted on the one hand to achieve, and on the other to forestall, deliverance from slaughter. Thomas had improvised well, but in a situation so fluid that orders no longer applied by the time they were issued, let alone received, success or failure depended almost entirely on the naked valor of his infantry and the ability of his subordinate commanders to maintain control of troops who, after all, were running for their lives. In this regard, Reynolds was outstanding. Marching north on the LaFayette Road, in rear of the other three divisions, he reached the extreme left to find that Liddell had outflanked Baird and was about to strike the Union line end-on. Instead of turning west for McFarland’s Gap, as ordered, the Kentucky-born Hoosier launched a savage counterattack that drove the would-be flankers back and kept open the path of retreat for the other three divisions, who were themselves under mounting pressure from Breckinridge and Cleburne. Though they lost heavily in the withdrawal, being obliged to abandon their wounded along with their dead, the four divisions managed to effect a disengagement by moving rapidly westward, outstripping their pursuers in the race for Missionary Ridge, behind which the sun had set by now. Brannan and Steedman had a harder time of it: particularly the former, who was required to hold his ground while the latter began his withdrawal in the wake of the left-wing divisions which had passed across his rear. When Steedman pulled back, Hindman’s and Johnson’s men boiled over the ridge in close pursuit, and Preston committed his third brigade, which plunged through the newly opened breach and then turned right to fall on Brannan’s unprotected flank. Three regiments were captured in one swoop, two from Michigan and one from Ohio, and the battle abruptly disintegrated, here on the right as it had on the left, into a race. That Brannan’s survivors won it was due in large part to a pair of Indiana regiments from Reynolds’ division. Coming upon a broken-down ammunition wagon, abandoned by a teamster who had fled with his mules in the earlier rout, the Hoosiers filled their empty cartridge boxes and countermarched, under direct orders from Thomas himself, to serve as rear guard and cover the final stage of the retreat. This they did, checking the butternut pursuers with volleys fired blind in the gathering darkness; after which they once more faced about and took up their westward march, the last blue troops to leave the field.
In some ways, though, the hardest part of the battle still lay before them; for they marched now, down the dark valley from McFarland’s Gap to Rossville, with the taste of defeat bitter in their mouths and a great weariness in their limbs. Perryville and Stones River had been bad enough, but the fact that they had remained in control of both those fields when the smoke lifted had given their generals and journalists the basis for a claim to victory. Not so here. This was absolute, unarguable defeat, and as such it was depressing beyond anything they had ever known. “Weary, worn, tired and hungry,” a captain in a veteran regiment later wrote, “we sullenly dragged ourselves along, feeling a shame and disgrace that had never been experienced by the Old Sixth before.” Those who fell out of the column because of wounds or exhaustion were left to their own inadequate devices by those who had the strength to keep going. Behind them, beyond the intervening ridge, they could hear the rebels celebrating their triumph with loud yells. Another officer in the retreating column, First Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, a topographical engineer with Hazen, thought the sound “the ugliest any mortal ever heard.” Presently, however, there was a stretch of road well down the valley “across which that horrible yell did not prolong itself,” he added, “and through that we finally retired in profound silence and dejection, unmolested.”
Back on the field of Chickamauga, their spirits lifted by the release of tension, the Confederates kept yelling, despite an almost equal physical weariness, long after their adversaries were out of earshot. As Longstreet put it, “The Army of Tennessee knew how to enjoy its first grand victory,” beginning at the moment when the two wings came together, there on the reverse slopes of the hilly spur from which the Yankees had just been driven, and continuing into the night with “a tremendous swell of heroic harmony that seemed almost to lift from their roots the great trees of the forest.” Harvey Hill declared years later that the cheers “were such as I had never heard before, and shall not hear again.” In point of fact, along strictly practical lines, the victors had more to whoop about than anyone yet knew. Afterwards, when the field had been gleaned, Bragg would report the capture of more than 8000 prisoners, 51 guns, and 23,281 small arms, together with 2381 rounds of artillery ammunition and 135,000 rifle cartridges. The multipaged scavenger list, certified by the chief of ordnance, would include such items as 35 pounds of picket rope, 365 shoulder straps, and 3 damaged copper bugles, as well as “wagons, ambulances, and teams, medicines, hospital stores, &c., in large quantities.” It was, in brief, the largest haul ever made by either side on a single field of battle. For the present, however, all the exultant graybacks knew was that they had scored a triumph of considerable proportions, and they did not delay their celebration to wait for the particulars of its scope.
Nor did others who were not there to see for themselves. After the recent and apparently interminable sequence of knee-buckling reverses, soldiers and civilians throughout the nation were elated by the news from North Georgia, which seemed to them to bear out earlier predictions that the northern armies would find what true resistance meant when they approached the southern heartland. “The effects of this great victory will be electrical,” a Richmond clerk recorded in his diary. “The whole South will be filled again with patriotic fervor, and in the North there will be a corresponding depression.… Surely the Government of the United States must now see the impossibility of subjugating the Southern people, spread over such a vast expanse of territory, and the European governments ought now to interpose and put an end to this cruel waste of blood and treasure.”
In war, as in love—indeed, as in all such areas of so-called human endeavor—expectation tended to outrun execution, particularly when the latter was given a head start in the race, and nowhere did this apply more lamentably, at any rate from the Richmond point of view, than in the wake of Chickamauga, probably the greatest and certainly the bloodiest of all the battles won by the South in its fight for the independence it believed to be its birthright. Harvey Hill said later that he had “never seen the Federal dead lie so thickly on the ground, save in front of the sunken wall at Fredericksburg.” In point of fact, though Hill may not have seen them on his quarter of the field, the Confederate dead lay even thicker; but in any case, now that the Yankees were on the run, he and the other two lieutenant generals, commanding the two wings, were altogether in favor of a rapid and slashing pursuit of the beaten foe. Though Longstreet called a halt in the dusk that followed his second breakthrough, it was for the same purpose as the halt that had followed his first at midday; namely, to consolidate his forces for the delivery of another heavy blow. “As it was almost dark,” he afterwards reported, “I ordered my line to remain as it was, ammunition boxes to be filled, stragglers to be collected, and everything [placed] in readiness for the pursuit in the morning.” Polk, perhaps aware that he had done less to win the victory up to now, prepared to do more by sending out scouts to look into the possibility of continuing the slaughter of the vanished enemy. Later, when the scouts returned to report that the bluecoats had not slacked their headlong retreat, the bishop rode to headquarters and informed Bragg—whom he roused from bed, much as Old Peter had done at about the same hour the night before—“that the enemy was routed and flying precipitately from the field, and that then was the opportunity to finish the work by the capture or destruction of [Rosecrans’] army, by prompt pursuit, before he had time to reorganize or throw up defenses at Chattanooga.” So an aide who rode with him testified: adding, however, that “Bragg could not be induced to look at it in that light, and refused to believe that we had won a victory.”
It was true that the commanding general had received no formal notification of the outcome of the battle, but only because this had seemed to his subordinates a highly superfluous gesture. (“It did not occur to me on the night of the 20th to send Bragg word of our complete success,” Longstreet explained years later. “I thought that the loud huzzas that spread over the field just at dark were a sufficient assurance and notice to anyone within five miles of us.”) On the other hand, if what he wanted was an eyewitness who could testify to the behavior of the Federals after they reached the far side of Missionary Ridge—beyond which, conceivably, they might rally and lie in wait for him to commit some act of rashness—that too was available, soon after first light next morning, in the form of a Confederate private who had been captured the previous day, then escaped amid the confusion of the blue retreat, and made his way back to his outfit before dawn. When he told his captain of what he had seen across the way—for instance, that the Unionists were abandoning their wounded as they slogged northward, intent on nothing but their flight from fury—he was taken at once to repeat his story, first to his regimental and brigade commanders, then to Bragg himself. The stern-faced general heard him out, but was doubtful, if not of the soldier’s capacity for accurate observation, then at any rate of his judgment on such a complicated matter. “Do you know what a retreat looks like?” he asked sharply, fixing the witness with a baleful glare. Irked by his commander’s mistrust, the man replied with words that endeared him to his comrades, then and thereafter, when they were repeated, as they often were, around campfires and at future veteran gatherings. “I ought to, General,” he said; “I’ve been with you during your whole campaign.”
Whatever effect this may have had on the irascible general’s disposition, a look at the field by daylight quickly convinced him that his army was in no condition for the pursuit his chief subordinates were urging him to undertake. The dead of both sides, stiffened by now in agonized postures, and the wounded, many of them with their hurts yet untended, seemed to outnumber the unhit survivors, and while this was true in the case of a dozen regiments under Longstreet—who afterwards computed his losses at 44 percent—it was of course an exaggeration in the main, proceeding from shock at the grisly scene. The fact was that the two armies had suffered a combined total of nearly 35,000 casualties, and most of them were Bragg’s. Though the Federals had some 2500 more men killed and missing than the Confederates (6414, as compared to 3780) the latter had about 5000 more wounded (9756 in blue, 14,674 in gray) so that the butcher’s bill, North and South, came to 16,170 and 18,454 respectively. The combined total of 34,624 was exceeded only by the three-day slaughter at Gettysburg and by the week-long series of five battles known collectively as the Seven Days, in both of which considerably larger numbers of troops had been engaged. In all the other battles of the war so far—including Chancellorsville, which lasted one day longer and also involved about 50,000 more troops—the losses had been less than at Chickamauga, where they were greater by about 10,000 than at Shiloh, Second Manassas, or Murfreesboro, the three next bloodiest two-day confrontations. These statistics could not yet be broken down in any such manner, being as yet unknown, but they were suggested plainly enough by a tour of the field and a talk with unit commanders along the way. Nine Confederate generals had been killed or wounded, as compared to only one in the Federal ranks, and the loss of artillery horses, as a result of fighting at such close quarters, had been so heavy as to cripple that vital arm. “In one place down in the woods,” a soldier wrote of a walk he took that morning, “I counted sixteen big artillery horses lying in one heap. A little way off was another heap of twelve more. And that was the way it was all through there.” Without horses, Bragg could not haul his guns, and without guns he did not believe that his men could force Rossville Gap or assault the prepared defenses between there and Chattanooga. “How can I?” he replied to urgings that he press northward without delay. “Here is two-fifths of my army left on the field, and my artillery is without horses.” He still felt that way about it, some weeks later, when he touched on the matter in his official report of the campaign. “Any immediate pursuit by our infantry and artillery would have been fruitless,” he declared, “as it was not deemed practicable with our weak and exhausted force to assail the enemy, now more than double our numbers, behind his intrenchments.”
One who did not feel that way about it, then or later, was Bedford Forrest. Early that morning, pressing forward on his own with 400 troopers, the Tennessean charged an outpost detachment of Federals who fired one volley and fled so rapidly that their lookouts had no time to desend from an observation platform they had constructed in the top of a tree on the crest of Missionary Ridge. Forrest’s horse had been struck, a large artery severed in its neck, but the general staunched the spurt of blood by thrusting a finger into the bullet hole and thus gave chase. Pulling rein at last beneath the improvised tower atop the ridge, he withdrew his finger and dismounted before the animal collapsed, then summoned his prisoners down from their high perch, questioned them sharply, and climbed up to see for himself what he could see. That he could see a great deal—including the blue army, feverishly active in his front, and the gray army, immobile in his rear—was shown by a dispatch he dictated to a staff officer on the ground:
We are in a mile of Rossville. Have been on the point of Missionary Ridge. Can see Chattanooga and everything around. The enemy’s trains are leaving, going around the point of Lookout Mountain.
The prisoners captured report two pontoons thrown across [the Tennesee River] for the purpose of retreating.
I think they are evacuating as hard as they can go.
They are cutting timber down to obstruct our passage.
I think we ought to press forward as rapidly as possible.
The message was addressed to Polk, commander of the nearer wing, and ended with the words, “Please forward to Genl Bragg.” Anticipating the response he believed this information would provoke, Forrest continued his policy of “keeping up the scare” by penetrating to within three miles of Chattanooga from the south, meanwhile shifting his guns northward along the ridge to engage the batteries posted in close defense of the town below. All this time, according to one of his troopers, the general was “almost beside himself at the delay.” Finally he learned that the infantry would not be coming as he had advised; Bragg was holding it east of Missionary Ridge and near the railroad, shifting Polk to Chickamauga Station and army headquarters to Ringgold Bridge, while Longstreet remained in position to police the field and wait for McLaws, who arrived in the late afternoon with the rest of his division. Nettled by what seemed to him flagrant neglect of an opportunity gained at the cost of much suffering and bloodshed, Forrest rode back to protest in person, only to be told that the army could not move far from the railroad because of its critical lack of supplies. “General Bragg, we can get all the supplies our army needs in Chattanooga,” he replied. But this too was rejected: Bragg’s mind was quite made up. Forrest returned to his men, exasperated and outdone. “What does he fight battles for?” he fumed.
That was Monday. On Tuesday, unmolested even by Forrest, whose handful of troopers had been recalled, Rosecrans completed the concentration of his army within the Chattanooga defenses, and Bragg ordered the occupation of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, as well as the establishment of a line of posts across the valley that lay between them. By Wednesday, September 23, the date of the autumnal equinox, all of these abandoned points had been seized, and the Federal works, which rose and thickened hour by hour as shovels flashed along the intrenched perimeter, were under long-range fire from the surrounding heights. Three courses of action—or, rather, two of action and one of inaction—were open to the Confederates. 1.) They could attempt to turn the bluecoats out of their position by crossing the river above or below the town, thus gaining their rear and breaking their tenuous supply line. 2.) They could leave a small force to observe the enemy trapped in Chattanooga, and move with the greater part of the army against Burnside, who would then be obliged to evacuate Knoxville or fight against long odds. 3.) They could concentrate on the present investment, hoping to starve the defenders into surrender. Longstreet favored a combination of the first two—“The hunt was up and on the go,” he afterwards explained, “when any move toward [the enemy’s] rear was safe, and a speedy one encouraging of great results”—but Bragg, much to Old Peter’s disgust and over his vigorous objections, chose the third.
This was by no means as impractical as Longstreet seemed to think. By extending his left to include the crest of Raccoon Mountain, Bragg denied his adversary use of the rail and wagon roads not only on the south but also on the immediate north bank of the Tennessee, which lay well within reach of his high-sited batteries, and thus obliged Rosecrans to haul supplies from Stevenson and Bridgeport by a roundabout and barren route, first across the bridgeless Sequatchie River, then up and over Walden’s Ridge, and finally down to the steamboat landing opposite Chattanooga, a distance of some sixty tortuous miles which would become increasingly difficult when the fall rains set in and the mud deepened. Unwilling to leave the harassment entirely to the elements, Bragg on September 30, one week after getting his infantry and artillery into their interdictory positions, ordered Wheeler over the river on a raid. The diminutive Alabamian crossed next morning near Muscle Shoals with 4000 cavalry and eight guns, and on the following day he intercepted a train of 400 heavily loaded wagons at Anderson’s Crossroads, deep in the Sequatchie Valley. After burning the wagons and sabering the mules, he moved north to McMinnville, then west to Shelbyville, both of which he captured, together with their supply depots, which he destroyed. By now, though, the rains had come in earnest and he was involved in a running fight with superior blue forces that converged upon him from all directions. Repulsed at Murfreesboro, he turned back south, losing four of his guns and more than a thousand of his men before he recrossed the Tennessee near Rogersville on October 9. Despite his considerable success in the execution of his mission—a Union observer afterwards declared that the disruptive and destructive strike was nearly fatal to the army besieged in Chattanooga—the cost had been high, and Wheeler did not suggest that he attempt another such raid, deep in the enemy rear. Nor did Bragg require one of him, apparently being content to watch and wait.
The fact was, he had troubles enough with his own supply lines, unmolested though they were, without concerning himself unduly about those across the way. No matter how hungry the bluecoats might be getting, down in the town, his own troops were convinced that they themselves were hungrier on the heights. “In all the history of the war,” a Tennessee infantryman was to write, “I cannot remember of more privation and hardships than we went through at Missionary Ridge.… The soldiers were starved and almost naked, and covered all over with lice and camp itch and filth and dirt. The men looked sick, hollow-eyed, and heart-broken, living principally upon parched corn which had been picked out of the mud and dirt under the feet of officers’ horses.” There was, as usual, much bitterness over Bragg’s apparent reluctance to gather the fruits of a victory they had won, but this time it was intensified by resentment of his attempts to shift the blame to other shoulders than his own. Within two days of the battle, with the army at last on the march, Polk had received a stiff note demanding an explanation of why his attack had been delayed on the morning of the 20th, and when his reply reached headquarters on the last day of September, Bragg pronounced it “unsatisfactory” and relieved the bishop of his command. Hindman received the same treatment for his conduct earlier that month at McLemore’s Cove, dispite his acknowledged contribution to the triumph that followed ten days later. Hill too came under fire from the army chieftain, who complained of his former lieutenant’s “critical, captious, and dictatorial manner,” as well as of his “want of prompt conformity to orders,” and recommended to Richmond that he be suspended, like the others, from duty with the Army of Tennessee.
All three were incensed: particularly the two lieutenant generals, who in point of fact had taken care to register their protests beforehand, after a secret meeting on September 26 with Longstreet, who outranked them both. Intent on doing to Bragg what he was about to do to them—that is, accomplish his removal—they urged Old Peter to join them, in his semi-independent capacity, in complaining to Richmond of their commander’s “palpable weakness and mismanagement manifested in the conduct of the military operations of this army.” Polk wrote privately to his friend the President along these lines, though not in time to forestall the blow which he described as “part of [Bragg’s] long-cherished purpose to avenge himself on me for the relief and support I have given him in the past.… The truth is, General Bragg has made a failure, notwithstanding the success of the battle, and he wants a scapegoat.” Figuratively, but with dignity, the bishop gathered his robes about him for the train ride to Atlanta, where he was sent to await the disposition of his case. “I feel a lofty contempt for his puny effort to inflict injury upon a man who has dry-nursed him for the whole period of his connection with him, and has kept him from ruining the cause of the country by the sacrifice of its armies.” So he complained in private, after the blow fell. But Longstreet had already made a stronger statement to the Secretary of War, adopting Prayer Book phraseology to add weight to his words. “Our chief has done but one thing that he ought to have done since I joined his army,” Old Peter informed Seddon on the day of his meeting with Polk and Hill. “That was to order the attack upon the 20th. All other things that he has done he ought not to have done. I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander.”
Such was the unhappy state of affairs in the Army of Tennessee, the men hungry and disgruntled and the generals bitterly resentful, on the morrow of what Longstreet, in his letter to Richmond, called “the most complete victory of the war—except, perhaps, the first Manassas,” he added, remembering past glory and gladder times.
Beyond the semicircular rim of earthworks, down in the town and off at the far end of the chain of command leading back to Washington, a scapegoat hunt was also under way. McCook and Crittenden had already been relieved, ostensibly for flight in time of danger, yet it had not escaped notice that the winner in the headlong race for safety was the man who consented to their removal. Stanton, for one, observed caustically that the two corps commanders had “made pretty good time away from the fight, but Rosecrans beat them both.”
Moreover, the reverse had come in sudden and sharp contrast to expectations Old Rosy himself had aroused. “The army is in excellent condition and spirits,” he had telegraphed soon after darkness ended the first day’s fighting, “and by the blessing of Providence the defeat of the enemy will be total tomorrow.” Lincoln did not like the sound of this, finding it reminiscent of Joe Hooker, and when he learned next evening that the army had been routed, he claimed to have foreseen such a turn of events. “Well, Rosecrans has been whipped, as I feared,” he said. “I have feared it for several days. I believe I feel trouble in the air before it comes.” Nor was the general’s immediate reaction of a kind to encourage hope that he would make an early recovery from the setback. “We have met with a serious disaster,” he notified Halleck soon after he reached Chattanooga; “extent not yet ascertained. Enemy overwhelmed us, drove our right, pierced our center, and scattered troops there.” Despite his own gloom, which was heavy, Lincoln tried to lift the Ohioan’s. “Be of good cheer,” he wired him late that night. “We have unabated confidence in you and in your soldiers and officers.… We shall do our utmost to assist you. Send us your present posting.” But the general, in his reply the following morning, gave no indication that he would attempt to stay in the town he had fallen back on. In fact, he expressed some doubt that he could do so, even if he tried: “Our loss is heavy and our troops worn down.… We have no certainty of holding our position here.” Such irresolution was disturbing in a commander. What was more, when the President asked him next day to “relieve my anxiety as to the position and condition of your army,” Rosecrans replied in effect that his faith was not so much in himself or his army as it was in Providence. “We are about 30,000 brave and determined men,” he wired; “but our fate is in the hands of God, in whom I hope.”
Lincoln soon emerged from his gloom. The important thing, as he saw it, was not that Rosecrans had been whipped at Chickamauga, but that he still held Chattanooga. As long as he did so, he could keep the Confederates out of Tennessee and also deny them use of one of their most important railroads. “If he can only maintain this position, without [doing anything] more,” the President told Halleck, “the rebellion can only eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals.” By now, after three days’ rest and no pursuit, Rosecrans had recovered a measure of his resolution. “We hold this point, and cannot be dislodged except by very superior numbers,” he wired on September 23, although he made it clear that this depended on “having all reinforcements you can send hurried up.” Lincoln had been doing his best in this respect, instructing Halleck to order troops to Chattanooga from Vicksburg and Memphis, while he himself undertook to prod Burnside into marching fast from Knoxville. When Burnside replied that he was just then closing in on Jonesboro, which lay in the opposite direction, the President lost his temper. “Damn Jonesboro,” he said testily, and returned to his efforts to get the ruff-whiskered general to swing west. This proved so difficult, however, that he decided in the end to leave him where he was, covering Knoxville; Rosecrans would have to be reinforced from elsewhere. And that same night, September 23, Lincoln met with Stanton, Halleck, Chase, and Seward, together with several lesser War Department officials, in an attempt to determine just where such reinforcements could be found.
Stanton, having heard that evening from Dana that the Army of the Cumberland, outnumbered, dejected, and under fire from the heights inclosing Chattanooga on the south and east, could not hold out for more than a couple of weeks unless it was promptly and substantially reinforced, had called the midnight conference to suggest a solution to the problem. Since Burnside apparently could not be budged, and since the troops ordered from Vicksburg and Memphis would have to make a slow overland march for lack of any means of transportation, the Secretary proposed that Rosecrans be sent a sizable portion of the Army of the Potomac, which could make the trip by rail. Lincoln and Halleck objected that this would prevent Meade from taking the offensive, but Stanton replied: “There is no reason to expect General Meade will attack Lee, although greatly superior in force, and his great numbers where they are are useless. In five days 30,000 could be put with Rosecrans.” The President doubted this last, offering to bet that no such number of men could even be brought to Washington within that span of time. Still, it was clear that something had to be done, and when Seward and Chase sided with their fellow cabinet member Lincoln allowed himself to be persuaded. Unless Meade intended to launch an immediate offensive, two of his corps would be detached at once and sent to Chattanooga. These would be Howard’s and Slocum’s, and they would be commanded by Joe Hooker, who was conveniently at hand and unemployed. Aside from this reduction of the force proposed and this choice of a leader, which rather galled him, Stanton was given full charge of the transfer operation, with instructions to arrange it as he saw fit. He flew into action without delay. The meeting broke up at about 2 o’clock in the morning, and at 2.30 he got off a wire to Meade, directing him to have the two corps ready to load aboard northbound trains by nightfall, and another to Dana, informing him that the reinforcements would be sent. “[We] will have them in Nashville in five or six days from today,” he declared, “with orders to push on immediately wherever General Rosecrans wants them.”
Telegrams were also sent—in fact had been sent beforehand, so confident was the Secretary that the council would approve his plan—to officials of three of the several railroads involved, requesting them to “come to Washington as quickly as you can.” By noon of the 24th they were in Stanton’s office, poring over maps and working out the logistical details required for transporting four divisions, together with their guns and wagons, from the eastern to the western theater, 1200 circuitous miles across the intervening Alleghenies. Four changes of cars were necessary, two at unbridged crossings of the Ohio, near Wheeling and Louisville, and two more at Washington and Indianapolis, where there were no connecting tracks between the roads that must be used. Hooker was authorized to commandeer all the cars, locomotives, plants, and equipment that he deemed necessary, but no such action had to be taken, so complete was the co-operation of all the lines. Before sundown of the following day, just forty-four hours after Dana’s warning reached the War Department, the first trainload of soldiers pulled into Washington from Culpeper, the point of origin down in Virginia. By the morning of the 27th, two days later, 12,600 men, together with 33 cars of field artillery and 21 of baggage, had passed through the capital, and at 10 o’clock that evening Stanton wired former Assistant Secretary Thomas A. Scott, who had returned to his prewar duties with the Pennsylvania Railroad and was posted at Louisville to regulate the operation west of the mountains: “The whole force, except 3300 of the XII Corps, is now moving.” Within another two days Scott reported trains pulling regularly out of Louisville, and at 10.30 the following night—September 30—the first eastern troops reached Bridgeport, precisely on the schedule announced at the outset, six days back. By October 2, nearly 20,000 men, 10 six-gun batteries with their horses and ammunition, and 100 carloads of baggage had arrived at the Tennessee railhead. “Your work is most brilliant,” Stanton wired Scott. “A thousand thanks. It is a great achievement.”
It was indeed a great achievement, this swiftest of all the mass movements of troops in history, and most of the credit belonged to the Secretary of War, who had worked feverishly and efficiently to accomplish what many, including the Commander in Chief, had said could not be done. Under his direction, the North had given its answer to the South’s strategic advantage of occupying the interior lines; for though the Confederates had stolen a march and thereby managed, in Forrest’s phrase, to “get there first with the most men,” the Federals had promptly upped the ante by moving farther and faster with still more. In the final stages of the operation, Wheeler’s raiders delayed some of the supply trains by tearing up sections of track, but all got through safely in the end. “You may justly claim the merit of having saved Chattanooga,” Hooker wired Stanton on October 11, after posting his four divisions to prevent a rebel crossing below the town and a descent on the hungry garrison’s rear. The Secretary was pleased to hear so, just as he had been pleased the week before at the evidence that he had been right in rejecting doleful objections that Lee would attack if Meade’s army was weakened by any substantial detachment of troops to Rosecrans. “ ‘All quiet on the Potomac,’ ” he had informed the Chattanooga quartermaster on October 4. “Nothing to disturb autumnal slumbers.… All public interest is now concentrated on the Tennessee.”
Bragg’s complaint that the Federals had “more than double our numbers” was untrue in regard to the time he made it his excuse for not rapidly following up the advantage gained at Chickamauga. In fact, when McLaws arrived—with two of his own and one of Hood’s brigades, plus the First Corps artillery, which soon was posted atop Lookout Mountain—the Confederates became numerically superior. But now that Hooker had crossed the Alleghenies with nearly 20,000 reinforcements, the situation was reversed. It was the besiegers who were outnumbered. This novel condition, rarely paralleled in military annals, was about to become more novel still; Sherman was on the way from Vicksburg, via Memphis, with another five divisions. Even when he reached Chattanooga, the Army of the Cumberland would not have “more than double” the number of troops in the Army of Tennessee, but it already had a considerable preponderance without him. Although there was still the menace of starvation—an Illinois private was complaining, tall-tale style, that since Chickamauga he and his comrades had eaten “but two meals a day, and one cracker for each meal”—Rosecrans at least could relax his fears that Bragg was going to drive him into the river with a sudden, downhill infantry assault. The rebels lacked the strength, and no one knew this better than their chief. A graver danger, so far as the northern commander was personally concerned, lurked at the far end of the telegraph wires linking his headquarters to those of his superiors in Washington. This applied in particular to the headquarters of the Secretary of War, whose original mistrust of his fellow Ohioan was being confirmed almost daily in the confidential reports he received from Dana, his special emissary on the scene.
Immediately after the battle, the former Brook Farmer had been glad to “testify to the conspicuous and steady gallantry of Rosecrans on the field”; he put the blame for the defeat on “that dangerous blunderhead McCook” and on Crittenden, whom he considered derelict and incompetent. Before the month was out, however, he had begun to sour on Old Rosy. “He abounds in friendliness and approbativeness.” Dana wired on the 27th, “[but] is greatly lacking in firmness and steadiness of will. He is a temporizing man.… If it be decided to change the chief commander”—there had been no intimation that such a thing was being considered; Dana brought it up of his own accord—“I would take the liberty of suggesting that some Western general of high rank and great prestige, like Grant, for instance, would be preferable as his successor.” Three days later he favored Thomas for the post, saying: “Should there be a change in the chief command, there is no other man whose appointment would be so welcome to this army.” As for the present leader, Dana informed Stanton “that the soldiers have lost their attachment for [him] since he failed them in the battle, and that they do not now cheer him until they are ordered to do so.” In the course of the next two weeks, the first two in October, the Assistant Secretary’s conviction became even more pronounced in this regard. “I have never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose. His mind scatters; there is no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights.… Under the present circumstances I consider this army to be very unsafe in his hands.” Thus Dana, on the 12th. Six days later, after passing along a report that the soldiers were shouting “Crackers!” at staff officers who moved along them to inspect the fortifications, he added the finishing touches to his word portrait of a man in control of nothing, least of all himself: “Amid all this, the practical incapacity of the general commanding is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious.… If the army is finally obliged to retreat, the probability is that it will fall back like a rabble, leaving its artillery, and protected only by the river behind it.”
He might have spared himself and the telegrapher the labor of composing and transmitting this last in his series of depositions as to the general’s unfitness for command; for by now, although he would not find it out until the following day, the purpose he intended had been achieved. Stanton had been passing his dispatches along to the Commander in Chief, who had found in them a ready confirmation of his own worst suspicions. Despite this, and because he had not yet decided on a replacement, Lincoln had continued his efforts to stiffen Old Rosy’s resolution. On October 12, for instance, while Dana was observing the “scattered” condition of the Ohioan’s mind, Lincoln wired: “You and Burnside now have [the enemy] by the throat, and he must break your hold or perish.” Rosecrans replied that afternoon, complaining that the corn was ripe on the rebel side of the Tennessee, while “our side is barren.” Nevertheless, and in spite of this evidence of divine displeasure, he closed by remarking, much as before, that “we must put our trust in God, who never fails those who truly trust.” Commendable though such faith was, particularly after all the Job-like strain that had been placed on it of late, the President would have preferred to see it balanced by a measure of self-reliance. And not only did this quality appear to be totally lacking in the commander of the army now holed up in Chattanooga, but it had begun to seem to Lincoln that ever since Chickamauga, as he told his secretary, Rosecrans had been acting “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.”
Ridicule by the President was often the prelude to a general’s dismissal, and this was no exception; Rosecrans was about to go, as Buell and McClellan had gone before him. But there was still the question of a successor to be settled before he went. Dana’s recommendation of Thomas appealed to Lincoln, who had said of the Virginian shortly after the battle that earned him the sobriquet, “The Rock of Chickamauga”: “It is doubtful whether his heroism and skill, exhibited last Sunday afternoon, has ever been surpassed in the world.” Stanton felt much the same way about him. “It is not my fault that he was not in chief command months ago,” he replied to Dana’s observation that there was “no other man whose appointment would be so welcome to this army.” However, there was also Grant, who had been comparatively idle since the fall of Vicksburg, fifteen weeks ago. This was plainly a waste the nation could ill afford. What was most desirable was some arrangement that would employ the full abilities of both, and it took Lincoln until mid-October to arrive at a solution that did just that.