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From Manassas to Appomattox
Chapter 31b - Battle of Chickamauga.
Tactical Features—The Battle opened by Direct Attack on the Federals in the Early Morning of September 20—Repeated and Determined Front Assaults—Brigadiers Helm killed and Adams wounded—The Union Commands lay behind Defences—Hood's Brigades surged through the Forest against the Covered Infantry and Artillery— Hood wounded—Longstreet suggests a Plan for Progressive Action- Halting Tactics at High Tide of Success—The Confederate Left fought a Separate Battle—General Thomas retreats—First Confederate Victory in the West, and one of the Bloodiest Battles of the War—Forces engaged—Losses.


Then our foot-scouts reported that there was nothing on the road taken by the enemy's retreating columns but squads of footmen. Another written order for the cavalry was despatched at 5.30.

General Preston reinforced us by his brigade under Gracie, pushed beyond our battle, and gained a height and intervening dell before Snodgrass Hill, but the enemy's reserve was on the hill, and full of fight, even to the aggressive. We were pushed back through the valley and up the slope, until General Preston succeeded in getting part of his brigade under Trigg to the support. Our battery got up at last under Major Williams and opened its destructive fire from eleven guns, which presently convinced General Thomas that his position was no longer tenable. He drew Reynolds's division from its trenches near the angle, for assignment as rear-guard. Lieutenant-Colonel Sorrel, of the staff, reported this move, and was sent with orders to General Stewart to strike down against the enemy's moving forces. It seems that at the same time Liddell's division of the extreme right of our right wing was ordered against the march of the reserves. Stewart got into part of Reynolds's line and took several hundred prisoners. Meanwhile, Reynolds was used in meeting the attack and driving back the division of General Liddell. That accomplished, he was ordered to position to cover the retreat. As no reports came to the left from the commanding general or from the right wing, the repulse of Liddell's division was thought to indicate the strongholding of the enemy along his intrenched front line, and I thought that we should wait to finish the battle on the morrow.

The direct road to Chattanooga was thought to be closed by our right wing. McFarland's Gap, the only debouche, was supposed to be occupied by the cavalry. Another blind road was at the base of the mountain on its east side. During the artillery practice the fire of some of the guns of our battery was turned to the contest at Snodgrass Hill, which disturbed part of our infantry fiercely struggling for that ground, and they complained, but the fire was effective. As the woods were full of the enemy, a shot would find a mark.

The intrenched line was crumbling faster than we supposed, and their reserve was engaged in hot defensive battle to hold secure the Gap while yet there were two hours of daylight. Had the four brigades of Cheatham's division that had not been in action gone in at the same time as Liddell's division, it is hardly possible that the Confederate commander could have failed to find the enemy's empty lines along the front of his right wing, and called both wings into a grand final sweep of the field to capture Thomas's command; but he was not present, and the condition of affairs was embarrassing to the subordinate commanders whose efforts had not been approved.

A reconnoissance made just before the first strokes of the morning engagement discovered an open way around the enemy's left by turning his intrenched line in reverse, which General Hill thought to utilize by change of tactics, but General Bragg present, and advised of the opportunity, preferred his tactics, and urged prompt execution. At the later hour when Liddell's division was passed beyond the enemy's intrenchments to strike at his reinforcing march under General Granger, the subordinate of the right wing could not see how he was to be justified in using a greater force in that direction, affairs of the wing being similar to those of the opening, while the relations of the right and left were in reverse of tactical orders; but a vigilant chief present and caring for the weaker part of his battle, advised that the enemy was on his last legs, with his reserves could well have sprung the right wing into the opening beyond his right, securing crushing results. Earlier in the afternoon he did send an order for renewed efforts of the right wing under his plan of parallel assault, but the troops had tested the lines in their first battle, and were not in condition for a third effort, at parallel battle.

The contention by our left wing was maintained as a separate and independent battle. The last of the reserve, Trigg's brigade, gave us new strength, and Preston gained Snodgrass Hill. The trampled ground and bushy woods were left to those who were too much worn to escape the rapid strides of the heroic Confederates. The left wing swept forward, and the right sprang to the broad Chattanooga highway. Like magic the Union army had melted away in our presence. A few hundred prisoners were picked up by both wings as they met, to burst their throats in loud huzzas. The Army of Tennessee knew how to enjoy its first grand victory. The dews of twilight hung heavy about the trees as if to hold down the voice of victory; but the two lines nearing as they advanced joined their continuous shouts in increasing volume, not as the burstings from the cannon's mouth, but in a tremendous swell of heroic harmony that seemed almost to lift from their roots the great trees of the forest.

Before greetings and congratulations upon the success had passed it was night, and the mild beams of the quartering moon were more suggestive of Venus than of Mars. The haversacks and ammunition supplies were ordered replenished, and the Confederate army made its bivouac on the ground it had gained in the first pronounced victory in the West, and one of the most stubbornly contested battles of the war.

Our cavalry had failed to close McFarland Gap, and through that General Thomas made his march for the stand at Rossville Gap.

It has been stated that this retreat was made under the orders of the Union commander. General Thomas did, in fact, receive a message from his chief a little after four o'clock, saying that he was riding to Chattanooga to view the position there; that he, General Thomas, was left in command of all of the organized forces, and should seek strong and threatening position at Rossville, and send the other men back to Chattanooga to be reorganized. This was a suggestion more than an order, given under the conviction that the Confederates, having the Dry Valley road, would pass the ridge to the west side, cut General Thomas off, and strike his rear at pleasure. The order to command of the troops in action, and the conditions referring to duties at Chattanooga, carried inferential discretion. That General Thomas so construed it was evidenced by his decision to hold " until nightfall if possible." But directly, under the practice of our enfilading battery, he became convinced that it was not possible, changed his purpose, and at 5.30 gave orders for his commanders to prepare to retire, and called Reynolds's division from its trenches to be posted as rear-guard to cover the retreat.

General Granger was then engaged in severe contention against my left at Snodgrass Hill. His march along the front of our cavalry and right wing suggested the advance of Liddell's division to the Chattanooga road to try to check it. The withdrawal of Reynolds's division was in season to aid in driving Liddell's division back to its former ground. Reynolds was posted on eminent ground as rear-guard, and organized retreat followed. It was not until after sunset that Rosecrans's order for retreat was issued, as appears from the letter written from Rossville by General James A. Garfield, chief of staff, dated 8.40, three hours and more after the move was taken up, viz.:

" Your order to retire to this place was received a little after sunset and communicated to Generals Thomas and Granger. The troops are now moving back, and will be here in good shape and strong position before morning."

So events and the evidence seem conclusive that it was our artillery practice that made the confusion of Chickamauga forests unbearable, and enforced retreat before Rosecrans order was issued.

The Union army and reserve had been fought, and by united efforts we held the position at Snodgrass Hill, which covered McFarland Gap and the retreat. There were yet five brigades of Confederates that had not been in active battle. The Confederate commander was not present, and his next in rank thought night pursuit without authority a heavy, unprofitable labor, while a flank move, after a night's rest, seemed promising of more important results. The Confederate chief did not even know of his victory until the morning of the 21st, when, upon riding to his extreme right, he found his commander at that point seeking the enemy in his immediate front, and commended the officer upon his vigilance,—twelve hours after the retreat of the enemy's forces.

The forces engaged and their respective casualties follow:

General Bragg's returns of the 20th of August—the last of record—reported his aggregate of all arms 43,866
Reinforced from J. E. Johnston's army in August 9,000
Reinforced from 3. E. Johnston's army in September (Gregg and McNair) 2,500
Reinforced from General Lee's army, September 18 and 19 (a large estimate) 5,000
Total 60,366
Losses on the 18th and 19th 1,124
Aggregate for battle on the 20th 59,242
General Rosecrans's return of September 20, 1863, showed :
Aggregate of infantry, equipped 46,561
Aggregate of cavalry, equipped 10,114
Aggregate of artillery, equipped 4,192
Total 60,867
Confederate losses (estimated ; returns imperfect) 17,800
Union losses by returns (infantry, artillery, and cavalry) 16,550

The exceeding heaviness of these losses will be better understood, and the desperate and bloody character of the Chickamauga battle more fully appreciated, upon a little analysis. The battle, viewed from the stand-point of the Union losses, was the fifth greatest of the war, Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, the Wilderness, and Chancellorsville alone exceeding it, but each of these battles were of much longer time. Viewed by comparison of Confederate losses, Chickamauga occupies similar place—fifth—in the scale of magnitude among the battles of the war.

But the sanguinary nature of the contention is best illustrated by a simple suggestion of proportions. Official reports show that on both sides the casualties—killed, wounded, and missing—embraced the enormous proportion of thirty-three per cent of the troops actually engaged.

On the Union side there were over a score of regiments in which the losses in this single fight exceeded 49.4 per cent., which was the heaviest loss sustained by a German regiment at any time during the Franco-German war. The " charge of the Light Brigade" at Balaklava has been made famous in song and history, yet there were thirty Union regiments that each lost ten per cent more men at Chickamauga, and many Confederate regiments whose mortality exceeded this.

Longstreet's command in less than two hours lost nearly forty-four per cent of its strength, and of the troops opposed to a portion of their splendid assaults, Steedman's and Brannan's commands lost respectively forty-nine and thirty-eight in less than four hours, and single regiments a far heavier percentage.

Of the Confederate regiments sustaining the heaviest percentages of loss (in killed, wounded, and missing,—the last a scarcely appreciable fraction) the leading ones were :

Regiment. Per cent
Tenth Tennessee ................... 68.0
Fifth Georgia...................... 61.1
Second Tennessee................... 60.2
Fifteenth and Thirty-seventh Tennessee ....... 59.9
Sixteenth Alabama.................. 58.6
Sixth and Ninth Tennessee .............. 57.9
Eighteenth Alabama ................. 56.3
Twenty-second Alabama ............... 55.2
Twenty-third Tennessee ............... 54.1
Twenty-ninth Mississippi............... 52.7
Fifty eighth Alabama. ................ 51.7
Thirty-seventh Georgia................ 50.1
Sixty-third Tennessee................. 49.7
Forty-first Alabama ................. 48.6
Thirty-second Tennessee ............... 48.3
Twentieth Tennessee ................. 48.0
First Arkansas .................... 45.1
Ninth Kentucky ................... 44.3

These are only a few of the cases in which it was possible to compute percentages of casualties, the number of effectives taken into battle not having been mentioned, but they serve to illustrate the sanguinary severity of the fight and the heroism of the troops.

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