Tactical FeaturesThe Battle opened by
Direct Attack on the Federals in the Early Morning of September
20Repeated and Determined Front AssaultsBrigadiers Helm killed and
Adams woundedThe Union Commands lay behind DefencesHood's Brigades
surged through the Forest against the Covered Infantry and Artillery Hood
woundedLongstreet suggests a Plan for Progressive Action- Halting Tactics
at High Tide of SuccessThe Confederate Left fought a Separate
BattleGeneral Thomas retreatsFirst Confederate Victory in the West,
and one of the Bloodiest Battles of the WarForces
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
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
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
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
|General Bragg's returns of the 20th of
Augustthe last of recordreported his aggregate of all arms
|Reinforced from J. E. Johnston's army in August
|Reinforced from 3. E. Johnston's army in September
(Gregg and McNair)
|Reinforced from General Lee's army, September 18 and
19 (a large estimate)
|Losses on the 18th and 19th
|Aggregate for battle on the 20th
|General Rosecrans's return of September
20, 1863, showed :
|Aggregate of infantry, equipped
|Aggregate of cavalry, equipped
|Aggregate of artillery, equipped
|Confederate losses (estimated ; returns
|Union losses by returns (infantry, artillery, and
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 placefifthin 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 casualtieskilled, wounded, and missingembraced
the enormous proportion of thirty-three per cent of the troops actually
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
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 :
|Tenth Tennessee ...................
|Fifteenth and Thirty-seventh Tennessee .......
|Sixth and Ninth Tennessee ..............
|Eighteenth Alabama .................
|Twenty-second Alabama ...............
|Twenty-third Tennessee ...............
|Fifty eighth Alabama. ................
|Forty-first Alabama .................
|Thirty-second Tennessee ...............
|Twentieth Tennessee .................
|First Arkansas ....................
|Ninth Kentucky ...................
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.