In real estate, the mantra is always “location, location, location” and this also holds true for Civil War battles. In 1863, President Lincoln believed that taking Chattanooga was as important as taking Richmond. Why? Because it lay on the banks of the Tennessee River where it cut through the Appalachian Mountains, four railroads converged there and the town was crucial for Confederate supply lines.
We visited Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in the fall. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic both visitor centers were closed as was the entire Point Park unit. Fortunately the Chickamauga Battlefield unit was open and well-signed.
Established in 1890, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was the first so designated park. It was proposed that both Union and Confederate positions be marked, making it unique and at the same time providing a healing process. (Gettysburg at that time had only the Union side represented) The Society of the Army of the Cumberland formed a committee to initiate a movement for the purchase of the ground where the Battle of Chickamauga was fought. At their first meeting, it was agreed to invite Confederate veterans of the battle and the united committee became the Joint Chickamauga Memorial Association.
Throughout the park, there are 705 commemorative features including monuments, markers and tablets. Monuments commemorate units who fought there, blue signs detail Union positions and red signs detail Confederate. These signs are extremely helpful in visualizing what occurred on those fateful days in September 1863.
Major General William Rosecrans commanded the Union Army of the Cumberland. General Braxton Bragg commanded the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Both commanders, Rosecrans and Bragg, had problems within their commands. In some ways they were similar in personality and both apparently were difficult.
During the summer of 1863, Confederate General Bragg and his army controlled Chattanooga. Union General Rosecrans moved his army toward Chattanooga slowly, dealing with some logistical issues. He waited for the corn to ripen in the surrounding countryside, for railroads to be repaired and bridges to be built – all based on the necessity of vast quantities of food and forage.
Bragg thought he was protected by the Tennessee River and the Sand and Lookout Mountains. Rosecrans developed a deceptive plan which convinced Bragg that the Federal crossing and assault would be above the city, while he moved troops across the river and over the mountains to threaten them from behind.
Realizing he had been outmaneuvered, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga September 8. Rosecrans entered Chattanooga and at that point a vigorous pursuit might have destroyed Bragg’s army. In this endeavor, there was miscommunication and Rosecran’s largest corps found themselves in McLemore’s Cove where Bragg saw a chance to strike a counterblow. However, orders to Bragg’s subordinates were delayed and then only tentatively followed. Even though the Confederates outnumbered the Federals 3 to 1, they lost the opportunity and on September 11, the Federals withdrew.
Both armies spent several days working to improve their respective positions south of Chattanooga in the vicinity of Chickamauga Creek.
On September 18, Confederate Brigadier General Johnson put his troops in motion and encountered Federal cavalry pickets and the Battle of Chickamauga was underway. For three days, it was back and forth, attack and counterattack. The same areas were sometimes taken several times.
At the end of day September 19, Rosecrans had three choices – attack, retreat or stand firmly on defensive. He chose to stand, hoping Bragg might retreat. Bragg planned to attack. Both generals issued orders based on inadequate information. Bragg’s sequential attacked broke down but, more significantly, a shift in Federal troops accidentally created a gap in the center of the Union line. Confederate soldiers flowed through and 15 or 26 Union cannons were captured.
Mass confusion followed and as darkness fell, few on either side knew it had ended. During the night, Rosecrans withdrew his units. Unaware that the Army of the Cumberland was gone, the Army of Tennessee bivouacked where they lay and expected to renew the fight in the morning.
Bragg’s army had lost more than 20,000 men killed, wounded and missing.
Rosecrans had lost more than 16,000 men killed, wounded and missing.
Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland held Chattanooga and such could claim the objective of the campaign had been attained.
Bragg and the Army of Tennessee could claim a great victory at Chickamauga but were denied possession of Chattanooga.
Following the battle in September, a siege of Chattanooga followed to try and starve the Union Army into submission. November 25, Union forces, now under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, force the Confederate troops off Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and into retreat south into Georgia.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/chch/index.htm