The Battle of Chickamauga was fought between September 19th and September 20th 1863. Chickamauga was a major victory for the army of the Confederate general Braxton Bragg and a major disaster for the Union general of the Army of the Cumberland, William Rosecrans. The Battle of Chickamauga had the second highest number of casualties in the American Civil War and only the Battle of Gettysburg accounted for more.
Before the Battle of Chickamauga, Rosecrans had quartered his Army of the Cumberland in Middle Tennessee. Buoyed by his victory at the Battle of Stones River, Rosecrans spent his time training and resting his men. However, huge political pressure was put on him by President Lincoln to pursue and finish off Braxton Bragg who commanded the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Rosecrans felt that his army had trained sufficiently by June and on June 24th he moved his army out in pursuit of Bragg’s. The initial pursuit was very successful and Bragg was pushed back to Chattanooga. A concerted Union attack forced him out of the city and Rosecran’s pursuit seemed to be going exceptionally well and vindicated his policy of resting his men and putting time aside to train them.
Chattanooga was the centre of a major rail network and was therefore a very important city to hold. Bragg desired to recapture it.
Skirmishes occurred from September 17th on but fighting for Chattanooga started in earnest on September 19th. Rosecrans had an army of 60,000 men while Bragg could call on 65,000. However, Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland had been in the ascendancy while Bragg’s had suffered defeat. Bragg’s numerical supremacy was minimal while confidence in Rosecrans leadership among his subordinate generals seemed very high.
The defeat of Rosecrans army was the result of a breakdown in communication. Rosecrans ordered two of his divisions to move closer together on the front line as he felt that their combined force would act as an insurmountable barrier to Bragg. Somehow the order was interpreted as a command to move the two divisions even further apart, thus creating a weak spot in Rosecran’s front. It was also at this point in the front line that Bragg planned to attack with eight brigades. The impact of the attack was such that 1/3rd of Rosecrans army was pushed back in disarray. Those who retreated included Rosecrans who was only able to pass out orders by frantically riding along his line and giving them out in person. It was a brave thing to do but ultimately futile. Bragg’s men had the ascendancy as Rosecrans found it all but impossible to control 20,000 men in full retreat. The retreat would have been far worse but for the bravery of the men under the command of Major General George Thomas who created a defensive barrier at Horseshoe Ridge to provide what cover he could. For his actions, Thomas got the nickname ‘Rock of Chickamauga’. The actions of his men – who faced sustained and ferocious Confederate attacks to dislodge them – allowed Rosecrans to withdraw to Chattanooga where he made his base, even if he was besieged by Confederate forces.
Statistically, Bragg’s army suffered far more than Rosecrans. The Army of Tennessee lost 18,454 men killed and wounded while the Army of the Cumberland lost 16,170 men killed and wounded. However, the Battle of Chickamauga ended the effective military career of Rosecrans. President Lincoln referred to Rosecrans as a “stunned duck” in the immediate aftermath of the battle. However, senior Confederate generals were not overly generous to Bragg, as they believed he had let Rosecrans off the hook by not pursuing the Army of the Cumberland energetically enough as they retreated in disarray.