Sunday, September 20, 2020

Battle of Chickamauga: Desperate Struggle in Georgia

 By Maj. William Carraway

Historian, Georgia Army National Guard


A 1998 reenactment of the Battle of Chickamauga depicts the Confederate assault on Snodgrass Hill. Photo by William Carraway

Final Positions

On the evening of Sept. 18,1863, Federal commander, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, sent Maj. Gen. George Thomas, commander of the 14th Corps, north along the Lafayette Road. His intent was to extend his defensive line and maintain the Federal army’s line of retreat north to Chattanooga. By the morning of September 19, Thomas’s men had taken up position in the fields of the Kelly Farm.[1] Having received a report from Federal Col. Daniel McCook about an isolated rebel brigade trapped on the west side of the river, Thomas dispatched the Third Division of Maj. Gen. John Brannon to advance and develop the situation. Brannon, a career Army Soldier and Mexican American War Veteran dispatched the order to get the men on the move. Quickly downing coffee and half-cooked breakfast, Brannon’s men began moving east with Col. John Croxton’s Brigade moving to the Brotherton Road and Col. Ferdinand Van Derveer orienting on Reed’s Bridge Road.  

Opening actions on Sept. 19, 1863. Map by Hal Jespersen,

The Confederate troops McCook had encountered were cavalrymen of the 1st Georgia, who had thrown up skirmish lines south of Jay’s Mill, approximately ½ mile west of Reed’s Bridge. Having already received orders to withdraw, McCook left the field to the Georgians before reporting his findings to Thomas. Thus, by the time Thomas’s brigades moved east in search of the isolated Confederate brigade the Georgians were prepared in skirmish order across Reed’s Bridge Road ready to receive Van Derveer’s skirmishers. Moving east through the woods just one quarter mile south of the 1st Georgia, Croxton’s skirmish line comprised of the 10th Indiana encountered cavalry forces of Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Dispatching couriers to inform Brannon of contact to his front, Croxton began maneuvering his infantry regiments into line, a difficult process in wooded terrain. Forrest, meanwhile, ordered his cavalry to dismount and hold the ground while infantry support was summoned.

Receiving one of Forrest’s messages Maj. Gen. William T. Walker, commanding the Confederate reserve corps ordered fellow Georgian, Col. Claudius Wilson to make haste with his brigade to the sound of contact. Walker, like Brannon, was a career Army Soldier and Mexican War Veteran, and like Brannon, he would soon have two brigades heading to the vicinity of Jay’s Mill as the Texas Brigade of Brig. Gen. Matthew Ector fell in behind Wilson.

The Confederate cavalry held long enough for Wilson to deploy his regiments to threaten Croxton. Wilson’s regiments, the 25th, 29th and 30th Georgia with the 1st Georgia Battalion Sharpshooters and 4th Louisiana Sharpshooters pressed Croxton’s line which bent, but did not break.[2] Over the next two and a half hours, brigades would be sucked into the growing fight at Jay’s Mill.

Confusion and Reinforcement

The action alarmed both Rosecrans and his Confederate adversary, General Braxton Bragg. Bragg’s battle plan called for 25,000 men to assault Federal lines along the Lafayette Road, well south of Jay’s Mill. The unexpected presence of Thomas to the north threatened Bragg’s right flank. Rosecrans, meanwhile, had ordered Thomas into defensive positions, only to have his subordinate engage a division with an enemy of unknown strength.

Before launching his Lafayette Road offensive, Bragg determined to secure his flank in the vicinity of Jay’s Mill. He dispatched his reserve corps and five brigades of Maj. Gen. Ben Cheatham’s Division. Rosecrans meanwhile shifted divisions from the 20th and 21st Corps north to bolster Thomas. Both the Federal and Confederate commanders were dispatching units without regard to the chain of command, a breakdown in command and control that would be further exacerbated by the terrain and lack of visibility.

Actions on the afternoon of Sept. 19, 1863. Map by Hal Jespersen,

The Fighting Moves South

Cheatham’s 7,000 Confederates slammed into the Federal divisions shortly after noon, in the vicinity of the Brock farm.[3] After committing Cheatham, Bragg dispatched a third division under command of Maj. Gen. A. P. Stewart and ordered him to move to the sound of the guns.[4] Stewart arrived south of Cheatham’s lines shortly before 2:00 p.m. in time to stabilize the faltering Confederate line. Moving with Stewart were the 4th Georgia Sharpshooters and the 37th Georgia Infantry.[5] The Georgians were able to dislodge the stubborn Federal defenders of Maj. Gen. Van Cleve’s Division from their positions on the Lafayette Road. Having taken a significant amount of ground, Stewart had insufficient men to maintain his position and was forced to withdraw east of the Lafayette Road.[6]

Georgians Enter the Ditch of Death 

Brig. Gen. Hans Christian Heg. NPS

Intent on finding the enemy flank, Rosecrans met with the improbably named Brig. Gen. Jefferson Davis, and directed him to move his division across the Viniard Field, well south of the engaged forces. Expecting to find the Confederate left flank, Davis instead encountered the main body of Bragg’s waiting assault force-25,000 strong. In the next two and a half hours the most savage combat of the battle would swirl about the Viniard Field until the Federal line collapsed at 4:30 p.m. and the Northerners were sent streaming back across the Lafayette Road. Attempting to rally his 3rd Brigade, Norwegian-born Col. Hans Christian Heg rode along the front line of his men admonishing them by personal example of courage. As he wheeled his horse about, Heg was struck by a bullet which pierced his abdomen. He reeled from the wound but kept to the saddle and remained with his men.[7]

Pursuing the fleeing Federal troops, the Georgians of Brig. Gen. Henry Benning poured volley after volley into the backs of the retreating Federal Soldiers. Sgt. W.R. Houghton of the 2nd Georgia recalled the action:

“We stood there… shooting them down… It was horrible slaughter.”[8] The slaughter would soon be visited upon Benning’s men as they advanced into the field of fire of the brigade of Col. John Wilder, whose men were armed with seven shot repeating rifles. Benning’s Georgians were cut to pieces. Of 1,200 Georgians 490 became casualties. The Federals had also suffered. Among the fallen was Heg who would die of the effects of his wound at a field hospital the next morning.[9]

Monument to the 2nd Georgia Infantry at Chickamauga. Photo by Maj. William Carraway

A Restless Night

By 6:00 p.m., fighting had mostly ended in the Viniard Field where 15 brigades had contended. After nearly 12 hours of continuous combat the fighting was concluded, except for a rare night assault initiated by the division of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne across the Winfrey Field. The men of both armies settled in for a restless night. Despite temperatures that plunged below freezing, Soldiers of both armies were forbidden from starting campfires due to the proximity of enemy forces.

With the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet on the field, Bragg reorganized his army into two wings. Longstreet was given command of the left wing while Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk commanded the right. Bragg’s battle plan remained unchanged: attack and drive the Federal army south, away from its line of retreat to Chattanooga.

On the opposite side of the Lafayette Road, Rosecrans, having gone without sleep, surveyed his lines with the intent of supporting Thomas’ lines to the north. Rosecrans would agree to reinforce Thomas – a decision that would have fateful consequences on the second day of the battle.

Monument to Col. Peyton Colquitt at Chickamauga.
Photo by Maj. William Carraway
Action Resumes, The Federal North in Peril

Although Bragg had intended to attack at dawn, the Confederate assault did not get underway until 9:30 a.m. when the corps of Lt. Gen. D.H. Hill struck Thomas. Though bloodily repulsed on part of their lines, two brigades of Hill’s Corps succeeded in turning Thomas’s left flank. The Confederates drove south down the Lafayette Road into the Kelly Field and threatened the entire Federal position. Rosecrans, sensing the threat, shifted forces from the south and by 11:30, Hill was forced back, but not before Brig. Gen. James Deshler, a brigade commander in the division of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, was killed, struck in the chest by an artillery shell.[10] Moving in support of Hill, Col. Peyton Colquitt, commanding Gist’s Brigade of Georgian’s and South Carolinians was mortally wounded. Colquitt, had formerly commanded the 46th Georgia Infantry Regiment.[11]

Federal Disaster

Lt. Gen. Longstreet's Assault. Map by Hal Jespersen, 

Hill’s success worried Rosecrans, who began shifting additional forces north. In the course of redeployment, the Federal exposed a division-wide gap in their line. Just as the gap opened, Longstreet launched an assault into the gap. The divisions of Davis and Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan were crushed by 12,000 surging Confederates. 

Brig. Gen. W. H Lytle
Commanding Sheridan’s 1st Brigade was Brig. Gen. William Lytle, an Ohioan, Lytle had been a celebrated poet before the war and was popular in the north and south. Pressed by a brigade of Alabamians, Lytle was mounted and directing the movement of his troops when he was struck in the back by a musket ball. He remained in the saddle continuing to issue orders until he was struck in the head spattering blood on a staff officer’s uniform. Lytle’s men attempted to bear him away from the conflict, but he asked to be left on the field where he expired.[12] Surging forward, Confederate Soldiers recognized Lytle and formed a guard around his body. News spread among the gray ranks. Presently, Confederate Brig. Gen. Patton Anderson, overwhelmed with grief, stood before Lytle. Anderson and Lytle had been good friends before the American Civil War. They parted amicably in Charleston in 1860 promising that nothing would interfere with their friendship. Weeping, Anderson removed Lytle’s wedding ring and secured a lock of his hair to send home to his widow.[13]

With defeat swiftly degenerating into a rout, Rosecrans, his chief of staff and future president, James Garfield, and three corps commanders were driven from the field. One third of the Federal army ceased to exist as a fighting force. If not for the determined stand of Maj. Gen. Thomas’s men on Snodgrass Hill, the entire Federal army might have been destroyed in detail. Thomas held just long enough to preserve the Federal army before withdrawing to Rossville to the North. Nevertheless, hundreds of Federal Soldiers were captured by onrushing Confederates.

Maj. Gen. George Thomas' desperate stand. Map by Hal Jespersen, 


On the morning of September 21, Confederates awoke to find that the Federal army had slipped away. Rosecrans would reestablish his base at Chattanooga but his tenure as army commander was drawing to a close. In just over a week Rosecrans would be replaced by a hard fighting western general named Ulysses Grant.

Although he was technically the victor, Bragg had failed in his objective of destroying Rosecrans. He would continue to bicker with his subordinate commanders until November when he would challenge the Federal army for control of Chattanooga.

More than 34,000 of the 125,000 Soldiers engaged at Chickamauga became casualties. But D.H. Hill remembering the battle years later observed that true casualty of Chickamauga was hope.

“It seems to me that the élan of the Southern Soldier was never seen after Chickamauga; the brilliant dash which had distinguished him was gone forever. He fought stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair, and without the enthusiasm of hope. That ‘barren victory’ sealed the fate of the Southern Confederacy.”[14]


[1] Powell, David A., and David A. Friedrichs. The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 - September 23, 1863. New York: Savas Beatie, 2009. 48

[2] Powell, 53.

[3] Powell, 68.

[4] Cozzens, Peter. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996, 169.

[5] Powell, 79.

[6] Powell, 84.

[7] Cozzens, 223.

[8] Powell, David. Chickamauga Campaign- a Mad Irregular Battle. Savas Beatie, 2016, 19.

[9] Cozzens, 289.

[10] Powell, 163.

[11] Powell, 164.

[12] Cozzens, 386-388.

[13] Cozzens, 389.

[14] Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Vol. 3. Century Company, 1888.

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