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September 20, 1863: Rock of Chickamauga

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On the second day of the battle of Chickamauga the Confederates came close to destroying the Army of the Cumberland.  They were prevented from reaching this goal by a stubborn defense of Major General George Thomas, who earned that day the title of The Rock of Chickamauga.

Thomas, a native born Virginian, stood with the Union at considerable personal cost.  His beloved three sisters turned his pictures to the wall, regarded him as dead to them and had no further communications with him for the remainder of his life.  Relatively unknown today, Thomas was probably the ablest Union commander of the War not named Grant or Sherman,

Thomas commanded the Union left, and his men were involved in heavy fighting from 9:30AM to Noon on September 20, beating off a heavy two division Confederate attack.

Through a comedy of errors in miscommunication a gap appeared in the Union center when a division led by Brigadier General Thomas Wood moved out of the line.  At 11:10 AM Longstreet attacked the Union center with three divisions, one of those divisions going right through the gap in the line created by Wood’s withdrawal.  After several hours of hard fighting the Union center and right collapsed.

Thomas held the field on the Union left, forming his men into a semi-circle and beating off Confederate assault after Confederate assault.  He only withdrew after he was ordered to, and after darkness fell.  His stand deterred the Confederates from what could have been a disastrous pursuit of the retreating Union troops.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s special investigator, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana was at the battle and he telegraphed the news to Stanton that would soon have the entire North hailing Thomas as the Rock of Chickamauga.  (Ironically on September 20, Dana, convinced that the battle was lost, and demanding an escort to Chattanooga, helped distract Union Colonel John Wilder from ordering a counterattack against Longstreet by his mounted infantry brigade that may have stopped the collapse of the Union center.) Continue Reading

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September 19, 1863: Battle of Chickamauga Begins

An intelligent observer of the American Civil War in early September of 1863 would have reached certain conclusions about the War thus far:

1.  The Union was losing the War in the East.  After many spectacular battles and huge casualties, the battle lines in Virginia remained much the same as they had early in the War:  the Union controlled the northern third of the Old Dominion state and the South controlled the Southern two-thirds.  A stalemate of more than two years duration favored the Confederacy.

2.  The War in the trans-Mississippi was a side show that could be ignored.

3.  In the West, between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the Union was clearly winning, with control of the Mississippi wrested from the Confederacy, with New Orleans and large sections of Louisiana controlled by the Union, and with Tennessee largely under Union control.

4.  The northern Presidential election in 1864 would probably prove decisive.  If Lincoln could make progress in the East and continue to win in the West he would likely be re-elected.  If the Confederacy could maintain the stalemate in the East and reverse the Union momentum in the West, or at least slow it to a crawl, Lincoln would be defeated and the Confederacy would win its independence.

General Braxton Bragg, the irascible commander of the Army of Tennessee, clearly understood that the Confederacy could not continue losing in the West, and that is why he rolled the iron dice of war at Chickamauga in a desperate attempt to stop the offensive of Major General William Rosecrans and his Union Army of the Cumberland.  Bragg proved fortunate, and his hard luck army gave the Confederacy one of its great victories, and the chance to change the whole course of the War.

Below is the passage on Chickamauga from the memoir of John B. Gordon, who during the war rose from Captain to Major General in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Gordon did not fight at Chickamauga, but his wonderfully colorful account of the battle, ground he was familiar with from being reared there in his childhood,  written with his usual entertaining purple prose, captures well the facts of the battle, and how this victory was treasured by the South, even as its benefits to the Confederacy were ultimately thrown away due to a lack of pursuit and the desultory, and unsuccessful, siege of Chattanooga. Continue Reading