As the summer of 1863 wound to a close, the armies of the Confederacy were starting to feel the tide of the war slowly turning against them. In the north, the seemingly invincible Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had finally met decisive defeat at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg in early July. At nearly the same time, in the far western theater of war, an up-and-coming Union general by the name of Ulysses Sam Grant had invested Vicksburg, Mississippi...effectively cutting the Southern States in two and depriving them of the invaluable transportation asset that was and is the Mississippi River. The most immediate threat by the end of August however was the Union Army of the Cumberland which, under the command of William Rosecrans, was moving slowly and inexorably southward through central and eastern Tennessee. Their objective, the vital rail hub of Chattanooga, which would open the way for a direct assualt on Atlanta.
Standing in the way of Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland was the Confederate Army of the Tennessee, under the leadership of General Braxton Bragg. As July gave way to August, Bragg's army wasn't doing a real good job of holding the Federals back. Encamped on the heights of Lookout Mountain the Confederates waited for the approach of the Federals upon Chattanooga. The position would have been excellent defensively, that is if Rosecrans had seen fit to give them battle there. Rosecrans had other ideas. There was no need to assail the heights for control of the city. He could simply outflank the Confederates who would then be forced to withdraw and protect the roads south. Advancing around Chattanooga, Rosecrans' army moved into Georgia through the mountain passes west of Lookout Mountain. By September 8, General Bragg began his move south as well. The following day the Army of the Cumberland moved into and occupied Chattanooga without a single shot fired. It was a remarkably well-executed plan. Chattanooga was invested, now Rosecrans set his sights on the road to Atlanta. General Bragg was determined to prevent this from happening. Between September 9-18, 1863 the two armies punched and jabbed at each other through passes in the mountains south of Chattanooga. One of the more aggressive engagements took place at a location known as Davis's Cross Roads on September 11. Though superior in numbers, the Confederates that day failed to take advantage and the Union troops escaped to fight another day. That day would arrive on September 18.
Strengthened by the arrival of troops from Virginia under Lt. General James Longstreet, Bragg's plan was to advance back towards Chattanooga and force Rosecrans into battle. Lead cavalry elements encountered their first blue-clad resistance along the banks of West Chickamauga Creek. Assuming the Union soldiers to be nothing more than a small foraging party the Southern horseman pressed the attack. What they discovered instead were federals armed with the new Spencer repeating rifles who seemed determined to make a fight of it. After a series of bloody clashes the troops pulled back for the night, licked their wounds, and called for reinforcements. The morning of September 19th found the two armies facing each other in a general north-south orientation, just west of Chickamauga Creek, along a thoroughfare known as LaFayette Road. Early morning probes against opposing lines quickly escalated into a full-fledged engagement. From sun-up to sun-down the Army of the Cumberland and Army of the Tennessee traded massive hay-maker attacks. Ground was gained and lost at horrific cost, on both sides, but no decisive blow could be achieved. It would take yet another bloody day to decide the contest.
September 20 dawned unseasonably cool across the fields and forests surrounding Chickamauga Creek. General Bragg's plan for the day was to open the attack at daybreak along the north end of the battle-line. If a decisive breakthrough could be achieved there, splendid, but otherwise the attack would 'roll' south along the lines in search of other potential weak-points. Unfortunately for Bragg poor leadership by his subordinates, poor communication, or a bit of both, resulted in a two hour delay of the opening assault. The Union troops used this delay to their advantage by continuing to strengthen and barricade their lines using every available resource at their disposal. When the Confederates did finally launch their assault against the troops of Major General George Thomas, the losses they absorbed were magnified all the more by the extra preparation they had afforded the soldiers in blue. Per Bragg's plan the attack 'rolled' south along the lines until when, at just after 11:00am, it was the turn of Longstreet's Divisions to move forward. For General Rosecrans part, he was doing quite well managing his army and directing reinforcements to where they were most needed as the attack moved along his lines. One such movement of troops took place just before 11 o'clock in which the troops under command of Brigadier General Thomas Wood were ordered to move left to plug a gap in the Union lines opened by another departing division. The only trouble with this was...there was no gap. Dutifully though, Woods and his troops followed orders. Where there was no gap before, there was one now...in the portion of the Union line which Woods Division had just vacated. It was at precisely the moment of this critical mistake that Longstreet's troops began to advance...directly into the gap.
The effect on the Union Army of having Confederate troops pierce the center of their lines was predictable and immediate. The Federal line crumbled. The portion of Rosecrans Army south of the breach found themselves suddenly cut-off from the rest of the lines and promptly began to break and run. A full two-thirds of the Army of the Cumberland took flight at this point, General Rosecrans among them (though, to his defense, it was not in the interest of self-preservation but rather in attempt to rally his panicked men). The Confederate forces continued to push their advantage with increasing confidence. The only thing standing between Bragg's Army and total victory were the four lonely divisions under command of General George Thomas and a smattering of other Union troops who had withdrawn to Thomas' position atop a small rise known as Snodgrass Hill. Realizing that a retreat from his position could quickly turn into a rout that would threaten the entire Union Army with destruction, Thomas resolved to hold out atop Snodgrass Hill for as long as practicable. For nearly five hours the Confederates carried out what, for all intents and purposes, was one enormous and continuous assault against Thomas' lines. The Union soldiers fought with incredible resolve and refused to give ground despite the overwhelming odds. Take for example the men of the 21st Ohio...in the handful of hours that they made their stand atop Snodgrass Hill, its company of 535 troops expended 43,550 rounds of ammunition!!! As dusk fell General Thomas and the survivors of his beleaguered force finally began to withdraw. For his heroic stand, which likely saved the Army of the Cumberland from destruction, General George Thomas has henceforth been known to history as the "Rock of Chickamauga."
Having driven the Federals from the field, Bragg's Army of the Tennessee was victorious. It was, however, not the type of victory General Bragg had been seeking. The Army of the Cumberland, though badly damaged, had not been destroyed. Rosecran's troops were still a serious threat and now Bragg's own force had been weakened significantly as well. General Rosecrans immediately set about piecing the tattered pieces of his army back together, withdrawing to the city of Chattanooga and waiting for the next opportune moment to strike out against the Confederates. Bragg and his troops, too weakened at Chickamauga to press their advantage had to be content to occupy the high ridges surrounding Chattanooga in a quasi state of siege. General Rosecrans would soon be replaced, as loosing commanders often were in this conflict, and reassigned to a less critical theater of the war. The responsibility for the resurgence of the Army of the Cumberland would now fall to Rosecrans successor, one Major General Ulysses S. Grant. If the road to Atlanta was to once again be forced open it would be Grant and his trusted subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, who would have to do it. Standing in their way were two massive natural fortifications, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, along with Bragg's Army of the Tennessee who were manning the battlements. The Battle of Chickamauga had provided the opportunity for Confederate victory in the Southeast, it would however be the coming Battle of Chattanooga which would decide the ultimate victor. That, though, is a story for another album...
"My report today is of deplorable importance. Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run."
--Telegram to U.S. War Department, 4 p.m., September 20, 1863, Charles A. Dana
"It seems to me that the elan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga. ... 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 Confederacy."
--Confederate Lt. Gen. D.H. Hill
United States of America
Armies Engaged: Army of the Cumberland
Commanding Officer: Major General William Rosecrans
Casualties: 16,170 or 27.0% (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, 4,757 captured/missing)
Armies Engaged: Army of Tennessee
Commanding Officer: General Braxton Bragg
Casualties: 18,454 or 28.4% (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, 1,468 captured/missing)