Until confusion seized the officer ranks. Mistakenly informed that troop movements to reinforce his left flank had opened a hole in his line, General Rosecrans issued a confused, self-contradictory order to one of his Brigadiers. Not wanting to look foolish in front of his superiors, General Wood moved his command, in compliance with the order. Doing so, he opened a huge gap in the Federal lines, just as Longstreet brought his eight brigades out of these trees.
|Photo copyright: Borepatch|
The Union lines collapsed, with General Rosecrans himself being swept from the field of battle in the ensuing rout. It was over in minutes, with the Yankees chased back the seven miles to Chattanooga.
Chickamauga is said to mean River of Death in an obscure Cherokee dialect, but the name was fitting that September day in 1863. 35,000 casualties that day (and in the fighting the previous day) make this one of the bloodiest battles of that most bloody of American wars. It is, as far as I can tell, the only major battle where the South outnumbered the North, having detached Longstreet from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, back from their unsuccessful Gettysburg campaign. Their intention was to use the railroads and their interior lines of communication to apply superior numbers to turn the tide of Yankee success in the west. It almost worked.
The battlefield was heavily wooded, and remains so to this day. The local farmers let their animals graze in the forest, which suppressed brush and gave surprisingly long visibility - a hundred yards or more - under the trees. At least until the black powder smoke collected, safe from errant breezes under the green canopy, forming a right "pea souper" fog of war. No wonder the officer corps wasn't quite sure where all the units were deployed.
General Bragg won the battle, but was not able to do more than delay Grant and Sherman. He wasn't able to accomplish his campaign plan, which was to crush the Yankee army. He might have, but for the stand on the ridge by Gen. Thomas, holding the line for hours under the setting sun. A third of the blue coats had skedaddled, but the rest rallied to Thomas, "the rock of Chickamauga".
It had almost worked, by accident. Bragg mishandled the morning's assault, and Longstreet had captured the day more by luck than anything. But the victory was a delay, not a sea change. Bragg found himself unable to retake Chattanooga, and Sherman and Grant launched the campaign that would prevent a repeat of the transferring army corps via interior lines: both began a relentless meat-grinder assaults that pinned both Lee in the east and Johnston in the west. There were no troops to shift.
And the terrible cost to the Southern ranks caused a notable shift in attitude, both in the east and west. Confederate General D. H. Hill remarked on this, after Chickamauga:
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.To this day, we make the same mistake about the War Between The States as the people of the day made. We romanticize the event, thinking in terms of generalship and the spirit of the fighting man as key to ultimate victory. Instead, it was about production - especially of the new repeating rifles that cost the Confederates so dearly that day. And logistics. Rosecrans had 40,000 horses to haul his army's gear; each horse ate 25 pounds of forage a day, meaning that he needed a million pounds of forage a day. Grant and Sherman figured this out. Sherman had trains run around the clock, bringing supplies and replacements down from Chattanooga towards Atlanta, and taking wounded back.
Looking at it this way, it's astonishing that the Confederacy survived as long as it did. It was caught in its own river of death, one that ran on steam over tracks of iron.
UPDATE 30 May 2012 18:25: Edited to clarify one paragraph. This is also a good time to point out the nifty panorama feature on my camera did a bang-up job on the photo.