A Creek Named Chickamauga
One of our family's most prized heirlooms is the hand-written journal of Samuel B. Smith's military service from August 11, 1862 to June 17,1865. He describes mustering in with the 84th Indiana Volunteer Regiment at Indianapolis, boarding boxcars bound for Covington then Catlettsburg, Kentucky. He notes the intermittent skirmishing, "laying in camp" and general ennui that encompasses the daily life of a soldier.
The intensity builds with the events in Georgia leading up to the Atlanta campaign. He makes note of places like "Buzzard's Roost", "Tunnel Hill" and "Lovejoy's Station", but the climax is the "Great Battle of Chickamauga".
What's in a Name?
The meaning of the word "Chickamauga" has been argued over the years, but the most likely definition comes from the Walker County Messenger citing a Southern correspondent's reference to "The Civil War in Song and Story" published in 1865.
"A tribe of Cherokees occupied this region: and when the smallpox was first communicated to the Indians of this continent, it appeared in this tribe, and made frightful havoc among them.
It was the custom of the Indians, at the height of the disease, to go by scores, and jump into the river to allay the tormenting symptoms. This of course increased the mortality, and the name "Chickamauga," or "River of Death," was applied ..."
It was an apropos name.
Union victories at Gettysburg on July 3rd and Vicksburg on July 4th, had finally turned the tide of the conflict, then in its third year, in favor of the North.
By September of 1863, Union Maj. General William Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland had successfully concluded the Tullahoma campaign and with brilliant maneuvering, occupied the major southern transportation hub of Chattanooga with hardly a shot being fired.
General Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of the Tennessee moved south from Chattanooga into Georgia to re-consolidate. Awaiting reinforcements of two divisions from Mississippi as well as two divisions from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, scheduled to arrive any day by rail, Bragg was determined to retake Chattanooga.
"Yankees In Georgia!"
Dividing his Army of the Cumberland into three corps, each taking different routes through the mountain passes of northeastern Alabama and northwestern Georgia, General Rosecrans believed he was pursuing a Confederate army in full retreat to the south.
Bragg saw the opportunity to beat the separated Union corps piecemeal and on September 11th, ordered an attack to the middle Union group at Davis's Cross Roads . The Confederate attack would have trapped an entire Union division had it not been for an uncooperative staff of officers. Insubordination ran rampant through Bragg's chain of command.
A Gathering Storm
The dust raised by the movement of the rebel army was noticeable. Realizing the situation, Rosecrans began to concentrate his separated corps and by the 17th of September, two of the three had reunited and continued northward to join the third.
Chickamauga, September 18th
On September 18th, Bragg ordered the crossing of Chickamauga Creek at four points, Reed's Bridge at the northernmost point, Alexander's Bridge to the south, Thedford's Ford further south and Dalton's Ford at the southernmost crossing.
Bragg also had an error in judgement in believing the northernmost elements of Rosecrans army to be at Lee & Gordon's Mill. The crossings were intended to be flanking movements to the Union left.
The day saw first action around 7:30 am at Reed's Bridge where Confederate infantry met pickets of Union cavalry. The Union cavalry delayed the approaching rebels but withdrew upon the arrival of Maj. General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, unable to destroy the bridge behind them and prevent the rebels from crossing.
Just to the south, Federal mounted infantry armed with Spencer repeating rifles joined by a battery of artillery, held off the approach of Confederates at Alexander's Bridge until the threat of being flanked on the left forced the Union to re-position along the Lafayette Road west of the creek.
By days' end, the Confederates had established positions on the west side of the creek but were scattered, disorganized and unable to exploit the Union flank.
Chickamauga, September 19th
Observing the Confederate attempt on the 18th to get between the Union army and Chattanooga, Rosecrans ordered Maj. General Thomas to extend his corps further north.
Bragg, still believing the bulk of the Union forces to be concentrated near Lee & Gordon's Mill, sent several corps into action north of the mill in another attempt to flank the Union.
Thomas, informed of an isolated Confederate unit east of his position, attacked with three brigades only to be confronted by a massive Confederate assault which spread into a general engagement extending four miles to the south.
Throughout the day, division upon division were thrown into the mix by both sides. The hilly, wooded terrain and heavy smoke hampered troop movement, rendered artillery ineffective and made it virtually impossible to observe the progress of the fighting.
By nightfall, the Union had held their position along the Lafayette Road and began building breastworks.
Chickamauga, September 20th
Bragg, determined to flank the Union army from the north, split his army into two groups. The northern group was to continue the flanking drive while the southern group was put under command of Maj. General Longstreet who had arrived from Virginia.
Once again, sluggish southern response to orders caused the scheduled early morning advance by the northern Confederate group to be several hours late. The drive was repulsed by the well dug-in Union troops.
The Union launched an ineffective attack on the Confederate left which created a great deal of commotion in that sector of the battlefield.
At around 11:00 am, Rosecrans was informed of a gap in his defense and ordered a division to shift northward to fill it, when in actuality, there was no gap. The Union troops there were so well concealed that there appeared to be a one but the shifting division created a true gap. At that precise moment, Longstreet corps advanced into the opening, quickly penetrating the Union lines. The amazed Confederates then turned their attack to the north. As a result of the breach in the their lines, panic ensued and half of the Union army, including Rosecrans himself, fled in complete disarray all the way north to Chattanooga.
The remaining Union troops formed on Horseshoe Ridge where they were joined by Maj. General Thomas corps.
Union General Gordon Granger, responding to the cacophony a few miles to the south, directed his reserves towards the battlefield without orders. With the aid of Granger's troops, which included the 84th Indiana, the Union repelled repeated Confederate assaults until nightfall when Thomas ordered a withdrawal under cover of darkness.
By preventing a complete rout of the Federal army, George Thomas earned his nickname "Rock of Chickamauga".
Rosecrans reputation was irreparably stained by his wild retreat from the field of battle. Bragg was spurned for not following up on the victory, which potentially could have opened up a corridor all the way north to Cincinnati. Thomas, a Virginian by birth who stayed loyal to the Union, was shunned by his own family to live out the remainder of his life in dejected remorse.
Battle of Chickamauga Animated Map - Civil War Trust
Second only to Gettysburg for number of casualties sustained, the Battle of Chickamauga was a major victory for the south though it is sometimes referred to as the "death knell" of the Confederacy.
Chickamauga earns its distinction for a number of reasons, including:
Largest battle of the Civil War in the Western theater.
First battle of the Civil War in Georgia.
Only major Confederate victory of the "War in the West."
First battlefield to be established as a National Military Park in the United States.
Later used as a US army training facility named "Camp George H. Thomas", 400 troops died there as the result of a typhoid outbreak in 1898, more than the total US combat deaths of the subsequent war with Spain.
At the entrance to Chickamauga National Military Park is modern day Fort Oglethorpe, home of the 6th Cavalry.
Well known survivors of Chickamauga include:
Brig. General James A. Garfield (US), Rosecrans Chief of Staff, became the 20th President of the United States.
Maj. General John C. Breckinridge (CSA), US Senator, Vice President of the United States, Confederate Secretary of War, the only Senator of the United States convicted of treason against the United States of America by the Senate.
Captain Eli Lilly (US), 18th Indiana Battery, established a major pharmaceutical company.
At the back of Great, Great, Grandpa Smith's journal, he lists the soldiers in the Company he served with. The majority did not survive the war with well over half being killed at or dying of wounds received from Chickamauga. The official muster-out rolls have Samuel B. Smith listed as Sergeant Samuel B. Smith.
© 2014 Steve Dowell