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8-08-2015, 23:48

The War in Equilibrium

BUOYED BY THE twin victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Union might hope for great things in the remainder of 1863. Grant was cleaning up the Mississippi Valley, Banks from New Orleans was taking the few residual Confederate footholds on the river, Rosecrans was preparing to advance in Tennessee, and Lee had been chased, or allowed to escape, back to Virginia. On all fronts, then, the Union appeared ascendant. But like so many previous hopes and predictions, this one too was doomed to disappointment. President Lincoln was not entirely certain of George Meade yet. His new commander had done well in a very difficult situation at Gettysburg; he had moved quickly to take over his new responsibilities, he had concentrated his forces well, and he had done his best to use all of them; he seemed to have the support of his corps commanders, in itself a novelty in the Army of the Potomac; above all, he had managed to win a battle. But after doing so, he let the beaten enemy escape unhindered across the Potomac; he seemed to be infected by the army's deadly we've-done-enough-for-one-day disease, and as he moved his troops south, he kept demanding more reinforcements. So Lincoln might well wonder, Was this man going to be just another McClellan? In fact, Meade was doing pretty well. Lee, upon crossing the Potomac, had moved south up the Shenandoah Valley, a via dolorosa in which his tattered army seeped dead, wounded, and most ominously, deserters. The Army of Northern Virginia had been beaten at last, and beaten badly, and every man and officer knew it. It was as good an army as the world would ever see, and it knew that, too, and it was therefore smart enough to know when it had been whipped in a fair fight, and it was not happy. As Lee moved through the always sympathetic valley, the army slowly pulled itself back together, but it would not again be the force that had marched north less than a month earlier. Meade too moved south, but he took a more direct route, crossing the Potomac to the east of Lee's crossing and marching down along the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. For once, for practically the first time in the war, the Federals marched faster by a better route than their opponents did. There was opportunity in this, and Meade tried to seize it. He sent III Corps through Manassas Gap to try to catch the retreating Confederates. This had been Dan Sickles's corps at Gettysburg, the men Sickles had pushed out into The Wheat Field and The Peach Orchard; Sickles had paid with his leg for that move, and the corps was now commanded by Major General William H. French. French had done well with brigades and divisions hitherto, but he soon proved out of his depth handling a corps. He dawdled through the gap, taking forever to push aside some Rebel skirmishers, and by the time Meade got the army through to support him, Lee had his whole force in battle line around Front Royal. Meade prepared to attack, but Lee slipped off on the night of July 23-24. Lee then crossed the Blue Ridge through the next two gaps to the south, and a couple of days later the armies faced each other back on their old ground on either side of the Rappahannock. They sat there for the month of August, adjusting both armies: furloughs, detachments, new recruits coming in, training, drilling, shaking down, convalescents coming back, officers shuffling about, all the sort of thing armies and other institutions have to do simply to function. The Confederates sent Longstreet and his whole corps off to Tennessee, to see what might be done there. Meade looked at his maps, and tried to figure out what he should do. His problem was the same old one faced by his predecessors: how to maneuver so as to force Lee into battle on terms favorable to Meade's own army. The Union had a numerical superiority of about five to three—it fluctuated through the summer—but Lee had the advantage of position. By September, Meade had decided to repeat Hooker's Chancellorsville maneuver, and was on the point of moving to do so, when news came in of disaster in Tennessee; Meade was thus forced to detach two corps and send them west. The news of this immediately reached Lee, of course, and even though he was still substantially outnumbered, he decided to move. On October 9, Lee started west and north, intending to get between the Army of the Potomac and Washington. But Meade moved rapidly north with him, and once more, did so by a more direct route. After Meade's men had marched about forty miles, and Lee's nearer seventyfive, both armies faced each other again up around the old Bull Run area. But not much came of it. Stuart got in a scrape with his cavalry, and had to hide all night in the middle of the Union army. The biggest fight came at Bristoe Station. Gouverneur Warren, commanding the Union rear guard, set a neat trap for the Confederate advance, and destroyed two Confederate brigades, nearly 2,000 men, for a loss of less than 600 Federals. Seeing his plan thwarted, Lee then moved back south, with cavalry bickering all the way, and by early November he was in a position south of the Rappahannock, off which Meade maneuvered him, and then he settled behind the Rapidan River. Meade now reverted to his earlier idea, of flanking Lee out of position. To this end he moved his army suddenly sideways, to the east, his left, and attempted a crossing of the river at Germanna and Ely's Fords. Meade worked all this out very carefully, and issued detailed orders more in the British than the American style, the whole move carefully and minutely timed. Again it went wrong. The fords were high, the river proved wider than the engineers had calculated, and there were insufficient pontoons to bridge it; time was lost in improvisation. Then, once across the river, the leading corps, French's again, took the wrong road and marched off crossways. By the time the Federals got sorted out, Lee had received word of their moves, and he quickly countered them, taking up a strong position along a little creek known as Mine Run. Meade came up against this on the 28th, and prepared a heavy attack. He proposed to put Warren's II Corps in on his left, against the Confederate right flank, and then, when that attack developed, Sedgwick's VI Corps would go in on the Confederate left. The attack was set for the morning of the 30th, but during the 29th Lee got A. P. Hill's corps up and dug in on his right, and the next morning, when Warren looked things over, he decided to postpone the attack. Meade came over to have a look, and agreed with him, wisely, as there was not a better eye for a position in either army than Gouverneur Warren's. As Sedgwick's assault depended on Warren's, the Federals gave it all up as a bad job. Lee, aggressive as ever, planned in his turn to attack, expecting to turn the Federal left flank and roll it up against the river. But Meade was too wily for that, and when the Rebels moved out, they found their enemy gone. Meade had pulled back across the Rapidan, and by the first of December, the armies were back in their former positions, settling down for the winter, soldiers building huts and trading for dainties between the picket lines, officers getting ready for furloughs, to go home to see the family, or at least to Washington to see friends in Congress and the War Department. The whole season in the east after Gettysburg illustrated the balance between the two sides. The Army of the Potomac was numerically stronger, and better supplied and equipped than the Army of Northern Virginia, and George Meade was a good deal better than the commanders who had preceded him. But Lee himself still offset whatever quantitative deficiencies the Confederates labored under, and so the two armies maneuvered skillfully back and forth, without either one being able to gain an advantage sufficient to risk a full-scale battle. The operations here were like the middle game in chess between two equally matched opponents. But there were several other factors off the immediate chessboard, and those would inevitably, if slowly, have an effect. The most immediate one was President Lincoln's dissatisfaction with Meade. As the months after Gettysburg went by, and nothing was accomplished, Halleck and Meade went through the usual hectoring exchange, Meade wanting more men and supplies, Washington wanting more action. Slowly, but far less slowly than he had with McClellan, Lincoln came to the conclusion that Meade was not quite what he wanted. He was a little too prone to see difficulties, a little too cautious. Lincoln needed a field commander with a bit more drive. In fact, he was giving way here to rising expectations. A year ago, he would have been perfectly happy to find a man who could march an army anywhere in the same state with Robert E. Lee. While Meade and Lee chased each other fruitlessly around northern Virginia, the war in the Mississippi Valley was winding down. The last Confederate holding on the river, Port Hudson, about 125 miles south of Vicksburg, surrendered on July 9, after a siege that was smaller but even more brutal than Vicksburg's. Conducted by Nathaniel Banks's Army of the Gulf, it cost the Federals 3,000 casualties and netted more than 5,500 Confedetate prisoners. Union forces in the west were now free to reorganize, pull themselves back into shape, and get ready for further operations. This took much of the remainder of the summer, and while they did this, the focus of the war shifted eastwards. From the standpoints of both Washington and Richmond, the "west" was no longer the Mississippi Valley, but rather Tennessee and Kentucky, and in this theater, a quite bizarre series of events occurred. Both governments let their view be overshadowed by what was happening elsewhere, and both relied on men who were military perfectionists. Generals Rosecrans for the Union, and Bragg for the Confederacy, were in fact well suited to each other. Each wanted his army in the best shape he could manage, and neither liked to fight. They had met each other at Stones River, or Murfreesboro, over the New Year of 1863, and it was an experience no one could want to repeat. So for six months they were quite content to live at peace, or as near it as they could get while each was being badgered by his respective government to do something. As a sop to their capitals, they indulged in widespread, large-scale cavalry raids. On the Confederate side Joe Wheeler, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and John Hunt Morgan all rode about the countryside, accomplishing little; Morgan led his troopers all the way to Cincinnati in Ohio, spreading alarm and excitement, but was eventually run to ground and captured without his achieving anything. For the Union Rosecrans sent out several parties to raid Bragg's communications and lost them with no profit. The only real point of these forays was to allow the respective commanders to look active, but neither Washington nor Richmond was really deceived. Rosecrans and Stanton and Halleck engaged in an acrimonious exchange of telegrams, which ended with Rosecrans insisting he would advance when he was able and ready, and not a minute before, and Stanton protesting against "the expense to which you put the government for telegrams." If relations among the Union leadership were bad enough, they were worse among the Confederates. Braxton Bragg retained the confidence of Jefferson Davis, but he had lost that of his corps and division commanders. Bragg was broken down in health, unhappy, a constant nagger and worrier, and anyway not a man to inspire warm-hearted support from his juniors. Led by Leonidas Polk, in peacetime an Episcopal bishop who would have been happy as a Renaissance cardinal, the senior officers of the Army of Tennessee had practically mutinied against their commander, to the point that President Davis himself was forced to intervene. Unfortunately, instead of sweeping away both the commander and his disloyal subordinates, Davis was determined to keep all of them, and did so, to the ultimate detriment of the Confederate cause. As spring came across the hills of Tennessee, Bragg's army was not a happy place to serve. Matters went from bad to worse. Several of Bragg's units were detached to aid in the defense of Vicksburg; meanwhile, fearing exactly that, Washington was ordering Rosecrans to advance, and giving him a deadline for doing so. Finally, long after the threatened date had come and gone, Rosecrans moved. After such a long wait, he did so with surprising speed, skill, and agility. His army, 65,000 strong, lay around Murfreesboro; Bragg with 44,000 was twenty miles to the south, in two corps, Polk on the left at Shelbyville, and Hardee on the right at Wartrace. On June 26 Rosecrans advanced, in five corps, and noisily threatened Bragg's left while maneuvering around his right. Bragg took the bait, prepared to fight on Polk's front, and then was levered out of position by the news of Union troops on his right. In heavy rain that turned the roads to quagmires, he retreated fifteen miles to Tullahoma. Rosecrans then advanced to Manchester, and sent his cavalry to take the crossings of the Elk River, which would cut off Bragg's retreat. Forrest's cavalry won that race, however, and Bragg, with his line of retreat secure, took advantage of it, and fell back again. There was now no good defensive position this side of the Tennessee River, thirty miles southeast, so Bragg went all the way back there, rain falling all the time and troops cursing all the way. By the end of the first week of July, Rosecrans had cleared all of central Tennessee, and done so practically without fighting. He was so pleased that he sat down, well short of the Tennessee River, and spent another six weeks reorganizing his army. The fact that Bragg did not want to fight made Rosecrans 's maneuver look only a little less brilliant than it actually was. In fact, it was a strategic success of considerable magnitude; with Bragg forced back across the Tennessee, and clinging to Chattanooga, all sorts of possibilities opened up to the Union forces. From this area, they could move into Alabama and cut the South again, by operating through that state to Mobile; alternatively, they could drive toward Atlanta in Georgia, now become virtually the rail hub of the Confederacy; or they might move northeast against Knoxville to clear east Tennessee, less rewarding strategically, but dear to President Lincoln's heart. Rosecrans's success was completely overshadowed in the popular mind by the bloody events of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, which took place concurrently with it, but he had accomplished a major advance. That was lost on neither Washington or Richmond. In the former, the government urged, demanded, that he move forward and capitalize on what had so far been gained. In the latter, the authorities at last acknowledged that something drastic must be done to recoup Confederate fortunes west of the mountains. It was high time that this area received some major attention. By now, July of 1863, things looked parlous indeed for the whole western Confederacy. Most of it, indeed, was now gone. With Union troops firmly in control of the Mississippi Valley, Texas, Arkansas, and most of Louisiana could be written off, and soldiers from these states would not go home again until the war was over, if they were lucky enough to live that long. Kentucky was now secure for the Union, and west and central Tennessee were occupied by Federal forces; this left the Confederacy the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast states, from Mississippi to Virginia. Even that was deceptive, however, for Florida was thinly populated, and many of the Atlantic ports and coastal islands were already occupied, while the major ports remaining in Confederate hands were closely blockaded. Ever so slowly, the Union was strangling the Confederacy, and if this trend were to be reversed, it would have to be done soon. Given the face-off in the east, the best, perhaps the only, place to do it was around Chattanooga. This in turn presented Jefferson Davis with a dilemma, one largely of his own devising: the command problem. He still trusted Braxton Bragg, even after the general had given up central Tennessee without a fight, but Davis was practically the only one who felt that way. Bragg's subordinates, Polk and Hardee, were even more disgruntled than they had been four months ago, and they had then been on the verge of mutiny. But Davis's problem was not simply that he liked Bragg; it was also that he could not find anyone suitable to replace him even if he wanted to do so. Neither Polk nor Hardee was entirely trustworthy, nor capable of commanding a full army; Hardee at least seemed to recognize that, though Polk did not. He was quite sure that a man who could be a bishop could be an army commander too. It Davis could not find an in-house successor in whom he had confidence, he might have looked farther afield. But the pickings there were also lean. Officially, Joseph E. Johnston was still in command of the Confederate Department of the West, but he and Davis cordially disliked each other, and Johnston was just another retreater. If Davis had to have a commander who would not fight, he might as well have one he liked. Then there was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, off commanding the Carolina coast area, but he had already failed in the West, and been relieved of command there a year ago, so he was another senior general Davis did not like. That left Robert E. Lee. After Gettysburg, Lee had offered to submit his resignation if it were thought desirable that he should do so. The mere fact of that was an example of Lee's superiority of character over practically every other major figure in the whole history of the Confederacy; almost every other man, from Davis on down, accounted for mistakes by blaming them on someone else. It was of course unthinkable that Lee's offer should be accepted. For practical purposes, he was the Army of Northern Virginia, an identification that would grow ever stronger as times got worse. Davis did consider, however, the possibility of sending Lee west at least temporarily, in an attempt to retrieve the situation in Tennessee. The two discussed it, but Lee was not really willing to go. His identification with his army, and his state, was as strong as its identification with him, and he really preferred not to leave his home ground. That was indeed probably the greatest shortcoming of the master tactician: either Lee could not see, or he chose not to see, the larger strategic difficulty of the Confederacy, that he might win his own war in the east, and still see his country destroyed from the west. Yet Davis had to do something about the crisis. He was beset not only by the problems of military command, and dealing with prickly personalities; compared to the soldiers with all their faults, the civilian politicians were even worse. The Western Concentration Block, led by Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, one of Davis's most virulent enemies, bombarded the Confederate executive with plans and suggestions for western operations. Wigfall and his supporters were hand in glove with both Johnston and Beauregard, and they vigorously pushed elaborate and unrealistic plans that the ebullient Beauregard pulled out of the air. The Louisianan was a more or less competent field commander, but when he put pen to paper, his imagination soared. Now he thought Johnston could be reinforced and Rosecrans crushed, after which the victorious Confederate armies of the west could march to the Mississippi and destroy Grant and the Union armies there. It was all the kind of cloud castle with which Confederate strategists were increasingly often defying reality. Still, something had to be done. . . . Out of all this came a scaled-down strategic concept. There was one man in high position in the Army of Northern Virginia who would go west to see what might be accomplished. Lee talked the situation over with General Longstreet, and Old Pete expressed his willingness to be detached, with his corps, to be added temporarily to the Army of Tennessee. Just as Rosecrans again lurched into action, advancing toward Chattanooga in mid-August, the Confederates reached a decision: Johnston must send 9,000 men from Alabama and Mississippi to reinforce Bragg, and Longstreet and two divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia would also move to Chattanooga. That was as much as the Western Concentration advocates were going to get, and it had better do the job. The Confederates were nearly too late. Rosecrans began his advance on Chattanooga on August 16. Again he had five corps, McCook, Granger, Thomas, and Crittenden, and Stanley's Cavalry Corps. As he had at Tullahoma, he advanced on a broad front, cleverly deceiving Bragg as to the real weight and direction of his move. It looked as if he were heading for crossings of the Tennessee River upstream from Chattanooga, but in fact, while Crittenden noisily demonstrated upstream, Sheridan's division of McCook reached the river downstream, at Caperton's Ferry, quickly seized a crossing, and got over the river. This was far more dangerous than the other flank, for it threatened Bragg's line of supply and retreat back into Georgia. To put pressure on that line, the Western and Atlantic Railroad, Rosecrans would have to push his troops across two mountain lines, Racoon Mountain and Lookout Mountain, and the tangled country east of them and south of Chattanooga, but there was not a great deal of Confederate strength to stop them, and Bragg found himself in serious difficulties right from the start. He responded with his usual move: he retreated. Not that there was much else he could have done, in these circumstances, but giving up Chattanooga, apparently without a fight, did not look good, and did little to improve morale and relations in his command. But as Federal troops pushed east over the mountains, Bragg welcomed in his new reinforcements, the troops from Johnston, and he eagerly awaited the arrival of Longstreet and his nine brigades. These had to take a roundabout route that strained Confederate rail capacity to its limits, for concurrent with Rosecrans's move, Burnside had advanced in east Tennessee, and had taken Knoxville, cutting the direct rail link between Chattanooga and Virginia. Longstreet's men rode the rails all the way down through the Carolinas, across to Atlanta, and from there up to Chattanooga. While they did so, Bragg looked for a place to fight. The situation finally held some promise for the Confederate army. Bragg had his own troops more or less concentrated, and he was well served by his cavalry, screening in a wide arc in front of him to the westward. The Union forces were rather spread out, Crittenden's XX Corps occupying Chattanooga, but Thomas with the XIV Corps pushing across Lookout Mountain, a good fifteen miles from Crittenden, and not in direct communication with him, and McCook also pushing over the mountain, but another twenty miles from Thomas, and again not within direct supporting distance. Thomas, working his way through Stevens' Gap on Lookout, pushed his advanced division, under Major General James S. Negley, about eight miles ahead, across the next hill line, Missionary Ridge, through a hollow know as McLemore's Cove, and into Dug Gap of Pigeon Mountain. Bragg decided to snap up this isolated unit, and began concentrating two corps, plus part of Polk's corps as well, to do it. The plan fell apart when Crittenden began to advance south from Chattanooga, whereupon the Confederate corps commanders took matters into their own hands, maneuvered independently, and let Negley get away. Bragg was furious, but as he usually seemed to be in that state, no one paid much attention. Now he had to look once again for a place to trap the Federals; they were through the worst of the mountains now, and developing lateral communications through McLemore's Cove. Still, something might be done, and Bragg massed his army along a sluggish, dull stream known as Chickamauga Creek, an Indian name sometimes translated as "the river of death." For one of the few times in the entire war, the Confederates achieved battlefield superiority in numbers. Bragg managed to amass 62,000 men, about three quarters of them infantry, which he disposed in six corps, two of cavalry and four of infantry, the latter averaging about 8,000 men each. Longstreet's corps of 6,000, led by John Bell Hood's division, began arriving from Virginia on the early morning of the battle, and had to stumble around in the dark trying to find its positions for the morning assault. Rosecrans had managed to delude himself that the Confederates were in headlong retreat, and Bragg helped him by spreading rumors to that effect. But gradually the Union general realized that such was not the case, and he moved, a little too slowly, to concentrate his forces. Crittenden continued marching south from Chattanooga, moving, although he did not know it, across the right front of Bragg's dispositions. The reason for this ignorance was that Rosecrans expected an attack, if it came, from the south, and he therefore had most of his weak cavalry force out scouting in that direction, and thus could not penetrate the Confederate cavalry screen to his east. On the eve of battle then, his forces were deployed from north to south: Crittenden, Thomas, and McCook, with Mitchell's cavalry trailing off from there. Granger's reserve corps was back in Chattanooga, starting south but out of supporting distance, and the three infantry corps that constituted Rosecrans's main body were still not entirely linked up. This would be all right if Bragg were doing what Rosecrans wanted him to be doing. He was not. Bragg planned, on the morning of September 18, to attack Crittenden's left flank, and cut him off from Granger and Chattanooga, and at the same time to push troops in on Crittenden's right, blocking Thomas and McCook to the south. If he succeeded, he would gobble up Crittenden's corps, and then have the other two Union forces isolated and at his mercy. Unfortunately for him, the plan did not work. It was a little too sophisticated for the coordination possible over winding roads and dirt tracks, and through swamps, and the Confederates spent almost the entire day trying to make their approaches and get in position. Rosecrans, seeing all the dust they raised, finally twigged to what was happening, and ordered Thomas and McCook to march north as fast as they could. With slightly better roads to move on than the Rebels, Thomas got his corps moved north, and during the night of September 18-19, took up positions in back of and on either side of Crittenden. By dawn of the 19th, the Federals still did not know that half the Confederate army was west of Chickamauga Creek and about to hit them, and Bragg did not know he was about to hit two Union corps instead of one. He planned for the day to do what he had planned to do the day before. Unlike Gettysburg, with its clear vistas and excellent observation sites, the battlefield of Chickamauga is a confusing welter of winding trails and tangled thickets. The Union forces were generally disposed in a north-south line along a little rise that parallels and is just west of Lafayette Road. Behind their center was a horseshoe-shaped hill called Snodgrass Hill, and that more or less covered the road that ran back to and across the much more dominant Missionary Ridge. Chickamauga Creek meandered along, anywhere from a mile to three miles east of the Lafayette Road; the ground between the two was cut up in a few fields along the road, running down into low ground, swamp, and tangles of woods and alders. Early on the morning of the 19th, Thomas, believing that the Confederates had one brigade across on his side of the stream, ordered a division forward to push it back. This developed into a full-scale fight that gradually drew in most of Thomas's corps, and elements from Crittenden's as well. While this was going on, McCook got his people up on the southern end of the battlefield and moved them into position there. By the day's end, Rosecrans had done marginally better than Bragg had, which is to say, he had a slightly clearer picture of what was going on than his opponent. Bragg's troops had spent the day in heavy but piecemeal fighting, and though almost his entire army had been engaged at one point or another, he did not know it. When Longstreet arrived late in the evening, Bragg told him that he had had fairly heavy skirmishing that day, but was planning to envelop the enemy's left early the next morning. On the other side, Thomas's men, when not engaged in fighting for their lives, had thrown up log breastworks at several places along their line, had been reinforced from their right, and were as ready as they could be for the storm they now knew was coming at them. Finally, on the 20th, Bragg's army was at last ready for the battle its commander had wanted to launch for three or four days. Or at least most of it was ready. Polk decided to have a leisurely breakfast and read the newspapers before he got his people going, thus causing a significant gap in the timing of Bragg's succession of attacks. Nonetheless, the Confederates hit hard against Thomas's left, northern flank, gradually bending it back. Both sides fought tenaciously, little charges and countercharges across the few open fields, and regiments standing up to volley at each other at close range. With Forrest's cavalry out on the flank, Breckinridge of Walker's corps began to lap around the Union flank. Patrick Cleburne, one of the best divisional commanders in the entire Confederacy, smashed into the bend of Thomas's line, and it began to wilt under the pressure. With Thomas calling for reinforcements, the battle spread south along the line, and by late morning, was in full cry. Bragg, thwarted in his hope of a successful turning and rolling up of the enemy line, now launched a series of what became bloody frontal assaults, and the carnage was unbelievable, whole units reduced to a few men, trees stripped of leaves and limbs, dead everywhere and wounded leaving a bloody trail behind them. By noon the Federals were still holding their general line, and the Confederates continued pressing on with foolhardy bravery. At this point the battle fell apart. Rosecrans, from his headquarters in the rear of the battle line, had handled himself well up to now. He continued shuffling units about in response to the calls from his corps commanders. About noon he was moving Sheridan and Davis's divisions of McCook north to reinforce Thomas, when he noticed what appeared to be a gap in his center. He sent a staff officer with orders to General Thomas J. Wood to fill the gap, to "close up and support Reynolds." Now it happened that, unseen by headquarters, there was another division, Brannan's, between Wood and Reynolds, so the only way the order could be obeyed was for Wood to pull his troops out of line, march them behind Brannan, and form on Reynolds. Wood might have pointed this out, but earlier in the day, he had been publicly yelled at by Rosecrans, always intemperate in language and virtually incoherent in a battle, for not obeying orders quickly enough. Determined not to let it happen again, come what may, and thinking that after all the army commander knew more than he did, Wood formed his division and took it out of the line. He thus left a quarter-mile gap wide open in the Union position, and into it charged two full divisions, McLaws's and Hood's, of Longstreet's corps. Firing as they came, shrieking and yelling, they bore right through the Union line like a gray tidal wave. They turned Brannan's flank, they smashed aside Sheridan's and Davis's divisions, they lapped up toward Rosecrans's headquarters, they crushed everything in front of them; they looked as though they could go all the way to Chattanooga and the Tennessee River without pausing for breath. Here if ever in the history of battle was heaven-sent opportunity for one side, disaster for the other. Or so it should have been, and nearly was. On came the triumphant Confederates, and hundreds of Union soldiers ran before them; from privates to generals, they took off for parts north and west, and some, most notably William S. Rosecrans, carried off in the flood with several other generals, did not stop until they were back in Chattanooga. All of that was perfectly normal, and only to be expected. What was not expected was how many men did not run. Brannan's people, and Reynolds's beyond them, pulled back their flank and ended up on the southern slopes of Snodgrass Hill; hundreds of stragglers joined in with wandering regiments, and threw together a firing line, and far sooner than it might have done, the Union army was reacting to the pressure. Thomas, apprised of the collapse in his rear, came across and threw in a few more regiments. Far to the north, Granger, whose corps had not even been in the battle, hastened a few units south onto the field. By mid-afternoon, what might have been utter shambles was a viable position, bent back upon itself, around Snodgrass Hill, with George H. Thomas, ever after called "The Rock of Chickamauga," sitting calmly in the middle of it, sending troops here and there, getting ammunition distributed, and organizing his battle. Time and again the Rebels came charging up the hill, to be met with rifles, bayonets, and in some cases rifle butts and rocks. Try as they might, they could not break through the charmed circle. When blessed dusk came down on the hill, the bluecoats were still there, and both sides were glad to give up fighting. Essentially a soldier's battle, Chickamauga was a brutal and costly one, and the casualty figures belie the appearance of Confederate victory. As mentioned, this was one of the few battles in which the Confederates outnumbered the Federals, and the casualty figures, given the tactical advantage handed to Bragg by the famous "muddled order," were surprising. Union losses were 16,200, and Confederate 18,500, twenty-eight percent of either side. Few armies could stand up to that kind of wear, but the Union could stand it better than the Confederacy. Ironically, even with Rosecrans pushed back into Chattanooga and besieged there, which he was in the immediate aftermath of the battle, the Confederates were far from elated by their victory. Theoretically, Chickamauga should have erased the dismay over Gettysburg and Vicksburg, but it seemed to have more the opposite effect. Daniel Harvey Hill, who led a corps there, said that Chickamauga was recognized as the beginning of the end by the Confederate soldier, that the man in the ranks realized that if they could not win a clear-cut victory under those conditions, they could not do it at all. One other result of the battle was a housecleaning of higher officers. Hill was so loud in his criticism of Bragg that it cost him a promotion, and Bragg removed Polk from command and ordered a court-martial for him—an order Davis later canceled—and got rid of a couple of other corps commanders as well. This among the victors. On the other side, Rosecrans tried to blame his defeat on his corps commanders, too; Thomas was obviously untouchable, but he preferred charges against Crittenden and McCook, and he also removed Negley from his command. All three were subsequently acquitted of the charges. While the commanders engaged in this game of beggar-my-neighbor, the troops tried to survive. Rosecrans had now completely surrendered the initiative, and let himself get shut up in Chattanooga with an army of 40,000 men. Except for the city itself, he had surrendered the entire south bank of the Tennessee River. Bragg, following up his victory, closely invested the town, and occupied the commanding heights, the abrupt end of Lookout Mountain to the southwest and Missionary Ridge to the east and south. These were enormously formidable positions, just from geography alone, and there seemed little Rosecrans could do about it. One reason he could do little was because his army soon went hungry. The Confederates controlled the river on either side of the city, and land transport was either broken by Rebel cavalry, or just collapsed under the fall weather and the strain of feeding so many inactive and immobile mouths. There was one single line operating from central Tennessee, and the soldiers were quickly on short rations. Yet the Union had learned nothing if not how to cope with defeat and crisis. Within a week of Chickamauga, two corps were on the way from the Army of the Potomac as reinforcements for Tennessee, and men were also moving east from Memphis and Vicksburg. The War Department also turned its attention to the command situation. In mid-October it consolidated the whole trans-Appalachian area, except for New Orleans, into one giant Military Division of the Mississippi, and gave the command to Grant. Under him were to be the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by William T. Sherman, consisting of the troops not shut up in Chattanooga, and the Army of the Cumberland, made up of those who were. To command it, Grant could have Rosecrans or Thomas; whom did he want? He chose Thomas; when the order appointing the new commander was read out to the troops in Chattanooga, they broke ranks and cheered like madmen. Soon after this, Grant himself appeared in Chattanooga to confer with Thomas. Could the city be held? Of course, replied Thomas, known even from his student days at West Point for his imperturbability. The chief problem was supplies, and Grant left to set about organizing them, as well as the relief of the city. The supply problem was resolved by the end of October. Cleverly seizing bridgeheads on the south bank of the river, the Union forces reopened a railroad route that ran almost to the city, and this "Cracker-barrel line" brought enough into the city to keep the garrison there going. Meanwhile, Grant moved more and more troops toward Chattanooga, and by the third week of November he was ready for operations. He had Sherman push across the river above the city, and Hooker below. With them on either side of Thomas, he was ready for a major fight. His idea was that Sherman should attack first, roll up the Confederate right, and then as Thomas came on, the Confederates would be pushed south off their ridgelines. While all this was going on, Bragg had remained essentially quiescent. He had not bothered Chattanooga, being content to invest it closely, and he seems to have spent most of his time writing letters of complaint about his subordinates. There was one additional distraction. In east Tennessee, Ambrose Burnside had begun to advance at last, and early in November, Bragg sent Longstreet and his corps, as well as Wheeler's cavalry, off to help slow down the Federals there. So he had managed to surrender the initiative, weaken his army, and cause disaffection among his commanders all at once. The Confederacy was going to pay a high price for President Davis's support of Braxton Bragg. Sherman's move and proposed attack were delayed by heavy rains, washed-out bridges, and the general difficulty of the country. On November 23, then, Grant ordered Thomas to launch a small-scale attack, a reconnaissance in force, against some of the outlying positions of Missionary Ridge, just to see how many Confederates were there and what might be going on. This was carried out quite handily, taking a hill called Orchard Knob, and had the desired effect; it made Bragg cancel further reinforcements for Longstreet up against Burnside. It also set the stage for the next two days, which provided as dramatic fighting, in as grand a scene, as anything in the entire war, or indeed in the whole range of military history. Grant's plan for the 24th was that Sherman should attack Missionary Ridge from the north, while Hooker fought his way past Lookout Mountain at the other end of the battle line. Then Thomas would move forward in the center, and the whole Confederate position could be driven. Sherman's men did manage to take some ground, but did not make as much progress as hoped, being delayed by their approach march and by confusions about the lie of the terrain. But on the other flank, Hooker's men surpassed themselves and all expectations as well. Lookout Mountain offers one of the most spectacular vistas in the eastern United States. The long north-south ridge ends in a plateau, about 1,100 feet in the air, which drops off abruptly to the Tennessee River. The plateau overlooks the river's Moccasin Bend, as well as the city of Chattanooga. Both from the top and from the bottom it looks impregnable. The Confederates had got some guns up to the top, and had posted two brigades along the slopes of the mountain, digging trenches and rifle pits in among the tumbled boulders and fallen trees. The position was in fact, however, quite deceptive; in profile the slope was a sort of lazy S, the upper curve being concave and the lower convex. What that meant in practice was that guns posted on the top could not be brought to bear on the too-steep slope, and men posted in the middle did not have much of a field of fire; not only were there lots of obstructions, but the slope of the hill provided an attacker with a good deal of sheltered ground. This was what Fighting Joe Hooker's infantry found when they came up against it. Hooker's orders for the day were to push around the base of the mountain and get behind, east of it, ready to advance south toward the Confederate communications. His troops did that, pushing past the Confederate brigade posted at the base of the mountain. Then they turned hard right, and started climbing the slopes. By late morning they were fighting around Craven's Farm, a white house that was one of the few marks on the side of the mountain discernible from Chattanooga. No one at either headquarters could figure out exactly what was going on; the top of the mountain was shrouded in low cloud, its tendrils drifting down the slopes, and gradually the cloud and battle smoke totally obscured the view. Inside that smoke men fought and climbed, and panted and puffed, and tried to form lines, and little groups rushed here and there, running from cover to cover, while the fight swirled around and over the Craven farm. When it finally ended about mid-afternoon, the Rebels had gone, driven back out of reach. and the exhausted bluecoats sat down to catch their breath and try to figure out where they were. With the main position on the slope lost, the plateau at the top could not be held, and the Confederates pulled out during the night. The next morning a group of the 8th Kentucky Infantry climbed to the top and hoisted the Stars and Stripes on the edge of the cliff, and Lookout Mountain became "The Battle Above the Clouds." Hooker's men had done the all-but-impossible, and even today, hikers who walk the trail with no one trying to stop them are proud of making the top. Yet even that was not the most spectacular event of the whole. The next day, the 25th, Grant continued with his general plan for the battle. Accordingly, Sherman launched a heavy assault on the end of the Missionary Ridge position. This was a semidetached spur named Tunnel Hill, and it was now held by Cleburne's division of Hardee's corps. They were every bit as determined to hold it as Sherman's men were to take it, and they had good defensive positions. For more than five hours the two sides slugged away at each other, with the Federals paying heavily for every little bit of ground they gained. By midafternoon they were pretty well fought out, and though they did get Tunnel Hill eventually, they could not cross the saddle that anchored it to the main ridgeline. Hooker was equally held up on the right flank, more by terrain than by Confederates, but by about three o'clock the battle was clearly losing momentum. At that point Grant decided to probe the Confederate center. Here, along two and a half miles of ridge, Breckinridge's corps had dug three lines of trenches, one at the bottom, one halfway up, and one at the top. It looked better than it was, for none was complete, and they were not within really effective supporting distance of each other—and Breckinridge was not strong enough to hold them anyway. Grant asked Thomas to see if he could carry the first line, at the bottom of the ridge, and Thomas sent out four of his divisions to try. The troops formed up and soon after three-thirty they advanced in good order and swept up to and over the first line. The Confederates, after a not-too-spirited defense, went back up to the second line, and from there opened a distant but annoying plunging fire on the bluecoats below them. The Federal company and regimental officers realized they could not stay where they were; it was either go forward or go back, and their blood was up now, so quite independently they started for- ward. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Sheridan pulled out a bottle of whiskey, drained the last of it, lobbed it up and hill, and yelled out, "Here's how! Let's go! Follow me!"—and up they went, yelling, shouting, encouraging each other on, swarming up the hill. Back on Orchard Knob, Grant turned to Thomas and asked archly, "By whose orders are those men going up there?" and Old Tom opined, "By their own, I guess." Up they went, and over the second line, while the discomfited Confederates again fired their broken volleys and fled up the hill. There was not much to stop the Federals now, except the hill itself, and on they went, racing to the top. No one knows who reached the top first, though several regiments subsequently claimed that they had done so, but they burst almost simultaneously onto the crest of the ridge and immediately began spreading left and right, new parties getting up all the time. Little knots of Confederates fought bravely, or turned and ran, or surrendered in the confusion, and all control of the battle had long been lost. The whole feat, again an absolutely remarkable one even when one understands the nature of the terrain and the difficulties of defense, took but an hour, from the troops moving off until they reached the crest and broke the last Confederate line, one of those perfectly glorious moments in which men transcend what they are supposed to be capable of doing. The Federals were so happy, so elated, and so disorganized that they hardly knew what to do next. Only Sheridan, running here and there along the top, had sufficient presence of mind to try to organize a pursuit, and his division did bag about 2,000 prisoners, though many other Confederates escaped, hustled and humiliated. Among them were not only General Breckinridge, whose corps was practically destroyed, but Braxton Bragg as well. Thus the Confederate Army of Tennessee lost Chattanooga and lost its pride. The remains of the army limped back into Georgia, bitter in its shame, while its generals blamed each other for their failures, and the hard-won laurels of Chickamauga withered under the bludgeons of November.

 

 

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