Date: September 19-20, 1863.
Location: Catoosa and Walker Counties in northern Georgia
Approximate Troop Strength: Union 58,000 to 60,000: Confederate 66,000-68,000.
Commanders: Major General William Rosecrans (Union); General Braxton Bragg (Confederate).
Estimated Union Casualties: 1657 killed, 9756 wounded, 4757 captured or missing.
Estimated Confederate Casualties: 2312 killed, 14,674 wounded, 1468 captured or missing.
With 34,624 total casualties, the Battle of Chickamauga was second only to Gettysburg (approximately 51,000) in total casualties in a Civil War battle.
Result: Confederate victory
What Happened: In late August of 1863, Bragg’s Army of Tennessee occupied Chattanooga, Tennessee, awaiting an attack from Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. Instead of crossing the Tennessee River north of the city as Bragg expected, Rosecrans crossed below Chattanooga. Bragg was forced to abandon Chattanooga in early September and withdraw south, concentrating around LaFayette, Georgia
Bragg received reinforcements from the Confederate Army of Mississippi, from the Department of East Tennessee, and from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Rosecrans continued advancing south. On the 18th of September, Bragg deployed his army along the banks of Chickamauga Creek, intending to place his army between the Army of the Cumberland and Chattanooga, and attack.
Fighting began early on the morning of September 19th, and continued all day with the Confederates eventually pushing the union lines back to the LaFayette Road. Though pushed back, the Union lines did not break. Action on the 19th included a rare night attack as Major General Patrick Cleburne attacked the Union right in the evening in fighting that went on until after dark. The Federals were in no position to attack when fighting resumed in the morning, so overnight Rosecrans prepared for defense
Intense fighting resumed the next day, with the first attack coming against the Federal left, an area under the command of Major General George Thomas. Thomas’ dug in troops successfully defended the position. On the Union right, Rosecrans shifted units around to reinforce Thomas and to meet Confederate attacks along the line. Rosecrans received an erroneous report that a gap had been created on the right, and he ordered a division to move into this supposed gap. That movement created a real gap in the Union line. As the gap opened up, Confederates under Longstreet attacked and charged right through the hole in the line, caving in the Federal right and driving a third of the army, including Rosecrans himself, from the field and back toward Chattanooga.
With Rosecrans off the field, Thomas took command of the remaining Union forces and set up a defense on Snodgrass Hill on what had been the Union left. Thomas was joined by the reserve division of Major General Gordon Granger, who had brought his division to the field on his own initiative. The Federals held their ground until nightfall, when they withdrew to Chattanooga.
The Rock of Chickamauga
Major General George H. Thomas was a Virginia born West Point graduate who had stayed loyal to the Union, a choice that estranged him from his family. Thomas quietly got the job done and did not engage in self promotion like so many other generals. He also doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for his fighting ability and contributions to the eventual Union victory. For his stubborn resistance in holding the line on Snodgrass Hill, Thomas earned the nickname The Rock of Chickamauga. In October, Thomas was named commander of the Army of the Cumberland, replacing Rosecrans.
Eli Lilly and Ambrose Bierce
Two Indiana officers who were at Chickamauga went on to become famous in other fields after the war. Captain Eli Lilly of the 18th Indiana Battery founded pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce of the 9th Indiana Infantry became a reporter and author. Among other things, he wrote several short stories about the Civil War, including one called “Chickamauga”.
James A. Garfield
Rosecrans’ Chief of Staff was Brigadier General James A. Garfield, who would be elected the 20th President of the United States in 1880. Garfield survived the battle unscathed, but was the second U.S. president assassinated. He was shot by a deranged office seeker named Charles Guiteau at a Washington train station on July 2nd, 1881, just four months after his inauguration. Among those present at the train station were some of Garfield’s cabinet members including his Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln.
Garfield lingered for two and half months, with the unsanitary and misguided medical practices of the day contributing to his eventual death. He died on September 19th, 1881, the 18th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga.
Among those killed at Chickamauga was Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm. Helm was shot while leading his troops on September 20th, and died the next day. Helm left behind a widow, Emilie Todd Helm, who was the sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. At the beginning of the war, President Lincoln offered his brother in law an officer’s commission in the Union Army, but Helm, a native Kentuckian, opted to go with the Confederacy.