Friday, September 20, 2013

September 20, 1863: The Battle of Chickamauga - Day Two

Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill, C.S. Army
On this day 150 years ago, the Battle of Chickamauga raged on into its second day as Lieutenant General James Longstreet arrived on the battleground with part of his Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia.

After the war, Confederate Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill--a participant in the battle--wrote an account of the fighting. In this excerpt from Hill's "Chickamauga - The Great Battle of the West," he describes the action on September 20, 1863, the second day of the battle.
I witnessed some of the heaviest fighting on the afternoon of the 19th, and never saw so little straggling from the field. I saw but one deserter from Hood's ranks, and not one from Cleburne's. The divisions of Hindman , Breckinridge, and Preston had not been put into the fight, and two brigades of McLaws's (Kershaw's and Humphreys's) were expected next day. Rosecrans had put in all but two of his brigades. The outlook seemed hopeful for the Confederates: Longstreet arrived at 11 P. M. on the 19th.

Soon after, General Bragg called together some of his officers and ventured upon that hazardous experiment, a change of organization in face of the enemy. He divided his army into two wings; he gave to Polk the right wing, consisting of the corps of Hill and Walker, and the division of Cheatham,- comprising in all 18,794 infantry and artillery, with 3500 cavalry under Forrest ; to Longstreet he gave the left wing, consisting of the corps of Buckner and Hood, and the division of Hindman, 22,849 infantry and artillery, with 4000 cavalry under Wheeler. That night Bragg announced his purpose of adhering to his plan of the 19th for the 20th, viz., successive attacks from right to left, and he gave his wing commanders orders to begin at daylight. I left Cleburne, after his fight, at 11 P. M., and rode with Captains Coleman and Reid five miles to Tedford's Ford where the orders for the day announced that Bragg's headquarters would be, that I might get instructions for the next day. On the way I learned from some soldiers that Breckinridge was coming up from Lee and Gordon's. I sent Captain Reid to him to conduct him to Cleburne's right. General Polk, however, as wing commander g , ave General Breckinridge permission to rest his weary men, and took him to his own headquarters. It was after 2 o'clock when General Breckinridge moved off under the guidance of Captain Reid, and his division did not get into position until after sunrise. Captain Coleman and myself reached the ford after midnight, only to learn that Bragg was not there. Some time after the unsuccessful search, my other staff-officers came up, and my chief-of-staff gave me a message from General Polk that my corps had been put under his command, and that he wished to see me at Alexander's Bridge. He said not a word to any of them about an attack at daylight, nor did he to General Breckinridge, who occupied the same room with him that night. I have by me written statements from General Breckinridge and the whole of my staff to that effect. General Polk had issued an order for an attack at daylight, and had sent a courier with a copy, but he had failed to find me. I saw the order for the first time nineteen years afterward in Captain Polk's letter to the Southern Historical Society. At 3 A. M. on the 20th I went to Alexander's Bridge, but not finding the courier who was to be posted there to conduct me to General Polk, I sent Lieutenant Morrison, aide-de-camp, to hunt him up and tell him I could be found on the line of battle, which I reached just after daylight, before Breckinridge had got into position. Neither of my division commanders had heard anything of the early attack; and cooked rations were being distributed to our men, many of whom had not eaten anything for twenty-four hours. At 7: 25 an order was shown me from General Polk, directed to my major-generals, to begin the attack. I sent a note to him that I was adjusting my line, and that my men were getting their rations.

Polk soon after came up, and assented to the delay. Still nothing was said of the daylight attack. Bragg rode up at 8 A. M. and inquired of me why I had not begun the attack at daylight. I told him that I was hearing then for the first time that such an order had been issued and had not known whether we were to be the assailants or the assailed. He said angrily, " I found Polk after sunrise sitting down reading a newspaper at Alexander's Bridge, two miles from the line of battle, where he ought to have been fighting." However, the essential preparations for battle had not been made up to this hour and, in fact, could not be made without the presence of the commander-in-chief. The position of the enemy had not been reconnoitered, our line of battle had not been adjusted, and par t of it was at right angles with the rest; there was no cavalry on our flanks, and no order had fixed the strength or position of the reserves. My corps had been aligned north and south, to be parallel to the position of the enemy. Cheatham's division was at right angles to my line, and when adjusted was found to be exactly behind Stewart's, and had therefore to be taken out after the battle was begun and placed in reserve. Kershaw's brigade of Longstreet's corps was also out of place, and was put in reserve.

Rosecrans in person made a careful alignment of his whole line in the morning, arranging it so as to cover the Rossville (Chattanooga) and the Dry Valley roads. It began tour hundred yards east of the Rossville road, on a crest which was occupied from left to right by Baird's division (Thomas's corps), R. W. Johnson's division (McCook's), Palmer's division (Crittenden's), and Reynolds's division {Thomas's). These four divisions became isolated during the day, and the interest of the battle centers largely in them. They lay behind substantial breastworks of logs, in a line running due south and bending back toward the road at each wing. " Next on the right of Reynolds," says a Federal newspaper account, "was Brannan's division of Thomas's corps, then Negley's of the same corps, its right making a crotchet to the rear. The line across the Chattanooga road toward Missionary Ridge was completed by Sheridan's and Davis's divisions of McCook's corps : Wood's and Van Cleve's divisions of Crittenden's corps were in reserve at a proper distance." The line from Reynolds extended in a south-westerly direction. Minty's cavalry covered the left and rear at Missionary Mills ; Mitchell's and, Wilder's cavalry covered the extreme right. Rosecrans's headquarters were at Widow Glenn's house.

The Confederate line ran at the outset from north to south, Hill's corps on the right, next Stewart's division, Hood in reserve, then Bushrod Johnson's then Hindman's on the extreme left, Preston's in reserve. After the fighting had actually begun, Walker's and Cheatham's divisions and Kershaw's brigade were taken out and put in reserve. Wheeler's cavalry covered our left, and Forrest had been sent, at my request, to our right. The Confederates were confronted with eight Federal divisions protected generally by breastworks. The battle can be described in a few words. The Confederate attack on the right was mainly unsuccessful because of the breastworks, but was so gallant and persistent that Thomas called loudly for reenforcements, which were promptly sent, weakening the Federal right, until finally a gap was left.

This gap Longstreet entered. Discovering, with the true instinct of a soldier that he could do more by turning to the right, he disregarded the or der to wheel to the left and wheeled the other way, striking the corps of Crittenden and McCook in flank, driving them with their commanders and the commanding general off the field. (1) Thomas, however, still held his ground, and, though ordered to retreat, strongly refused to do so until nightfall, thus saving the Federals from a great disaster. Longstreet, then, was the organizer of victory on the Confederate side, and Thomas the savior of the army on the other side.

Longstreet did not advance until noon, nor did he attack the breastworks on the Federal left (Thomas's position) at all, though Federal writers at the time supposed that he did. Those assaults were made first by the divisions of Breckinridge and Cleburne of Hill's corps, and then by the brigades of Gist Walthall, Govan, and others sent to their assistance. Stewart began his brilliant advance at 11 A. M., and before that time Thomas began his appeals for help.

Breckinridge moved at 9: 30 A. M., and Cleburne fifteen minutes later, according to the order for attack. Forrest dismounted Armstrong's division of cavalry to keep abreast of Breckinridge, and held Pegram's division in reserve. Breckinridge's two right brigades, under Adams and Stovall, met but little opposition, but the left of Helm's brigade encountered the left of the breastworks, and was badly cut up. The heroic Helm was killed, and his command repulsed. His brigade, now under the command of that able officer, Colonel J. H. Lewis, was withdrawn. The simultaneous advance of Cleburne's troops would have greatly relieved Helm, as he was exposed to a flank as . well as a direct fire. General Breckinridge suggested, and I cordially approved the suggestion, that he should wheel his two brigades to the left, and get in rear of the breastworks. These brigades had reached the Chattanooga road, and their skirmishers had pressed past Cloud's house, where there was a Federal field-hospital. The wheeling movement enabled Stovall to gain a point beyond the retired flank of the breastworks, and Breckinridge says in his report, "Adams had advanced still farther, being actually in rear of his intrenchments. A good supporting line to my division at this moment would probably have produced decisive results." Federal reenforcements had, however, come up. Adams was badly wounded and fell into the enemy's hands, and the two brigades were hurled back. Beatty's brigade of Negley's division had been the first to come to Baird's assistance. General Thomas says:
"Beatty, meeting with greatly superior numbers, was compelled to fall back until relieved by the fire of several regiments of Palmer's reserve which I had ordered to the support of the left, being placed in position by General Baird, and which, with the cooperation of Van Derveer's brigade of Brannan's division, and a portion of Stanley's brigade of Negley's division, drove the enemy entirely from Baird's left and rear."
Here was quite a sensation made by Breckinridge's two thousand men. American troops cannot stand flank and rear attacks. While Breckinridge was thus alarming Thomas for his left, Cleburne was having a bloody fight with the forces behind the breastworks. From want of alignment before the battle, Deshler's brigade had to be taken out that it might not overlap Stewart. L. E. Polk's brigade soon encountered the enemy behind his logs, and after an obstinate contest was driven back. Wood's (Confederate) brigade on the left had almost reached Poe's house (the burning house) on the Chattanooga road, when he was subjected to a heavy enfilading and direct fire, and driven back with great loss. Cleburne withdrew his division four hundred yards behind the crest of a hill. The gallant young brigadier Deshler was killed while executing the movement, and his brigade then fell into the able hands of Colonel R. Q. Mills. The fierce fight on our right lasted until 10: 30 A. M. It was an unequal contest of two small divisions against four full ones behind fortifications. Surely, there were never nobler leaders than Breckinridge and Cleburne, and surely never were nobler troops led on a more desperate "forlorn-hope "-against odds in numbers and superiority in position and equipment. But their unsurpassed and unsurpassable valor was not thrown away. Before a single Confederate soldier had come to their relief, Rosecrans ordered up other troops to the aid of Thomas, in addition to those already mentioned. At 10:10 A. NT. he ordered McCook to be ready at 10:30; Sheridan's division to support Thomas.

General McCook says that he executed the order and marched the men at double-quick. This weakening of his right by Rosecrans to support his left was destined soon to be his ruin. So determined had been the assaults of Breckinridge and Cleburne, that, though repulsed and badly punished, they were not pursued by the enemy, who did not venture outside of his works.

At 11 A. M. Stewart's division advanced under an immediate order from Bragg. His three brigades under Brown, Clayton, and Bate advanced with Wood of Cleburne's division, and, as General Stewart says, " pressed on past the corn-field in front of the burnt house, two or three hundred yards beyond the Chattanooga road, driving the enemy within his line of intrenchments. . . . Here they encountered a fresh artillery fire on front and flank, heavily supported by infantry, and had to retire." This was the celebrated attack upon Reynolds and Brannan which led directly to the Federal disaster. In the meantime our right was preparing to renew the attack. I proposed to the wing commander, Polk, to make a second advance, provided fresh troops were sent forward, requesting that the gap in Breckinridge's left, made by the withdrawal of Helm, should be filled by another brigade. General J. K. Jackson's was sent for that purpose, but unfortunately took its position too far in rear to engage the attention of the enemy in front, and every advance on our right during the remainder of the day was met with flank and cross fire from that quarter. Gist's brigade and Liddell's division of Walker's corps reported to me. Gist immediately attacked with great vigor the log-works which had repulsed Helm so disastrously, and he in turn was driven back. Liddell might have made as great an impression by moving on the Chattanooga road as Breckinridge had done , but his strong brigade (Walthall s) was detached, and he advanced with Govan's alone, seized the road for the second time that day, and was moving behind the breastworks, when, a column of the enemy appearing on his flank and rear, he was compelled to retreat.

This was simultaneous with the advance of Stewart. The heavy pressure on Thomas caused Rosecrans to support him by sending the divisions of Negley and Van Cleve and Brannan's reserve brigade. In the course of these changes, an order to Wood, which Rosecrans claims was misinterpreted, led to a gap being left into which Longstreet stepped with the eight brigades (Bushrod Johnson's original brigade and McNair's, Gregg's, Kershaw's Law's, , Humphreys s, Banning's, and Robertson's) which he had arranged in three lines to constitute his grand column of attack. Davis's two brigades, one of Van Cleve's, and Sheridan's entire division were caught in front and flank and driven from the field. Disregarding the order of the day, Longstreet now gave the order to wheel to the right instead of the left, and thus take in reverse the strong position of the enemy. Five of McCook's brigades were speedily driven off the field. He estimates their loss at forty per cent. Certainly that flank march was a bloody one. I have never seen the Federal dead lie so thickly on the ground, save in front of the sunken wall at Fredericksburg.

But that indomitable Virginia soldier, George H. Thomas, was there and was destined to save the Union army from total rout and ruin, by confronting with invincible pluck the forces of his friend and captain in the Mexican war. Thomas had ridden to his right to hurry up reenforcements, when he discovered a line advancing, which he thought at first was the expected succor from Sheridan, but he soon heard that it was a rebel column marching upon him. He chose a strong position on a spur of Missionary Ridge, running east and west, placed upon it Brannan's division with portions of two brigades of Negley's ; Wood's division (Crittenden's) was placed on Brannan's left. These troops, with such as could be rallied from the two broken corps, were all he had to confront the forces of Longstreet, until Steedman's division of Granger's corps came to his relief about 3 P. M. Well and nobly did Thomas and his gallant troops hold their own against foes flushed with past victory and confident of future success. His new line was nearly at right angles with the line of log-works on the west side of the Rossville road, his right being an almost impregnable wall-like hill, his left nearly an inclosed fortification. Our only hope of success was to get in his rear by moving far to our right, which overlapped the Federal left.

Bushrod Johnson's three brigades in Longstreet's center were the first to fill the gap left by Wood's withdrawal from the Federal right; but the other five brigades under Hindman and Kershaw. moved promptly into line as soon as space could be found for them, wheeled to the right, and engaged in the murderous flank attack. On they rushed, shouting, yelling, running over batteries, capturing trains, taking prisoners, seizing the headquarters of the Federal commander, at the Widow Glenn's, until they found themselves facing the new Federal line on Snodgrass .Hill. Hindman had advanced a little later than the center, and had met great and immediate success. The brigades of Deas and Manigault charged the breastworks at double-quick, rushed over them, drove Laiboldt's Federal brigade of Sheridan's division off the field down the Rossville road ; then General Patton Anderson's brigade of Hindman, having come into line, attacked and beat back the forces of Davis, Sheridan, and Wilder in their front, killed the hero and poet General Lytle, took 1100 prisoners, 27 pieces of artillery, commissary and ordnance trains, etc. Finding no more resistance on his front and left, Hindman wheeled to the right to assist the forces of the center. The divisions of Stewart, Hood, Bushrod Johnson, and Hindman came together in front of the new stronghold of the Federals. [See map, p. 648.]

It was now 2:30 P. M. Longstreet, with his staff, was lunching on sweet potatoes. A message came just then that the commanding general wished to see him. He found Bragg in rear of his lines, told him of the steady and satisfactory progress of the battle, that sixty pieces of artillery had been reported captured (though probably the number was over-estimated), that many prisoners and stores had been taken, and that all was going well. He then asked for additional tr oops to hold the ground gained, while he pursued the two broken corps down the Dry Valley road and cut oft the retreat of Thomas. Bragg replied that there was no mor e fight in the troops of Polk's wing, that he could give Longstreet no reenforcements, and that his headquarters would be at Reed's Bridge. He seems not to have known that Cheatham's division and part of Liddell's had not been in action that day.

Some of the severest fighting had yet to be done after 3 P. M. It probably never happened before for a great battle to be fought to its bloody conclusion with the commanders of each side away from the field of conflict. But the Federals were in the hands of the indomitable Thomas, and the Confederates were under their two heroic wing commanders Longstreet and Polk. In the lull of the strife I went with a staff-officer to examine the ground on our left.

One of Helm's wounded men had been overlooked, and was lying alone in the woods, his head partly supported by a tree. He was shockingly injured.

Hindman and Bushrod Johnson organized a column of attack upon the front and rear of the stronghold of Thomas. It consisted of the brigades of Deas, Manigault, Gregg, Patton, Anderson, and McNair. Three of the brigades, Johnson says, had each but five hundred men, and the other two were not strong. Deas was on the north side of the gorge through which the Crawfish road crosses, Manigault across the gorge and south, on the crest parallel to the Snodgrass Hill, where Thomas was. The other three brigades extended along the crest with their faces north, while the first two faced east. Kershaw, with his own and Humphreys's brigade, was on the right of Anderson and was to cooperate in the movement. It began at 3:30 P. M. A terrific contest ensued. The bayonet was used, and men were killed and wounded with clubbed muskets. A little after 4, the enemy was reenforced, and advanced, but was repulsed by Anderson and Kershaw.

General Bushrod Johnson claims that his men were surely, if slowly, gaining ground at all points, which must have made untenable the stronghold of Thomas. Relief was, however, to come to our men, so hotly engaged on the left, by the advance of the right. At 3 P. M. Forrest reported to me that a strong column was approaching from Rossville, which he was delaying all he could.

From prisoners we soon learned that it was Granger's corps. We were apprehensive that a flank attack, by fresh troops, upon our exhausted and shattered ranks might prove fatal. Major-General Walker strongly advised falling back to the position of Cleburne, but to this I would not consent, believing that it would invite attack, as we were in full view. Cheatham's fine division was sent to my assistance by the wing commander. But Granger, who had gallantly marched without orders to the relief of Thomas, moved on " to the sound of the firing, attacked with vigor and broke our line." Rosecrans thus describes the timely help afforded by Granger to the sorely beset Thomas :

" Arrived in sight, Granger discovered at once the peril and the point of danger - the gap - and quick as thought he directed his advance brigade upon the enemy. General Steedman, taking a regimental color, led the column. Swift was the charge and terrible the conflict, but the enemy was broken. A thousand of our brave men killed and wounded paid for its possession." Longstreet was determined to send Preston with his division of three brigades under Gracie, Trigg, and Kelly, aided by Robertson's brigade of Hood's division, to carry the heights - the main point of defense. His troops were of the best material and had been in reserve all day ; but brave, fresh, and strong as they were, it was with them alternate advance and retreat, until success was assured by a renewal of the fight on the right. At 3:30 P. M. General Polk sent an order to me to assume command of the attacking forces on the right and renew the assault. Owing to a delay in the adjustment of our lines, the advance did not begin until 4 o'clock. The men sprang to their arms with the utmost alacrity, though they had not heard of Longstreet's success, and they showed by their cheer fulness that there was plenty of " fight in them." Cleburne ran forward his batteries, some by hand, to within three hundred yards of the enemy's breastworks, pushed forward his infantry, and carried them. General J. K. Jackson, of' Cheatham's division, had a bloody struggle with the fortifications in his front, but had entered them when Cheatham with two more of his brigades, Maney's and Wright's, came up. Breckinridge and Walker met with but little opposition until the Chattanooga road was passed, when their right was unable to overcome the forces covering the enemy's retreat. As we passed into the woods west of the road, it was reported to me that a line was advancing at right angles to ours. I rode to the left to ascertain whether they were foes or friends, and soon recognized General Buckner. The cheers that went up when the two wings met were such as I had never heard before, and shall never hear again.

Preston gained the heights a half hour later, capturing 1000 prisoners and 4500 stand of arms. But neither right nor left is entitled to the laurels of a complete triumph. It was the combined attack which, by weakening the enthusiasm of the brave warriors who had stood on the defense so long and so obstinately, won the day.

Thomas had received or der s after Granger's arrival to retreat to Rossville, but, stout soldier as he was, he resolved to hold his ground until nightfall. An hour more of daylight would have insured his capture. Thomas had under him all the Federal army, except the six brigades which had been driven off by the left wing.

Whatever blunders each of us in authority committed before the battles of the 19th and 20th, and during their progress, the great blunder of all was that of not pursuing the enemy on the 21st. The day was spent in burying the dead and gathering up captured stores. Forrest, with his usual promptness, was early in the saddle, and saw that the retreat was a rout. Disorganized masses of men were hurrying to the rear ; batteries of artillery were inextricably mixed with trains of wagons; disorder and confusion pervaded the broken ranks struggling to get on. Forrest sent back word to Bragg that " every hour was worth a thousand men." But the commander-in-chief did not know of the victory until the morning of the 21st, and then he did not order a pursuit. Rosecrans spent the day and the night of the 21st in hurrying his trains out of town. A breathing-space was allowed him ; the panic among his troops subsided, and Chattanooga - the objective point of the campaign-was held. There was no more splendid fighting in '61, when the flower of the Southern youth was in the field, than was displayed in those bloody days of September, '63. But it seems to me that the elan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga - that brilliant dash which had distinguished him was gone forever. He was too intelligent not to know that the cutting in two of Georgia meant death to all his hopes. He knew that Longstreet's absence was imperiling Lee's safety, and that what had to be done must be done quickly. The delay in striking was exasperating to him; the failure to strike after the success was crushing to all his longings for an independent South. 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 Southern Confederacy.

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