The Chickamauga Campaign: A Mad Irregular Battle – David A. Powell

From the Crossing of the Tennessee River through the second Day – August 22-September 19, 1863

This is the first of a three volume set on the battle of Chickamauga and its aftermath, and even without the last day of the battle set down this already stands as a must-have beside Cozzens’ single volume book This Terrible Sound.

While the jacket claims coverage of the June Tullahoma campaign, and there is some, the book really takes off at the end, when Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland forced Bragg out of Tennessee into the mountains of North Georgia. It is hard to complain, as everyone skips over this advance that  cost only 100 or so men to take a good fraction of the state.  Rosecrans’ complaint that this victory was being “ignored because it is not written in letters of blood” certainly applies to future historians!

Luckily, the subsequent pre-battle marches where the Union army crosses the Tennessee River and turns Bragg out of Chattanooga are not skipped over. The treatment here is by far the most detailed and complete ever done.  The long marches and the confusion as both sides try and outguess the other are well covered.  And the situation was changing every moment.

Having lost Mississippi to Grant, and Tennessee, the Confederate government scrambled to recover the situation.  Forces were transferred to Bragg from all over the Confederacy…even Longstreet’s Corps from Lee was dispatched.  Rosecrans had dispersed to pursue Bragg south into Georgia, but now Bragg was stronger and better concentrated.

Bragg made several controversial tries to crush one part of the Union Army all of which failed to even come off in a battle.  This has generated a lot of post-war sound and fury but in reality it was just the sort of missed chance that afflicts an army that has been hastily thrown together operating in an unfamiliar area.  And the overall mistrust of Bragg by most of the officer corps did not help.

Grant would have just the same misfires in his Overland Campaign against Lee.  The next year when he had had time to remake the army to his liking these breaks started to go his way and he wound up the war quickly.

So at this point, the two armies are facing each other across Chickamauga Creek, which sits in one of the parallel valleys of the area.  Bragg kept trying to cross the creek north of the Union army, to cut it off from Chattanooga (downstream and one valley to the rear).  But Rosecrans managed to slide sideways and block the moves. This would be the state of this entire campaign – Bragg usually had little idea where the enemy was, and his flank moves ended up running squarely into Union forces. In the thick woods of the battlefield, sometimes you could catch a gap or a flank because nobody saw you coming.  But then, someone else would stumble on yours.

On the evening of September 18th, Bragg forced Alexander’s Bridge, yet another stage north of the Union position.  Thomas was sent north to meet it in a night march.  The next morning, he took it upon himself to attack the forces at that bridge, which he thought was a brigade.  It wasn’t a brigade.

This was a mistake – there was as many of them there as the attackers, and more on the way.  Probably Thomas would have been better advised to wait, since Braggs plan was to sweep south down the creek.  If Thomas had held off, this sweep might well have missed the Union army marching north entirely, or Thomas would have been in the rear and flank of the attackers and could have given them a nasty shock.

Instead, this move directed attention northward to the real open, undefended Union flank and there was a huge gap between the action and the rest of the army.  The Confederate reinforcements tended to be closer and arrive first, and there was a gap in the center of the army that was continually threatened.  Another few hours of concentration before giving battle might have made a huge difference.

But now the battle continued all day, with the action generally moving southward as they tried to work out where the enemy’s flank was located in the thickets. On both sides the command structure was discarded and troops were sent all over without regard to their commander. The Confederate army restructured itself more than once in the three days of contact, which is surely the worst idea imaginable.

In the evening, the Union had just managed to save its center from being broken. Bragg, hearing that General Longstreet would arrive about midnight, proposed to reorganize the army again.  The next day of battle would decide the matter.

And so we wait for the next volume!


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