Glory or the Grave: The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863
This detailed look at the second (or third depending how you look at it) day of Chickamauga is the best treatment I’ve read yet. Not only does it give additional detail on parts of the day often glossed over – I don’t think most other books do more than have a few paragraphs on the withdrawal from Kelly Field– but at many points an anecdote will be presented, then confirmed or questioned by appeals to knowledge presented or by other sources.
The scenario for this day of the battle is complicated. Bragg’s’ Army is being reinforced by Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia. Rosecrans’ Union Army has been edging northward to block efforts to cut him off from the recently captured key rail junction of Chattanooga, TN. Some good moves by the Union and fumbles by the hastily assembled Rebel army have preserved the Union force, now outnumbered. Most of Longstreet’s troops were on the field for the first day, and at dark Longstreet himself arrives on the scene.
Bragg decides to reorganize the army overnight and give Longstreet half. Normally, this would be a dubious decision, but given the chaos of the current command structure it probably was the right decision. Just to complicate things even more, there an immense amount of confusion where various generals in the high command failed to make contact for an early attack. Possibly this, too, was less of an issue than thought. With the need for Longstreet to even find his command, and then organize it, a rapid assault by the other wing might just have led to even less unity of action than actually happened. It is questionable that the Union made good use of the time.
The Union army was drawn up with a very thin, long line. To the south, a major hospital complex had to be held until evacuated. To the north, Thomas had a nice, compact position, but not one that protected the route to Chattanooga. Thus he kept demanding more troops, but there weren’t enough to cover all the needs.
Rosecrans was starting to lose control of the situation. Despite Thomas hoarding units like a crazy cat lady, he still respected him enough to send him more. Thus he had virtually the southern third of the army in motion at once, edging northward and changing positions back and forth. This confusion would cost them at a critical time.
When the Confederates to the north finally get going, they do manage to outflank Thomas on the north and cause some confusion. Some of the dispatched units help repel this attack. However, there were other units crammed into Thomas’ front that could and should have been pulled into a reserve for these contingencies.
Near noon, Longstreet gets going and smashes into the center. In a final confusion of orders, Wood pulled his division out of line just as the attack started and created a hole. The handling of this controversy is excellent – rather than the usual suspects, Powell gives all the details of both sides and points a finger at a new suspect for blame – the Corps commander McCook, This chasm tore the army apart, and the lack of command control just made things worse. Units were driven from the field, but thousands of others left under the orders of their commander without much cause, taking ammunition with them. The corps commanders with the exception of Thomas went to pieces even more than the dire situation required.
A stand by some fragments was made on Horseshoe Ridge, to protect Thomas’ rear. Luckily for the Union, a detached Corps to the north came south to add to the defense. This line held for a time, but before nightfall Thomas had to leave the fleld in some confusion. Again, the story of these retirements are told in great detail here. A third volume will cover events after the night of September 30.
This is a great book. It gives the history as best as we can understand it – it gives the arguments on both sides in controversies so we can decide the likely truth. It tells the old stories and tries to confirm them, or cast doubt on them if they are post-war fudging. It is fair to the scapegoats without necessarily exonerating them, and even identifies a few more. And it is written in an interesting style that tells the stories of men on both sides, from privates to Generals.