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As the knight of the quill never ventured into the fight, and only snuffed the battle afar, he knew nothing accurately of battles, but managed to pick up a few real or supposed incidents from the wounded and from stragglers… Daniel H. Hill

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Chickamauga and Chattanooga : the battles that doomed the Confederacy  John Bowers  New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, c 1994  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xvi, 266 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [245]-249) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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Slow and uncertain in its first phases the Confederate victory at Chickamauga would collapse into a union victoey at Chattanooga that would result eventually in union control of the strategic gateway to the South Atlantic region of the Confederacy — the last great stronghold of the Southern armaments and transportation hub at Atlanta. It became the area in which the aims of military operations were as much focused on destroying the economic infrastructure of the South as defeating main-force military units.

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One week before the surrender of Vicksburg and the Union victory at Gettysburg, union General Rosecrans moved out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and headed for Chattanooga, one of the most important cities in the south because of its location. It was a main junction on the rail line linking Richmond with Knoxville and Memphis. Lincoln had long recognized the importance of railroads in this area and had said, “To take and hold the railroad at or near Chattanooga, I think fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.” Furthermore, at Chattanooga, the Tennessee River cuts through the parallel ridges of the Appalachian Mountains and forms a natural gateway to north or south. By holding the city, the Confederates could threaten Kentucky and prevent a Union penetration of the southeastern part of the Confederacy. If the Union armies pushed through Chattanooga, they would be in position to attack Atlanta, Savannah, or even the Carolinas and Richmond from the rear.

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Rosecrans began planning how to use his numerical superiority (he had 65,000 available troops to Bragg’s 46,250) to maneuver Bragg out of his positions in eastern Tennessee and move against Chattanooga. Faced with Confederates in strong positions around his base at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans decided to conduct a series of feints to mislead the enemy. Starting on June 24, he dispatched one division to the southwest of the city and a corps to the east to distract Bragg while moving the bulk of his army under corps commanders Maj. Gens. George H. Thomas and Alexander M. McCook to the southeast in a main attack on a critical mountain gap.

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Despite torrential rainfall and problems with muddy roads, the Union troops successfully seized Hoover’s Gap, unhinging the Confederate defensive line. Forced to retreat, Bragg fell back on Tullahoma to defend his supply lines. However, after a few days of recovery it was apparent to him that Rosecrans intended to use his superior forces to continue trying to outflank his position. Rather than be trapped, Bragg retreated again and, abandoning eastern Tennessee, he moved back over the rain-swollen Tennessee River on July 6. He returned to Chattanooga and prepared to defend that key city. In a few weeks of rapid maneuvering, Rosecrans had driven Bragg’s forces back to where they had started their offensive almost a year before.

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By September 17 Bragg was positioned just east of Chickamauga Creek, a sluggish stream surrounded by dense woods. When Longstreet’s three leading brigades arrived on September 18, Bragg decided to cross the Chickamauga and attack the Federal left. But Rosecran’s forces there, with two corps almost fully concentrated, defended the fords so stoutly that only a few Confederate units got over the creek that day. During the night more Confederates slipped across, and by morning of the nineteenth about three-fourths of Bragg’s army was over the creek and poised to attack.

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By then, however, Rosecrans’ third corps had arrived on the scene and Bragg faced a much stronger force than he had expected. The heavily wooded battlefield had few landmarks, and some units had difficulty maintaining direction. Bragg planned to attack all along the Union line, starting on its left and rippling down the line to the Union right in quick succession from roughly northeast down to the southwest. Over the course of the day, several of Bragg’s toughest divisions (Maj. Gens. Alexander P. Stewart’s, John Bell Hood’s and Patrick R. Cleburne’s) attacked and almost broke through the Union line on three separate occasions. Only the hasty movement of Union reserves stemmed the tide in each case.

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The fighting was brutal and often hand-to-hand in the dense woods along the choked Chickamauga Creek. It was afterward called a soldier’s battle, with little chance for grand strategy or operational deployments except for the tactical shifting of small units in response to crisis. By the evening of the nineteenth neither side had gained much terrain and the troops lay exhausted in the dense woods. The Union troops labored all night to cut down trees to fortify their positions as the Confederates gathered and reorganized for the next day’s attacks.

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Bragg, sensing victory but seeking to ensure a coordinated attack on the twentieth, reorganized his army into two wings: the right wing under the command of corps commander Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk and the left wing under the newly arrived General Longstreet. He planned to begin the attack again in the north with Polk attacking at dawn followed by attacks all along the front from northeast to southwest. Longstreet would attack last with three divisions into nearly the center of the Union line.

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Confusion started the day on the twentieth; Lt. Gen Daniel H. Hill, now subordinate to Polk, failed to receive any orders to attack as the lead element of Polk’s wing. Polk had not been found by a messenger the night before and had no knowledge of the day’s plan. Finally, Hill’s corps attacked at 9:30. The attack against Thomas’ corps was delivered with spirit; and Thomas began requesting, and Rosecrans providing, reinforcements to fight off the rebels. By late morning it seemed as if the line was holding, but even more reinforcements were being readied to move to the aid of the Union left.

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At that moment, Longstreet attacked with four divisions in column formation against the Union center and right. Moving along a road but under cover of the dense woods, Longstreet’s men exploded out of the tree line and attacked the Union positions. Their attack had even more impact since they hit a hole in the Union line created inadvertently by Rosecrans’ moving a division out of line because of an erroneous staff report. The combination of a gap in the lines and a powerful Confederate attacking column blew away Union defenses. As the lead Confederate division commander later put it, the attack “cast the shattered fragments to the right and left.” The attack penetrated a mile into Union lines, and Rosecran’s right wing and center evaporated. The men fled in panic back toward Chattanooga. General Rosecrans himself was caught up in the rout and fled on horseback with most of his staff to the safety of the city.

C.S.A. Veterans, Sgt. J.J. Dackett, Co. I. 3rd S.C.V., wearing hat with bullet holes received in the Battle of Chickamauga Sept. 20, 1863

C.S.A. Veterans, Sgt. J.J. Dackett, Co. I. 3rd S.C.V., wearing hat with bullet holes received in the Battle of Chickamauga Sept. 20, 1863

After the draining daylong attacks, Bragg concluded that no further results could be attained that day. Polk, Longstreet, and Forrest pleaded with him to push the defeated Federals and recapture Chattanooga. But 18,000 casualties (the Federals had lost only 1,500 fewer) so unnerved Bragg that he permitted Thomas to withdraw from the field to a blocking position extending from Missionary Ridge west to Lookout Mountain. The next day Thomas retired into Chattanooga. Polk wrote to President Davis of Bragg’s “criminal negligence,” and Forrest a week later insubordinately told the army commander, “You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws.” Yet nothing could erase completely the fact that the Confederates had won a great victory and had Rosecrans’ army in a trap.

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Rosecrans’ army, having started out offensively, was now shut up in Chattanooga as Bragg took up positions on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge dominating the city. The Union commander surrendered his freedom of action. There were no strong Confederate units north of Chattanooga, but Rosecrans’ line of communications was cut. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, instead of running directly into the city, reached the Tennessee River at Stevenson, crossed at Bridgeport southwest of Chattanooga, and ran through Confederate territory into town. River steamers could get to within only eight miles of Chattanooga; beyond, the Tennessee River was swift and narrow.

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Supplies came over the mountains in wagons; but starting September 30, Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, one of Bragg’s cavalry commanders, raided as far north as Murfreesboro. Though heavily and effectively opposed in his effort to tear up the railroad, he managed to destroy many precious Union supply wagons. With the mountain roads breaking down under the heavy traffic in wet weather, rations in Chattanooga ran short. Men went hungry, and horses and mules began to die of starvation. Rosecrans prepared to reopen his line of communications by means of an overland route to the west. But this route was dominated by Confederate troops on Raccoon and Lookout Mountains. Additional troops to clear these strong points were required if the Army of the Cumberland was to survive.

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Washington finally awoke to the fact that an entire Union army was trapped in Chattanooga and in danger of capture. They decided to detach two corps, or about 20,000 men, from the Army of the Potomac and send them by rail to Tennessee under the command of General Hooker, the selected forces included ten artillery batteries with over 3,000 mules and horses. The 1,157-mile journey involved four changes of trains, owing to differing gauges and lack of track connections, and eclipsed all other such troop movements by rail up to that time. For the majority of the infantry the trip consumed about nine days and movement of the artillery, horses, mules and baggage was somewhat slower. Combined with a waterborne movement of 17,000 men under Sherman from Mississippi the reinforcement of the besieged Rosecrans was finally completed.

Markers showing number of casualties during the Battle of Chattanooga at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Markers showing number of casualties during the Battle of Chattanooga at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

The battles around Chattanooga and the subsequent campaign in eastern Tennessee ended in one of the most complete Union victories of the war. Bragg’s army was defeated, men and materiel captured, and the Confederates driven south. The mountainous defense line that the Confederates had hoped to hold had been pierced; the rail center of Chattanooga was permanently in Union hands; and the rich, food-producing eastern Tennessee section was lost to the Confederacy. With Chattanooga secured as a base, the way was open for an invasion of the lower South.

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