150 Years Ago This Week: Bloodiest battle in the west

September, 1863

The Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, gathered its 58,000 troops along the west side of Chickamauga Creek in northwest Georgia, not far south of Chattanooga, Tenn., across the stream from Gen. Braxton Bragg and his 66,000-strong Confederate Army of Tennessee. Both sides were unaware of the other’s exact positions due to dense woods and underbrush.

At about 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 19, Maj. Gen. George Thomas directed his corps to move forward to probe the Southerners. His infantry ran unexpectedly into the cavalry of Lt. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest and the battle opened. Severe fighting marked the first day of the two-day battle. Gen. Bragg rushed troops into a hole that opened in the Union lines and casualties mounted on both sides in the close fighting. At the end of the day, both sides withdrew to regroup.

The battle opened early the next morning and continued on until the late afternoon, when Gen. Rosecrans called a halt and withdrew his troops toward Chattanooga; meanwhile, Gen. Thomas’ men held Snodgrass Hill until the rest of the Union army was safely on the road to Chattanooga. Once the Federals were back inside the environs of the city, Gen. Bragg advanced his army, and aided by geography, was in an excellent position to lay siege to Chattanooga.

As splendid as the Union defense was, the Battle of Chickamauga was a tremendous Confederate tactical victory, and the bloodiest battle in the western theatre of the war. The casualties were horrific: 16,679 killed, wounded and missing out of some 58,000 Union troops engaged; Confederates sustained 18,454 casualties out of 66,000 engaged, including Lt Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps which had arrived from Virginia in time to support and reinforce Gen. Bragg. For his great defensive fighting, Gen. Thomas earned the sobriquet, “Rock of Chickamauga.”

In Washington, President Lincoln was apprehensive and somewhat disappointed that the Army of Tennessee had not been defeated. He was also concerned about affairs in Virginia, and told his Army Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck: “I have constantly desired the Army of the Potomac to make Lee’s army and not Richmond its objective point.”

Fighting during the third week of September took place in Culpeper and Madison Counties, when Maj. Gen. George Meade’s cavalry and infantry probed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s positions on the south side of the Rapidan River. In Arkansas, Confederate light cavalry led by Maj. Gen. Joseph “Jo” Shelby engaged in a fast-paced raid through Arkansas and Missouri, setting out from Arkadelphia, the Confederate headquarters since the fall of Little Rock to Union troops.

In Chattanooga, Gen. Rosecrans’ army was in a strong position, but hemmed in by the Tennessee River, the mountains and Confederate strong positions on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, overshadowing the city. Washington was preparing to dispatch reinforcements to Gen. Rosecrans from Virginia and from Mississippi, as well as Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s troops fighting in and around Knoxville in east Tennessee. In Washington, President Lincoln received word that his wife’s brother, Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, had been a fatal casualty at Chickamauga.

The Imperial Russian Navy’s Atlantic Fleet arrived in New York on Sept. 23, with the Pacific Fleet on their way to San Francisco. The Russians received an extremely friendly welcome, with parades, dinners, a visit to President Lincoln and special programs. The Russians, however, carefully concealed their real purpose in visiting both sides of the United States: the Czar wanted to avoid having his fleet tied up in the Baltic Sea winter ice.

Russia feared a general European war after their brutal suppression of a Polish revolt. The following day, President Lincoln wrote to his wife, Mary, visiting in New York: “I fear that the result of Chickamauga is that we are worsted.” To Gen. Rosecrans, he wrote that, “40,000 to 60,000 more troops are on their way to you from the east and the west.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.