The Battle of the First Day.—1863
GENERAL THOMAS had just succeeded in placing his leading divisions under Baird and Brannan in position early on the morning of September 19 when Colonel Daniel McCook, commanding the brigade of the reserve corps that had been serving on the front for some days, reported to him that he had discovered during the night an isolated rebel brigade on the west bank near Reed's Bridge, and that it could be cut off and captured, as he had destroyed that bridge behind it. Thereupon General Thomas ordered General Brannan to try and capture the rebel body. Brannan proceeded to carry out the order at once, and, by nine o'clock, his second brigade had taken one road to Reed's Bridge, and the third brigade another running a short distance to the north from McDonald's house in the same direction, so as to catch the rebels be tween them. The two brigades were followed by the first as support. The second brigade, after advancing three-quarters of a mile and driving the hostile skirmishers before them, was brought to bay and vigorously attacked at about 10 A.M. by a large body. It was part of Forrest's cavalry corps fighting as infantry under his own command. A severe conflict ensued, in which two regimental commanders fell, but, being reinforced by a regiment, the brigade managed to hold its ground for a time. The third brigade, after marching about a mile and a half towards the stream, also struck the dismounted rebels, who opened upon it a heavy fire of musketry and artillery at short range; but it pushed on and pressed them back to within a short distance of the creek. These two collisions ushered in the two days battle. General Thomas certainly had no intention of provoking the conflict, and would of course not have undertaken the venture with Brannan's division had he not been utterly ignorant of the forming of the rebel line for a general attack directly before him.
General Bragg, who was much disappointed that his army did not succeed in crossing the Chickamauga in time to attack on the 18th, insinuates in his report that General Bushrod Johnson, commanding on his right, might have moved quicker, and that he felt relieved when General Hood arrived on the field direct from Richmond with his division, and replaced Johnson as the ranking officer. The rebel right managed to cross the stream by 4 P.M. at Reed's Bridge, after a skirmish for its possession with Minty's cavalry brigade, and at a ford above, and advanced to Jay's Saw-mill, three-quarters of a mile to the west in line of battle, and thence turned southwardly for two and a half miles past Alexander's Bridge to within less than two miles of Lee and Gordon's Mills, where, after dark, the head of their column struck the Federal skirmishers. Hood formed a line facing southwest, and remained in this posi tion all night with his troops resting on their arms. Hood had, unknown to himself and his adversaries, passed along most of the Federal front. Only Walker's Confederate reserve corps got across the Chickamauga on the 18th in addition to Hood. It found Alexander's Bridge defended by Wilder's mounted brigade, which yielded it only after a stubborn fight and dismantled the structure under fire. Walker's command crossed after dark at Byram's Ford below the bridge, and bivouacked for the night a mile to the west of it. There is no doubt that the rebel body seen by Colonel Daniel McCook was part of Hood's command, but it had passed from Thomas's front, and the force which Brannan's brigades encountered belonged to Walker's reserve corps. Hood having cleared the way for their unobstructed passage, Buckner's force and Cheatham's division passed the stream at daylight on the 19th. By nine o'clock, the rebel line was re-formed with Walker on the right, Hood in the centre, and Buckner on the left, about one mile below Lee and Gordon's Mills, with Cheatham's division in reserve. Polk, with another division of his corps, and Hill's whole corps, were kept on the east bank until later in the day.
When Forrest found himself pushed back by Brannan's brigades, he sent for infantry support, and Wilson's brigade of Gist's division of Walker's reserve corps went first to his aid, followed soon by Ector's of the same division. Thus strengthened, Forrest took the offensive against Brannan, and pressed his right so hard that he sent “repeated and earnest requests” to General Thomas for reinforcements. The corps commander at once ordered Baird's division to his relief. Baird formed on Brannan's right and moved vigorously upon the enemy, forcing him back three-quarters of a mile. The enemy having disappeared from his front, he stopped to readjust his line to Brannan's. While so doing, he was suddenly set upon by a large body of rebels, which overwhelmed and drove back in utter confusion first Scribner's brigade, and next the brigade of regular troops under General King, upon and through the centre of Brannan, thereby exposing both of the latter's flanks. It was a complete rout, of which Baird said in his report that “entire destruction seemed inevitable,” “whole battalions were wiped out of existence,” and “the men could only be stopped after they had passed far to the rear.” The rebels captured 23 commissioned officers, more than 400 rank and file, and the two brigade batteries. Battery H of the Fifth U. S. Artillery had more than half of its officers and men killed and wounded, and forty horses killed and twenty wounded. This rout was inflicted by the two brigades of Liddell's division of Walker's reserve corps coming to the succor of Gist's brigades, which had yielded to Baird's onset. At this critical juncture, greater disaster was fortunately averted by the appearance of Johnson's division of McCook's corps, which had been prudently ordered to the support of General Thomas by General Rosecrans when the firing on the left indicated the development of a general engagement. The division formed at once on Thomas's left with Willich's brigade on the right, Baldwin's on the left, and Dodge's in reserve, advanced, and, striking the rebels in the flank, drove them in disorder for a mile towards the Chickamauga. Willich captured five guns in a bayonet charge. Meantime, Brannan had managed to stop and break the onset of Liddell's division by a counter attack with his first and third brigades, in which the German Ninth Ohio Regiment — the same that decided the battle of Mill Spring — recaptured at the point of the bayonet the battery taken from the regulars.
General Crittenden, being satisfied from the roar of battle that Thomas was getting heavily engaged, had of his own accord ordered Palmer's division to the assistance of the Fourteenth Corps between eleven o'clock and noon. It reached the front at about the same time as Johnson's, and, forming on the latter's right, advanced upon the enemy in echeloned columns of brigades. It became directly engaged, and, after a hot exchange of fire for an hour, the enemy yielded ground and was pursued for some distance. General Reynolds, with the second and third brigades of the fourth division of the Fourteenth Corps — the first being mounted and detached under command of Colonel Wilder — reached the field behind Johnson's division. His command did not join in the fight as a unit, but served to support and relieve, in parts of brigades, the left of Johnson and the right of Palmer, whose experiences they shared.
At half-past eleven, General Crittenden received a note from General Thomas, saying that, if he could spare another division, it should be sent to him without delay. A very heavy musketry fire then bursting out in the direction in which Palmer was moving, the corps commander sent two of his staff to the latter to ascertain the state of the fight. They soon returned, reporting that they had not been able to reach Palmer, being stopped and fired at by the enemy. This led Crittenden to fear that his second division was being attacked from both front and rear, and to send hastily to the army headquarters for permission to order Van Cleve's to its relief, which was readily granted. Anticipating the approval of the Commander-in-chief, orders to hurry forward were sent simultaneously to Van Cleve, who started at 1 P.M. with two brigades at the double-quick, leaving one to guard the crossing at Lee and Gordon's Mills. He reached the scene of action before 2, formed on Palmer's right, and became at once severely engaged. Before hearing of Van Cleve's movement, General Rosecrans had ordered Davis's division of McCook's corps to the front, where it arrived about the same time as Van Cleve's division. It took position alongside on the extreme right and came likewise at once under fire.
This narrative shows that the beginning of the action was as accidental as the subsequent course of the battle. Rosecrans, not being ready to fight, had not formed a plan for it. Bragg operated under a preconceived programme, which was upset by the incidents related. From the initial collision between small bodies, the conflict grew into a general action by one force after another being sent forward to the support of those already engaged. We have seen how on our side the fight of Brannan's second brigade became that of the division, and how Baird's, Johnson's, Reynolds's, Palmer's, Van Cleve's, and Davis's brigades were successively drawn into it. Events took a corresponding course on the rebel side. At the opening, Forrest's dismounted cavalry fought alone. His appeal for help brought first one and then another of Walthall's brigades under fire. In response to Walthall's call for support, Liddell's division came to the rescue. When the whole of the rebel reserve corps had thus become involved and found itself hard pressed and forced to fall back, General Bragg at 11 A.M. ordered General Cheatham's division of Polk's corps to its assistance. Moving immediately, it was formed in line of battle with three brigades in front and two in reserve by noon, and then advanced and collided within a few minutes with the Federal line, which was driving Liddell's brigades. Cheatham not only checked the Federal advance, but forced it back about three-quarters of a mile, when he encountered fresh hostile columns which made him yield in turn. Learning this, General Bragg ordered Stewart's division of Buckner's corps to make an attack for his relief. Stewart formed his line promptly, and reached the front in time for the rescue of Wright's brigade, forming Cheatham's left, which was falling back in disorder with the loss of its battery. Stewart became at once hotly engaged. As he gained no ground for some time, while losing heavily, Bragg ordered Hood's corps into action on the left of Stewart. Its strongest division, under Bushrod Johnson, entered the fight shortly before 3 P.M. After it had been engaged for some time without decided result, Robertson's brigade of the division Hood had brought with him from Virginia, and Trigg's brigade of Preston's division of Buckner's corps, were sent to its assistance.
In this wise it happened that, in the latter part of the afternoon, no less than seven Federal divisions, less two detached brigades, and five divisions and two brigades of the enemy, had been drawn into the vortex of the battle. Hence there cannot have been much difference between the numbers of combatants on each side. The action shifted during the day from right to left. It was not continuous, but like the rise and fall of the tide. As the several bodies successively came into the fray, it rose to fierceness at the points of collision, surged and roared for a time as the assailing columns advanced, and subsided into more or less protracted lulls as they fell away from each other. It was offensive at first on our part, but became more and more defensive in the course of the day. Foiled in their early attempts to break the left of our line, the rebels directed their onsets from noon against our centre. Brannan, Baird, and Johnson on the left were let alone after the events already described. But Palmer, Van Cleve, and Davis were kept at the bloody work during the afternoon by their adversaries, Cheatham, Stewart, and Bushrod Johnson and the two supporting brigades. Palmer's division was forced back, after his first success, in considerable confusion and at one time outflanked, but he managed to stop and re-form his troops in a defensive position before dark. Van Cleve fared no better. Advancing on the right of Palmer with his two brigades, he drove the enemy rapidly and captured four guns, when he found himself flanked on the right by strong numbers, and compelled to fall back and leave the captured guns. He rallied his men and made another successful attack, taking four more guns, which were brought off. Assailed in turn, he had to yield again, but returned once more to the charge, when he encountered a fresh rebel mass which pressed his force back in such confusion that he could rally only a portion of them some distance to the rear. Van Cleve's other brigade, which had been left at Lee and Gordon's Mills, had been ordered to his relief, and came into action to his right when he was already discomfited, followed by Davis with Colonel Heg's and General Carlin's brigades.
Stewart and Bushrod Johnson were expected by General Bragg to make up for the repulse on our left by forcing our centre, gaining the Chattanooga road, and thereby cutting our army in two. His expectation was fulfilled, but, happily for us, only for a short time. Stewart, by his final repulse of Van Cleve, opened the way to the coveted highway, and not only reached it, but pushed nearly half a mile beyond it, and claimed to have captured twelve pieces of artillery. But this onset carried him singly so far from the Confederate line and all support that he directly found himself menaced on both flanks, and concluded to seek safety in retreat. As he mildly puts it in his official report: “In consequence of threatening movements on the right and left, my command fell leisurely back about sunset, re-forming on the east side of the Chattanooga road.” Bushrod Johnson, between three and four o'clock, fell upon Barnes's and Davis's brigades, made them, after a stout resistance, give way in partial disorder, and followed them to and beyond the Chattanooga road. At this juncture, two brigades under General Wood, which General Crittenden had asked and obtained permission to send to the succor of Van Cleve in his precarious plight, became also involved. Wood had orders to go in on Van Cleve's right, but, meeting Davis on the way and hearing from him of his distress, and seeing the evidence of it in a stream of fugitives from Heg's brigade that came pouring out of the woods, he directed Colonel Harker's brigade to form in line and push forward in an oblique direction and engage the advancing enemy. The brigade succeeded in checking him after a hot fight in which it lost very heavily. Wood's other brigade, under Colonel Buell, got ready to support Carlin's, holding Davis's right, and was about to advance when the latter brigade was also driven back by the rebels. The fugitive crowd got mixed up with Buell's men and swept them along with it some distance beyond the Chattanooga road, when the enemy was stopped by the fire of Wilder's brigade, which was lying there dismounted, and the concentrated fire of twenty-six guns which General Crittenden had ordered to open. General Sheridan had been directed by Rosecrans to hurry from Lee and Gordon's Mills with two brigades to the relief of our right, and arrived just in time to help check the pursuit of Davis's and Wood's men. Colonel Bradley's brigade of his division formed hastily, and, after a short and severe fight, in which it recaptured a Federal battery, succeeded in driving the enemy back to the east side of the Chattanooga road. Davis's and Wood's commands then re-formed and regained their former position.
General Negley's division had been left to guard the fords on our extreme right, while the other three divisions of the Fourteenth Corps made their night move to the left. It was not molested until noon, when the enemy opened with two batteries upon it, and soon after advanced with an infantry force which was, however, easily repulsed. It was a feint on the rebel part to hold our forces in place. At 3:30 P.M., Negley received orders to move quickly to the support of General Thomas. He reached the front, where Van Cleve had been fighting, shortly before five, and discovered the enemy making a flank movement through a break in our line. He promptly sent two brigades against the rebels, which stopped them, and then, taking the offensive, pushed forward about half a mile in a brisk engagement lasting till after seven. The division did not resume its march to join Thomas, but remained on McCook's line.
Dusk and darkness had come during the last-mentioned incidents. The lull that had prevailed on our left during the afternoon was suddenly broken after dark by a tremendous outburst of musketry and artillery. Bragg was not satisfied with the compensation for the failures of Forrest, Waltham, Liddell, and Cheatham afforded by the partial successes of Stewart and Johnson — partial because they could not hold the Chattanooga road, and because our torn line was re-knitted. Moreover, the developments of the day had made him cognizant of the concentration of the main strength of the Federals on their left. He resolved to try again to break the latter. The new blow was to be struck by a night attack, so as to double its effect by a surprise. The best division of his army — Cleburne's veterans — was to deal it. It had not been engaged, and came therefore comparatively fresh to the task. It had been in position on the rebel left during the forenoon and part of the afternoon on the west bank of the Chickamauga, when it was ordered to cross at Tedford's Fork and march as rapidly as possible along the rear of the rebel lines to the right. It reached there after sunset, formed and moved forward by six o'clock with all three brigades in a front line and each followed by a battery. Cleburne says: “In a few moments I was heavily engaged on my right and centre. The enemy, posted behind hastily constructed breastworks, opened a heavy fire of both small arms and artillery. For half an hour, the firing was the heaviest I ever heard. It was dark, however, and accurate shooting impossible. Each side was aiming at the flashes of the other, and few of the shot from either side took effect. Two of my batteries were run forward within sixty yards of the enemy's line and opened a rapid fire.” Cleburne, according to his own story, drove the enemy for a mile and a half, when, his command having got confused by the advance in the darkness, and his artillery finding it impracticable to move further in the woods, he stopped, readjusted his lines and bivouacked. He claims that he captured three guns, two flags, and between two and three hundred prisoners, and that it was nine o'clock before firing on his front ceased.
Cleburne had struck Johnson's division and the left of Baird's. A terrible roar suddenly arose in front of them. The three brigades of the former and Scribner's of the latter found themselves instantly exposed to a fearful shower of bullets and crashing shot and bursting shell, and immediately thereafter furiously assailed by yelling infantry in front and flank. Johnson's left, formed by the brigade of Willich, had remained unprotected all the afternoon, although its commander repeatedly called attention to its exposure. The first rebel onset swept our first line back upon the reserves with heavy losses, but it then appears to have stood its ground till the enemy stopped fighting. The attack evidently threw our troops into great confusion, and many more of them were taken prisoners than Cleburne brought off, the greater number escaping in the darkness. Our line got so mixed up that Willich's and Scribner's commands fired into Baird's second brigade and made it retreat in disorder.
This night fight — one of the most extraordinary incidents of the war — closed the day's struggle. It had been mostly a hap-hazard contest, from the first to the last, on both sides. Neither the generals-in-chief nor the heads of the corps exercised much command. They confined themselves to ordering one part of their troops after another into action, after which the character of the ground, the dense woods, and the difficulty of communication compelled them to let the immediate commanders do the best they could. As General Longstreet fitly expresses it in his recollections of the war: “The division commanders fought the battle.” The Official War Records afford incontestable proof that the commanders not only of divisions, but of brigades and even regiments, had to shift for themselves. They warrant the assertion that, in no other of the great battles of the rebellion, are there to be found so many complaints from commanding officers, in both armies, of being unsupported in attacks and left exposed on the flanks and obliged to fall back by being actually taken on the sides and in the rear. A number of allegations appear that gaps from a few hundred feet to a mile and a quarter wide existed in the Federal and Confederate lines. For the same reason, but scanty laurels were gathered by commanders in this field for tactical achievements. Yet there are many instances of gallant conduct on record, and among them a remarkable feat of General Willich deserves to be mentioned. Major Williams, commanding the Eighty-ninth Illinois Infantry, in his report, after mentioning that at one time the heavy fire of the enemy made his command waver, says: “At this point General Willich came forward, and, standing in front of the regiment amid a shower of bullets, complimented it for its previous impetuous advance, calmed their excitement, instructed them how to advance, fire, and maintain their alignment, then dressed and drilled them for a short time; and his own inimitable coolness of manner restored order and confidence in the regiment so that, when he ordered them to advance, they did so promptly and in good order.” A drill under the hottest fire — certainly an extraordinary example of the coolest courage.
The strife having been actually a series of “little battles,” fought by particular units of the respective armies against each other with fluctuating results, it is not surprising that the division and brigade commanders engaged should, almost without exception on both sides, resort again in their reports to the plea of having encountered largely superior numbers, in extenuation of failure and in exaggeration of success. It is but natural that such fictions should be echoed first in the reports of corps commanders and then of the commanders-in-chief.
General Bragg had, to recapitulate, sought first to break our left and plant his army between us and Chattanooga, and next, when he had failed in this, to cut us in two by piercing our centre. General Rosecrans's chief object was to secure the concentration of his army and thereby his lines of communication with Chattanooga. As both of Bragg's attempts had miscarried, while Rosecrans had his forces fully in hand and commanded the two roads — the Rossville and the Dry Valley — to Chattanooga at the close of the day, the outcome may well be deemed to have been in our favor. It must be admitted at the same time that it was not our tactics but the Confederate to which the result was due, for the course which the action took through the aggressiveness of the enemy promoted, so to speak, and accelerated our concentrating movement. The hostile pressure contracted, as it were, our extended and loose lines, and forced us into a position astride the important roads. But it is also true that the line gained by the Confederates during the day was far better for a further offensive than that occupied by them on the morning of the 19th, since the Chickamauga was no longer between most of their troops and our own, they were within easy striking distance of us and, in front of both our flanks, much nearer to the Chattanooga roads, and, moreover, they were no longer hampered in their movements by ignorance of the ground.
Bragg was fully aware of all this, and had no other thought than to renew the struggle as early the next day as possible, and felt sure of success. Rosecrans likewise knew but too well that another battle was still before him. The condition of the rebels was certainly better for another trial of strength and skill than ours. Their losses had been very severe, and no doubt greater than ours, except in prisoners. Their organizations were also much shaken and loosened by the varying fortunes of the day. Their general physical exhaustion was also great. But they had a reserve force of more than one-third of their army, consisting of the divisions of Hindman, Breckinridge, and Preston, from which only two brigades had been drawn into the action, as has been mentioned. They were reinforced, too, during the night by the arrival of two more brigades from Virginia. Another important accession was Lieutenant-General Longstreet in time to exercise command the next day.
On our side, the loss in killed was relatively small, but disproportionately large in wounded. The hauls of prisoners made by the enemy in his onsets comprised in not a few cases the larger parts of regiments, battalions, and batteries. But the worst we had suffered was the disrupture and scattering and mixing up of so many organizations, which could not fully be reëstablished in the dark. Moreover, our whole army had been engaged, barring Sheridan's two brigades, which, with the reserve corps, constituted the only available fresh troops, and Granger's command, which was at a distance. Our condition was, indeed, such that only the defensive could be thought of, and, accordingly, large details of our men were kept felling timber all night and erecting breastworks of logs for the protection of our lines. General Rosecrans certainly drew a fanciful picture when he said, in his telegraphic summary of the battle to the Government, “The army is in excellent condition and spirits.” That he really felt very anxious for the fate of his army appears plainly from the sentence with which he closed his official account of the events of the 19th, viz., “The battle of the next day must be for the safety of the army and the possession of Chattanooga.”