Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

SEPTEMBER 19–20: THE BATTLE OF CHICKAMAUGA: MISSED OPPORTUNITY

In June 1863 the Union Army of the Cumberland under William S. Rosecrans commenced a skillful campaign of maneuver. In just over twelve weeks it drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg out of its namesake state and into northern Georgia. Jefferson Davis compelled Robert E. Lee to detach two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of James Longstreet and send them to reinforce Bragg in anticipation of a counterstrike.

After several days of skirmishing, on September 18 the Confederates commenced their advance. One Texas soldier, William W. Heartsill, looked forward to giving the Yankees all they could handle. As he lay down for the night seeking warmth in “my old Green army coat,” Heartsill readied “to think and dream of comeing events or of loved ones at home.” It was time to beat back “cruel invaders that come to drench our sunny south in blood and drag us to worse than slavery.” There was only one thing left to do: “Up southrons and strike for God and our native land may the God of the right hover ore our Battle flag and may our independance be dated, from the begining of this pending contest,” a fight that promised to be “one of the most sanguinary and decisive battles of the war.”[1]

Sanguinary certainly describes the battle of Chickamauga, which took place over the next two days. Heartsill’s regiment spent September 19 advancing to the sound of the guns and encountering prisoners and fields covered with dead. The next day it advanced to the front. A cannon ball took the life of brigade commander James Deshler—“It is useless to pass eulogies upon Gen D. for to know him was to love him,” Heartsill remarked—but by that evening the Texas soldier could scribble his recollections of the events of the day by the light of a fire that had just that morning warmed a Yankee’s body.[2] Elsewhere the woods caught fire, consuming the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers.

In two days of battle each side had lost nearly one third of its strength in dead, wounded, and missing. In later years people claimed that Chickamauga meant “river of death,” and the battle seemed to sanctify that understanding. During the second day of fighting, Kentucky soldier John S. Jackman, who served in a Confederate brigade commanded by none other than Ben Hardin Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother-in-law, crossed the same ground covered by the division to which Heartsill belonged. Jackman was chilled by what he saw: “The dead of both sides were lying thick over the ground. . . . Men and horses were lying so thick over the field, one could hardly walk for them.”[3] Late that morning the Kentuckians advanced, only to be repulsed three times. Helm was mortally wounded, one of some 18,454 casualties in a force some 66,000 strong.

Unfortunately for Heartsill, Jackman, and their fellow Confederates, living, wounded, and dead, Chickamauga was not decisive. Although the Rebels punched right through a gap in the Federal line on September 20, Union corps commander George H. Thomas conducted a gallant defense along Snodgrass Hill, winning the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.” At first, it appeared that Thomas might have merely staved off the inevitable, for Rosecrans pulled his army back into Chattanooga, Tennessee, only to find himself besieged by the pursuing Bragg. There it looked as if the Yankees might be starved into submission. Once the Confederates dug in and waited, however, their own generals began feuding. Before long Bragg found himself in heated combat, not with the bluecoats, but with his own commanders. President Davis declined to relieve Bragg, instead shuffling a few subordinates and earmarking Longstreet to advance upon Knoxville, Tennessee, defended by a force under the command of the ill-fated Ambrose Burnside.

Abraham Lincoln had his problems with his generals as well. When reports reached Washington claiming that Rosecrans was dispirited and desperate, and might even abandon Chattanooga altogether, the President decided to turn to the only general in the west upon whom he could rely. Orders went out naming Ulysses S. Grant commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, putting him in charge of operations from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Given the choice to retain Rosecrans or to elevate Thomas to command of the Army of the Cumberland, Grant chose the latter, and wired Thomas to stay where he was. Back came the answer: “I will hold the town until we starve.”[4]


[1] William W. Heartsill: Journal, September 17–28, 1863, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 523.

[2] Ibid., 525.

[3] John S. Jackman: Diary, September 18–20, 1863, ibid., 532.

[4] George H. Thomas to Ulysses S. Grant, October 19, 1863, in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, volume 9, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 302.


Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.


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