Chickamauga 150 Countdown: The Mistake

By Ron Fritze

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They call it the “fog of war.” It’s when unforeseen circumstances cause a battle plan to fall apart. It’s when an army’s communication breaks down during the heat of battle. It’s when generals lose track of where their troops are located. Every battle sees mistakes on both sides. Sometimes the mistakes cancel each other out. Other times, a mistake will lose a battle decisively. Chickamauga was one of those battles.
During the summer of 1863 the Union Army of the Cumberland under William Rosecrans began an offensive against the Confederate Army of Tennessee of Braxton Bragg. Rosecrans had been camped at Murfreesboro while Bragg stationed his army at Tullahoma. By deft maneuvering Rosecrans was able to force Bragg out of Tennessee and to capture Chattanooga. Faced by this threat, the Confederate government reinforced Bragg’s army and ordered him to take the offensive against Rosecrans. Meanwhile the aggressive Rosecrans continued to advance against Bragg unaware that he was now out-numbered with his army strung out along Chickamauga Creek. Bragg’s plan was to defeat the components of the Union army piecemeal but Rosecrans recognized the danger during the minor fighting on 18 September. Bragg began an all out assault against Rosecrans’ consolidated position on 19 September. Despite fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, Rosecrans line held firm the entire day.
Fighting resumed on 20 September with both generals becoming confused about the location of some units of their armies. The early morning Confederate attacks had all been against the Union left wing under General George Thomas. Rosecrans wanted to keep his defensive positions secure and Thomas was clamoring for reinforcements. Meanwhile, Rosecrans received confused information that the division of General John Brannan had moved to support Thomas. This move left a supposed gap in the Union. So Rosecrans ordered General Thomas Wood’s division to shift north to fill the hole in the Union line. In fact, there was no gap in the Union line but if Wood followed Rosecrans’ order, it would have created a real hole in his lines. Wood knew that there was no gap for him to move into but Rosecrans’ order was worded unclearly so that it was subject to interpretation. Already having been reprimanded by Rosecrans for not following orders, a smarting Wood moved his division at 11:00 am.
Unfortunately for Rosecrans and the right wing of the Union line, the Confederate troops of General James Longstreet were poised to attack the spot Wood had just vacated. Confederate troops poured through the gap and routed the Union right flank. Things could have been worse. Colonel John T. Wilder and his brigade of mounted infantry moved in to stop the advancing Confederates. Wilder’s troops were equipped with Spencer repeater rifles which gave them a tremendous advantage in fire power. Thanks to Wilder’s action, Longstreet’s breakthrough was blunted. Still the Union right and center was retreating to Chattanooga while the left wing under Thomas covered them. Thomas’s action prevented a total disaster for the Army of the Cumberland and earned him the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.” But despite Wilder and Thomas, the Union army had suffered a serious defeat. Bragg could have pursued more closely but his Army of the Tennessee had suffered so many casualties that he did not feel able to move on Chattanooga. By the time he was ready to attack again, the Union troops were dug into strong defensive positions. The stage was set for the climactic battle of Chattanooga.
If you join us for the ASU excursion to Chickamauga on 21 September, you will get to see a fine monument in the form of a medieval tower that commemorates Wilder and his brigade’s stand.