The battle of Chickamauga, though regarded as among the bloodiest engagements, was pivotal to the Union’s success. Through an investigation of this combat’s significance to the war and related issues and facts are highlighted. Overall, the results and costs of this battle favored the Union – the ultimate Civil War victor.
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Statement of the Issue
The topic that is the focus of this paper is the battle of Chickamauga and its influence on the course of the Civil War. The combat was a three-day military engagement that occurred between 18 and 20 September 1863 and ended with a victory for the south1. Union and Confederate armies battled to take control of Chattanooga, a significant railroad hub and a gateway to Atlanta in the lower south. The battlefield was Chickamauga, about 10 miles south of the Tennessee-Georgia border. The battle was the largest one in Georgia and the second bloodiest combat of the Civil War (35,000 casualties) after the Gettysburg engagement, with a toll of 51,0002.
The military engagement was a watershed event that defined the course of the Civil War. Differences in fighting tactics of the Union and Confederate generals would grant the south a short-lived victory initially. However, using Chattanooga as the base, the Union army would overcome the siege and advance to the Deep South. Thereafter, resource depletion due to the diminishing confederate territory and economic problems would ravage the military capacity of the South and spell doom for the confederacy. The major issues discussed in this paper include when and why the engagement took place, where it occurred, the military and socioeconomic factors that influenced its outcomes, and the impact of the results on the war campaign and its effect on the course of the Civil War.
When and Why the Battle of Chickamauga Took Place
The battle of Chickamauga took place on September 18-20, 18633. A number of social, political, and economic factors and military considerations precipitated this bloody engagement. Initially, Georgia did not allow slavery, but after its legalization, it increased greatly because the agricultural community in the area depended on slave labor4. Slaveholding grew further after the cotton gin was invented. White settlers had moved to the region that would become the battleground (Tennessee-Georgia border) after its natives, Cherokee Indians, had been displaced in the 1830s5. At the start of the war, the area had plantations that required slave labor to thrive.
A primary social reason for the military engagement was slavery. While the North wanted free territories, the South favored slaveholding in Georgia. In addition, secession was a political issue that contributed to the military engagement after the 1850’s Compromise. Georgia indicated allegiance to the Union but upheld the Southern states’ rights6. It would not commit to secession if the North adopted the Fugitive Slave Act.
Economically, Chickamauga lay near Chattanooga, major transport and commercial hub that had a strategic significance to both the Confederate and Union armies. In the 1850s, the city experienced unprecedented economic growth following the arrival of the Western and Atlantic railroad at Chattanooga that opened up the area to trade7. It became an industrial hub, particularly for iron. The start of the Civil War saw both the confederate army at Tennessee and the Union forces at Cumberland battle over the control of Chattanooga due to its strategic significance in terms of supplies8. It was a gateway to the passageway to the South and an economic hub at the time.
From a military perspective, a win would guarantee transportation lines for either side and give the victorious side an upper hand in the Civil War. In 1863, the commander of the Union army, Rosecrans, who was leading the Tullahoma campaign, sought to take over this city from the South9. He directed three battalions led by General William Hazen to go on a mission to the Cumberland Plateau. This diversionary tactic was meant to mislead the South that Rosecrans intended to invade from the northern side.
Military considerations also contributed to the battle. General Rosecrans led his army on a mission to take over Chattanooga from the confederates. He hoped to enter the city from the Lookout Mountains and launch a surprise attack on the confederates. The army would struggle with mountainous terrain and narrow passages on its way to Chattanooga. On learning of the impending attack from the south, the Confederate commander, Bragg, and his troops left the city10. The withdrawal posed a threat to the supply lines of the Southern army. The three divisions of the Union forces advanced to Chattanooga from separate fronts. The unit under General Thomas Crittenden was charged with the task of gaining control of the city, while the one under McCook was sent to Summerville11.
Bragg’s strategy was to attack the two Union segments before they could reunite and halt their retreat to Chattanooga. However, poor relationships between Bragg and his generals- Hindman and Hill – would affect the command structure, allowing the Union army to regroup to the western side of the Chickamauga Creek12. The Confederate forces were stationed to the east. The reason why the Southern army went into battle in this area was to stop the Union army’s retreat to Chattanooga13. Rosecrans could only withdraw to this city via either the LaFayette route or the Dry Valley passageway14. Therefore, blocking the two roads would give Bragg an upper hand in the battle.
Where it Took Place
The battle of Chickamauga occurred on the eastern side of Chickamauga Creek. After two Union army divisions reunited at Lee and Gordon’s Mill, the confederates planned to cross the Creek at the northern point to drive the troops that were advancing to Chattanooga southwards away from the city15. On the first day of the battle (September 18), the Southern force sought to take control of the crossings on the Chickamauga Creek. However, the Union troopers prevented the confederates from getting across the Reed’s Bridge and Alexander’s Bridge, albeit for a while16. The Southerners eventually forced them to retreat and crossed to the east of the Creek.
On the second day (September 19), fighting took place in Kelly farm north of the Mill. Under General George Thomas, the Union soldiers advanced eastwards but were met with resistance from confederate troopers. The battle lasted the entire day and spread about five miles to the south17. The confederates almost took over the LaFayette Road; however, Union forces were able to recover it that day. On the last day of fighting (September 20), fighting took place at the Snodgrass Hill after ineptitude from the Northern generals left a gap at the center forced Union divisions to retreat northward. Later that day, persistent confederate attacks would force George Thomas to withdraw the remnant forces and retreat to their base at Chattanooga.
Factors that Influenced the Outcome of the Battle
It is clear that factors such as military strategy, terrain, and railroads, among others, influenced the outcome of the battle of Chickamauga. The engagement was among the bloodiest during the Civil War, with the Union and a confederate death toll estimated to be 16,000 and 18,500, respectively18. The heavy bloodshed resulted from a mix of military tactics and weaponry used in the fight. The armies used traditional combat strategies but modern rifles. Infantrymen used muskets during the Civil War instead of unrifled guns19. The new weapons had a higher range and accuracy than any existing artillery. Thus, armies could inflict maximum casualty on enemy lines, which explains the high losses incurred by the Union and confederates at Chickamauga.
Additionally, the fighting occurred along shifting battle lines. The generals could not make out the exact position of the enemy due to the thick woodland. In fact, the battle broke out unexpectedly when confederate cavalrymen encountered a Union army unit on a recon mission. The fighting on the first day was messy and bloody, with no major gains for either side. When the armies found a chance to build entrenchments the next day, the number of casualties was decreased20.
The mountainous terrain also influenced the outcome of the battle. Although there were few farms in the area, most parts of Chickamauga Creek were forested. As such, visibility was limited to just a few meters. The area lying between the Creek and Lafayette Road had mostly unbroken forests that reduced the range of vision to less than a mile21. Commanding the troops was a challenge for generals. However, General Bragg was familiar with this terrain, having fought at Chickamauga in 1838 when the Cherokee inhabitants were being evacuated from the area22. Due to the thick woods and invisibility of Confederate soldiers, a gap opened up in the Union army divisions and gave the Southern troops commanded by General James Longstreet an opportunity to rush forward and chase after the disorganized soldiers at Snodgrass Hill who were fleeing northward to Chattanooga23. The terrain could not allow about two-thirds of the divisions in flight to regroup and respond, granting the South a victory.
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The outcome of the battle was also influenced by railroads that were critical for army supply lines. Using the railway, confederate general James Longstreet would come with reinforcements from the South to give General Bragg a numerical advantage over the Union forces. As a result, the confederates had adequate supplies to sustain their campaign. Thus, the rail lines were a strategic target of the troops. In fact, the Union and the Southern armies fought so hard to capture Chattanooga due to its railroad network.
The Outcome’s Influence on the Campaign
Considering the terrain challenges, the campaign that culminated in the military engagement at Chickamauga was cleverly planned. The triumph for the South at the Creek forced the Union army to retreat to its Chattanooga base. The confederates’ victory on September 20 – coming after the Gettysburg defeat – rejuvenated their spirit that they could still win the war24. However, the Southern army failed to decimate the Union forces and stop their retreat to Chattanooga. Its inaction would allow federal forces to reverse the results of the campaign and make the confederate victory short-lived.
While Longstreet wanted to go after the fleeing Union forces, Bragg was more concerned about the huge losses the confederates had suffered during the battle25. The Southern army had lost close to 19,000 soldiers, including 10 commanders, while the federals’ casualties were about 16,00026. Later, the confederates would besiege Chattanooga. General Bragg and his army were positioned at the Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain but did not attempt to launch an attack on the disorganized forces in the city below27.
A decisive victory at the Chickamauga campaign, which essentially was a fight for Chattanooga, was important for the Southern forces; it would allow them to limit the Union’s advance to the South. The confederates cut the supply lines to the besieged federal troops. However, disagreements between Longstreet and Bragg would delay the Chattanooga engagement. In November 1863, General Ulysses Grant came with reinforcements and assumed the leadership of the Union divisions at Chattanooga28. He promoted Thomas to replace Rosecrans and lead the Cumberland army in opening up the supply lines and reversing the confederate win at Chickamauga29. Therefore, the outcome at the Creek (Southern Army’s victory) influenced the Chattanooga campaign – a siege that ended with the arrival of Grant. Consequently, the Union forces were able to defeat the confederates, control east Tennessee, and gain entry into the lower South.
The Campaign’s Influence on the Course of the Civil War
The Chickamauga campaign that led to the Chattanooga siege and the reversal of an earlier confederate win marked a turning point in the course of the Civil War. The South lost Chattanooga to Union control throughout the remaining stages of the war. Additionally, with this victory, the federals tightened their grip on Tennessee. Chattanooga would become the Union army’s base for Georgian invasion in the coming months30. As such, the passageway to the Deep South was now ajar. Thus, the Chickamauga campaign was a critical turning point in the war. The South’s defeat and retreat from Chattanooga marked the death of the confederacy. A declining territory, massive casualties, and economic costs of invasions by the federal army would weaken the confederate’s resolve to secede. Thus, technically, the Civil War was won in the West through the battle of Chickamauga.
The outcome of the Chickamauga campaign also affected the morale of the forces. The initial triumph at the Creek reenergized the confederate forces and made them believe that they can actually win the war. However, the Union’s success at Chattanooga dimmed the South’s hope of emerging victorious in the Civil War. For the federal troops, the results of the Chattanooga, which came in the wake of triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, rejuvenated their spirits to fight in the war31. In contrast, the confederate defeat at this city was the death knell for secessionist calls.
Contextually speaking, the battle reinforced the outcomes of the Union blockade of Georgia’s coastline that was meant to prevent goods from entering or leaving Georgia during the war32. The primary goal was to block confederate cotton exports to England and France and stop imports – mainly arms – through the destruction of Fort Pulaski33. The Anaconda Plan sought to cripple the military power of the confederacy and the economies of the Southern states. Once the blockade became effective, Union forces sought to take over Chattanooga – a strategic city with significant railroad connectivity – to capture Atlanta, Georgia’s Capital34.
Chattanooga also allowed Union forces to initiate the Atlanta Campaign in 1864. The objective was to capture Atlanta – the main railroad hub for the South35. General Sherman would lead two distinct campaigns into Georgia: the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea36. The battles aimed to destroy the confederate infrastructure, including railway lines and cotton gins. Sherman’s men burnt Atlanta’s buildings and factories and plundered its resources to end the war quickly37. As a result, the port city of Savannah surrendered to the Union, marking the beginning of the collapse of the confederacy.
This paper involved an investigation of the battle of Chickamauga – a key military engagement that shaped the course of the Civil War. Significant events of the combat are described chronologically, as well as when, where, and why it was fought, the campaign it was a part of, the factors that influenced its outcome, and its significance to the warfare. This bloody three-day battle (September 18-20, 1863) took place in the Chickamauga Creek about 12 miles from the Tennessee border. The campaign that culminated in this engagement involved the union forces at Cumberland and the Southern army based in Tennessee. General Rosecrans commanded the federal army while General Braxton Bragg led the confederates.
The primary reason for fighting was to capture Chattanooga, a strategic city with significant railway connectivity and a passageway to the South. After a series of military engagements in the mountainous terrain of Chickamauga Creek, the confederates pushed the Union army northward to Chattanooga and did not decimate it. The toll from this combat was about 35,000 casualties. The confederate army besieged the city for days until federal reinforcements arrived to help break the siege. By taking control of Chattanooga, the Union had the upper hand in the Civil War; it invaded Georgia and other Southern states and forced them to surrender.
American Battlefield Trust. Civil War Overview: Chickamauga. Washington, D.C.: American Battlefield Trust, 2018.
Hess, Earl J. Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy (Civil War America). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Maranzani, Barbara. “8 Things You Should Know About the Battle of Chickamauga.” History. Web.
Powell, David A. The Chickamauga Campaign – A Mad Irregular Battle: From the Crossing of Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 – September 19, 1863. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2014.
The Chickamauga Campaign—Barren Victory: The Retreat into Chattanooga, the Confederate Pursuit, and the Aftermath of the Battle, September 21 to October 20, 1863. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2016.
- American Battlefield Trust, Civil War Overview: Chickamauga (Washington, D.C.: American Battlefield Trust, 2018), 12.
- David A. Powell, The Chickamauga Campaign – A Mad Irregular Battle: From the Crossing of Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 – September 19, 1863 (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2014), 76.
- Ibid., 81.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 93.
- Barbara Maranzani, “8 Things You Should Know About the Battle of Chickamauga,” History, Web.
- Earl J. Hess, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy (Civil War America) (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 14.
- Ibid., 27.
- Ibid., 29.
- Ibid., 41.
- Ibid., 56.
- David A. Powell, The Chickamauga Campaign—Barren Victory: The Retreat into Chattanooga, the Confederate Pursuit, and the Aftermath of the Battle, September 21 to October 20, 1863 (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2016), 114.
- Ibid., 62.
- Ibid., 63.
- American Battlefield Trust, Civil War Overview, 15.
- David A. Powell, The Chickamauga Campaign—Barren Victory, 78.
- Ibid., 79.
- Ibid., 81.
- American Battlefield Trust, Civil War Overview, 17.
- David A. Powell, The Chickamauga Campaign—Barren Victory, 91.
- Earl J. Hess, Braxton Bragg, 28.
- Ibid., 42.
- American Battlefield Trust, Civil War Overview, 22.
- David A. Powell, The Chickamauga Campaign—Barren Victory, 118.
- Ibid., 124.