Thursday, September 19, 2013

Chickamauga Day 1

150 years ago today - the second largest battle of the war began. Chickamauga was fought in the north Georgia wilderness, two days of brutal, relentless mayhem, a fight with little thought put into it, that almost turned the course of the war anyway, almost accidentally.

What happened, broadly speaking? Chickamauga came at the end of a summer of campaigning in the middle of Tennessee. This was the Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by William Rosecrans - an army that seems kind of forgotten sometimes, compared to Grant's (and later Sherman's) Army of the Tennessee, that took Vicksburg, and later Atlanta; and the Army of the Potomac, back east getting (mostly) whacked around by Robert E. Lee. Rosecrans was in the middle, charged with taking east Tennessee, Chattanooga, and menacing Georgia. Rosecrans had been in command at Stone's River - a bloodbath, where the Rebel Army (The Army of Tennessee, under Braxton Bragg) caved in the Union right, and almost wrecked Rosecrans' army - but it managed to stabilize things, and ended up almost wrecking Bragg's army, when it kept on hammering away at those stabilized lines. (One of those things you see over and over in the war - someone scores a major partial victory - at Shiloh, Chancellorsville, here, Chickamauga - but a line forms, and the attackers end up battering themselves to pulp attacking it.) Stone's River felled about a third of both armies and left them with a lot of work to do to recover. It took Rosecrans 6 months to recover - a good deal longer than Abraham Lincoln (to name one) thought it should have taken him, and Lincoln made things hot for Risecrans for a while. But at the end of June, Rosecrans moved, and moved well - in the Tullahoma campaign he managed to outflank Bragg and drive him out of the middle of Tennessee virtually without a fight. Bragg retreated to Chattanooga - Rosecrans dallied for another month of so (once more annoying Lincoln, Stanton and company) - but he finally got going, and did it again - getting around behind Bragg and forcing him to give up Chattanooga without a fight. Except that in the doing of it, he scattered his army over quite a bit of northern Georgia, and Bragg and his army decided to take advantage. They tried to catch the separate parts of the Union army, but could never get their act together - so Rosecrans was able to bring his force together neat Chickamauga Creek - where Bragg determined to attack him.

The whole of it was a fairly interesting campaign, operationally - about as much actual sustained maneuver and positioning as you would see in the war. Feint's and quick marches and races for the crucial mountain pass, and so on... Though in the end, they all came together in one place and fought a straight up brawl. Maybe even more interesting strategically, especially from the Confederates' point of view. It is hard to see much good in the Rebel's strategy in the war. It's hard to see any strategy at all, most of the time. Once in a while - Lee had a strategy, try to win one big battle, that would destroy the Union army, or cause Washington to fall, something like that - something that would cause the north to sue for peace. (Basically the same strategy the Japanese employed at Pearl Harbor - with about the same degree of success.) (That and protect Virginia, at all costs, including the destruction of the rest of the Confederacy, to put it harshly.) Jefferson Davis? He seemed to vacillate, between trying to hold everything, and trying to get that one big win - or a big political win, like invading Kentucky and convincing them to switch sides.... In practical terms, it's hard to see much that he did. Vicksburg might be the worst example - he insisted on holding it, but did not force his generals to combine or cooperate, did not come up with anything like a plan to give them a chance to hold it, let Lee tell him what he was going to do with his army, Vicksburg be damned - and so Grant took the city and an army with it. After Vicksburg, Davis still didn't quite commit to anything - he didn't force Joe Johnston (in Mississippi) to join Bragg in Tennessee, or vice versa, didn't really commit to anything. But he did, for once, make a decision, toward the end of the summer, to send James Longstreet and most of his corps west to reinforce Bragg. Lee could usually stop that sort of thing - but after Gettysburg, it was obvious he would have to stick to the defensive, and if so, he could spare some men. So off went Longstreet and his men and they arrived just in time for the battle.

And - their arrival meant that for just about the only time in the war, in a major battle, the Confederates outnumbered the Union on the field. Not that it did them an awful lot of good. On September 19, in they went. The plan was to get around the Union left, cutting off Rosecrans's retreat to Chattanooga - that was one of the plans anyway. The battle started - the rebels never did quite get on the Union flank, and a messy, hard fight developed at that end of the line. As fight grew, Bragg ordered in the rest of his army - just attacking whatever they found, basically. Both sides fed men in piecemeal, and a confusing battle developed in the woods and fields between Chickamauga creek and the main roads to Chattanooga. The fighting went went back and forth most of the day, the Confederates driving the Yankees back, then being driven in turn - though in broad terms, the Union left got the better of it, while the center and right were closer calls. Through it all, the fighting was disjointed and uncoordinated and very very bloody.

The truth is, it is hard to get a grip on this battle. You can get a grip on Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stone's River - show the lines, see where the attacks developed, where the reinforcements came from, where the stands were made - and put the whole thing together into a kind of flow. That's hard to do with Chickamauga. Yes - you can trace the lines on the map, but the fact is, it seems to have been fought as a series of barely connected, uncoordinated chunks. I suspect a big part of that was the terrain - it was fought across a handful of fields and clearings, hills and ridges, surrounded by dense forest that cut up battle lines, separated units, made control of anything above brigade level completely hit or miss, and often made even brigade level control impossible. There were a few battles like that in the Civil War, but not many. Stone's River was fought in forests and across hills and ridges, though not as bad as this. Chancellorsville, and The Wilderness, in 1864, were both fought in dense woodland - the latter seems to have been mostly fought in the woods, even more than Chickamauga. At Chickamauga, most of the fighting was arranged around farms and fields - but the woods kept all these fights apart....

And - well - we're back to another of my old themes: call it the fog of war, if you want to sound high minded about it. Call it lack of battlefield control maybe... Here - I think you might want to call it incompetence and sheer bloody mindedness. There are lots of badly run battles in the Civil War, but are there any as bad as this one? It's beyond incompetence, into something like complete confusion. Rosecrans was on the verge of collapse, and screwed the whole thing up with his own carelessness and panic. Crittenden and McCook (two of the four Union corps commanders) never really did much, and disappeared when their men were routed on the second day. Meanwhile, the rebel generals were opening feuding with one another. They were a complete mess. Braxton Bragg was about as badly hated as any significant general on either side. (By everyone, from private to Lieutenant General; everyone but Jefferson Davis.) He commanded the Army of Tennessee from the summer of 1862, fought 4 major battles, Perryville, Stone's River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. Basically won, on the battlefield, the first three, though he abandoned the field after both Perryville and Stone's River, letting the Union claim the victory. After every one of those battles, his subordinates turned on him, openly - petitioning Jeff Davis to remove him, writing anonymous letters, or signed letters, organizing cabals.... somehow, he stayed in command - and maybe just as bad, most of the generals he feuded with (Polk and Hardee and Cheatham and Breckinridge etc.) stayed around as well. All that was bad enough - it was worse than that at Chickamauga (though it would get even worse at Chattanooga). Bragg had new generals on board - Longstreet and D.H. Hill. Longstreet didn't start causing trouble until after Chickamauga; Hill - well, he was a fine general, who had gotten himself exiled from Lee's army for his inability to get along with anyone. He came to Bragg from the Carolinas, and he brought along a full dose of his natural contrariness. He joined right in with the rest of the army in hating Bragg....

All that trouble really came home to roost. It started earlier - Bragg's attempts to catch parts of Rosecrans' army before they could unite failed because his generals didn't cooperate, no one trusted anyone else, some of them approaching insubordination, everyone moving on their own timetable. When they did catch Rosecrans and attack, the same thing happened - Bragg ordered attacks, but his underlings went where they wanted, when they wanted - when the attacks came, they were uncoordinated, behind schedule, out of place - and Bragg could do nothing to change anyone's behavior, and wasn't exactly brimming with ideas for how they should be fighting the battle. So what happened happened - a bunch of fights, all along the line, with little connection, and none of them very successful.

Now to be sure - there were exceptions to these failures. A good many brigade and regimental commanders, and a fair number of division commanders, acquitted themselves quite well, for both sides. Higher up, George Thomas, one of the Union's best generals, did his job and very well, holding on to the Union left, and the fourth Union corps commander, George Granger, would act decisively on the second day, saving the army. On the rebel side, James Longstreet mounted one of his patented devastating attacks, led, very effectively, by John Hood... But then, Hood got shot, Longstreet disappeared for much of the battle (maybe because he'd arrived on the battlefield straight from a train in the middle of the night before being assigned command of half the army), and in the end, the battle degenerated into another series of uncoordinated direct attacks on strong defensive positions - a bloodbath.

... But we'll come back to that. This note has gotten a bit out of a control - there are two days to this battle, so I think I'll finish it up tomorrow. The second day is a good deal more narratively compact, I will say that - you can make sense of it.... We'll see you tomorrow.

(I'll end with one more thing. One reason this post [posts] is [are] such a monster[s] is that it is very hard to find good information on this battle. I have read many many books about Gettysburg, and quite a bit about Antietam, Vicksburg, the 1864 Virginia campaigns, and so on - but this, the second bloodiest battle of the war - is a lot less well known. And that makes Peter Cozzens' book - This Terrible Sound - all the more valuable - a big, dense, detailed account of the fight, in all its confusion, horror and drama. All the ins and outs, from all perspectives, from the common private to all those generals ignoring orders and panicking and scheming one another's downfalls and so on. From national strategy to the men trying to scrounge water on the battlefield to how to keep a Colt repeating rifle from bursting if you loaded it with a larger caliber ammunition than it was designed for. Highly recommended.)

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