By Steve Pettyjohn
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved
Day 1 – The Tullahoma Campaign and Chickamauga
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable held its annual field trip from September 24-25, 2021, visiting the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields. Under the leadership of Roundtable president Mark Porter, we had another outstanding field trip. We were able to spend Friday on the Chickamauga battlefield with guide Robert Carter, who walked us through one of the most complex and confusing Civil War battlefields. He provided a series of very helpful maps to help us with understanding the various moves during the battle. Our dinner speaker that evening was Professor Andrew Bledsoe of Lee University, Cleveland, Tennessee. Dr. Bledsoe used an excellent set of maps to describe the Tullahoma Campaign and the opening moves of the Chickamauga Campaign. On Saturday we visited Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and several sites on Missionary Ridge with legendary National Park Service guide James Ogden. His comments were supplemented by even more maps, as this more straightforward battle still had its complexities.
Because both of the lunches and dinners on Friday and Saturday were included in our fees, we were able to socialize on a more sustained basis with many of the 18 members who attended. It was a great time to meet new members and renew old acquittances that had been interrupted by the COVID 19 pandemic. For those of us looking forward to future field trips, it looks like vice president Lily Korte and treasurer Bob Pence did some preliminary planning for their years as president, with Lily deciding on a much anticipated trip to the Shenandoah Valley in 2022 and Bob looking forward to a return to Gettysburg in 2023.
Reflections on the Field Trip
As several members have said in the past, we always look forward to the field trips, and I am no exception. I have been on 7 or 8 and found all to have been fun and informative. I have learned something new on every trip, and this one was no exception. I was particularly delighted when Mark Porter announced that we were going to Chickamauga, and I looked at Chattanooga as icing on the cake. I had been to Chickamauga once on a family vacation and left about as confused as when I entered as far as my understanding of the battle. With this trip, I left with a much better understanding of this confusing battlefield. Apparently Chickamauga was a battle of confusion for everyone, from the commanding generals on down to the privates.
Chickamauga started as something of a meeting engagement where both commanding generals thought they had caught the other by surprise and wanted to spring a trap on the enemy. It devolved into a slugfest, with constant ebbs and flows along a very long and convoluted battle line, and the terrain allowing one side to outflank the other only to be followed by being outflanked by their enemy again. The Confederates won a crushing victory in large part due to luck and also due to confusion on the part of General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. The Confederate victory came about on the second day of fighting when Rosecrans created a hole in the center of his line several hundred yards in width. This allowed General James Longstreet to launch a devastating attack with 11 fresh brigades that plunged through the gap. The day was saved by George Thomas, who stood like a rock. The right wing of that rock was anchored by the 21st Ohio, which, with the help of Colt repeating rifles, frustrated waves of Confederate attackers who hoped to break the last remaining organized resistance and destroy the Army of the Cumberland in the field.
As we toured the Chickamauga battlefield, I had some thoughts that I hope you find of interest.
This was an Ohio battlefield from the commanding general and his staff to various unit commanders: army commander William Rosecrans; a young fellow named James Garfield, who was a brigadier general and chief of staff; XX corps commander Alexander McCook; division commander Philip Sheridan; brigade commander John Wilder and his Lighting Brigade; and regimental commander Henry Van Ness Boynton, 35th Ohio (co-founder of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park) just to name a few. Also, I have never seen so many Ohio regimental markers on any other Civil War battlefield.
Chickamauga was a modern battlefield. In comparison, Gettysburg could be considered one of the last Napoleonic battlefields. At Gettysburg, General George Meade could see at least 75% of the contested field from his horse on Cemetery Ridge or Cemetery Hill. By riding a few minutes in either direction, he could survey the battlefield and make decisions and take action. In contrast, neither William Rosecrans nor Braxton Bragg had a shred of a chance of seeing the bulk of the battlefield from one location. The terrain and topography of the area, with trees, rough terrain, the hills and mountain ranges, and also Chickamauga Creek and its tributaries, prevented that. The size of the battlefield is reflected in the size of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park with over 5,300 acres versus about 2,800 acres at Gettysburg.
This was a battle where communications broke down and command and control were lost after the first shots were fired. Both sides were crippled by the inability of 19th century techniques to provide effective communications. Messengers got lost in the confusing terrain, staffs were not up to the task of effectively transcribing orders that were understandable to their subordinates, and units and officers were routinely lost and unable to accomplish their missions. These problems were exacerbated for the Confederates, since they were on the offensive. It didn’t help that James Longstreet, D.H. Hill, and John Bell Hood, newly dispatched to the Army of Tennessee, were unfamiliar with Bragg’s command style, and that Bragg reorganized his army after the first day’s fighting.
One thing that struck me in thinking about the considerable size of the battlefield was the fateful area held on the second day of the battle by General Thomas Wood with his division of less than 5,000 men. It is some 600 to 700 yards in length. Compared to the frontages at Gettysburg, this is a huge line for a single division to hold. When Rosecrans mistakenly ordered Wood to leave this front and move to the north, it created a gap in the center of the Union line, and Longstreet’s assault stormed through that gap to sever the Army of the Cumberland.
Finally, we come to the “Rosecrans Rule,” which was coined by the U.S. Army General Staff School after their study of the campaign. William Rosecrans made the critical error of creating a hole in the center of his line when he mistakenly ordered Thomas Wood to move his division north to support George Thomas. However, a fresh division had moved there earlier in the day to support Thomas. Wood’s division was not needed. When Wood went north, he left a 600- to 700-yard-wide gap that Longstreet’s assault poured through. Rosecrans made this mistake because of fatigue and lack of sustenance. He had something like two hours of sleep over the prior two- to three-day time frame along with very little food. His ability to speak coherently had been severely compromised. To make matters worse, Garfield, Rosecrans’ chief of staff, was swamped writing messages and did not write the order to Wood. It was composed by a less talented member of the staff. The “Rosecrans Rule” is a reminder that a commander has the duty to rest and eat, so that he has a fresh mind ready to make sound decisions.
A Chickamauga what-if: Could the Lightning Brigade have saved the day?
The 21st Ohio was not the only unit armed with repeating rifles at Chickamauga. The Lightning Brigade was led by Colonel John T. Wilder of Ohio. (Well, he lived in Columbus for a decade.) The brigade was composed of two regiments from Indiana and three from Illinois. It served as “mounted infantry” during the Tullahoma Campaign and the Chickamauga Campaign. Most of the men were armed with seven shot repeating Spencer rifles, while some companies carried 16 shot Henry repeating rifles. The unit was nicknamed “The Lightning Brigade” and served as Rosecrans’ troubleshooting fire brigade. They were on the left flank of Longstreet’s assault column when it ruptured the Union line. Wilder launched a flank attack that disrupted the Confederates, captured over 200, and sent part of the attackers running back into the woods they had attacked from earlier. The noise of their repeating rifles had Longstreet wondering if there was an entire corps on his flank. Wilder was organizing a follow-up assault when Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana appeared, wildly riding a horse, claiming all was lost, and insisting that Wilder and his men escort him back to Chattanooga. This ended the organization of a further assault that Wilder, to his last days, contended would have destroyed the Confederate assault. We will never know.
“Toward the end of the 19th century, Civil War veterans including the Society of the Army of the Cumberland and the Chickamauga Memorial Association rallied support for creating a national park to preserve the battlefield at Chickamauga as well as nearby sites at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Congressman Charles H. Grosvenor (who commanded the 18th Ohio at Chickamauga) introduced the bill in Congress in 1890; it was signed by President (and fellow Civil War veteran) Benjamin Harrison in August of that year. Dedicated on the Battle of Chickamauga’s 32nd anniversary in 1895, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park became the first such park established by the Federal government, followed by Shiloh, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam.”
From The American Battlefield Trust Website
Day 2 – Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge
Our second day began with an ascent of Lookout Mountain where we met National Park Service guide James Ogden at the Visitor Center for Point Park. At the Visitor Center Museum, we were able to view the dramatic and almost diorama-like painting The Battle of Lookout Mountain that features General Joseph Hooker on his white charger at the center of the painting and the action on the mountain in the background. We took a group photo at the entrance to the park, which was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a replica of their insignia. Mr. Ogden led us through the park with its dramatic vistas, where he was able to visually and verbally give us an overview of the campaign and where several dramatic events occurred. The climb up the mountain in our cars certainly gave us an appreciation of the importance of the terrain during the campaign.
Mr. Ogden pointed out the key importance of Chattanooga and its importance as a rail center and communications point. We were able to see critical areas related to the overall campaign and events leading up to the battle of Chattanooga. The challenges and complexities of opening “The Cracker Line,” which brought much-needed supplies to the stranded Army of the Cumberland, was described and brought to life by Ogden’s vivid descriptions. We also encountered some old names from other battles, such as U.S. Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, who played a crucial role in opening the supply line and also played a somewhat more infamous role at Petersburg, as we had learned during that field trip in 2020. Joe Hooker of Chancellorsville infamy gained some redemption as he commanded the XI and XII Corps detachments sent from the Army of the Potomac, with both units performing well at Chattanooga. (The XI Corps, flanked at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, got to return the favor to the Confederates at Missionary Ridge during the battle.)
Ogden described the fighting at Wauhatchie in the valley before Lookout Mountain, where both Longstreet and Hooker performed so poorly that both were almost fired by their respective commanders in late October. (If memory is correct, there is now a wonderful Walmart on part of that battlefield that made it easy for Ogden to point out the area to us.) Finally, we could see the importance of other terrain including Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, as Ogden described the tactical details of the successful fight for Lookout Mountain that Joe Hooker directed from his famous white charger.
After descending Lookout Mountain and again increasing our respect for the troops who fought “The Battle above the Clouds” (first named by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs who witnessed the battle), we had a great lunch at The Tap House, a Chattanooga restaurant, and then regrouped at Orchard Knob, which served as Grant’s headquarters during the battle. The central location gave him an excellent position to view the battle. It is in a reservation surrounded by residential areas, but East 3rd Street offered a clear view to Missionary Ridge and the Ohio Reservation at its peak, which contains the Ohio Monument to our regiments that fought there. While not as famous as the Missionary Ridge of Gettysburg fame, the Chattanooga version is much higher and more formidable.
Missionary Ridge is now prime real estate, and it is very built-up with some beautiful homes dotting the edge of the ridge. However, some key “reservations” have been preserved where we were able to park and examine details of the battle. We spent some time at the northern edge of the battle at the “Sherman Reservation,” where our Lancaster, Ohio native did not perform well at all. His detachment of the Army of the Tennessee crossed the Tennessee River late, got lost, and then ran into the buzz saw that was Patrick Cleburne’s crack division from the Army of Tennessee at the fight around Tunnel Hill. Cleburne checked Sherman’s advance, and with Hooker’s southern flank attack bogging down at the other end of Missionary Ridge, Grant asked George Thomas to launch a diversionary frontal assault on Missionary Ridge.
It was at this point that something completely unexpected happened, something that was one of the most improbable and dramatic events not just in the history of the Civil War, but maybe in the entire history of the U.S. Army. The troops of four divisions from the Army of the Cumberland, which had been ignominiously defeated at Chickamauga, not only took the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, but kept going until they reached the top of the ridge and routed the entrenched Confederates who were positioned there. The Confederate rout did not stop until the fleeing rebels reached the safety of Georgia, with Cleburne’s division playing the role of rear guard and saving the entire army.
While we were at the DeLong Reservation on Missionary Ridge, our guide contributed one of those insights that can only be obtained by being on the spot. We have all seen the paintings of the Union regiments going up Missionary Ridge in those V-shaped formations with the flags leading the way and the men spread out behind them. Ogden was able to explain and show us how the geography of Missionary Ridge contributed to that success. A quirk of geography is that Missionary Ridge is more a series of interlocked hills that have been squished together over time, leaving folds between the crests of the hills. Many of the Union regiments followed those folds up to the crests, which sheltered them from Confederate fire as they attempted to scramble to the top. In addition, Bragg and his engineers, in a massive failure of planning, placed the bulk of the Confederate line on the ridge at the geographic summit and not the military summit, from which they would have had much clearer lines of fire.
Our day in the field ended at the Bragg Reservation, where again being on the spot provided insights into the campaign. Ogden described the further attacks that contributed to the Confederate rout, including one by a Wisconsin regiment with a fellow named Arthur MacArthur. Ogden was also able to show us the terrain of the Confederate retreat and the Union pursuit and how difficult it was for Grant’s pursuit to succeed and destroy the rest of Bragg’s army.
Our trip ended with the Saturday night dinner at Jonathan’s Grille. James Ogden was there as well and served as our dinner speaker. He did more to help us understand the overall campaign and aftermath of the battle along with patiently answering all of our questions. It was the end of another great field trip!
Author’s note: For a wonderful overview of both campaigns, I highly recommend Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns by Steven E. Woodworth.
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