Ask Hamilton – Battle of Chickamauga

Chattanooga Area Trivia & Tales

Greetings Chattanooga!

It is I, Hamilton Bush, dedicated to bringing you the best in local lore. This time around, Old Hamilton hastens to remind you, dear readers, that several historic milestones are upon us: the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War battles in the Chattanooga area.  Commemorative events are scheduled and students of that turbulent time are no doubt making plans for a pilgrimage to the sites where these actions took place.

Although these battles were fought long ago, the passage of time in no way diminishes the heroism of those brave men whose collective sacrifice forged a nation, a union indissoluble. As yours truly expected, curiosity abounds in regard to the events of 1863. The inquiry here, rest assured, is the first of many seeking information about those epic struggles that occurred in the yards of our ancestors’ homes and along our very streets during the Civil War.

 

Dear Hamilton Bush,

I live in North Georgia, actually in the area called Burning Bush. My home isn’t far from Chickamauga Battlefield. Can you give me the cliff notes on the Battle of Chickamauga, particularly since relatives are coming to attend events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the battle?

Sincerely,

Chickamauga Chatter

 

Dear Chickamauga Chatter,

My pleasure! In the interest of time and space, Old Hamilton will get right to the point. The Battle of Chickamauga was fought September 18-20, 1863, among the woods and briar thickets of your area, and, of course, along the banks of Chickamauga Creek.

By the time the Union and Confederate armies stumbled into one another and fought the largest battle in what has been called the “Western Theater of the Civil War,” General William S. Rosecrans and his Union Army of the Cumberland had marched from Middle Tennessee southeastward. In the process, he outflanked General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee several times. Members of the 18th Indiana Light Artillery fired shots into Chattanooga from Stringer’s Ridge, and the Rebels were forced to evacuate Chattanooga.

Flush with victory, Rosecrans ordered his command, which was divided into three corps, to pursue the Confederates – he hoped all the way to Atlanta.  Bragg had other ideas though, and in LaFayette, Georgia, he regrouped and turned on his pursuer in an attempt to whip Rosecrans before the Union wings could consolidate for the continued push to the South. Well, on September 18, 1863, lead elements of the two armies made contact in the vicinity of Reed’s Bridge across Chickamauga Creek, and before you know it, other units were drawn into the fighting.

Battle lines were formed, stretching across LaFayette Road and through the fields and homesteads of families named Kelly, Glenn, Brotherton, and Snodgrass, among others. The fighting was brutal as rifles crackled and cannon thundered, and neither side was able to gain an advantage. That is, until General Rosecrans, under the mistaken impression that a gap existed in his line, ordered a division to a new position on the afternoon of September 20.  While Rosecrans thought he was plugging the hole, he actually created one.

Now, they say timing is everything. So it was at Chickamauga. Just as Rosecrans’ orders were carried out, thousands of Rebels from the I Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of the famed General James Longstreet—just off a train and marching fast from the station at Ringgold—came howling across LaFayette Road and through the gap at the Brotherton farm.

The Rebels wheeled to the right and sent the whole Union line reeling in panic. As the day began to wane, though, Union General George Thomas organized a patchwork rearguard atop Snodgrass Hill. Thomas held on long enough to allow the bulk of the Army of the Cumberland to escape to safety in Chattanooga. For his heroism, Thomas earned the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.”

Although the Confederates won the battle, Bragg was either unable or unwilling—depending on who tells the story—to follow up his victory.  The Yankees still held Chattanooga, and their army had escaped annihilation. A couple of months later, the roles were reversed when the Confederates came to grief in the November 23-25 Battle of Chattanooga.
The cost at Chickamauga was terrible—the second highest death toll of all Civil War battles following the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the estimated 58,000 Union and 66,000 Confederate soldiers involved, there were around 16,000 Union casualties and 18,500 Confederate casualties.

For a poignant postscript, I’ll add that one casualty of the Battle of Chickamauga was Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm, commander of the First Kentucky Brigade, better known as the “Orphan Brigade” because its troops hailed from a border state that remained in the Union rather than seceding. Helm was a politician and lawyer educated at Harvard University, and when the war broke out he was offered the job of paymaster of the Union Army by none other than President Abraham Lincoln, his brother-in-law. (Helm was married to Emilie Todd, the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.)

Loyal to the Confederacy, Helm refused Lincoln’s offer and took a commission in the Confederate Army. On the second day at Chickamauga, he was leading his “Orphans” into battle when he was mortally wounded—some historians think it was a bullet from a Union rifle, while others believe it to have been shrapnel from a cannonball. Helm lingered for several hours and died early the following day.

When word of Helm’s death reached the White House, President and Mrs. Lincoln went into private mourning. It has been said that Abraham Lincoln wept inconsolably.  However, it would be unseemly to see the President and First Lady visibly distraught over the death of a Confederate officer – even if he were a relative. The Civil War truly pitted brother against brother and brought grief even to the most highly placed of families.

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