This Hallowed Ground

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There could be, in the fall of 1863, one more hard blow. The fabric of the Confederacy was beginning to wear very thin—Mississippi Valley gone forever, everything west of the river cut off, most of Tennessee lost, blockade tighter than ever, drain on manpower and material resources getting progressively greater; it was hardly possible now to keep from seeing what the final verdict was going to be. But it was not yet settled. Strength remained, and hope, and the determination that could command a final supreme effort. That effort would be made now, and it would be entrusted to that fate-haunted soldier, General Braxton Bragg.

Bragg was concentrating his army near Lafayette, Georgia, two or three days’ march south of Chattanooga. He was being strongly reinforced. Buckner was coming down from Knoxville with 6,000 men. This left eastern Tennessee undefended—Burnside marched into Knoxville with a small army before August was over—but there was no help for it. Other reinforcements were coming up from Mississippi. Most important of all, James Longstreet and a good part of his army corps were coming down from Virginia.

When all of these troops reached him, Bragg would command close to 70,000 men. For once in the war, the Confederacy would go into battle with the numerical odds in its favor. Furthermore, Rosecrans was playing directly into Bragg’s hands just now. He was coming over the mountains into Georgia with his troops widely scattered, fairly inviting a ruinous counterblow.

Up to the moment when he occupied Chattanooga Rosecrans had done extremely well. He had maneuvered Bragg clear out of Tennessee with very little fighting, his Army of the Cumberland was exultant, and if he had pulled it all together and caught his breath before trying to go on all would have been well. But old Rosy had suddenly lost his caution. Perhaps his advance had been too successful. He seems to have become convinced that the Confederates were in a panicky retreat that would go on and on for many days, and all he could think of now was a headlong chase that would cut them off.

Part of his trouble was due to geography. The mountains that slant southwest from the Tennessee River near Chattanooga are immense ridges which run down across the northwest corner of Georgia and continue far into Alabama, and there are not many places where an army can cross them. The most substantial of the lot, Lookout Mountain, is 100 miles long, and in 1863 its feasible crossings were widely separated. The road to Chattanooga from the west followed the valley of the Tennessee, clinging to a narrow shelf between river and mountain just before it reached the city; the next pass was twenty miles south, and the next one was twenty miles south of that. To bring all of his army up around the tip of Lookout Mountain would delay Rosecrans much more than his optimistic ardor would permit. It seemed better to have General George Thomas and General Alexander McCook take their corps across the mountain by the more distant passes and fall on such Confederate troops as they might find after they had crossed. Crittenden, meanwhile, could march down from Chattanooga east of the mountains, following the valley of Chickamauga Creek, and the whole army could reassemble at its convenience somewhere in northern Georgia.

Bragg had concentrated, and he was waiting east of the mountains. Now the game was going his way. The pieces of the Army of the Cumberland were moving straight toward him, so widely separated that no Union corps could come to the rescue of another in case of trouble.

Bragg’s plan—when it finally took shape—was simple. He proposed to strike the Union left flank, driving the Army of the Cumberland away from Chattanooga—which was its only possible base of supplies and means of contact with the North—and penning it up in a tangle of dead-end mountain valleys where it could be destroyed. It was a perfectly good plan, and if it had been put into operation 24 hours earlier there would have been a Union disaster of the first magnitude. As it was, Bragg’s troops did not open their offensive until September 18, and it was the next morning before the battle actually began. Rosecrans had been given just time enough to escape annihilation.

He had brought the Army of the Cumberland together in a stretch of comparatively level, heavily wooded country a dozen miles south of Chattanooga. To the east ran Chickamauga Creek, with the Rebels somewhere on the far side of it, and with blue and gray skirmishers contending for possession of the fords and bridges. Off to the west loomed the endless blue mass of Lookout Mountain; and to the north, cutting the army off from the city, was the steep rampart of Missionary Ridge, a somewhat lower height which ran parallel to Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga in the valley between. There was a gap in Missionary Ridge, at Rossville, and the road from Chattanooga came down through this gap and ran through the center of the army’s area of concentration. This road and the Rossville Gap the army must hold at all costs; to lose it would be to invite outright destruction.

The army occupied a line nearly six miles long, facing to the east. Thomas held the left, looking toward the river crossings from which the main Confederate attack was likely to come, and the fighting began a little after dawn on September 19.