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This Hallowed Ground
AN EXCERPT FROM A NEW BOOK WHICH TELLS HOW THE CIVIL WAR CAME TO ITS TERRIBLE, HAUNTING CONCLUSION
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
It was a bitter, confused fight, waged gallantly by armies whose commanders were not quite sure where their opponents really were. Bragg sent troops in on what he thought was the Federal left, but Thomas had posted his corps farther north than the Confederates supposed, and as the Southern advance came groping up through the dark woodland, feeling for the exposed flank, he sent a division in and flanked this advance and broke it. More Confederates came up, and the victorious Federal division was flanked and routed in its turn. As the day wore on this fight for the Union left became the battle, drawing in more and more elements from both armies.
As the pressure increased, more and more of the Army of the Cumberland was sent to help Thomas—a full division from Crittenden’s corps, and another from McCook’s—and although the Confederates gained ground step by step they took a fearful mauling while they were doing it. When night came, every unit in the Federal army had been in action. They had given ground, but they still held a great crescent covering the Chattanooga road. Most of the fighting had been on Thomas’ front, and by dusk he had nearly two thirds of the Army of the Cumberland under his control.
The night was unspeakably gloomy—a fever-ridden dream, with lost regiments and brigades moving in and out under the thick of the woodland shadows, hunting new positions as the sluggish mechanism of the high command tried to pull the troops back to a stronger line. By turns the forest was silent with midnight blackness, and aflame with the flaring lights of the guns, and confused with shattering sound; men felt an unutterable gloom, as they tramped along overgrown lanes in the wood, moving from blinding darkness into a dancing play of lights caused by “a display of fireworks that one does not care to see more than once in a lifetime.” Nothing had been settled; tomorrow would be worse than today had been; the Rebels were in full strength, and somewhere, somehow, in this vast area of woodland and lost pastures, the showdown would come with the dawn.
Dawn came in foggy, and through the mist and smoke the sun looked red and ominous. Bragg still clung to his original idea: knock loose the Federal left, and drive the Union army back into the blind valleys from which it cannot escape. Rosecrans had caught on, and he visited Thomas that night and told him to hang on at all costs; and when morning came and the Rebels’ attacks were renewed, all of the reserves of the Army of the Cumberland shifted over to meet the assault. The Confederates drove their charge home, and stolid old Pap Thomas—born and made for moments of defensive crisis like this—notified Rosecrans that he would need help. Rosecrans detached a division from his right, where it did not seem that anything especial was going to happen; the division managed to go astray, en route to Thomas, and went wandering off in the back area somewhere, and Thomas sent word again for help. Nobody knew that the lost division had not reached him, and nervous Rosecrans concluded that he had all of the Confederacy crowding in on his left, and sent more troops.
This led to disaster. Bragg had received one enormous asset; James Longstreet, in person, had arrived on the scene, had been given full command of the whole left wing of the Confederate army, and had been instructed to strike Rosecrans’ right as soon as the fight at the other end of the line was well under way. Longstreet was a man who liked to take his own time getting everything ready before he fought, and he had had precious little time here; but he adapted himself, this once, and while Rosecrans was shifting force to the left, Longstreet was lining up half of the Confederate army to hit him on the right. Somewhere around noon, just as the battle on Thomas’ front was flaming and crashing through all the woods and ravines, Longstreet massed his brigades and sent them in with a massive, all-out punch.
Luck took a hand here: pure, unadulterated chance, which steps in now and then to make a fine hash out of the careful plans of harassed generals.
A little to the right of the center of his line, Rosecrans had a solid division under the command of Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood—an old regular from Kentucky, solid and dependable, with a first-rate combat record. Wood had his men in an open field covering one of the lower stretches of the Chattanooga road, half a mile to the south of the sector where Thomas was fighting. The skirmishers along his front were active enough, but nothing of any importance seemed to be happening, and the dense woods a few hundred yards in his front concealed the fact that Longstreet had piled up an avalanche which was just beginning to slide forward. Far back at headquarters, Rosecrans got word that a division on Thomas’ right needed help. Through some mix-up, he got the idea that Wood was the next man in line; and off to Wood, pelting through the underbrush with the dispatch gripped in his teeth, went a blameless staff officer, carrying to Wood instructions to “close up on Reynolds [the commander of the division which was in trouble] and support him.”