This Hallowed Ground

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Far to the rear, that part of the army that had been routed war, piling back through Rossville Gap for Chattanooga. It was in complete confusion, a hopelessly disorganized mob. Rosecrans and his officers had ridden about, waving swords and shouting, trying to restore order, but nothing had worked. The formless column was simply streaming north toward safety, and nothing could be done with it. Old Rosy himself gave up, at last, and rode along with the column, silent, abstracted, seeming to hear and see nothing. As far as he could tell, the entire battle was lost; Thomas was out of sight, to the east, probably undergoing destruction, and the only thing that mattered now was to get the survivors into Chattanooga and prepare for a last desperate stand. Once again the Confederates had completely defeated a Union general.

But they had not quite beaten Pap Thomas, or Pap Thomas’ men, and—in a measure—these saved the day. They hung on until close to sunset, saving the army; and when Thomas finally ordered a withdrawal, and his exhausted brigades began to pull out of line and move back toward the Gap and Chattanooga, the Confederates were too fought-out to pursue. Bragg himself was not much more alert than Rosecrans was. Commanders like Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest urged a smashing pursuit—these Yanks are on the run; pile in after them and never give them a chance for a breather; we can crush the whole army if we keep at it—but Bragg had grown listless. His losses had been appalling, the day had been too much for him—and he went to bed, at last, not quite certain whether he had won a great victory or narrowly avoided a humiliating defeat.

In the haunted woodland full night came down on. a gloomy timberland where lay more than 30,000 dead or wounded men. And on the winding road through the Rossville Gap the rear guard of the Army of the Cumberland gloomily plodded on toward Chattanooga. The last stand along Thomas’ line had been very fine, and in later years the men would take enormous pride in it, but right now they felt shame and disgrace; they had held on gallantly and they had prevented complete disaster but still they had been licked and now they were in full retreat. They marched in silence, and one soldier remembered: “While not a word was said, all knew that we were whipped and were retreating from the field. This was new medicine to us … it was bitter, and did not go down well.”

There was no way out and there was no way in. Chattanooga lay at the end of the passage. Eastward there was nothing at all, except for General Burnside and the 15,000 men with whom he had occupied Knoxville, and these people were 150 miles away, utterly unable to do anything except collect cattle and forage from the east Tennessee countryside and wonder how long the Confederates would let them stay there. To the north there was a barren wasteland of mountains which neither man nor beast could cross unless somebody carried food for the journey. To the south there was Bragg’s army, its campfires glittering at night all along the high rampart of Missionary Ridge, crossing the open plain and extending across to Lookout Mountain. And to the west——

To the west ran the road to the outer world, the road to food and reinforcements and the infinite strength of the Federal government, a road which might have wound across the mountains of the moon for all the use the Army of the Cumberland could make of it.

Lookout Mountain shouldered its way clear to the bank of the Tennessee River, with a highway and a railroad clinging to the slopes of its northern extremity; and armed Confederates lived on top of this mountain, so close that if they chose they might almost have tossed rocks in the river and on the highway and the railroad. Not so much as a case of hardtack, a side of bacon, or a bale of hay could get into Chattanooga for the use of the Army of the Cumberland unless these Confederates consented, and they had drawn their lines on top of Lookout Mountain for the express purpose of withholding their consent. Rosecrans’ army was besieged, and if it had escaped destruction at Chickamauga the chances now seemed quite good that it would presently die of simple starvation in Chattanooga.

Downstream from Chattanooga, 25 or 30 miles away, there was the town of Bridgeport. The Memphis and Charleston railway ran through Bridgeport, and from their great supply base at Nashville the Federals could bring any quantity of supplies to Bridgeport. The trouble was that the Confederates controlled the Chattanooga end of the route. If an army quartermaster at Bridgeport tried to get around this roadblock he would have to make a sixty-mile detour, sending his wagon trains north of the river through the almost impassable mountain country. This had been tried, over and over, and the northern road was marked every rod of the way by the bodies of dead horses and the wreckage of broken wagons, but it did not do any good; no wagon train that went this way could carry very much except the forage which its own animals had to eat in order to make the trip.

Yet there was no serious grumbling. The men were depressed because they had lost a battle, but they seem to have accepted the scarcity of food without complaint, confident that sooner or later somebody would do something about it. The Confederates made no hostile moves; felt, apparently, that none were called for, since these Yankees would inevitably be starved into submission before much longer.