The Rock Of Chickamauga

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The high commands of both sides attempted to bring a measure of professionalism to the tangled situation. The South installed Maj. Gen. George Bibb Crittenden, a West Point graduate, over Zollicoffer, and the North brought in Thomas as strike-force commander. Crittenden had the harder job. Zollicoffer was as prickly as he was incompetent. He disobeyed Crittenden’s order to use the Cumberland as a shield and placed his troops between Thomas and the river. It was no place for a battle, but rather than risk trying to get back across the Cumberland, Crittenden decided to make a fight of it. He took his soldiers on a night march through heavy rain, hoping to surprise Thomas in his camp. It was a daring plan, and it might well have worked against a less careful adversary. But Thomas had put out an elaborate trip-wire alert system. He had picket companies patrolling the area a mile in front of his main force and mounted sentinels three-quarters of a mile in front of the pickets.

Thomas told Grant he didn’t know who ordered the charge; Granger said “when those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”

The Battle of Mill Springs, also known as Fishing Creek and Logan’s Crossroads, began around dawn on January 19, when advance Confederate units struck at Thomas’s pickets. The Union men fell back to a solid defensive line, and as Zollicoffer’s brigade tried to sort itself out, Thomas hit hard on the flank. The Rebel line trembled, broke, and ran. Thomas kept after the Confederates for almost eight miles. By sundown Crittenden’s army of four thousand men had melted away.

In tearing open the first gap in the Confederacy’s western flank, Thomas demonstrated the command style that would carry him through the rest of the war. No one likes surprises on a battlefield, and Thomas did what he could to see there were as few as possible. He briefed his officers carefully so they would know what was expected of them. He saw to it that pickets were out in good order, and he stayed on the field so the men could see him. Thus Thomas exhibited three of the qualities in an officer most prized by the troops: He communicated well with them, he was careful about their safety, and he was there.

Unfortunately, Thomas was not always as popular with his peers and superior officers. He arrived at Shiloh too late to do anything but provide burial details, but he did manage to get into one of the many disputes over rank that blighted his career. Thomas was not much concerned with the trappings of high position. He often was a uniform behind and wore his colonel’s coat for five months after making general. He was acutely sensitive, however, to the proprieties of rank. He complained vigorously when he received a lower commission than he felt he had earned, and twice he refused to accept higher ones he thought inappropriate. Gen. Henry Halleck, who was trying to squeeze out Grant, shoved the victor of Shiloh aside and gave command of his Army of the Mississippi to Thomas. Unwilling to be used as a source of embarrassment to a fellow officer, Thomas asked to be relieved and sent back to his Mill Springs division. It was a magnanimous gesture, but if Grant was grateful, he never said so.

This punctiliousness was bothersome to the high command, which was trying to get on with the war. Even Lincoln, normally the most solicitous of leaders, got snappish about Thomas. When Thomas complained that Rosecrans had been improperly promoted over him, Lincoln rewrote the date of Rosecrans’s commission, giving him seniority. Rank didn’t mean much at Chickamauga, but leadership counted for everything.

In the summer of 1863 Rosecrans, with Thomas as second-in-command, led the Army of the Cumberland into Tennessee. At first everything went off splendidly. Rosecrans deftly faked Braxton Bragg out of Chattanooga, seizing a vital stronghold in an almost bloodless campaign. Rosecrans could have regrouped his forces, but instead he committed the fundamental error of mistaking withdrawal for retreat. Convinced he had the Army of Tennessee on the run, Rosecrans plunged into the trap Bragg was setting for him. The kind of careful picket work Thomas had done at Mill Springs might have let Rosecrans know what he was getting into, but he pushed forward scarcely knowing where his own troops were. Bragg struck back a dozen miles south from Chattanooga, in the valley of Chickamauga Creek. Chickamauga was an old Cherokee word meaning “river of death,” and for two days the river lived up to its name as both sides lost nearly a third of their men.

It was, as were all fights in this snarled Tennessee country, an unruly business. Bad luck turned difficulty into disaster. A Union division pulled out of the line just as James Longstreet and his brigades, newly arrived from Gettysburg, hit. In a moment the Union right flank evaporated. No one likes to take a beating, but to find yourself in sudden and desperate danger during a campaign you thought you were winning is particularly dispiriting. The troops broke and headed for the rear, taking much of the high command with them. Rosecrans, a devout Roman Catholic, was seen crossing himself as he rode back to Chattanooga, where he had to be helped from his horse. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who was on the field, wrote to Washington, “Bull Run had nothing more terrible than the rout of these veteran troops.”

Longstreet was triumphant. “They have fought to the last man,” he said, “and he is running.”