Friday, September 27, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXII: Chickamauga


"Of a truth, the gods do not give the same man everything: you know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, but you do not know how to make use of it." -- Maharbal

In fairness to most commanders in the first two years of active fighting in the Civil War, the levels of casualties were so far above what any of them had come to expect that no one knew how to handle them. No one knew how to tell an army that had just suffered over ten thousand casualties to follow up a hard-fought victory with a vigorous pursuit. So it was that even though the Confederacy reeled from the one-two punch of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, so also the Federal army reeled from the effort expended. So, the following months were spent on a go-slow basis, while the victors consolidated, and decided what to do next. In the East, the answer was, "not much". There would be a few inconclusive skirmishes, but no major movements for the remainder of the year. The East was so quiet, in fact, that President Davis was able to detach some forces from the Army of Northern Virginia under General Longstreet to go help out with the deteriorating situation in the West.

In the West, Grant was looking for a doorway into the heart of the Confederacy. Part One of the Anaconda Plan was complete: the Confederacy was cut in two and utterly isolated. Next ... well, the original plan was to sit tight and let them starve. That didn't sit right with Grant. What he really wanted was to put an army on the South's doorstep. Chattanooga seemed a likely place to do just that.

He sent General Rosecrans out to do the deed. To his credit, Rosecrans didn't try to charge right up the middle. He began shelling the city on August 21st, but that was mostly to keep the Confederate commander, General Bragg, from realizing what he was really up to: putting a large number of Federal troops across the river, off to the southwest. By the time Bragg caught wise, he was already well and truly screwed. To his credit, Bragg decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and abandoned the city. Thus ended the Second Battle of Chattanooga. There were casualties, although no one's entirely sure how many. Probably not a whole lot, on either side.

Rosecrans decided that he might as well strike while the iron was hot. He was probably never going to get as good a chance to pursue and destroy Bragg's army as he had right at this moment, having just recently run his army out of Chattanooga.

It was more or less at this point that Bragg's reinforcements showed up.

This presented Bragg, and the Confederacy, with what was (for them) a very unusual situation: they had a numerical advantage over a Federal army. I'm not sure it had ever happened before, or would ever happen since. One of the implications of the Tale of the Tape was always that the Union had men and to spare, while the Confederacy would always have manpower problems. But here, thanks to President Davis' temporary detachment of Longstreet, Bragg had the upper hand, if only temporarily. He had a narrow window of opportunity within which to exploit that advantage.

At Chickamauga, he'd have his chance.

Rosecrans had come south out of Chattanooga, across the Tennessee River, looking for Bragg's army. Skirmishers met on September 18th, and the main forces clashed on the 19th. The details of the first day's fighting aren't especially important. It's the same story that's become so dreadfully familiar: the first force on the field stakes out a defensive position, the second attempts to overcome it, and fails with appalling casualties. We've seen it so many times before that it scarcely merits mention. No, the interesting things happened on the second day.

Because on the second day, the Union blundered.

The dispositions of the Union's right flank were mishandled, leaving several gaps in the lines. Longstreet was in command of the Confederate left, immediately opposite, and remembering Gettysburg, asked himself, "Now where have I seen this before?" Remembering Dan Sickles and the goat-rope all in and around the Devil's Den, Longstreet may well have said to himself, "Oh no, you don't. Not again. Not this time." Here, the ground wasn't playing tricks on his lines of sight. Here, he could see plainly was was before him. Here, he'd make those damn Yankees pay.

The Union right flank folded up like a cheap suit. Rosecrans himself folded up with it, utterly demoralized. That might have been the beginning of a disastrous rout, except for the fact that the Union right was able to redeploy and reform so as to form a new right flank. General George Thomas was able to take command of what was left of the Army of the Cumberland, organize a defense, and hold his position until nightfall, when he was able to withdraw and rejoin the retreating troops. This skillful rear-guard action earned Thomas the name, "Rock of Chickamauga." With Rosecrans so totally demoralized, and discredited, Thomas would now assume command of the Army of the Cumberland.

Now, Bragg had a choice. The choice was, pursue Rosecrans and try to beat him back to Chattanooga, or reorganize his army. He chose the latter. Some have vilified him for that. I'm beginning to wonder if that's fair. Bragg would have had some pretty serious problems trying to pursue Rosecrans. For one, he charged into the battle so fast that his troops left their supply wagons behind. For another, Rosecrans had retreated across the Tennessee River, which was now an obstacle for Bragg, and Bragg had no pontoon bridges. Or boats, for that matter; Rosecrans' men took them all. All that was left for Bragg to do was to lay siege to Chattanooga. He did still enjoy a numerical advantage, after all.

It wouldn't last:

Gen. Thomas -- 
Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible.
                                                                           -- Gen. Grant

This telegram was all Thomas needed to see. Grant was coming. With him, enough and more than enough manpower to break Bragg's siege. He'd hang on until Judgment Day, or until he starved, whichever came first ... although he expected Grant to arrive well before either of those happened.

Grant would not disappoint.

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