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The Battle of Chickamauga

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Several pivotal Civil war battlefields lie in close proximity to each other--Battle of Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. These sites make up the very first National Military Park. All are 20 miles or less of Chattanooga, TN, a key strategic point for both the Union and Rebel forces. During the winter and spring of 1862-1863, Union General Rosecrans had out-maneuvered the Confederate General Braxton Bragg and systematically pushed Bragg's troops out of Tennessee. In late summer Bragg's plans were to retake Chattanooga, a railroad hub and key to the mid-south through Georgia. Three large Confederate armies came together from great distances to amass a large force to retake the city. Bragg had concentrated his forces in La Fayette, GA, only 20 some miles south of Chattanooga. By September 17, Bragg had been reinforced by the Virginia division under the command of General John Bell Hood and the Mississippi division under Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson. This was the first time the Confederate forces had moved troops from one theatre to another for a strategic purpose.

The countryside to the east of Chattanooga is a series of mountain ridges running from northeast to southeast with valleys in between which are fairly rolling. At the time of the Civil War some of the land was cleared and cultivated and some was densely wooded. Several small farms were located in the valleys and some of the battle sites are named for the landowners, such as Snodgrass Hill. Chickamauga Creek turned and twisted through the valley east of Missionary Ridge and Pigeon Mountain. Along the creek the brush was thick and the ground was often swampy. The battle of Chickamauga took place over 7,000 acres as groups of troops encountered the enemy up and down the valley in some very difficult terrain. Before the battle began, Union troops were scattered over 40 miles of ground.

Rosecrans was not expecting to meet Confederate troops in battle. Bragg had withdrawn to La Fayette but Rosecrans mistook this for a retreat and a victory for the Union. Chattanooga was such an important strategic city that the Confederates wanted it back and the battles of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain both took place after Chickamauga in an attempt to take back the city.

From the 'History of the 115th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry" by Isaac Henry Clay Royce (published in 1900), "In the afternoon of the 18th of September Whitaker's brigade marched out Ringold Road with view of taking possession of Redhouse bridge over the Chickamauga if it could be done without bringing on a general engagement". After reaching Spring Creek, half a mile past McAfee church, the troops in advance were fired upon by Scott's brigade of Nathan Bedford Forest's cavalry, A line of skirmishers (scouts) from the 96th Illinois and another from Aleshire's battery drove the Confederates before them a half mile or more, losing only one man killed and three wounded. The Confederates withdrew and as night fell the 115th rested under arms until 4 a.m. and then quietly withdrew to McAfee church.

The following morning , September 19th, 1863, shortly before dawn Confederate General Braxton Bragg's soldiers began a series of aggressive attacks on the Union troops camped along the banks of Chickamauga Creek The intent was to force a wedge between the Federal troops and Chattanooga, only 10 miles to the northwest. The goal was to take possession of the Chattanooga and La Fayette (Georgia) road. The Confederates gained some ground but could not break the long Union line. Around 11 p.m. General Longstreet's division arrived, giving the Confederates greater advantage in number of troops (65,000 vs. 60,000 Union troops). When the battle commenced on the morning of September 20th Rebel troops began coordinated attacks on the Union left flank, closest to the prized roadway.

In the densely wooded Union line, Rosecrans, the commanding general, failed to see a division of troops and thought it was a gap in the line. He ordered Brigadier General Thomas Wood to move his troops to fill the gap. Wood knew there was no gap but he had been berated in front of his fellow officers earlier in the day for failing to move quickly enough and so he obeyed the orders he was given, creating a hole in the Union line. Confederate General Longstreet sent eight brigades in three lines through that gap. The federal troops were pushed off the field and began to retreat to McFarland's Gap, the only way back to Chattanooga.

Union commander George H. Thomas took command of scattered troops, belonging to several divisions who had not fled the field and consolidated them into a defensive position on Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill for a last stand. Confederate soldiers continued to assault them but the Union troops stood firm. Scores of men were killed and wounded in this attack. When these brave soldiers were almost at the breaking point they were reinforced by two brigades of the Union's reserve corps, including men from the Illinois 115th Infantry. These men were under the command of Maj. General Gordon Granger. They had been guarding a road , but when they entered the battle, they brought fire support and badly needed ammunition. Granger had shouted, "I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders!'. Thomas' men protected the bulk of the army withdrawing through McFarland's Gap and the original positions of the Union left. Thomas and his troops began to withdraw at darkness and the remaining men ran out of ammunition again. Granger was left in charge and issued the order to fix bayonets and charge. The remaining 563 men from the 21st and 89th Ohio and 22nd Michigan were captured. Thomas earned the title "The Rock of Chickamauga" for his role. Longstreet estimated he had ordered at least 25 separate assaults against Snodgrass Hill. The tenacious defense of Snodgrass Hill had earned the other retreating troops precious time.

Other heroes of the battle were Federal mounted cavalry troops called the "Lightning Brigade" from Illinois and Indiana under the charge of Col. John T. Wilder. With their Spencer repeating rifles they were able to delay a force many times their size. The Spencer rifle could get off 14 rounds per minute, a huge improvement from the other rifles of the Civil War. Chickamauga was a Confederate victory but Bragg failed to follow up strategically. He failed to secure Chattanooga or to destroy Rosecrans' army. Two months later the battle for Chattanooga would commence again. Chickamauga was the bloodiest battle of the western front with 16,000 Union men killed, wounded, captured or missing and 18, 454 Confederates killed, wounded captured or missing. Some divisions lost as much as 50% of their forces at this 2 day battle. Bragg lost 1/4 of his troops. The thick woods and swamps of Chickamauga Creek made clearly drawn battle lines impossible. The officers of both sides had a poor view of the battlefield and armies shifted positions frequently. This led to vicious close-quarters combat which was particularly deadly.

The Illinois 115th lost about half of its men at Snodgrass Hill. For its gallant conduct in that action it received special commendation of its commanding generals and was granted the honor carrying the division colors on the following day, as a mark of distinction. Company C of the 115th was made up of men chiefly from Wabash County. From the 115th Infantry Company Frederick Gadde of Edwards County died at Chickamauga. Thomas J. Freeman of Wabash County died at Chattanooga on October 16th of wounds likely incurred at Chickamauga and Wilbur F. Brown of Edwards County died at Chattanooga on October 14, 1863 of wounds also likely incurred at Chickamauga. William Frederick Schmidt and his close friend Christian Lipper, both from Evansville were in the battle of Chickamauga. William was saved by his comrade Christian who dragged him from the battlefield after he had been left for dead. These men later moved to Wabash County and raised large families. Edna Sickbert and Norman Schmidt are descendants of William Schmidt and Ted Bosecker is the descendant of Christian Lipper.

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