- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

One hundred forty-two years ago, on a small hill located on a horseshoe-shaped ridge in northern Georgia a few miles west of Chickamauga Creek, Union Gen. George H. Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, and thousands of courageous troops withstood repeated Confederate attacks in a desperate effort that enabled the defeated Union Army of the Cumberland to regroup across the Tennessee border into Chattanooga to fight another day.

The fighting on Sept. 20, 1863, at Snodgrass Hill was the culmination of a two-day battle that resulted in more than 34,000 casualties. It was the bloodiest two-day battle of the American Civil War. Only at Gettysburg, which was fought two months earlier over the course of three days, did more men fall than at Chickamauga. The battle lived up to its name: Chickamauga is an Indian word that means “river of death.”

The ferocious battle pitted about 65,000 Union troops under the command of Gen. William Rosecrans against a Confederate force of slightly greater size led by Gen. Braxton Bragg.

The two Western armies had clashed previously at Shiloh in April 1862; at Perryville, Ky., in October 1862; and had fought to a draw nine months earlier at Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tenn., where casualties totaled nearly 25,000 men.

The armies were fighting for control of eastern Tennessee, an area that President Lincoln believed was crucial to an eventual Union victory. Two months earlier, Vicksburg had fallen, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River, and Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North had been halted at Gettysburg. If Union forces could take control of eastern Tennessee, the way would be open for a pincerlike attack on the heart of the Confederacy from the west and the north.

The battle was fought largely in an area west of Chickamauga Creek along the Lafayette Road a few miles from Rossville, Ga. Historian John Bowers described the battlefield as mostly “an expanse of dark forest, with here and there a small reprieve of glades and clearings.” The underbrush, Mr. Bowers wrote, “was thick and dense — like jungle growth.”

Today, the well-preserved battlefield (part of the National Park Service’s Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park) looks much the same.

During the first day, fighting raged along this front as furious Confederate attacks pushed much of the Union Army across Lafayette Road.

“Before long,” Mr. Bowers explains, “there was hardly any separation between the enemies. They formed one great maelstrom of fighting humanity. When there was no room to fire, they went at each other with gun butts and bayonets. If all else failed, they threw their hands around each other’s throats.”

The Union line wavered, but it did not break that first day.

The Confederates renewed their attack the next morning, Sept. 20, jumping off shortly after 9:30, which was later than planned.

At first, the fighting repeated the pattern of the previous day — Confederate attacks along Lafayette Road met by stiffening Union resistance. Toward midday, however, the fog of war resulted in a nearly catastrophic Union mistake.

In an effort to plug a nonexistent gap in the Union line, Rosecrans ordered Maj. Gen. Thomas Wood’s division to redeploy, thereby creating a real gap in the line near the Union center on Brotherton Field. Before that gap could be filled, five Confederate divisions led by Gen. James Longstreet poured through, causing widespread panic among Union troops.

The bulk of the Union Army, including Rosecrans and several other Union generals, fled toward Chattanooga. The Army of the Cumberland faced destruction.

On the Union left, however, George Thomas and his troops held their ground on Snodgrass Hill and, with the help of reinforcements from Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s corps, prevented the rout of the Union Army. Thomas and his men turned back as many as 25 separate charges against Snodgrass Hill, which rises gradually in some parts and more steeply in others.

One correspondent, explaining Thomas’ role in this desperate effort, wrote, “One of those crises had now arrived, rare in the history of any country, where the personal character and power of an individual become of incalculable value to the general welfare.”

At dusk, the remaining Union troops conducted an orderly retreat toward Chattanooga. Thomas and his troops saved the Army of the Cumberland, and for this magnificent stand, Thomas was known thereafter as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”

The Confederates controlled the field at Chickamauga, but they did not destroy the Army of the Cumberland. Two months later, the two armies again clashed at Chattanooga, where Union troops under the command of George Thomas stormed the seemingly impregnable Missionary Ridge, seized control of the city, and opened the “gateway to the east.”

Francis P. Sempa is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century.”

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