Despite all of Bragg’s efforts to be the aggressor, the opening shots were fired by Federal troops. After fighting at Reed’s Bridge on September 18, Colonel Dan McCook, the 29-year-old brother of the Federal XX Corps commander, told General Thomas that an enemy brigade had crossed the creek. Early on the 19th Thomas ordered General Brannan, on the extreme left of the XIV Corps line, to attack the lone Confederate unit.

Brannan sent the brigade of Colonel John T. Croxton in the direction of the bridge. On the way, about 8 a.m., Croxton’s men encountered Nathan Forrest’s Confederate cavalry and opened fire. Thus began the Battle of Chickamauga. Croxton was driving Forrest back toward the creek when a division of Walker’s corps, under Brigadier General States Rights Gist – a 32-year-old South Carolinian whose name reflected his father’s secessionist ideology – smashed into the astonished Federals with terrific force. Despite his mortal peril, Croxton retained his sense of humor and sent a wry message back to Thomas: Which Rebel brigade was he supposed to capture?

Brannan hurried the rest of his division to the assistance of Croxton and was soon heavily engaged with Gist’s Confederates. It quickly became apparent that there were more Confederates than a Federal division, let alone a single brigade, could handle. “The enemy bore down upon Brannan like a mountain torrent,” wrote the correspondent of the Chicago Journal, “sweeping away a brigade as if it had been driftwood.”

Thomas rushed up Baird’s division, and the Federal lines steadied. Walker there-upon countered with another Confederate division, led by Brigadier General St. John Liddell. Again the Confederates drove the Federals from their lines, pushing Brannan and Baird all the way back to their starting point. Among Liddell’s trophies were five of the six guns in Lieutenant George Van Pelt’s 1st Michigan Battery. When his infantry support gave way Van Pelt had stood fast, pouring 64 rounds of canister into the charging ranks of the 8th Arkansas. But the onslaught was overwhelming; Van Pelt was killed and his battery captured.

As the Federal troops gave ground, Thomas called on Rosecrans for help. Negley and Reynolds had not yet arrived, and Thomas missed them sorely. Rosecrans immediately sent General Richard Johnson’s division from Alexander McCook’s corps. As these fresh troops advanced they met a large body of Federal soldiers falling back. The newcomers coolly broke formation by companies “to let the retreating crowds pass through,” in the words of one officer, then re-formed and continued their march. In a moment they were in the midst of the seesaw melee. Now it was the Confederates’ turn to retreat. Walker called for help, and soon Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s division was marching to his support.

The battle, stoked steadily by reinforcements, increased in fury, and the din became unearthly. One of Forrest’s cavalry officers, Colonel Thomas Berry, recorded his impressions: “Neighing horses, wild and frightened, were running in every direction; whistling, seething, crackling bullets, the piercing, screaming fragments of shells, the whirring sound of shrapnel and the savage shower of canister, mingled with the fierce answering yells of defiance, all united in one horrible sound.”

All day General Hood had waited for orders, listening impatiently to the sounds of battle around him. At last, shortly after 4 p.m., he took matters into his own hands. He aligned a division under Brigadier General Evander Law beside that of Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson and launched both divisions in an attack against the Federal right. As his fresh troops marched crisply past Stewart’s ragged, exhausted soldiers there was an exchange of banter, and a soldier from Hood’s Texas Brigade called out a taunt: “Rise up, Tennesseans, and see the Texans go in!”

Hood’s attack struck the division of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis. In all the shifting of Federal units, Davis’ two brigades had been left with both flanks unprotected; and as the Confederates descended on his division with blood-curdling yells, the regiments gave way from left to right. Last to collapse was the brigade commanded by Norwegian-born Colonel Hans Christian Heg. “Bullets tore through the ranks,” an Ohio newspaperman recalled; “grape and canister whistled among the brave men who stood their ground, not yielding an inch.” Heg was fatally wounded, and 696 of his men were killed, wounded or captured before the embattled brigade fell back. For a moment there seemed to be a real possibility of a Federal rout. Hood’s and Johnson’s soldiers, fighting their way forward inexorably, approached so close to Rosecrans’ headquarters that those inside had to shout to make themselves heard over the roar of battle.

Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood rushed his Federal division into the gap on Davis’ right – and now Hood’s flank was threatened in its turn. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, deployed on Thomas’ right, was in the thick of things as usual. Eli Lilly’s artillery galloped forward, set up its guns in a cornfield and let fly at Johnson’s left flank. Many of the Confederates had taken shelter in a ditch along the La Fayette road, and the Federal guns enfiladed the position. Within minutes, recalled a gunner, “the ditch was literally full of dead and wounded.” The carnage was so great that Wilder quailed. “At this point,” he later said, “it actually seemed a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps, and I had it in my heart to order the firing to cease, to end the awful sight.”

By late afternoon every Federal division but two had been engaged in the battle. One was Brigadier General James B. Steedman’s division of Granger’s Reserve Corps, which had been stationed all day far to the north near Rossville, guarding the approaches to Chattanooga. The other, commanded by General Philip Sheridan, now made a timely entry, filing into position next to Wilder to attack. As Sheridan rode up to Wilder, he was preceded by a cluster of pompous staff officers crying out, “Make way for Sheridan! Make way for Sheridan!” Almost immediately, Sheridan launched a fresh assault. Minutes later, repelled in sharp fighting, his men came running back across the road. Whereupon Wilder’s troops, in high amusement, called out: “Make way for Sheridan!”

It was growing late. The day had been a long, arduous, confused and bloody one for both armies. As the sun set, George Thomas began making new dispositions in preparation for the next morning. Most of his men thought the fighting was finished for a while: Darkness was beginning to fall, and night attacks were rare. But Thomas warned his division commanders to stay alert.

In fact, on the other side of the creek, General Patrick Cleburne’s division was toiling northward, having started opposite Lee and Gordon’s Mill in mid-afternoon. As twilight approached, Cleburne’s men forded the icy stream in water armpit-deep and, having passed through Walker’s lines after sunset, suddenly descended on Thomas.

The day ended as it had begun, in a horrible cacophony. There was “one solid, unbroken wave of awe-inspiring sound,” a soldier of the 18th Alabama said. “It seemed as if all the fires of earth and hell had been turned loose in one mighty effort to destroy each other.” Cleburne had drilled his men relentlessly, and his division lived up to its reputation as the fastest-firing in Bragg’s army.

“Confederate artillery,” wrote Federal Captain Ebenezer Wells, “filled the woods with their shells, which in the twilight made the skies seem like a firmament of pestilential stars. The 77th Pennsylvania of the first line was lapped up like a drop of oil under a flame.”

Screaming the Rebel yell, Cleburne’s men rolled irresistibly forward. In hand-to-hand fighting they took three guns, captured nearly 300 prisoners and gained a mile of ground. They did not stop until it became too dark to see what they were doing. Then at last the firing died away. Cleburne and his soldiers lay down for the night where they were, among the dead and wounded.

It was a night that no one there forgot. The weather had turned bitter cold, and the soldiers of both sides had to sleep on the ground. Most of the troops had no warm clothing or blankets, Cleburne’s men were still wet from their immersion in the creek – and all went without fires, which would have made tempting targets. The steady roar of musketry had ended, but no silence descended over the field. “All through the night,” recalled a soldier of the 60th Alabama, “a sharp fire was kept up between the pickets, and, ever and anon, the booming of a cannon, startling us in our troubled slumber, reminded of the carnage of the past day and the coming horrors of tomorrow.”

Article source: Time-Life Books, Civil War Series

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Next: Day 2 – Text only Day2 September 20, 1863.