Day 2 September 20, 1863

A Confederate council the night of September 19 was less formal. Bragg met with Leonidas Polk and some others and announced with no forewarning that he was reorganizing his army yet again. There would now be two wings: The right, consisting of Polk’s, Hill’s and Walker’s corps, was to be commanded by Polk; the left, including Hood, Buckner, and Longstreet’s arriving forces, would be led by General Longstreet – who was rumored to be in the area but had not yet made it to headquarters. Hood found little enthusiasm among Bragg’s officers for the next day’s work. As he put it: “Not one spoke in a sanguine tone regarding the result of the battle in which we were then engaged.”

Longstreet had indeed arrived. He had stepped off his train at the depot in Ringgold at 2 p.m. and had been astonished and exasperated to discover that Bragg had sent no one to brief him – or even to tell him where to find the army’s commander.

For two hours Longstreet paced the platform of the little station, until his horse and his staff arrived on another train. Then, accompanied by two aides, he went to look for Bragg, who was a good 20 miles away. The men had no idea where to go; according to Colonel Moxley Sorrel, they “wandered by various roads and across small streams in the growing darkness of the Georgia forest,” following the racket of gunfire ahead. They traveled along the narrow roads amid ambulances, stragglers and the walking wounded coming in the opposite direction. At one point they almost blundered into the Federal lines and certain capture. Not until 11 p.m. on the evening of the 19th did Longstreet finally track down Bragg – “about whom by this time,” Sorrel later wrote icily, “some hard words were passing.” Bragg had gone to bed, but he quickly got up, and for an hour the two men talked.

Bragg’s strategy was exactly the same as before: Smash the Federal left and drive Rosecrans into the trap of McLemore’s Cove. Polk’s right wing would attack at daybreak; Longstreet would then follow suit. The attack was to be in echelon, with the division on the extreme right leading off, and each unit thereafter following the unit on its right into battle.

The orders for the complicated reorganization and attack deployed the corps commanded by D. H. Hill – General John Breckinridge’s and Cleburne’s divisions – on Polk’s far right. Polk notified the two division commanders of the new plans, which required Breckinridge to march from his position on the left flank all the way to the leadoff position on the extreme right. But Hill never got a copy of the orders. Polk assumed, he later said, that Bragg would pass it along.

The next morning near dawn, about the time the attack should have been starting, Hill finally learned from his division commanders of Bragg’s order for the assault. He then decided that his men must eat breakfast before they fought. He notified Polk, saying his forces would not be ready to attack for “an hour or more.”

“Hour after hour passed,” recalled Confederate Brigadier General Arthur Manigault, whose brigade was in General Longstreet’s line near the left flank. “Everything was as quiet as though no human being was within miles, not even a scattering picket shot. Various were the surmises as to the cause of the delay. Had the enemy retreated? Was the order of battle changed? Were we to await the enemy?”

In the meantime, Bragg was fuming as his disbelief mounted. At last he sent a staff officer to find out what was wrong. The officer returned to report that he had found Polk reading a newspaper and waiting for his breakfast. Bragg, according to one account, thereupon “uttered a terrible exclamation, in which Polk, Hill and all his generals were included.” Then he personally ordered the battle to begin.

“Just as we began to breathe freely and the intense suspense began to wear off,” wrote Manigault, “the report of a distant gun at the extreme right of our line sounded in our ears.” More cannon were heard, “and then in rapid succession the fire was taken up by half a dozen batteries on either side.” Next came the musketry, “gradually growing larger and increasing in volume as the engagement progressed from right to left.” The battle was under way – at 9:45 a.m.

Breckinridge’s three brigades led the assault on the Federal left; two of them drove around the end of Thomas’ position and smashed into Negley’s regiments, which were just arriving from farther south. Negley’s lead brigade, commanded by Brigadier General John Beatty, was forced back until it was behind the Federal left flank. One of Beatty’s regiments, the 88th Indiana, had to change front from north to south as the Confederates stormed in behind it.

One of Breckinridge’s brigades was led by Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law of Mary Lincoln, a graduate of West Point and Harvard, and a man much admired by the President. Most of Helm’s troops were Kentuckians. While the War lasted, these soldiers could never return to their Union-held state; they were therefore known as the Orphan Brigade.

The Orphans managed to advance to within 30 yards of Thomas’ lines, but the fighting was murderous. Private John Green of the 9th Kentucky said that the Orphans were “giving and taking death blows which could last but a few minutes without utter annihilation.” Indeed, men were falling all about him, including his regimental and company commanders. General Helm was mortally wounded by a bullet fired from the ranks of the Federal 15th Kentucky.

For a brief moment, Breckinridge’s division actually seized the road to Chattanooga, but it could not hold on. Beatty was meanwhile calling desperately for help. The other two brigades of Negley’s division never arrived, partly because Negley’s replacement in McCook’s front line, General Thomas J. Wood’s division, had not appeared. When Rosecrans discovered that Wood had failed to march his men forward from their position in reserve, he rushed to confront the division commander and lost his temper. “What is the meaning of this, sir?” Rosecrans shouted. “You have disobeyed my specific orders! By your damnable negligence you are endangering the safety of the entire army, and, by God, I will not tolerate it! Move your division at once, as I have instructed, or the consequences will not be pleasant for yourself!”

Although this blistering public rebuke must have been profoundly resented by Wood, he said nothing and quickly moved his division into position, freeing Negley’s remaining troops.

The attack by Breckinridge had been followed by that of the next Confederate division in line, under General Cleburne. As Cleburne’s men forged ahead through a pine forest they were suddenly confronted by a line of Federals sheltered behind a formidable log breastwork. The Confederate line was staggered by volleys of musketry and deadly salvos of canister. One of Cleburne’s brigade commanders, General James Deshler, was struck in the chest by a shell and his heart was torn from his body. Unable to break the Federal line, the Confederated took shelter behind the trees and blazed away at the defenders.

As Cleburne’s assault ground to a stop, General Polk committed Walker’s and Cheatham’s division. Once again the Confederate troops charged toward those forbidding log breastworks. Once again they were thrown back with heavy losses.

Thomas’ messages asking for reinforcement were practically continuous now, and Rosecrans was pulling units away from the right flank of his line and sending them to Thomas as fast as he could free them.

Then, about 10:30 a.m., one of Thomas’ staff officers, Captain Sanford Kellogg, returned from Rosecrans’ headquarters with alarming news: Passing along the Federal lines, he had noted a gap near the center, presumably at a point where a division had been pulled out to help Thomas. Whatever the reason, there was a hole, he told Thomas, between the division of General Wood and the division to the north under Reynolds. Thomas immediately notified Rosecrans – and Rosecrans reacted instantly with an urgent message to Wood: “The general commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him.”

Wood was puzzled. He knew that there was no gap: The division of General Brannan was between Wood and Reynolds, although drawn back into the forest, where it apparently had been invisible to Captain Kellogg. Nevertheless, Wood was reluctant to invite another dressing down for not obeying Rosecrans’ commands. He began to move his division behind Brannan to join Reynolds.

Around 11:30 a.m. Rosecrans ordered Davis forward from his position in reserve to the south to take Wood’s place. At the same time two of Sheridan’s brigades, in the line to the right of Wood, were sent north to support Thomas. Now two Federal divisions and part of a third were in sidelong motion, and there was a quarter-mile gap in the center of the line where Wood had been. At that moment, entirely by chance, James Longstreet unleashed three divisions – Hood’s and Johnson’s abreast, Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw’s behind – directly into the Federal gap. As the juggernaut of 23,000 troops stormed across the La Fayette road and through the fields of the Brotherton farm, stark panic struck the Federal right.

Bushrod Johnson, in the vanguard of the Confederate attack, later issued an official report that fairly glowed with exultation: “The scene now presented was unspeakably grand. The resolute and impetuous charge, the rush of our heavy columns sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest and into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the onward dash of artillery and mounted men, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke, the noise of firearms – of whistling balls and grapeshot and of bursting shell – made up a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur.” Despite heavy losses, Johnson’s right-flank brigade under General Evander McNair surged toward two batteries of Federal artillery. The gunners fired round after round into the gray tide and, as the Confederates swarmed over their cannon, fought hand to hand. In desperation some artillerymen hurled grapeshot and shells with their bare hands.

Just as Johnson’s men paused in a clearing near the Dyer farm to catch their breath, Hood rode up, his left arm still in a sling from the wounding at Gettysburg. “Go ahead,” he ordered Johnson, “and keep ahead of everything.” Johnson got his troops to their feet once again. “With a shout along my entire front,” Hood recorded, “the Confederates rushed forward, penetrated into the woods, over and beyond the enemy’s breastworks, and thus achieved another glorious victory for our arms.”

Suddenly a brigade of Federals counterattacked, and Hood himself was shot – “pierced,” he wrote, “with a Minie ball in the upper third of the right leg.” He toppled off his horse and was caught by Texans of his old brigade. As Confederate reserves came into action, Hood was tenderly borne to the rear, where the broken leg was amputated.

On Hood’s left, Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s division was likewise gaining ground. In minutes the first Federal line, Jefferson Davis’ division, was shattered and fleeing in panic. The fugitives plowed into the ranks of the second line, Sheridan’s division, throwing those troops into disorder. Soon the better part of McCook’s corps was streaming rearward, toward Rosecrans’ headquarters at the Glenn house.

The only one of McCook’s units to offer resistance was a brigade commanded by Brigadier General William H. Lytle, a popular author and poet who had become a hard-fighting and capable commander. Lytle halted on a hill just north of the Glenn house, telling his officers that the brigade “would die in their tracks, with their harness on.” Then, as Hindman’s Confederates surged toward the front and both flanks, Lytle decided on a desperate stratagem. Spurring his horse to the front of the Federal line, he shouted to his outnumbered command, “All right, men, we can die but once. This is the time and place. Let us charge.”

The hopeless attack was shattered almost immediately. Lytle was shot in the spine but continued to ride among his men until three more bullets knocked him to the ground. With their commander dying, the survivors joined the stampede for the rear.

At Rosecrans’ headquarters, Charles Dana, who had been awake for much of the previous two nights, had stretched out on the grass and gone to sleep. At the onset of Longstreet’s attack, Dana recalled, “I was awakened by the most infernal noise I ever heard. I sat up on the grass, and the first thing I saw was General Rosecrans crossing himself – he was a very devout Catholic. ‘Hello!’ I said to myself, ‘if the general is crossing himself, we are in a desperate situation.'”

Dana leaped on his horse. “I had no sooner collected my thoughts and looked around toward the front, where all this din came from, than I saw our lines break and melt away like leaves before the wind.” Rosecrans’ calm voice rose above the hubbub. “If you care to live any longer,” he told his staff, “get away from here.” Dana wrote: “Then the headquarters around me disappeared. The graybacks came through with a rush, and soon the musket balls and the cannon shot began to reach the place where he stood. The whole right of the army had apparently been routed.”

A mile or so to the northeast, Longstreet was jubilant. “They have fought their last man,” an artilleryman heard him say, “and he is running.” Bragg’s instructions had been to exert pressure on the left, to drive Rosecrans’ army toward McLemore’s Cove. But except for Wilder’s brigade, which was harassing the flank of Hindman’s division, the Federal right had disintegrated. Bushrod Johnson had begun to wheel toward his right, and Longstreet urged him on. If he could destroy Thomas, Rosecrans’ entire army would be a shambles.

The Federals had been fighting with their backs to Missionary Ridge; with heavy fighting continuing across the Rossville road to the north, the only avenue of retreat left to the soldiers fleeing before Longstreet was McFarland’s Gap, leading through the ridge to the west. Toward this narrow opening now poured the disorganized units from the army’s shattered right wing – the better part of five Federal divisions. A reporter from the Cincinnati Gazette watched from the crest of the ridge: “Men, animals, vehicles, became a mass of struggling, cursing, shouting, frightened life. Everything and everybody appeared to dash headlong for the narrow gap, and men, horses, mules, ambulances, baggage wagons, ammunition wagons, artillery carriages and caissons were rolled and tumbled together in a confused, inextricable, and finally motionless mass, completely blocking up the mouth of the gap.”

Lieutenant Colonel Gates Thruston, an officer on McCook’s staff, saw Rosecrans trying to reach Sheridan for help; the commander was repulsed by “a storm of canister and musketry,” Thruston recalled. “All became confusion. No order could be heard above the tempest of battle. With a wild yell the Confederates swept on far to their left. They seemed everywhere victorious. Rosecrans was borne back in the retreat.” At the mouth of McFarland’s Gap, Rosecrans and his chief of staff, Brigadier General James A. Garfield, tried to take a side road back toward the left wing and George Thomas, but enemy forces blocked their way; instead they pushed on through the gap five miles farther to Rossville. There, amid what an eyewitness described as “driving masses of teamsters, stragglers and fugitives,” the two men paused to consider – and to rest their horses, blown by the swift ride.

There was another crossroad at Rossville, and therefore another opportunity to join Thomas. But the sounds of battle were now barely audible; was he still fighting? Rosecrans and Garfield dismounted and put their ears to the ground. They could hear little except occasional distant musketry. They sought information from some disheveled soldiers around them – and were told that “the entire army was defeated and in retreat to Chattanooga.” The same soldiers said they were from Negley’s division; that unit, they declared, had been “knocked all to pieces.” Here was dismaying news. When Rosecrans had last seen Negley, the division commander was on his way to join Thomas with two brigades; if Negley’s command was shattered, the entire left wing was doubtless defeated and in disarray.

Rosecrans was upset and distracted. Nevertheless, he was determined to try to join Thomas and save what he could of the wrecked army. He ordered Garfield to proceed to Chattanooga and prepare the defenses there. The Confederates were sure to attack the town and much needed to be done; he issued a long list of instructions.

At that, Garfield demurred. Rosecrans, he said, must go to Chattanooga himself to lay out a new defensive line and position the returning units along it. The orders would be complicated, and Rosecrans could spell them out more effectively than anyone else. “I can go to General Thomas and report the situation to you,” Garfield said, “much better than I can give those orders.” Rosecrans agreed and made his way north.

Rosecrans, severely shaken, arrived at the headquarters building in Chattanooga at 4 p.m. He was by then unable to dismount or to walk unassisted. His aides helped the distraught general into the house. Once inside, Rosecrans slumped in a chair, his head in his hands, the picture of despair.

Charles Dana arrived in Chattanooga soon afterward and sent a grim telegram to Washington. “My report today is of deplorable importance,” it began. “Chickamauga is as fatal a day in our history as Bull Run.”

The battle was, in fact, far from over. George Thomas, still only vaguely aware of what had occurred to the rest of Rosecrans’ army, was engaged in the fight of his life.

The right of this line, Brannan’s division and part of Wood’s, faced south from the crest of an elevation that projected from Missionary Ridge. A part of this rise was known as Snodgrass Hill, after a family that lived nearby; the whole of the eminence may not have had a name, but it quickly acquired one – Horseshoe Ridge. The main line, held by Baird’s, Johnson’s, Reynolds’ and Major General John Palmer’s divisions, faced east from their original positions near the La Fayette road. To the rear of the position were the roads leading west to McFarland’s Gap, and north to Rossville and Chattanooga.

As a result of Thomas’ repeated calls for reinforcements, he now had under him units from all three of Rosecrans’ corps – perhaps half of the Army of the Cumberland. And he was also collecting a ragtag-and-bobtail assortment of units from company to brigade strength, plus a number of soldiers of all ranks who had become separated from the rest of the army during the hard fighting on the right. Many officers were behind the breastworks fighting as enlisted men.

Thomas was not given to dramatics, but as he rode along the lines his very presence bolstered the morale of his battered, powder-stained soldiers. When he came to Colonel Charles Harker’s brigade on the left flank he told its commander, “This hill must be held and I trust you to do it.” The scrappy Harker replied, “We will hold it or die here.”

Among all his other worries, Thomas was concerned about the location of Sheridan’s division. He had asked that morning to have Sheridan sent up from the Federal right but had heard nothing since. At last, around 2 p.m. he sent a messenger to find out what was wrong. The courier quickly returned to report that a large force was approaching from the right rear, behind Reynolds.

From the crest of Snodgrass Hill, Thomas peered out over the field. He could see troops coming through the dust – and they were wearing blue. Could that be Sheridan at last? But Thomas was a careful man, and there had been reports that some Confederates in this battle had blue uniforms. He instructed an officer nearby to have his men wave Union flags. The flags quickly drew fire. These were hostile forces – Longstreet’s men, and they were renewing the attack.

Thomas ordered a brigade under Brigadier General William B. Hazen into the line on Snodgrass Hill. The new arrivals were scarcely in position behind some low breastworks, recalled Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Kimberly of the 41st Ohio, “when the Confederate storm burst. The slope in front of the brigade was open ground, and in a moment this was covered with heavy masses of the enemy making for the top. Hazen’s regiments were lying flat. The foremost sprang to its feet, delivered its volley ad went down again to load, and the next regiment just behind rose to fire and fall flat while the third put in its work, and so on.”

The attacking Confederates, several brigades under the overall direction of General Kershaw, pushed to within 40 paces of the Federal line. There they met such heavy and sustained fire that Kershaw ordered them back. “The slope,” said Kimberly, “was strewn with Confederate dead and wounded, but not a man could reach the crest.”

Kershaw struck again and again, one ferocious assault after another. He finally stopped because his troops were out of breath; Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama said his men were “panting like dogs tired out in the chase.”

Next Bushrod Johnson’s and Thomas Hindman’s divisions launched another series of charges, aimed like a battering-ram at Thomas’s right and rear. It was evident to Thomas that the crisis was at hand; if he could not push Johnson and Hindman back, his escape route would soon be cut off. Worse, his soldiers were running out of ammunition. The men on Horseshoe Ridge were desperately snatching cartridges from the dead and wounded. For a time it looked as if the Federal line would break. “Our troops were driven from the crest, and the enemy’s flag waved above it,” General John Beatty recalled. Beatty rallied his brigade and led it back up the hill, “waving my hat and shouting like a madman.

The crest was retaken, but Thomas and his troops were in dire straits and there was no solution in sight. Then, suddenly, help was at hand.

All during the fighting of the 19th and for most of the morning of the 20th, Major General Gordon Granger and his Reserve Corps – consisting in its entirety of three inexperienced brigades – had stood guard with increasing impatience over the Rossville road three miles north of the fighting, as ordered by Rosecrans.

At 11 a.m. on the 20th, while Polk’s divisions marched to attack Thomas, Granger – a short, pugnacious West Pointer – watched the dust rising in the distance and growled to Major Joseph S. Fullerton, his chief of staff; “They are concentrating over there. That’s where we ought to be.” As the sounds of battle came rumbling over the fields and more dust and battle smoke rose into the air, Granger almost exploded with pent-up frustration. “Why the hell does Rosecrans keep me here?” he cried out to Fullerton. “There is the battle!” He climbed up on a haystack and stared into the distance through his field glasses, and at last he could stand it no longer. He uttered an oath and declared: “I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders!”

He commanded Colonel Dan McCook to guard the road with his brigade and within minutes was marching off to join Thomas with the remainder of his corps: a single division under General Steedman.

At Snodgrass Hill, with Hindman, Johnson and Kershaw pounding him from the south, General Thomas stared through his field glasses at the enormous column of dust approaching from the north. Once again he and his officers wondered who was coming – “agitated,” as General Beatty put it, “by doubt and hope.” Were these their saviors or more enemies? Someone said he thought he could see a Union flag. “Do you think so? Do you think so?” asked Thomas anxiously. A few minutes later Granger and Steedman were on the scene, and the defenders felt, in Beatty’s words, “a throb of exultation.” The newcomers had brought not only fresh soldiers but also fresh supplies of ammunition.

The burly Steedman galloped into action at the head of his division. When the 115th Illinois wavered in the face of Confederate fire, Steedman snatched up its flag and turned to face the enemy alone. “Go back, boys, go back,” he roared, “but the flag can’t go with you!” The men rallied and charged once again. Steedman’s horse was shot out from under him, and the general was badly bruised by the fall, but he continued to lead his men on foot, flag in hand.

Steedman’s’ troops extended the line on Brannan’s right, where Hindman’s Confederates were threatening to flank the Federals. In the 20 minutes that followed, Steedman’s green soldiers smashed Hindman’s attack – but at a terrible cost. Of Steedman’s 3,500 Federals, 20 per cent were killed or wounded in those few minutes; among the casualties were six regimental commanders.

By now all of Thomas’ units had taken heavy casualties. The total number of men who served under him during the day has been estimated at 25,000; by one account only a quarter of these troops were still in action when Granger showed up. Since that morning, Thomas had fought virtually every brigade in Bragg’s army, and toward the end he was fighting them all – Polk’s troops as well as Longstreet’s.

And still Thomas held. As the shadows deepened, Longstreet redoubled his efforts. He committed his single remaining division, Brigadier General William Preston’s, and by early evening he was hitting the Federal line at every point. By Longstreet’s own estimate he sent a total of 25 attacks against the Federals. One of the last, and perhaps the fiercest, was the charge of a newly enlisted brigade led by Brigadier General Archibald Gracie Jr. Leaping over the bodies of the dead and dying from earlier assaults, Gracie’s troops clawed their way to within feet of the Federal breastworks. In places, the opposing soldiers grappled hand to hand before Gracie’s decimated regiments fell back. In the charge, the 1st Alabama Battalion lost nearly 65 per cent of its men, while the flag of the 2nd Battalion was pierced by 83 bullets.

Around 4 p.m. James Garfield showed up, having made a perilous trip down the Rossville road accompanied by two orderlies and a captain acting as guide. They had come under sharp fire; both of the orderlies had been killed and the captain injured. Garfield’s horse, badly hurt, managed to get him to Thomas before it collapsed.

At last Thomas learned what had happened to the rest of Rosecrans’ army and received instructions from Rosecrans to withdraw from the field immediately. That was manifestly impossible. “It will ruin the army to withdraw it now,” Thomas told Garfield. “This position must be held until night.”

Garfield accordingly dispatched a message informing Rosecrans in Chattanooga that Thomas was fighting off the Confederates and was “standing like a rock.” Reprinted in newspapers all over the country, the message made a hero of the doughty XIV Corps commander, who would be known for the rest of his life as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”

As twilight descended over the battlefield, Thomas went to work to get his men safely away. The Confederate attacks were continuing with undiminished intensity, and Thomas was once again running low on ammunition as he began his withdrawal. His plan was to withdraw his divisions in sequence, starting with the southernmost, under Reynolds. Each division was to march behind those still in line toward the safety of McFarland’s Gap. But at 5:30 p.m., as Reynolds was leaving, St. John Liddell’s Confederates suddenly launched a savage blow straight toward him, endangering the entire Federal position. General Thomas, who was on the scene, commandeered the brigade led by General John Turchin and wheeled the troops around. Gesturing toward the oncoming Confederates, Thomas said, “There they are. Clear them out.” Turchin launched a furious attack and sent the Confederates reeling back. In the process his men captured 200 prisoners. Then Turchin rejoined Reynolds’ retreating division.

One by one, the hard-pressed units left the field and hurried toward safety. In the end only three regiments remained on Snodgrass Hill: the 21st and 89th Ohio and the 22nd Michigan. They were still fighting off attacks, and as the rest of the Federals began their movement toward McFarland’s Gap the three regiments were threatened anew. Brannan hurried to Granger, who had been left in command of the field while Thomas supervised the withdrawal, and cried: “The enemy are forming for another assault; we have not another round of ammunition – what shall we do?” Granger said, “Fix bayonets and go for them.”

Granger’s staff officer, Major Fullerton, recalled: “Along the whole line ran the order, ‘Fix bayonets.’ On came the enemy – our men were lying down. ‘Forward,’ was sounded. In one instant they were on their feet. Forward they went to meet the charge. So impetuous was this counter-charge that one regiment, with empty muskets and empty cartridge-boxes, broke through the enemy’s line, which, closing in their rear, carried them off as in the undertow.” Brannan’s charge was gallant but ineffective. There was little the Federals could do without ammunition, and within minutes the bloodied defenders were surrounded and overwhelmed by General Preston’s Confederates. In the three regiments, 322 soldiers were killed or wounded and 563 captured. Only one of the six regimental flags was saved.

The last Federal survivors slipped away after darkness had fallen, when the Confederate fire was diminishing. Without light, Bragg’s troops were beginning to fire into one another from the opposite sides of the salient. It had been a brilliant withdrawal under the nose of the enemy. “Like magic,” Longstreet wrote later, “the Union army had melted away in our presence.”

The Federal escape chafed Longstreet, but his troops were only too pleased to discover that their enemy had retreated. When the Confederates realized what had happened, they produced a loud and prolonged din of Rebel yells to celebrate their victory. The sound seemed to envelop the fleeing Federals, said Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce of William Hazen’s brigade. “It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard,” he wrote, “even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food, and without hope. There was, however, a space somewhere at the back of us across which that horrible yell did not prolong itself – and through that we finally retired in profound silence and dejection, unmolested.”

For the soldiers in blue, the march to Rossville was grim. Beatty recalled, “All along the road, for miles, wounded men were lying. They had crawled or hobbled slowly away from the fury of the battle, become exhausted, and lay down by the roadside to die. Some were calling the names and numbers of their regiments, but many had become too weak to do this; by midnight the column had passed by. What must have been their agony, mental and physical, as they lay in the dreary woods, sensible that there was no one to care for them, and that in a few hours more their career on earth would be ended.”

General Thomas collected his battered forces at Rossville and formed new lines in expectation of further fighting. The Confederates, as well, made preparations for more action. “I ordered my line to remain as it was,” recalled General Longstreet, “ammunition boxes to be filled, stragglers to be collected, and everything in readiness for the pursuit in the morning.”

Polk got Bragg out of bed to report that the Federal army was in full flight and could be destroyed before Rosecrans had a chance to throw up adequate defenses. But Bragg, said an aide who was present, “could not be induced to look at it in that light, and refused to believe that we had won a victory.”

Bragg’s generals produced a Confederate soldier who had been captured and then had escaped. He had seen the Federal disarray for himself and was brought before Bragg to testify that the enemy was indeed in full retreat. Bragg would not accept the man’s story. “Do you know what a retreat looks like?” he asked, acidly. The soldier stared back and said: “I ought to, General: I’ve been with you during your whole campaign.”

Bragg had his reasons for not wanting to continue to fight. His men were exhausted. Losses on both sides had been enormous, and although no one yet knew the totals, Confederate casualties had been greater than those suffered by the Federals. In two days he had lost more than 30 percent of his effectives. Ten Confederate generals had been killed or wounded, including Hood who narrowly survived amputation of his leg. Although the rebels had made a rich haul in captured guns and equipment, Bragg’s immediate concern was the ghastly spectacle of dead and wounded lying thick on the ground. Half of his artillery horses had also been killed. Thus he refused to heed the pleas of many for a rapid pursuit of the enemy.
Article source: Time-Life Books, Civil War Series

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