For some weeks in the fall of 1863, various parts of Union General William Rosecrans’s army traveled through Dade and parts of Walker County and even down into Chattooga to the old settlement of Alpine where Sequoia lived while inventing the Cherokee alphabet. The purpose of all this moving around was to crowd and panic Confederate General Bragg and to make him face the federal army in battle. This move was designed to open the door for the Union army to begin the campaign to take Atlanta and Savannah and end the war.
This strategy worked better than even Rosecrans could have hoped. Since Chattanooga is surrounded by mountains and ridges, it would be a good place for an army to become trapped and be destroyed, so Bragg moved out of the city on his own impetus and down into north Georgia to fight. He eventually set up his headquarters in an old school building which still stands in downtown LaFayette. He left a few of his troops to guard Chattanooga as he fully intended to reoccupy it after winning the battle he knew was coming.
Rosecrans couldn’t believe his luck. Bragg had left Chattanooga without a fight. Now all Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland had to do was to keep him from going back.
By early September, Rosecrans had called all his men back together from their scattered positions in northwest Georgia. The Yankees then left Trenton after having been around for several weeks, and, while there was much worse damage done in other places, there is no doubt they left a trail of destruction in their wake in the forms of commandeered food, household possessions, livestock and residual fear. There was damage to a number of buildings in town and it is probable that the original Dade County Courthouse, which burned during this period, was destroyed as a result of their presence, but we have no definite proof of this.
The first brush between Federal and Confederate soldiers took place just east of Lookout Mountain at Davis Crossroads where today GA highways 193 and 341 intersect and the Pigeon Mountain Grill is located. Not much damage was done as only a few men were involved, mostly cavalrymen from either side who were riding around looking for the enemy and found him. But this encounter made clear to both sides that the long-anticipated battle was about to happen since it showed how close the armies were to each other. Remember that communications were very bad in that day and the leaders hadn’t known each other’s definite whereabouts until this meeting.
From LaFayette, Bragg decided to bring his army north for the battle as he intended to return to Chattanooga afterward. He headed out on September 17. There was fighting on September 18, when Bragg’s cavalry and infantry fought with Union cavalry and mounted infantry.
For just a moment, let me go into history teacher mode and explain this a bit more as it was a major factor in the upcoming battle. Infantry troops fought on foot; cavalry troops rode horses in battle and were usually out front and to the side when armies were moving so that they could see what was coming and quickly return and prepare those behind them if there was trouble.
Mounted infantry troops, a kind of hybrid of the older two unit types, were a new phenomenon in the Civil War. They were pretty much created in preparation for this battle by John Wilder of the 17th Indiana Infantry, one of the men who would stand out throughout the fighting. Wilder Tower, a well-known landmark of the battlefield, was erected in honor of him and his men.
Wilder was a volunteer officer, meaning he had no formal military training, but he was very intelligent and a problem-solver. He outperformed many of his West Point- trained colleagues with his daring and his willingness to take on a challenge even when the odds of success were not in his favor. When Rosecrans, Wilder’s superior, moped about how much it would help to have more cavalry and better-equipped ones at that, Wilder decided to do something about it instead of just mope. With permission, he rounded up every horse and mule he and his men could find around Murfreesboro, where Rosecrans’s army was camped at the time; thus he and his men became mounted infantry. But he still wasn’t satisfied—he knew they needed better weapons.
Most Civil War soldiers, especially those of the South, were stuck using old-style single-shot rifles that had to be reloaded after every shot, and the reloading took a while. Imagine finding yourself in the heat of battle with gunshots exploding all around you and being utterly helpless while you take the necessary time to go through a precise set of movements to reload your gun! The very fastest reloaders could do it in about a minute. Many men were shot in battle while they were relatively helpless during this process.
When a man named Spencer came to Wilder’s camp selling a new repeating rifle he had perfected, Wilder knew what he had to do. Unconcerned with Army procedures and red tape, he wired his bank at home and requested enough funds from his own bank account to buy repeating rifles for his men. So Wilder’s fame and his “Lightning Brigade” were born. They were so fast and so effective that they were all over the battlefield throughout the three days of the Battle of Chickamauga and were involved in almost every bit of crucial fighting that took place there.
One other bit of background information to consider when we think of the men (really often boys) who were preparing to fight at the Battle of Chickamauga: For most of August and September in this part of the country in 1863, the daily high temperatures had exceeded 90 degrees, and it hadn’t rained in weeks. This was the setting in which Bragg’s troops were stuck in Chattanooga and Rosecrans’s troops were hiking all over Northwest Georgia pushing loaded wagons up terrible mountain roads or having to cut the roads as they went, and then having to drag ropes behind the wagons as they descended the mountains to keep them from breaking loose.
When they were on the regular roads in the valleys, the huge numbers of men passing reduced the dirt under their feet to a fine powder which rose into clouds of dust, covering them from head to foot and sticking to them because of the sweat they were generating. The opportunity to bathe while on the march was rare, so these men lived in this condition for weeks until September 18, the first day of the battle. That night, out of nowhere, came a hard freeze.
Many soldiers Northern and Southern, including those of Wilder’s Brigade, had sent their blankets and other equipment to the rear so that they didn’t have to carry them in the heat. Thus, many soldiers spent the night before the major fighting began feeling
miserably cold, hungry, afraid, and utterly uncertain about what the next day would bring. For several thousand of them, it would bring the end of their lives.
To be continued…