The Battle of Chickamauga--Sept. 18-20, 1863: Day 1

February 18, 2019


When the Battle of Chickamauga began, there were 24 families living on small farms spread across the 5,300 acres that would become the battlefield. They were, in general, poor folks who struggled to feed their families on what they could grow on a few cleared acres of ground. Along with the soldiers who actually fought in the battle, they would be tremendously affected by the happenings in their neighborhood in mid-September of 1863.


Most, but not all, were staunch supporters of the Confederacy. One of these was a Mrs. Reed whose family lived in a cabin on West Chickamauga Creek near where the fighting first began. As the U.S. troops began moving past her house to reach the battle site, she came out of her house to show her displeasure and, despite a request from one of the passing officers that she return to the safety of her house, began to jeer at them, shouting, “You Yanks are running! Our army is coming! Our friends will not hurt me.” Just then, a Union cannon fired from behind as the sides began to pound at each other, and Mrs. Reed’s mangled body was thrown back against her door.


Other residents of the battleground had had no warning of what was coming and had just enough time to grab their families and a few supplies and hide in a ravine near the Snodgrass house. They were stuck there without food and with limited water for almost five days until the armies had moved on. When they returned to their homes, almost all found them destroyed or so damaged they were unlivable. About half the families left the area never to return. Those who remained had to deal with unimaginable difficulties other than just staying alive.


There were unburied bodies everywhere and wounded men left behind crying for help. Pieces of trees and other debris were everywhere as the thousands of cannon shots had sheared them off. Thousands of trees were down across roads, fences and houses with ammunition lodged in them from the battle. Among the collections which you can see today when you visit the battlefield are samples of trees with everything from bullets to minié balls to canister (from cannons) lodged in them from this terrible fight.


Chickamauga was a unique battle in the Civil War not only because of what was at stake and the dreadfully high casualties that resulted from it but because of the conditions under which it was fought.


At the time of the Civil War, as now, most of the highest-level army officers in the country, both North and South, had been trained at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The military training they received there was much the same as had been standard in Europe for several hundred years and was perfected by Napoleon.


The procedure was to arrange men in horizontal lines facing each other in battle and to keep firing until one side could break through the other’s line. Artillery units (cannon) were used to damage and pound the enemy into submission. Cavalry (mounted fighters) were the versatile units who could be used to ride around and look at events, report to the leaders on what was happening on distant parts of the battlefield, et cetera. Battles were usually fought in relatively open areas so that the commanding generals could see a lot of what was happening and decide what to do next. At Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee sat on his horse on a high hill and was able to survey the battle site very effectively and make good decisions based on his observations.


None of these usual procedures worked well at Chickamauga, and it was up to the leaders to figure out how to manage under very different circumstances. Some did fairly well. Others failed miserably.


Geography and topography played a huge huge role at Chickamauga. There were hills all over the place but mostly small ones that were more of a barrier than any kind of advantage, and the thick woods made traditional fighting almost impossible. Brigadier General Richard Johnson wrote after the war: “The field of battle was a vast forest whose dense foliage prevented us from seeing fifty yards distant. No one commander could see the flanks of his regiment even, and so division commanders could only learn how the battle progressed through their orderlies, staff officers, and occasional wounded men brought from various parts of the line.”


So for the most part the commander was on his own with no idea how things were going in the section next to him. Add to this that every weapon at the time discharged smoke when it fired and that the cannon fire was so loud it was heard 25 miles or more away and the difficulties faced by each side become clear.


Basically, the battle lines of each army were drawn up on line with the LaFayette Road, which followed then the same route it does today, and with West Chickamauga Creek. (See map above--look for arrows). In order to get to each other, the armies had to cross the road and/or the creek, neither of which was easy under the circumstances.


West Chickamauga Creek is fairly tame these days, but in 1863, it was much more formidable. Its source is in McLemore’s Cove to the south and from there it flows north toward the Tennessee River. It formed a significant natural barrier as it was 80 to 100 feet deep in many places and could only be crossed at a few fords and bridges along its way. It also had very high banks, which made crossing difficult, especially for wagons and animals.


The first day’s fighting at Chickamauga consisted mostly of Confederate attempts to seize crossing points on Chickamauga Creek so they could have that advantage in moving their men and support sections. There was a fight between Confederates and Union cavalrymen at Reed’s Bridge, but eventually Southern forces took it and began moving south toward Lee and Gordon’s Mill, another key point in the area.


Even though they succeeded in getting across the water, they were delayed on the other side by other units who were accidentally in their way, so they did not reach the Union forces to confront them as had been planned.


On the second day, the fighting began in earnest.


To be continued...

--Joy Odom


*NOTE from Historical Society*

As of this publication we plan to have the Coke Ovens hike on March 2. If Mother Nature does not comply with our plans then we will bend to her will and postpone it again.


We will expect all who have signed up at the library to attend, but there is no need to let us know if you can’t come because we changed the date. If you wanted to go and can now make it, then please call the library and have your name put on the list (with name, phone number and email), so that we may contact you directly. You will be contacted email with instructions for the day of the hike after Wednesday, Feb. 27.


As before if there is a cancellation because of weather or the conditions that the weather has left, then we will post it on Facebook and on the library’s electronic sign. Thank you for your interest in this historical area.

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