The Battle of Chickamauga was the largest, bloodiest and most costly war ever fought within the bounds of Georgia—and if you haven’t studied a lot of history, you’d be surprised how many battles were fought in this state in the early days of the nation.
The numbers on both sides are jaw-dropping. A total of about 125,000 men were engaged in the fighting over those three days in September 1863. About 60,000 were Union, the other 65,000 Confederates. It is estimated that the Union lost more than 16,170 men as casualties over those three days and the Confederates even more: 18,454.
The dictionary defines a casualty in military terms as a member of an armed force lost to service through death, wounds, sickness or capture, or because his whereabouts or condition cannot be determined. There were a lot of men who fell into the last category after Chickamauga because of the woods and the overgrowth on the battlefield. Men who were wounded often crawled away from where they fought looking for water or safety and, in the rush to move after battle was over, were never found.
To give you a better notion of how horrendous these numbers were by the standards of 1863, consider this: In 1860, the entire population of Dade County was only 3,069 persons. As of 2010, the last census for which we have totals, the population of Dade was 16,285—about the same number as the Union Army had on the field during the battle. The Confederates had almost 2,000 more.
Every soldier had a weapon which, in those days, made a huge noise when it fired, and the soldiers fired constantly for those three days. Each army, North and South, was supported by a number of artillery units, which included six to a dozen cannon apiece. These went off constantly as well, so it’s understandable that people living almost as far as Atlanta at the time heard the noise of the battle.
But it isn’t these large statistics that help us really understand the damage and the sacrifice and the heroics of those three days. It’s the stories about the individuals who fought there that make us really feel for what they went through.
The woods and brush in which the battle at Chickamauga was fought were among the reasons the casualty rate was so high and so many men died horrible deaths. Many of the rifles used in those days overheated with constant use and so, with every shot, they sent out a discharge of fire into the leaves and grass as well as a bullet. After hours of fighting, many men lay wounded on the field and, incapable of moving, were burned alive by these spreading brushfires, often under the full view of their comrades who were pinned down by rifle fire and could not go to their relief.
This horrible situation continued even after the fighting had stopped as the fires burned on through the night and more and more wounded were incinerated. Since the soldiers involved in the fighting slept on the battlefield over the three days, they spent each night listening to the sounds of men screaming and crying for help as they came to this terrible end. They could not go to them because of the danger to themselves from the fire and from the enemy who still had snipers out to pick off anyone who showed himself on the other side.
As we know from our modern-day soldiers who often suffer from PTSD, war can take a terrible toll on the human mind—even among those experienced in war after prolonged exposure to its horrors. The Civil War historian Peter Cozzens tells the story of a middle-aged man and experienced soldier whose commanding officer found him lying facedown at the back of the firing line at Chickamauga. When the officer spoke to him and he replied, the former saw that he had a wild and crazed look about him. He moaned that he was wounded. When asked where, he pointed to the middle of his forehead where there was plainly no wound.
The officer, like General Patton a few years later, decided he simply needed some tough love. He struck the man with the side of the battle sword officers carried in those days, and ordered him back into line. Ten minutes later, in moving among the men, he almost stumbled across a dead body, that of the man he had struck, who was shot through the forehead.
The rule of war is that the battlefield belongs to the victor after the fighting stops, so the Union army, in its haste to get away, left many dead and injured soldiers behind knowing that the dead would lie there for a long time and that the wounded would be made prisoners. To keep this from happening to their friends, some Union soldiers tried to help their wounded friends escape as the abandoned the field of battle. Wrote one soldier, “When the order was given to withdraw...the wounded began to call pitifully and ask if they were to be left behind. It was very trying to hear their pleading and go away.”
Some soldiers found ingenious way to keep from leaving their wounded friends. One group from Ohio found the running gear of a wagon smashed on the battlefield, loaded it with wounded comrades and pulled it themselves all the way from the battlefield to Rossville. Other soldiers took turns carrying their friends to safety.
Some men proved their friendship in more dangerous ways. Four young men from Kentucky were fighting together on the second day of battle when one was shot down. One by one, the other three all rushed to his body and were all shot down in order. Their colonel found their bodies in a pile at the end of the battle. There are hundreds if not thousands of stories like this that emanate from this battle.
I like to remind people of what really happened there because, nowadays, so many people think of Chickamauga as just a beautiful place to hike or bicycle or picnic—and it is that. But more importantly, it is sacred ground—sort of a cemetery without tombstones. Each marker there represents the loss of a number of men, not just one. There are many, many areas throughout the park where the fighting was so intense and so deadly that almost anywhere one might step is a place where someone suffered terrible injuries or died.
I think we owe it to those people to treat the place of their suffering and sacrifice with the respect it deserves no matter whether they fought for the blue or the gray.
To Be Continued...
Next time: After the battle
HISTORICAL SOCIETY NOTE: As we know, the weather in March can be blizzard or tornado. Now it seems that we can add monsoon to the season! We will again PLAN to go on our long-awaited coke oven hike on March 23, but if the weather frowns on us then, too, we will again err on the side of safety and common sense. If you are praying for rain, then stop because we want to hike! If you have signed up, then please continue checking your email for updates, time and parking information.