The Civil War (Western Theater):
A Guide to Several Battlefields
By J. Brent Norlem
This is Part Three of a Five-Part Article
Although Chalmette Battlefield and Chalmette National Cemetery are easily accessible by automobile, we will get more enjoyment through reaching it by riverboat, which gives us superb views of New Orleans and its environs from the Mississippi River.
At Chalmette, an invading British force commanded by Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Michael Pakenham moved against a defensive position manned by civilian volunteers and the pirates of Jean Lafitte’s Barataria, commanded by Gen. Andrew Jackson.
The Americans had built a strong earthworks defense line, christened “Line Jackson,” with eight artillery embrasures comprising several cannons of various sizes. In addition, Jackson sent a detachment across the Mississippi River to service two twin-cannon batteries aboard the grounded warship U.S.S. Louisiana.
The main British force arrived New Year’s Day 1815 and commenced artillery bombardment of the American position, initiating a three-hour artillery duel that ended when the British had expended all of their ammunition. Pakenham canceled the attack, deciding to wait until his entire army of more than 8,000 arrived. The British infantry attack began 8 January 1815 in darkness and in a thick fog that obscured the battlefield. Then the fog lifted, exposing the British ranks to withering fire from cannons and rifles. Almost all of the British senior officers were killed or wounded, and the British infantrymen huddled in the Rodriguez Canal, hugged the ground, or were riddled by the American grapeshot and rifle fire that raked the battlefield. A few British soldiers actually made it to the top of the defensive revetment but they were captured or killed. At the end of the battle, the British had suffered 2,037 casualties: 291 dead (including three senior generals, one of whom was Pakenham);1,262 wounded; and 484 captured or missing. The American losses were 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. The British dead not removed by the British army were buried about the battlefield, some in mass graves. A monument to the British dead was installed later by the British government with permission granted by the United States. This is the only place in the U. S., other than the British Embassy and British consulates, where the British flag is flown 24 hours a day, year-round. (See here for background about the hit pop song “The Battle of New Orleans.”)
We can walk the restored defensive revetment from the Cypress Swamp to the Rodriguez Canal, viewing various original and replica cannons, including a recently acquired 18-pounder cannon replica. The historic Malus-Beauregard House, also on the Chalmette Battlefield, serves as a visitor center and museum. Built in 1830, this classic plantation-style mansion was actually never part of a plantation. The house is named for its last owner, René Beauregard, son of New Orleans’ very own Creole general, Lt. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, C.S.A., who supervised the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in 1861, and whose large monument guards the entrance to City Park at the north end of Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans.
Chalmette National Cemetery, adjacent to the Chalmette Battlefield, is also part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. In 1864 the 17.5-acre site was established as a United States National Cemetery for interment of Civil War dead, both Confederate and Federal, making it unique in that respect. After the war, makeshift burials in the region were re-interred in permanent cemeteries, with almost 12,000 sent to Chalmette. The cemetery today is the final resting place for more than 13,300 dead from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War. Chalmette National Cemetery occupies the area where the British artillery was sited during the Battle of New Orleans.
A word of explanation to first-time visitors to the cemetery. At first glance, the site appears badly maintained, with headstones at all sorts of odd angles (a condition exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina). The reason for the irregular headstones is the high water table of the region, which causes constant shifting of the ground. This high water table is why all burials in New Orleans city cemeteries are above ground. Periodically, the National Park Service straightens the headstones at the cemetery, section by section, a heroic effort but a lost cause – the headstones soon resume their “drunken” leanings. Hurricane Katrina occasioned a straightening effort. Do not expect the neat vertical headstones of other national cemeteries.
Suppose, following our visit to Vicksburg, we don’t have time to visit New Orleans. Or suppose we have unlimited time for this exploration of the Western Theater. We must see Shiloh.
From Vicksburg we could drive back to the Natchez Trace Parkway and head north, to about five miles south of the Mississippi-Tennessee border, exiting at Mississippi Highway 20 (which becomes Tennessee Highway 69 at the border). We drive northwest approximately 35 miles to Savannah and the intersection with U.S. Highway 64. West on Highway 64 about five miles, then south on Tennessee Highway 22 about eight miles, takes us to the huge Shiloh National Military Park, which preserves the Shiloh and Corinth battlefields. Shiloh is Tennessee’s best-preserved and maintained Civil War battlefield, and one of the best-preserved in the nation, aptly described as “wonderful” by author Shelby Foote. (Foote’s 1952 novel “Shiloh” is well worth reading. He’s also author of the immense “The Civil War: A Narrative” and was a commentator on the film “The Civil War” directed by Ken Burns.) Like Chickamauga (see below) and Gettysburg, Shiloh is a place where, because of the size of the battlefield and the complexity of the encounter, we might be wise to employ the services of a knowledgeable guide.
The “Bloody Battle of Shiloh,” 6 and 7 April 1862, comprised about 65,000 Federal troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and 44,000 Confederate troops commanded by Lt. Gen Albert Sydney Johnston (killed the first day) and Lt. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. At the end of the first days’ combat, a Confederate victory seemed imminent, but the Federals received heavy reinforcements during the night. The two days of combat didn’t produce a clear tactical victory for either side – the Federals were in command of the field but failed to pursue and engage the retreating Confederates – but the battle was a strategic defeat for the Confederates, who failed to halt or even delay the Federal investment of Tennessee. “No soldier who took part in the two days’ engagement at Shiloh ever spoiled for a fight again,” said one Union veteran. “We wanted a square, stand-up fight [and] got all we wanted of it.”
The Confederates named the battle for Shiloh Methodist Church, a small log church on the battlefield. The Federals at first called it the Battle of Pittsburg Landing but later generally adopted Shiloh. Shiloh National Military Park was established 27 December 1894 in response to a public outcry resulting from local farmers complaining about their hogs rooting up corpses of those killed in the battle. Federal dead were re-interred at Pittsburg Landing in the area where Grant’s headquarters had been. A large granite monument in Shiloh National Cemetery, surrounded by approximately 4,000 headstones, commemorates the exact site of Grant’s headquarters.
Shiloh National Military Park boasts well preserved or restored battle sites, e.g., Bloody Pond, the Hornet’s Nest, and hundreds of historic markers, monuments, tablets, and the like, commemorating the costliest battle in United States history to that time. Confederate casualties totaled 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, 959 missing or captured) while the Federals suffered 13,047 casualties (1,754 killed, 8,048 wounded, 2,885 missing or captured). This total of 23,746 is greater than the casualty total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War combined.
The battle began a six-month Federal campaign to seize the critical rail center of Corinth, Mississippi, at that time second only to Richmond, Virginia, in military importance in the Confederacy. The Federals were able to capture Corinth with a May 1862 seige and to withstand a major Confederate counterattack in September 1862. In 2002, an excellent new Battle of Corinth Interpretive Center opened to the public. Corinth is but a short drive from the Shiloh battlefield.
We began this journey in Franklin, Tennessee, and headed northwest. What if we head east from Franklin?
A drive of about 45 minutes on Tennessee Highway 96 takes us to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and the well-maintained Stones River National Military Park, the site, in late 1862 and early 1863, of the Battle of Stones River (the Second Battle of Murfreesboro to many Southerners). Excellent preparation for touring the Stones River park would be to read “No Better Place to Die” by Peter Cozzens (1990), an accurate, meticulously researched, and expertly written account of a complex event. What follows is a summary. (We are jumping backward in time here from the Battle of Franklin in 1864.)
Following his highly controversial retreat after the hard-fought but inconclusive Battle of Perryville in Kentucky (8 October 1862), an encounter that scuttled Confederate hopes to control Middle Tennessee (and saved Kentucky for the Union), Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg led his bloodied army to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where he was joined by the army of Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith. Although this Confederate force now comprised 38,000 battle-hardened troops, Bragg made no effort to regain the initiative. Ironically, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, the Federal commander at Perryville, displayed a similar lack of enthusiasm, refusing to pursue and re-engage Bragg’s army. Understandably, both the Confederate and Federal war departments were disenchanted with the performance of these generals.
Bragg retreated through the Cumberland Gap and marched his Confederate force through Knoxville and Chattanooga, where he turned northwest, ultimately halting at Murfreesboro. The combined force of Bragg and Smith, christened the Army of Tennessee on 20 November 1862, established a defensive line northwest of Murfreesboro along the west fork of Stones River.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited Bragg on 16 December and ordered the commander to send an infantry division commanded by Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson to Mississippi to assist Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton in defending Vicksburg. The subsequent absence of Stevenson’s 7,500-man division would become quite painful for the Army of Tennessee.
Bragg’s reorganized army (after Kirby Smith was reassigned to East Tennessee) was comprised of two corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee and Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, and a cavalry command led by Brig. General Joseph Wheeler. Much manpower and proficiency were excised from Wheeler’s cavalry when both Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan were detached for strategic raids outside of Middle Tennessee. The word “depleted” clearly applied to Bragg’s army.
Meanwhile, the Federals had done their own reorganizing, creating the Department of the Cumberland and the Army of the Cumberland, both commanded by Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans. When Rosecrans assumed command, the Army of the Cumberland and the Federal XIV Corps actually were the same unit, divided into three wings: left, commanded by Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden; center, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas; right, Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook. The Army of the Cumberland’s first major action was the Battle of Stones River.
With Bragg’s cavalry severely diminished (with the absence, as noted, of Forrest and Morgan), Rosecrans, the Federal commander, seized the opportunity and moved the Army of the Cumberland south from Nashville to attack Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. The left wing of Rosecrans moved along the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, the center and right wings keeping pace to its west, with the objective of turning Bragg’s left flank. However, Bragg’s intelligence reported the movement of the Army of the Cumberland. Wheeler’s cavalry delayed Rosecrans’ advance long enough for Bragg to pull in his forces and concentrate them at Murfreesboro. The evening of 30 December 1862 found the two armies facing each other near Stones River. Bragg planned to attack the Federal right flank in the morning, with Rosecrans planning to attack the Confederate right flank.
Federal soldiers sleepily prepared their breakfasts at dawn 31 December 1862 in preparation for the planned 0730 hours attack on the Confederate right. They were startled to see gray-clad figures materializing out of the woods in front of them, armed and attacking. This was the third major battle of the Civil War in which a Confederate attack at dawn surprised a Federal army (Fort Donelson and Shiloh were the others). However, some Federal troops were ready – Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan anticipated an early attack and had his men up and functioning at 0400 hours. This foresight likely saved the bluecoats from disaster. The divisions of Sheridan and Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis were able to repulse the attack of Hardee’s three divisions. A division of Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne (who would, as noted, be killed at Franklin in 1864) continued to apply pressure on the Federal right as a second assault was made. This second attack by the graycoats failed, but a third effort enveloped Davis’s right flank, and he was forced to retreat, exposing Sheridan’s right. Sheridan counterattacked, buying enough time to make an orderly withdrawal to a new position behind the Nashville Pike at a right angle to the Federal defensive line.
Sheridan had slowed the Confederate advance but at a high cost. All three of his brigade commanders were killed, and more than a third of his troops became casualties in four hours of fighting in a small cedar forest surrounded on three sides by Confederates. This spot earned the sobriquet the “Slaughter Pen.” Despite Sheridan’s efforts, by 1000 hours many of Bragg’s objectives had been achieved – the Confederates had taken more than 3,000 Federal prisoners and captured 28 Federal artillery pieces.
A renewed Confederate assault forced Sheridan to retreat, leaving a hole in the Federal defenses that Bragg was quick to exploit. Federal Lt. Col. Oliver H. Shepard’s brigade of regulars suffered 538 casualties while covering the withdrawal of half of the bluecoat defensive line to new positions. The right of Federal Brig. Gen. John M. Palmer’s division also had to retreat to avoid being enveloped, but Palmer’s left (the brigade of Col. William B. Hazen) heroically held its position in a four-acre woods astride the railroad despite continuing heavy Confederate pressure. This woods would become known on battle maps as the Round Forest, but Federal troops defending it gave it the famous appellation of “Hell’s Half Acre.” By noon, the Federal army had withdrawn into what would be its final defensive position.
The final Confederate assaults of 31 December were vigorous, but were effectively repulsed by a well-organized Federal defense, with considerable cost to both sides. Confederate Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers’ brigade, which had been concealed in shallow trenches on the extreme right for two days, attacked the Round Forest shortly after noon. Having to charge across open ground against prepared defenses – a preview of the Battle of Franklin 23 months later – the troops were slaughtered by Federal artillery and rifle fire. During the same sort of desperate fighting as at Franklin, with some units losing as many as eight color bearers, Chalmers was wounded and his brigade withdrew. Confederate Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson’s brigade made the next attack, penetrating the Federal defensive line immediately east of the Round Forest, capturing about 1,000 Federal prisoners and 11 cannons. However, the continued Federal possession of the Round Forest forced Donelson to retreat. This action cost the Confederates 513 casualties among 827 troops engaged. Late in the afternoon, four more Confederate brigades were brought south across Stones River to attack the Round Forest. The first two brigades, then the second two, were repulsed with heavy losses. Federal Maj. Gen. George D. Wagner led two brigades in a spirited counterattack along the riverbank, driving back the Confederate infantry before him, until heavy artillery fire forced his retreat.
New Year’s Day 1863 was quiet on the main battlefield, but Confederate cavalry deviled the Army of the Cumberland’s lines of communication with Nashville. Seeing that the Federals had abandoned the Round Forest during the night, the graycoats invested it. Confederate commander Bragg decided to have Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge re-cross Stones River and take high ground from which enfilade fire could be poured down on the Federals. Breckinridge told Bragg he believed such a maneuver impossible (a foreshadowing of Hood’s generals advising against a frontal assault on the Federal works at Franklin). Bragg insisted, and at 1600 hours, 2 January 1863, Breckinridge attacked with 4,500 troops.
Rosecrans, the Federal commander, had foreseen the importance of the high ground and had occupied it with a reinforced division. The Confederate onslaught drove the Federals from the high ground, but as the attacking Confederates pursued the fleeing Federals downhill, they were shredded by the concentrated fire of 58 Federal cannons that Maj. John Mendenhall had emplaced on the other side of Stones River. Federal reinforcements poured across the river at McFadden’s Ford; Breckinridge was driven back to his point of departure with the loss of more than 1,700 troops.
Bragg already had lost the confidence of some of his generals because of his decision to retreat at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky in October. The debacle of Breckinridge’s attack at Stones River (ordered by Bragg) would add to the growing disaffection of Bragg’s senior generals; this ballooned into open revolt by the time of the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863. The generals petitioned President Jefferson Davis to replace Bragg with Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Incredibly, Davis relieved neither Bragg nor the mutinous generals.
As 3 January 1863 dawned, the Federal Army of the Cumberland held its defensive position west of Stones River, with an additional force posted north of the river. During the night of 3-4 January, Bragg withdrew the Army of Tennessee through Murfreesboro toward Shelbyville, and on 5 January the bluecoats occupied Murfreesboro, establishing a military hospital, among other facilities. But Rosecrans did not pursue Bragg, much to the dismay of his superiors; it would be June before Rosecrans renewed operations, with his Tullahoma Campaign.
Tactically, the Battle of Stones River was indecisive. However, the Federal repulse of two major Confederate attacks provided much-needed encouragement to Northern morale after the Federal disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, in Virginia. Moreover, Stones River scuttled Confederate hopes to maintain control of Middle Tennessee. The battle must be judged a strategic victory for the Federals.
Of the major battles of the Civil War, Stones River had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides. The Confederacy suffered 11,739 casualties of 34,739 troops engaged, and the Federals lost 12,906 of 41,400 troops engaged. Historian John Codman Ropes writes, “Few battles have been fought which have better exhibited the soldierly virtues” than this encounter.
Stones River National Military Park offers a large visitor center and well-marked and maintained battle sites as well as a large cemetery. Most of the Federal dead from the Battle of Franklin (1864) were re-interred here. There are numerous cannons and monuments at the various battle sites and excellent explanatory signs. Of particular interest is the Hazen Monument, erected at the site of the Round Forest to commemorate the over-valiant efforts of Hazen’s Brigade in repelling the Confederates. Interestingly, there are numerous graves within the perimeter of this monument occupied by Federals who would not relinquish possession of the Round Forest. McFadden’s Ford has been preserved, and one can walk to where the Confederates charged across Stones River.
Efforts to reclaim additional areas have been made difficult by the burgeoning population of Murfreesboro. Stones River National Military Park remains one of the most endangered Civil War battlefields in the nation. A citizen’s organization, Friends of Stones River National Battlefield, is active in preservation efforts (friendsofstonesriver.org).
We’re bound for Chattanooga, Tennessee. We can either drive from Murfreesboro on Interstate Highway 24 South, or we can approximate the route taken by the the two armies following the Battle of Stones River (first the Confederates and a few months later by the Federals). To do the latter we can drive south from Murfreesboro on U.S. Highway 231 to Shelbyville, where we can pick up Tennessee Highway Alternate 41 and drive to Tullahoma.
In 1863, after Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg withdrew the Army of Tennessee from the Murfreesboro locale, most of his battered force staggered to the Tullahoma area for rest, recuperation, and resupply. Bragg’s cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, relocated his cavalry to Spring Hill, where, as mentioned earlier, he was destined to meet Dr. George B. Peters and the doctor’s wife, the beauteous Jessie Peters. Van Dorn may have had an affair with Jessie; someone shot him to death, probably George Peters.
Two days after the departure from Murfreesboro of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, the equally battered Federal Army of the Cumberland invested the area, which William Starke Rosecrans elected to use as the army’s winter quarters despite urging by his superiors and other generals, especially Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, to pursue and re-engage the Army of Tennessee. Instead, the Army of the Cumberland spent the winter preparing for a spring offensive under relatively pleasant conditions. Well-supplied from Nashville and able to engage in the commerce of Murfreesboro, Federal soldiers enjoyed their five-month winter break, meeting the young women of the area (officers calling on “young ladies of quality”) and interacting peacefully with the citizenry.
During this time, Bragg’s Army of Tennessee constructed fortifications along a line from the Duck River, Tennessee, to Wartrace, Tennessee. On the army’s right, artillery and infantry units guarded the Bellbuckle, Hoover’s, and Liberty Gaps. Though well-supplied, the Confederates did not enjoy the amenities bestowed on the Federals in Murfreesboro. An unusually wet spring turned the Tullahoma area into a quagmire. A Confederate officer quipped that Tullahoma was from the ancient Greek, Tulla meaning “mud” and homa meaning “more mud.” Yet the Confederates were confident that their well-constructed fortifications would provide a defensible base from which they could regain control of Middle Tennessee.
In June 1863, a sleek, well-clothed, and well-fed – and perhaps a bit somnambulant – Federal Army of the Cumberland marched out of Murfreesboro in search of the Army of Tennessee, leaving a contingent to guard the city under the command of Maj. Gen. James A. Garfield (later President of the United States). Federal commander Rosecrans ordered a diversionary attack on 23 June on Shelbyville; Rosecrans was massing his main force for an attack on the Confederate right flank. The Federals attacked the gaps – Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s force charged through Hoover’s Gap on 24 June with Col. John T. Wilder’s “Flying Brigade” of cavalry leading the way and pushing aside the Confederate 3rd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. As the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry fell back, it met Confederate Brig. Gen. William B. Bate’s and Brig. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson’s divisions of infantry, who then hurried to throw back the Federals. Heavy fighting continued at Hoover’s Gap until about 1200 hours on 26 June, when Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, corps commander for the Bate and Johnson corps, notified Bate and Johnson that he was withdrawing and they should do likewise.
Although slowed by drenching rain, the Federal Army of the Cumberland slogged on, piercing the Confederate defensive line and forcing the Army of Tennessee to retreat to Tullahoma. Rosecrans sent Wilder’s Flying Brigade ahead to cut the railroad in the Confederates’ rear. Wilder’s force arrived too late to burn the Elk River railroad bridge, but it did destroy much track in the vicinity of Dechard, cutting the Army of Tennessee’s supply line. Bragg withdrew the Army of Tennessee from Middle Tennessee, retreating to Chattanooga. A running battle ensued between Bragg’s rear guard and the pursuing Federals that did not end until 8 June when the Army of Tennessee crossed the mountains at Cowan.
This, then, was the Tullahoma Campaign, a major Civil War encounter. The loss of Tennessee was catastrophic for the Confederacy. Not only did the Confederate forces of the Western Theater depend on the “Breadbasket of Tennessee” for its sustenance, huge shipments of grain and beef were sent almost daily from the breadbasket to the Confederate forces of the Eastern Theater. When President Abraham Lincoln learned of the Tullahoma Campaign, he termed it, “The most brilliant strategy that I know of.” But in the summer of 1863, the attention of American newspapers, and the public, was fixed on Lt. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania and on Maj. Gen Ulysses S. Grant’s continuing Vicksburg Campaign.
The Tullahoma Campaign was the first time the new Spencer repeating rifles were used in battle (in the hands of Col. John T. Wilder’s Flying Brigade). Also during this campaign, Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s “Whitworth Sharpshooters,” armed with British Whitworth rifles, set records for marksmanship unbroken for a century.
The Tullahoma Campaign continues to escape the attention of the National Park Service, so there is far less to see than one might expect for a battle of these dimensions. On the bright side, much of the area remains as it was when the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee struggled here. Visitors will have a good view of the original terrain. There are, of course, some markers, monuments, and National Park Service facilities, e.g., at Liberty Gap where entrenched Arkansas regiments were assaulted by the Federals. At the time of the Tullahoma Campaign, Confederate corps commander Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee encamped his corps at Wartrace and used the mansion of Beechwood Plantation as his headquarters. The mansion was built in 1826 for a wealthy planter and his family who were rabid supporters of the Confederacy and who lavishly entertained area society and Confederate officers during the Civil War. The mansion has not survived, but the plantation exists today as Beech Wood Farms in the town of Wartrace.
In terms of gaining knowledge of this battlefield area, an excellent source is a store in Wartrace called the Blockade Runner (blockaderunner.com). This is one of Middle Tennessee’s leading sources of Civil War artifacts and souvenirs, as well as Civil War re-enactor clothing and equipment (touring the premises is an educational and enjoyable enterprise in itself). The store is instrumental in arranging re-enactments of the Tullahoma Campaign and is an authority regarding the events, with heaps of information happily unloaded on visitors to the battlefield. Group tours of the battlefield are conducted periodically, and a personal tour can be arranged in advance. For lunch or supper, Uncle Bud’s Catfish Chicken & Such in Tullahoma offers excellent food at reasonable prices, served in a charming rural “down home” atmosphere – a delightful restaurant with sawdust on the floors and the best sweet iced tea in the region.
One of the sites we must visit is the Beech Grove Confederate Cemetery. During the battle, the cemetery was the site of Capt. Eli Lilly’s now-legendary “Jackass Battery” of 12-pound mountain howitzers that protected Rosecrans’ left flank.
And now, on to Chattanooga, where we have an opportunity for a “three-fer” and even a “four-fer” in Civil War battleground tours.
Tennessee Highway 64, northeast from Wartrace, or Tennessee Highway 56, northeast from Tullahoma, past Arnold Air Force Base, will take us quickly to Interstate Highway 24 South, the fastest route to Chattanooga. However, we will be rewarded with gorgeous scenery by taking U. S. Highway Alternate 41 southeast to Winchester, then northeast to Interstate Highway 24 South.
Reaching Chattanooga, it would best serve our tour purposes to find accommodations in the vicinity of the intersections of U.S. Highways 11,41, 64, and 72. The bustling and charming Chattanooga area offers a wide variety of lodging choices suitable for most budgets and tastes. And, of course, the city has numerous attractions to occupy our time when we’re not touring battlefield sites. This cosmopolitan community produces everything from world-class art to zero-emission electric busses (used in downtown Chattanooga, which boasts superb public transportation facilities) to Boss Hog automobile V-8 engine motorcycles. Personal favorites include, but are not limited to, the excellent Tennessee Aquarium, the Chattanooga Zoo, the Southern Belle riverboat, the Hunter Museum of Modern Art, the Lookout Mountain Inclined Railway, the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, the Buttonwillow Church Civil War Dinner Theater (great fun), Ruby Falls, and the Chattanooga Water Taxi and Fat Cat Ferry (these boats are delightful ways to tour the riverfront areas).
Chattanooga offers many top-quality places to eat. Personal favorites include the Acropolis, the Blue Orleans Creole Restaurant (both locations), the Bluewater Grille, the Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar, Dinner in the Diner, Easy Seafood Bistro & Bar, Niko’s Southside Grille, Porker’s Barbecue, Porter’s Steakhouse, Riverside Catfish House, and both of the Sticky Fingers Rib House locations. Alas, a long-time favorite, Uncle Bud’s Catfish Chicken & Such, closed its doors in spring 2006. The concept was reborn in Tullahoma in December 2006; the Uncle Bud’s tradition lives on there and in Hendersonville.
Reaching Chattanooga in the summer of 1863, Confederate Maj. Gen Braxton Bragg laid careful plans for the destruction of the Federal Army of the Cumberland commanded by Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans.
The end result of Bragg’s planning would be the Battle of Chickamauga, the most significant Federal defeat in the Western Theater. (Note: Many sources incorrectly describe the Battle of Chickamauga as two-day affair, 19-20 September 1863. It is the official position of the U.S. Park Service that the battle lasted three days, 18-20 September.)
Bragg hoped to instill a false sense of security in Rosecrans and his staff. To that end, Bragg had volunteers pose as Confederate deserters who lamented to Federal interrogators that the Army of Tennessee was demoralized and unable to withstand the advance of the Army of the Cumberland. To add credence to their reports, Bragg withdrew his army from Chattanooga and marched into northern Georgia. The ruse worked perfectly: the Federals believed the Army of Tennessee to be in full flight to Atlanta.
By early September 1863, the three corps of the Federal Army of the Cumberland were spread over a wide area of rough, mountainous, heavily wooded terrain that made it extremely difficult for them to maintain contact with one another. The Federal corps commanders probed blindly, having no definite idea where the Confederate Army of Tennessee might be, although it was generally assumed, as noted above, that the Confederates were well into Georgia. In actuality, Bragg had concentrated his army on the east side of Chickamauga Creek, well hidden from the Federals by dense forest. Bragg’s Army of Tennessee was heavily reinforced by two divisions detached from the Army of Mississippi, and a corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, reluctantly and temporarily detached by Lt. Gen. Robert E. Lee after the entreaties of the corps commander, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, who was certain his Eastern Theater troops could teach the Westerners a few things about warfare (with much glory accruing to him as they did).
As the Federals laboriously groped their way southeast, Bragg prepared for battle. His plan was to attack Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s XIV Corps as it crossed Chickamauga Creek and began ascending Pigeon Mountain, crushing it before help could arrive. Other units of the Army of Tennessee would wait for Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden’s XX Corps and fall on it before it could be supported. Finally, the entire Army of Tennessee would assault Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s XXI Corps as it came up. Thus, the Army of the Cumberland would be destroyed in a perfect textbook maneuver.
By 10 September, Federal commander Rosecrans began to realize that the Confederate Army of Tennessee was not in retreat. As Federal Maj. Gen. James Negley’s division crossed Chickamauga Creek, it was met by a powerful Confederate force and forced to retreat. Thomas reported to Rosecrans that the Confederates were no longer falling back in disarray, and McCook and Thomas expressed deep concern about their corps being so far apart. McCook began moving his corps closer to Thomas.
On 15 September Bragg notified his officers of a revised plan. The Army of Tennessee would march northward to interpose itself between the Federal army and Chattanooga. The Federals would be forced to either engage in battle or to fall back across the Tennessee River to protect their supply lines. By 17 September, both the Confederate and Federal armies were moving northward with collision imminent. Rosecrans assumed that the vital crossings across Chickamauga Creek were defended by the Confederates, but he believed that only a few Confederate cavalry units were operating in those areas. To counter any threat by cavalry, he ordered Wilder’s brigade and Col. Robert Minty’s cavalry to guard Alexander’s Bridge and Reed’s Bridge, respectively. At the time, Wilder’s brigade had a strength of about 2,000 and Minty’s brigade numbered less than 1,100. These two under-strength brigades were all that stood in the way of a Confederate army of 16,000 and the success of Bragg’s plans.
During the night of 17 September, Federal commander Minty sent several urgent messages to Maj. Gen. Thoms L. Crittenden, reporting that he could hear train after train arriving at nearby Ringgold, Georgia, and unloading Confederate infantry. At 0500 hours, 18 September, Minty sent out two reconnaissance parties who reported to him at 0600 hours that a large Confederate force was advancing on Alexander’s Bridge. As Minty reinforced his pickets and re-sited his artillery on Pea Vine Ridge, one of his scouting parties was fighting skirmishes with strong Confederate infantry supported by artillery. At 1100 hours, Minty reported to Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood that his scouts had been driven in and he was skirmishing heavily with Confederate cavalry and infantry, requesting that Wood notify Crittenden and Rosecrans.
The morning of 18 September dawned sunny and clear for the men of Federal commander Wilder’s brigade, who set about cooking their foraged breakfasts of bacon, eggs, and ham, with pickets posted on the east side of Reed’s Bridge. This bucolic, peaceful scene was interrupted in mid-morning as troops from the 72nd Indiana Volunteer Cavalry who had been foraging on the far side of Reed’s Bridge dashed back across the span to report the movement of Confederate infantry to the northeast. The troops took up positions for battle.
Atop Pea Vine Ridge, Minty could see long columns of Confederate infantry approaching Dyer’s Bridge and a ford across Chickamauga Creek. Both crossings were unprotected, and Minty sent Wilder a message asking him to send troops to guard those crossings. Wilder immediately dispatched seven companies of the 72nd Indiana, the 123rd Illinois, and a section of Lilly’s Battery. Then Wilder deployed the 17th Indiana to the left of Alexander’s Bridge and the 98th Illinois to its right, with heavy forestation on the west side of the creek shielding the two units. The nature of the terrain forced the Confederates to either cross the bridge or search for a ford somewhere else. Wilder sited the remaining four guns of Lilly’s Battery on a knoll about 400 yards from the bridge. Wilder had fewer than 1,000 Federal troops to oppose a Confederate force of 8,000 infantry plus a unit from Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s highly vaunted cavalry, the entire force supported by artillery.
Meanwhile, Minty deployed the 123rd Illinois to guard Dyer’s Bridge, and sent the 72nd Indiana to protect the ford downstream. As a company of the 72nd Indiana approached the ford, it was ambushed by Confederate infantry. A sharp skirmish drove the Federals back toward Dyer’s Bridge. Shortly, the 72nd Indiana was ordered to withdraw and report to Minty, who regrouped his command and ordered an attack against the lead elements of the Confederates that drove them over the ridge and back into Pea Vine Valley. The Confederate force of nearly 10,000 now occupied a crescent line from the creek above Dyer’s Bridge across the ridge to Pea Ridge Valley. Realizing that the Confederate force vastly outnumbered his, and that the best he could do was to delay the Confederate advance as long as possible, Minty established a new defensive line 500 yards east of Alexander’s Bridge comprised of the 4th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, two battalions of the 4th U. S. Regular Cavalry, remaining companies of the 7th Pennsylvania Volunteer Calvary, and the section of Wilder’s Battery. Minty ordered two squadrons of the 4th U. S. Regulars and the artillery to set an ambush in a thick woods near the bridge, as the rest of the 4th U. S. Regulars moved back across the bridge to form on the high ground west of the creek. ●