New York Herald

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Author: William Franklin Gore Shanks  | Date: September 27, 1863

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Chickamauga (1863)

BY WILLIAM FRANKLIN GORE SHANKS

[September 21.] . . . ROSECRANS’ army had been concentrated on West Chickamauga creek, about ten or twelve miles northwest of Lafayette, Ga. . . .

. . . Bragg . . . moved to the right, nearly parallel with the creek, with the intention of getting upon our right flank and rear, or forcing Rosecrans to move with him to such point upon the stream as was naturally less calculated to offer a good defensive position against a strong attack on the left, in which plan Bragg persisted to the last. That it was his plan and purpose to throw himself between Rosecrans and Chattanooga, with the aim of preventing a junction with Burnside, now no longer remains doubtful. . . .

. . . on the night of the 18th the line was changed to accommodate itself with that of Bragg, Gen. Thomas’ corps moving all night for that purpose, and becoming the left of the army. . . .

. . . the enemy pushed up vigorously on the left, and simultaneously the three divisions of Brannan, Baird and Johnston were hotly engaged against a force fully equal, pressing forward most persistently. . . . Twice repulsed in their daring attack upon the left, with their dead strewing the field, the enemy had the boldness to make a third charge, this time pushing forward a heavy force on the entire front of Thomas and Crittenden, the line from Brannan to Van Cleve going in with vigor. For nearly an hour this engagement lasted, with success alternating between our banner and theirs. The musketry firing was very heavy, and in the densely timbered plain in which the fight occurred the sounds and echoes were demoniac, mingled as they were with the cries of the infuriated combatants. It is vain that one attempts to give the various incidents of this magnificent engagement of an hour and a half. . . .

. . . the enemy in front of Thomas’ four divisions (Brannan, Baird, Johnston and Reynolds) became less persistent in their efforts, and upon a charge being ordered by Thomas, they, the elite of Lee, broke. . . . For the fourth time they were driven over ground that they had thrice contested, at frightful cost; but their fourth repulse appeared to me to cost them more than all the rest. They fell at every step, mercilessly shot down, as they fled like sheep. The glory and renown of Longstreet had departed. Thomas pursued him for nearly a mile, driving him from every position which he assumed west of the creek, and forcing him beyond it in such great disorder that he was unable to recover from it during the day. The charge of that corps should go down to posterity in language that would insure the immortality of the story. . . .

. . . the fruits of Thomas’ victory over Longstreet were lost. It was in this wise. When Thomas’ corps made the charge upon Longstreet, which drove him such a distance in disastrous rout, Crittenden’s corps failed to push the rebel centre, but remained in his original position. Crittenden thus allowed a great gap to be made between him and Thomas, and permitted the latter’s right flank to be much exposed. At the same time the enemy was allowed time to gather fresh strength in front of McCook and Crittenden . . . until he had penetrated our centre. . . . But, as if unaware of the damage he had done us—unaware that Palmer was cut off, Van Cleve destroyed for the time, and Davis much pressed and wearied—the enemy had partially withdrawn, and the centre was re-established without any great effort, but somewhat in the rear of the former line. Having in the meantime learned of this new disaster on his right, and fearful of further exposure of his right flank, General Thomas reluctantly gave the order to fall back to the old position, which the men did in the most excellent order. . . .

On the morning of the 20th (Sunday) General Rosecrans . . . found the line stretched in the following order, from right to left . . . Davis’ right, then Sheridan, with one brigade in reserve; Wood, two brigades of Brannan, with the other and all of Van Cleve in reserve; Reynolds, Palmer, Baird, Johnston and Negley on the extreme left, the latter three divisions furnishing their own reserves. . . .

Along Thomas’ front there had been built during the night a rude breastwork for the protection of the men. . . . Generals Crittenden and McCook had not taken the same wise precautions, or the day might, perhaps, have gone otherwise.

. . . Longstreet still held the right, D. H. Hill had the centre and Polk the left of the rebel line, now well established west of the Chickamauga creek.

The fog on the morning of the 20th lifted slowly . . . when the battle opened with a furious assault on Thomas’ left.

. . . the storm, in all its fury, burst along the plain, enveloping the lines of Negley, Johnston, Baird and Palmer—no farther—and to this part it was confined for nearly two hours. I despair of giving any correct idea of this engagement. . . . For two hours that line never wavered. Can you not guess the result on the other side? . . .

At this time it was noon, and Thomas had not budged an inch from his position. . . .

Lying under Reynolds’ works at this hour, my attention was called to evident movements in the thick woods in his front and on his right. The dust revealed that the enemy was there, and soon it was known all along the line that he was pushing forward to attack the right and centre. The fight on the left continued with great fury: but Brannan had arrived in time to save that flank. The danger was now in the front and right. The enemy . . . advanced with great rapidity, and in a moment Reynolds, Brannan, Palmer, Wood and Sheridan were hotly engaged. But the fight was of short duration. The right and centre—I will not attempt to explain how—gave way in ten minutes after the fight began, and fled rapidly across the fields towards the mountains. Davis, struck in flank, was cut off with Sheridan, while Palmer and Wood, making desperate efforts to repel the overwhelming assault of the rebels, made with an impetus which of itself should have insured success, were forced back in the opposite direction. Van Cleve, struck while en route to aid the left, made no resistance deserving of the name, but was seen flying in mad retreat across an open field, where Rosecrans’ headquarters were. I can remember seeing in the distance the vain endeavors of Rosecrans and his staff to rally them. The rebels pushed on after the flying columns, increasing the wild panic which possessed them, and all the personal exertions of the chief and his staff were in vain. The rout of Sheridan, Davis, Van Cleve, and the most of Wood and Palmer, was now complete. General Rosecrans, cut off with Sheridan, Davis and Van Cleve, was forced, with McCook and Crittenden, far to the right, and in three hours after, borne along by the current, and cut off from Thomas, all three were pushed by the flying columns into Rossville and Chattanooga. . . .

Thomas still remained on the field, with remnants of his glorious old corps; and the man who had the day before, in equal contest, defeated the boastful chivalry of Longstreet, now bent all his energies, with an unequal force, to cover the retreat and save the flying army from absolute destruction.

. . . But this abandonment of the field by the centre and right enabled the enemy to do with Thomas’ right what he had signally failed, at frightful cost, to do with his left, and soon the rebels were pushing forward upon Wood and Palmer, doubling them up and pushing them back upon Brannan and Reynolds. . . .

. . . The raid had begun at twelve o’clock; the stand of Thomas was made in half an hour, and the repulse and check of the enemy had been effected in a desperate engagement along the whole of this little line of not over fifteen minutes’ duration.

Imagine this line—a thread without supports—the whole force to the front line—a force not over 20,000—and no one who saw it and who writes of it will put it at so much—and you have in your mind’s eye the heroic corps which saved the whole army. And imagine the black lines of a powerful enemy marching upon it flank and front, and all the time pressing it closely in front and flank. . . .

General Thomas, near the centre of the army, was engaged, about one o’clock . . . watching a heavy cloud of dust in his rear, in such a direction that it might be General Granger with reinforcements, or it might be the enemy. . . .

. . . In a few minutes . . . emerged . . . the red, white and blue crescent-shaped battle flag of Gordon Granger. . . . At a quarter-past one, Steadman first, and Gordon Granger afterwards, had wrung the hand of the statue Thomas, who had gone all through the terrible scenes of the last two days’ battle to be melted and moved at this hour. . . .

. . . Steadman in position, and the others notified as to his purpose, Thomas, with all the assurance of power and strength, assumed the offensive, and, while the enemy were actually moving on his flanks, intending to envelop him, positively made an attack and, in a fight of ten minutes of desperate encounter, knocked the centre out of their line and dislodged them from the position which they had held. . . .

Driven from his pressing position in the centre, the enemy did not fail to continue his manœuvres on our flanks, and at times succeeded in pushing them in, giving the line more and more the appearance of a horseshoe. But a general lull had followed the fight I have last mentioned, and that lull lasted until about sunset. Thomas was not disposed to attack, and the enemy were contented to manœuvre upon the flanks, perfectly confident, as he seemed, of surrounding our little force.

. . . the rebels, as if eager to consummate the victory ere the day should die out, pushed up for a last and overwhelming attack. It was five o’clock when the last combat of the battle began, and the sun refused to look upon its end. . . .

Our men were short of ammunition, and had orders to make what they had serve the best effect. Yet, despite this precaution, all along our line a most furious fire was kept up. I do not say that ammunition was wasted; for we had reason subsequently to know that the fire had been marked by most deadly effect, and that the last repulse of the battle was one of the most bloody to the rebels. There were but two charges, but each so admirably sustained by the rebels that only the desperate defence of our men could have repulsed them. . . .

. . . The aim of the enemy, persistently pursued from the beginning, was to get possession of Chattanooga. In that he was foiled, foiled for the present and the future; for it is now impossible to gain it. . . .

During the night of Sunday Gen. Thomas fell back from his position on the field to Rossville, where he held a strong position in the gap of Missionary Ridge, in which the town is situated. The enemy reconnoitered this position the next day, but failed to attack. During the same day the corps fell back to Chattanooga. . . .

, September 27, 1863.

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Chicago: William Franklin Gore Shanks, "Chickamauga (1863)," New York Herald in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48Z2LWHF1D9IGZ8.

MLA: Shanks, William Franklin Gore. "Chickamauga (1863)." New York Herald, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 26 Feb. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48Z2LWHF1D9IGZ8.

Harvard: Shanks, WF, 'Chickamauga (1863)' in New York Herald. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 26 February 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48Z2LWHF1D9IGZ8.