The Battle of Gettysburg is often marked as the turning point of the Civil War. The high losses in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia both in terms of soldiers and commanders left him with few tactical choices other than fighting defensively for the rest of the war. Occurring in July of 1863, the battle was positioned roughly halfway through the war.
The idea of a turning point, however, is an interpretive tool of historians. Determining a historical turning point involves looking back after all the events are completed. Had Lincoln been defeated at the polls and had the Confederates effectively defended Atlanta, late 1864 could have been a turning point in the war. No one knows what the results would have been if General George B. McClellan had been elected as the Democrat replacement for Lincoln.
In the spring of 1865, had Lee led his men to the mountains and fought a guerrilla-style war for ten years after the fall of Richmond, historians might have talked about that as the turning point in the South’s successful War for Independence.
Small details, minor actions, and slight mistakes often determine the course of history. Almost any battle is, at some point, a close call, a near miss, a result of the unexpected and unplanned event, and the result of luck, fortune, or providence, depending upon who is writing the account. The “what if’s” of history entertain the thoughts of history students and the passions of history’s partisans.
The Battle of Chickamauga, September 19–20, 1863, could easily have been the turning point of the South’s War for Independence. Likewise, it could have hastened the Confederacy’s fall. It could have been Chickamauga, not Gettysburg, that was etched in the nation’s memory and the war’s outcome. Happening a little over two months after both Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, it offered for a brief moment one of the South’s best opportunities to change the course of the whole war.
Chickamauga was the second largest battle of the war in terms of total casualties. It was one of the few major battles when the Confederacy fielded more troops than the Union. It stands alone in being a battle where the Confederacy made use of its defensive position and interior lines of communication. What that means is that the Confederate government strategically moved troops from Mississippi and Virginia to northern Georgia to give the Southern Army of Tennessee its numerical advantage.
Southern railroads, inferior though they were to the rail system in the North, enabled General James Longstreet and his corps to move quickly from Virginia to join forces with General Braxton Bragg. In the varied debates about how the South could have won the Civil War, a more frequent use of railroads could have made a difference. Chickamauga is Exhibit A for that case.
The battle itself is named after Chickamauga Creek, which runs through much of the area where the fighting took place. The real objective of the battle was the nearby town of Chattanooga. That city, located in southern Tennessee just north of the Georgia state line, was a railroad hub for the South. Control of the city would give the Union armies control of all Tennessee and access to the Tennessee River, as well as disrupting Southern rail traffic.
William Rosecrans was the Union commander. “Old Rosey,” as he was known, was an Ohio-born West Point graduate, a devout Roman Catholic, and a general who was mediocre at best. Although he had several victories prior to Chickamauga, that battle sealed his fate as a commander.
Opposing Rosecrans was General Braxton Bragg. Prior to Chickamauga, Bragg’s lack of battlefield successes was exceeded only by the lack of support by his key commanders. Chickamauga was Bragg’s greatest and singular victory in the war. That fact, like all too many events occurring during the course of his battles, seemed to slip right past Bragg’s understanding.
The lives of 125,000 American men (65,000 for the South and 60,000 for the North) were in the hands of two incompetent generals. But if there were problems at the top, they were offset by the hard fighting by the soldiers on both sides and the leadership by the commanders serving under Bragg or Rosecrans. Napoleon once said that battles are won by the side that makes the fewest mistakes. While there were plenty of mistakes on both sides of the lines at Chickamauga, two major mistakes cost the Union army the battle.
The first major blunder occurred when General Longstreet arrived with two of his Virginia brigades. To his surprise and consternation, neither General Bragg nor any other officers were there to meet him and guide him to the headquarters. In a totally unfamiliar area, in the middle of the night, Longstreet and his aides headed out in search of General Bragg. Quite soon they were lost in the woods. Then they came upon some soldiers, and General Longstreet asked them what unit they belonged to. They answered giving the numerical designation for their unit. Longstreet nodded and quickly moved on.
General Longstreet had ridden right into the middle of a group of Union soldiers. They didn’t recognize him in the dark, but he knew that Southern units designated themselves by their commanders’ names, while the Union used numbers. The capture of General James Longstreet would have been a game-changer not only for the Battle of Chickamauga but for the rest of the war.
The second mistake occurred on September 20, which was the second day of battle. General Bragg, having his army beefed up by reinforcements, was keen on taking the offensive and driving Rosecrans’ army out of Chattanooga. The plan itself was better than the communication and execution of the battle. Bragg focused his attack on the Union left by using forces under the command of General and Episcopalian Bishop Leonidus Polk. Longstreet’s command was attacking the Union right.
As the battle developed, General Rosecrans ordered one of his divisions on the right to pull out of line and reinforce the left side which was under heavy attack. This order, which Rosecrans should not have issued and no officer should have followed, created a hole in the Union army. As Longstreet’s men were probing the Union defenses, they discovered this gap.
What was supposed to be the secondary attack under Longstreet suddenly became the prime target. Longstreet’s troops, being led on the battlefield by General John B. Hood, were quick to exploit the opportunity. The entire Union army was in peril, and it was only Bragg’s failure to understand the changing face of the battle that preserved them. As the Union army became disorganized and found itself in retreat, it was gradually saved by the stubborn defense mounted by General George Thomas. In time, Thomas became known as the Rock of Chickamauga and was given command of the army after Rosecrans was removed. While Thomas did not win the war for the North, he did keep the North from losing the war at Chickamauga. That battle, a great and fortuitous Southern victory, became a dashed hope rather than a turning point.
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