Battle Of Chickamauga Explained

The Battle of Chickamauga explained

The Battle of Chickamauga, a significant encounter during the American Civil War, stands as a pivotal moment in the conflict between the Union and Confederate forces.

Fought from September 19 to September 20, 1863, in northwestern Georgia, it marked the end of the Union’s Chickamauga Campaign and led to one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war.

Understanding the background, build-up, key phases, aftermath, and legacy of this battle provides crucial insights into the complexities of Civil War military strategy and its profound impact on subsequent events.

Let’s jump in as we take a look at one of the most famous battles in US history.

Key takeaways

  • The Battle of Chickamauga, fought from September 19 to September 20, 1863, was one of the major battles of the American Civil War, marking the end of the Union’s Chickamauga Campaign.
  • It was the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with significant casualties on both sides.
  • The Confederate victory halted the Union advance into Georgia, but failed to achieve a strategic breakthrough.
  • The battle underscored the importance of effective communication and coordination among military units.
  • The aftermath saw General George H. Thomas earn the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga” for his defensive stand.


In the summer of 1863, the Union Army, under the command of Major General William Rosecrans, initiated the Tullahoma Campaign, successfully pushing Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg out of Middle Tennessee.

This victory set the stage for the Union’s next objective: capturing the strategically vital city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a key rail hub and gateway to the Deep South.

Chattanooga’s importance lay in its transportation links, which facilitated the movement of troops and supplies.

Recognizing this, both Union and Confederate forces understood that control of Chattanooga could significantly influence the broader war effort.

The Union’s successful maneuvering during the Tullahoma Campaign forced Bragg’s Army of Tennessee to retreat to Chattanooga, setting the stage for the Battle of Chickamauga.

Build-Up to the Battle

Following the Union’s advance, Rosecrans meticulously planned to outflank Bragg and force him to abandon Chattanooga without a fight.

By early September 1863, Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland was on the move, skillfully executing a series of maneuvers that pushed Bragg’s forces south into Georgia.

Bragg, seeking to regroup and counter the Union threat, received reinforcements from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps from the Army of Northern Virginia.

As Union forces moved through the rugged terrain of northern Georgia, Bragg saw an opportunity to strike.

On September 18, 1863, skirmishes began as Confederate troops attempted to cut off Union supply lines and isolate Rosecrans’ army. The stage was set for a major confrontation along the banks of Chickamauga Creek.

Day 1: September 19, 1863

Morning engagements

On the morning of September 19, 1863, the Battle of Chickamauga began in earnest. The initial clashes started around dawn when Confederate forces, under the command of General Braxton Bragg, aimed to disrupt the Union supply lines and secure favorable positions.

Bragg’s army was composed of two main corps: Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Corps and Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Corps, though Longstreet’s troops had not yet fully arrived.

Union movements and command

Major General William Rosecrans commanded the Union Army of the Cumberland. His forces were spread out, with significant units led by Major Generals George H. Thomas, Alexander McCook, and Thomas L. Crittenden.

On the morning of the 19th, Rosecrans ordered Thomas to secure a crossing at Reed’s Bridge to prevent the Confederates from flanking the Union left.

First skirmishes

The day’s fighting began with skirmishes between Union cavalry under Brigadier General John T. Wilder and Confederate infantry near Jay’s Mill.

Wilder’s mounted infantry, equipped with Spencer repeating rifles, initially managed to push back the Confederate advance. However, as Confederate reinforcements arrived, the intensity of the combat increased.

Mid-morning clashes

By mid-morning, significant fighting erupted around the areas of Jay’s Mill and Viniard Field. Union Brigadier General John Brannan’s division faced aggressive assaults from Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division.

Despite initial Union success in holding their ground, Confederate pressure increased as more brigades joined the fray.

Key officers and their roles

  • Union: Major General George H. Thomas played a crucial role throughout the day. Known for his calm demeanor and tactical acumen, Thomas managed to hold critical positions despite relentless Confederate attacks.
  • Brigadier Generals John M. Palmer and Jefferson C. Davis (not to be confused with the Confederate president) also commanded important Union divisions that participated in the day’s engagements.
  • Confederate: Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk directed many of the Confederate attacks on the Union right and center. Major Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Alexander P. Stewart were instrumental in leading Confederate assaults against Union positions.

Afternoon battles

The intensity of the battle increased in the afternoon as both sides committed more troops. The fighting in the woods and fields around the Lafayette Road became chaotic, with units often fighting in close quarters.

The dense terrain made it difficult for both sides to maintain cohesive lines, leading to numerous small-scale engagements and high casualties.

The fight for Viniard Field

One of the bloodiest encounters occurred at Viniard Field. Union troops under Brigadier General William H. Lytle, known for his bravery and also as a poet, engaged Confederate forces in a fierce struggle.

Lytle was killed in the fighting, marking a significant loss for the Union. The battle for control of this area saw both sides suffer heavy losses as they repeatedly charged and countercharged across the open field.

Troop movements

Throughout the day, Union commanders attempted to reinforce threatened positions and counter Confederate advances.

Major General Thomas shifted his divisions to plug gaps in the Union line, while Rosecrans ordered divisions from the center and right to support Thomas’s embattled left flank. These movements were critical in preventing a complete Confederate breakthrough but also led to disjointed and piecemeal engagements.

As evening approached, the fighting gradually subsided with neither side achieving a decisive breakthrough.

State of the battle at day’s end

By the end of September 19, the Union army was still in possession of most of the key positions it had held in the morning, but it was clear that the Confederates were not going to give up the field without a major fight.

Both sides prepared for the next day, anticipating that the battle was far from over. Union commanders focused on shoring up their defenses and planning for potential Confederate attacks, while Bragg sought to regroup and exploit any weaknesses in the Union lines.

Key observations

  • Union Command and coordination: Despite Rosecrans’ overall strategic acumen, the Union forces struggled with coordination due to the challenging terrain and communication issues. This resulted in units being spread thin and sometimes acting without cohesive support.
  • Confederate aggression: The Confederates, bolstered by the arrival of reinforcements from Longstreet’s Corps, maintained a relentless offensive. However, their inability to achieve a breakthrough on the first day set the stage for continued fighting.
  • Casualty impact: Estimates suggest that approximately 9,000 Union soldiers and 7,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing during the intense fighting of the first day. This totals to around 16,000 casualties on September 19 alone.

Day 2: September 20, 1863

Early morning preparations

The second day of the Battle of Chickamauga began with both Union and Confederate forces preparing for a decisive confrontation. General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, reorganized his forces for a concentrated assault.

He planned to exploit weaknesses in the Union line and deliver a crushing blow.

Union command and strategic positioning

Major General William Rosecrans, leading the Union Army of the Cumberland, faced the challenge of shoring up his defenses after the previous day’s heavy fighting. Key Union commanders on this day included Major General George H. Thomas, who was tasked with holding the critical left flank, and Major General Alexander McCook, responsible for the right flank.

Morning engagements and the breakthrough

The battle resumed with intense fighting along the entire front. Around mid-morning, a crucial miscommunication in the Union command led to a gap in the center of their lines. This gap was inadvertently created when Major General Thomas J. Wood, acting on orders from Rosecrans, moved his division out of the line, creating an opening.

Longstreet’s assault

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who had recently arrived with reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia, took advantage of the gap.

He led a massive assault with several divisions, including those commanded by Major Generals John B. Hood and Bushrod Johnson. This concentrated attack punched through the Union center, causing chaos and a significant Union rout.

Key officers and their roles

  • Union: Major General George H. Thomas played a pivotal role in stabilizing the Union defense. His leadership at Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge was critical in preventing a complete Confederate victory.
  • Other key Union officers included Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood, whose division was involved in the controversial movement that created the gap, and Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, who led reinforcements to support Thomas’s defensive stand.
  • Confederate: Longstreet’s aggressive tactics were instrumental in the day’s developments. Major General John B. Hood, despite being wounded during the fighting, contributed significantly to the Confederate breakthrough. General Braxton Bragg continued to direct overall Confederate efforts, coordinating attacks along the line.

Afternoon defensive stand

As Union forces reeled from the Confederate breakthrough, General George H. Thomas orchestrated a determined defense on Snodgrass Hill.

Rallying scattered Union troops, Thomas established a strong defensive position that withstood repeated Confederate assaults throughout the afternoon. This stand allowed the majority of Union forces to withdraw towards Chattanooga.

Troop movements

Union commanders rapidly shifted troops to reinforce Thomas’s position. Brigades under Brigadier General John Brannan and Major General Joseph J. Reynolds were among those redeployed to bolster the defenses on Snodgrass Hill. Despite being heavily outnumbered and under relentless attack, Thomas’s troops managed to hold their ground.

Evening and aftermath

By evening, the fighting began to die down. Confederate forces, exhausted and unable to dislodge Thomas’s defenders, ceased their attacks.

The Union army, though battered, managed to retreat in relative order towards Chattanooga, where they would regroup and fortify their positions.

Casualties on September 20

The second day of the Battle of Chickamauga was even bloodier than the first. Approximately 10,000 Union soldiers and 11,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing on September 20.

This brought the total casualties for the two-day battle to roughly 34,000, making it one of the bloodiest engagements of the Civil War.

State of the battle at day’s end

  • Union Forces: Despite suffering heavy losses and being forced to retreat, the Union army’s defensive stand on Snodgrass Hill prevented a total rout. Major General George H. Thomas’s actions earned him the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
  • Confederate Forces: The Confederates achieved a tactical victory by driving the Union army from the field. However, their inability to destroy the Union forces or prevent their retreat to Chattanooga meant the victory lacked a decisive strategic impact.

Key observations

  • Union Command and Coordination: The miscommunication that led to the gap in the Union lines highlighted the challenges of battlefield coordination. Thomas’s effective leadership in the face of disaster demonstrated the importance of resilience and tactical acumen.
  • Confederate Aggression: Longstreet’s assault capitalized on Union mistakes, demonstrating the effectiveness of concentrated attacks. However, the inability to capitalize fully on the breakthrough underscored the limitations of the Confederate command structure and logistics.
  • Casualty Impact: The staggering losses on both sides illustrated the high human cost of the battle. The Union’s ability to hold and retreat in order, despite severe casualties, set the stage for future operations in the Chattanooga Campaign.


The Battle of Chickamauga resulted in staggering casualties, with estimates of around 16,000 Union and 18,000 Confederate soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. The high cost in lives made it the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, surpassed only by the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the immediate aftermath, the Union army, now under siege in Chattanooga, faced a critical situation. Supplies dwindled, and morale was low. However, the Union’s determination and eventual relief efforts turned the tide.

Reinforcements arrived under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, who assumed overall command of the Union forces in the region. Grant’s leadership and strategic acumen led to the successful breakout from Chattanooga and the subsequent Union victories at the Battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.

For the Confederacy, the victory at Chickamauga failed to translate into a significant strategic advantage. Bragg’s inability to capitalize on the Union retreat and his subsequent mismanagement of the siege of Chattanooga led to internal discord and criticism from his subordinates. This internal strife weakened Confederate command cohesion, undermining their ability to sustain the momentum gained at Chickamauga.


The Battle of Chickamauga had far-reaching implications for the Civil War and American military history. Several key legacies stand out:

  1. Recognition of Leadership: General George H. Thomas’ leadership during the battle earned him lasting recognition as a tenacious and capable commander. His defense of Snodgrass Hill became a symbol of steadfastness and tactical skill, influencing future military studies and leadership training.
  2. Strategic Lessons: The battle underscored the importance of effective communication and coordination among military units. The Union’s failure to maintain cohesive lines and the resulting gap in their defense highlighted the critical need for reliable communication in combat.
  3. Psychological Impact: The battle’s brutality and high casualty rates had a profound psychological impact on both sides. For the Union, the defeat at Chickamauga was a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead, while for the Confederacy, it was a bittersweet victory that failed to deliver long-term strategic gains.
  4. Military Innovation: The battle witnessed the use of innovative tactics, such as Longstreet’s concentrated assault, which would be studied and emulated in future conflicts. The lessons learned at Chickamauga contributed to the evolving nature of military strategy and tactics during the Civil War.
  5. Preservation Efforts: In the years following the Civil War, efforts to preserve the Chickamauga battlefield gained momentum. The establishment of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 1890 marked one of the first major preservation efforts for Civil War battlefields, setting a precedent for future historic preservation initiatives.


The Battle of Chickamauga remains a significant episode in American history, reflecting the complexities and human costs of the Civil War. Its legacy continues to inform military scholarship, leadership studies, and historic preservation efforts.

For students and historians alike, the battle serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made and the enduring lessons of conflict and strategy.

By examining the background, build-up, key phases, aftermath, and legacy of the Battle of Chickamauga, we gain a deeper understanding of its place in the broader narrative of the Civil War.

This battle not only shaped the course of the war but also left an indelible mark on the collective memory of a nation striving to reconcile and rebuild in the aftermath of conflict.

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