InSeptember of 1863, the Confederate army led by General Bragg had settled downinto Chattanooga, with the Union forces led by general Rosecrans supposedly stationed across theTennessee River right next to town.
Artillery from the river was constantly shellingthe city and the Confederate army, but besides that they could do nothing—they wouldnot dare to cross the river in front of the entire Confederate army. However,this artillery shelling was just a distraction. General Rosecrans had actually senthis army across the river on another part of the river, and was now headedtowards Chattanooga. This flanking maneuver pressured General Bragg to move hisforces out of the city and to the south. The Union’s army would chase theConfederates down this way for some time. Eventually the Confederates wouldstop their retreat, and once informed of this Rosecrans stopped his advance aswell. Braggwaited at his position for a few days for reinforcements, but they never came.
So, he left without them. Bragg had devised a plan to cut across ChickamaugaCreek (ironically translates to “river of death” in Cherokee) and move to benorth of the Union’s army in McLemore’s cove. This would cut off the Union fromtheir route back to Chattanooga, leaving them isolated. However, the plan wasnot executed very effectively. Since the creek was so steep at its edges, Bragghad to rely on bridges to transport his men and most importantly his wagons acrossit. At the bridges, Union forces awaited them in attempts to resist anyConfederate crossers. At bridges defended by normal infantry brigades, theresistance was fended off by the Confederacy easily.
However, at Alexander’s Bridge,John T. Wilder and his cavalry brigade were armed with 7-shot repeater riflesand held their bridge for several hours before pulling back. After finally crossingthe river, the Confederate army camped down for the night while the Union armywas on the move, now having reports that the rebels had crossed the creek. Thefollowing day, the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War would begin,lasting from September 18–20, 1863.Thefirst fighting took place on accident. Bragg had sent reconnaissance units tothe area, and they encountered infantry sent to defend that location under thecommand of General Thomas. Both General Rosecrans and General Bragg respondedto the skirmish in a similar fashion, sending their armies northward.
Theforces would encounter each other because of this. General Rosecrans moved hisheadquarters closer to the field, but that didn’t help his command much—one problemthat both Rosecrans and Bragg would encounter throughout the battle was that itwas very hard to tell very much what was going on not only in terms of theirown troops but especially the enemy’s troops. Not only did the smoke dischargefrom weapons cloud much of the battlefield (as expected), but the thickwoodlands made it extremely hard to see into the distance. This also meant thatthe troops in the fighting would not be able to see the opposing side untilthey were well within firing range, meaning that commanders searching for enemyforces may be surprised to suddenly have a mass of enemies directly next totheir flank. This problem lasted the entire battle.
However, on the plus side,this bushland provided cover for soldiers, so commanders could keep theirforces at a higher strength for a longer duration of time before having to fallback. The fighting throughout the first day was chaotic and confusing, but waseven more confusing as it turned dark. A Confederate leader by the name ofPatrick Cleburne sent his troops in to attack the Union soldiers just asdarkness fell. However, all both sides had to fire at were the muzzle flashesof the opposing side, meaning that accuracy was diminished almost entirely. Thisengagement proved to be more disorienting and frightening than harmful for bothsides—especially since friendly fire was a prominent event. At the end of thefirst day, rough estimates of casualties ranged from ~6000-9000 Confederatelosses and ~7000 Union losses.
Atnight, General Rosecrans called a meeting with his top commanders to attempt todetermine their battle plan for the following day. They decided that they hadthree options: attack, defend, or retreat from the field. After taking inreports of losses, they determined that attacking was out of the question; theirunits had been weakened way too much the previous day to be able to sustainmore heavy offensive moves.
Politically, retreating was also undesirable:reporting a retreat to the president and entire Union at this point in the warwould cause more trouble than it was worth. Therefore, they elected to defendtheir position. The defensive positionsRosecrans planned out went as followed: General Thomas would defend the leftflank in a horseshoe formation, with the intent of bearing the main assault.Thomas was the appropriate man picked for the job, known for his impressivedefensive skills. General McCook would protect Thomas’s right flank, formingthe center of the defense.
Finally, General Crittenden would remain in reserveand would be directed to the area under most heavy assault later in the day.The ensuing night would drop below freezing, providing terrible conditions forthe soldiers. To add on to the fact, fires were not allowed