This Granger and Steedman Thing!

by Joe Meyer on October 19, 2007 · 4 comments

I have long been somewhat mildly disturbed by the story of the “last moment” arrival of Major General Gordon Granger with Brigadier General James B. Steedman’s First Division of the Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland to the aid of Major General George H. Thomas in the late afternoon of September 20, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga. The sensational hype and raw excitement that attended the first newspaper accounts of that event have largely endured to this day, and the story certainly makes for some great reading!

Within that story we are breathlessly told how the two commanders and their troops arrived just in the “nick-of-time” to counterattack and stabilized the right-rear of Thomas’s crumbling line against the awful assaults of Thomas Hindman’s and Bushrod Johnson’s Confederate divisions. The Federal line on Horseshoe Ridge had been battered and bled all afternoon, and Thomas’s best efforts at shoring up those positions were now severely handicapped by the paucity of available troops. Worse, by that time the men were running out of ammunition. “Thomas and his troops,” wrote Jerry Korn in 1985 for the Time-Life series The Civil War, “were in dire straits and there was no solution in sight.”

Korn then goes on to describe how during all through the late morning of that day Granger wrestled with the decision of whether or not he should leave his position three miles north at Rossville, and go to the sound of battle.

“Granger—a short pugnacious West Pointer—watched the dust rising in the distance and growled to Major Joseph S. Fullerton, his chief of staff: ‘They are concentrating over there. That’s where we ought to be.’ As the sounds of battle came rumbling over the fields and more dust and battle smoke rose into the air, Granger almost exploded with pent-up frustration. ‘Why the hell does Rosecrans keep me here?’ he cried to Fullerton. ‘There is the battle!’ He climbed up on a haystack and stared into the distance through his field glasses, and at last he could stand it no longer. He uttered an oath and declared: ‘I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders!’ “


And so he did. Granger’s arrival at Snodgrass Hill with Steedman’s two brigades that afternoon around 4:00 P.M. produced “a throb of exultation!” The fresh troops and the ammunition they brought enabled Thomas to hold his right and to eventually withdraw, for the most part safely and carefully, what was left of the army after nightfall. No more dramatic “last minute” arrival of troops to tip the scales of victory or defeat exists within the annals of the Civil War other than perhaps that of A. P. Hill’s division at Antietam. It was and is the stuff of high adventure and great historical moment.

The successful outcome of Granger’s march and the resulting fighting done by Steedman’s brigades did much to enhance the reputation of both men and provided great material for every newspaper correspondent with the army at that time. And the telling of the story, especially Granger’s “increasing impatience” with Rosecrans’s holding orders at Rossville, fit nicely with the contemporary sentiment and belief that Rosecrans’s attributes as a commander had wholly diminished with his “disgraceful flight” from the battlefield! But I am wondering if Granger’s march was entirely the result of his own volition in the way that it is portrayed? And therein lies the source of my disturbance.

It is grounded in two bits of information found in the OR and by that great attribute that most of us share called “common sense.” On the evening of September 13, almost one whole week before the two armies finally met in the valley of the Chickamauga, Rosecrans gave general directions to Granger in relation to the movements of Crittenden’s Twenty-first Army Corps. “The enemy has concentrated the bulk of his army in the neighborhood of La Fayette,” wrote Rosecrans’s chief of staff, James Garfield from Chattanooga, “and seems determined to give battle to us.” Having apprised Granger of the general threat, Garfield then went on to elaborate on the operational situation and to give the Reserve Corps commander his instructions.

“Generals Stanley and McCook have been ordered to close up this way on General Thomas, and all to move this way and form a junction with General Crittenden. The general commanding directs you to move your command as soon as it reaches here to Rossville to watch the road to Ringgold and that toward La Fayette, and also the approaches on your left down the valley of Chattanooga Creek. Hold yourself in readiness to support General Crittenden in case he attacks or is attacked. Communicate with him on your arrival at Rossville. In case of an engagement in front, close up toward the sound of battle. The general commanding goes in a few minutes to General Thomas’ headquarters to execute the flank movement this way. He will not return before three days. Let us hear from you as soon as you arrive.” (OR, Serial 52, p. 613)

Does not this order from Rosecrans to one of his corps commanders attempt to generally instruct him as to both his immediate and potential subsequent actions? It seems clear that Rosecrans wanted Granger to place his available field force in a position at Rossville that would give some security to and surveillance for the army’s northern flank as it attempted to bring itself together opposite Bragg. But the order also makes clear what Granger’s response should be in case of an engagement to his front: “Close up toward the sound of battle!

“Well, so what?” you may ask. That order was written and delivered to Granger five days before the battle commenced on September 19. How could you expect a corps commander to consider such orders effective over that span of time? Besides, the September 13 order specifically states that Granger should only close up to the sound of battle in case of an engagement to his front! The two points of objection seem to be well made…well made, that is, in lieu of any other direct orders that may have been given in the meantime and without a clarification as to what constituted Granger’s “front!” Let’s take a look at the later objection first, and bring along a little of that common sense in the process.

I suppose one could say that a military commander would regard his “front” as only that ground immediately opposite his own battleline. But then, where does that definition begin and end when considering what constitutes a left- or right-front as it relates to a commander’s own area of responsibility? Is it two feet, two hundred yards or two miles off of the immediate front? Would that not depend upon the commander’s interpretation of the immediate operational situation? In other words, how far away to either the left or right of his own front would a commander regard the enemy’s activities as being non-consequential? It seems as if Rosecrans at least described to Granger what he deemed Granger should consider important to both his left and right from his intended position at Rossville; namely, “down the valley of the Chattanooga Creek” to his left and to support Crittenden to his right in case that officer should be attacked! Quite a bit further than his own immediate front, wouldn’t you agree?

But how about that time lag? How could you possibly expect Granger to have held to the original intent of the October 13 order for six days in such a fluid and dynamic operational situation? The answer is that I couldn’t: not for six days in that situation without any additional instructions! But the fact is that such an additional instruction was given! And it was given on the night of September 19!

Brigadier General Garfield once again dispatched Granger that evening with the following inquiry and instructions.

“Did you receive an order today to bring General Spears up? Let him and General Wagner hold Chattanooga. You must help us in the fight tomorrow by supporting Thomas. What is the news with you? We have repulsed them at nearly every point today, though they have attacked us with superior numbers.” (OR, Serial 52, p. 741)

That sounds pretty convincing to me that Rosecrans had clearly indicated to Granger that he expected something more of him than just sitting comfortably at Rossville, guarding the army’s left and the roads to Chattanooga. But it also goes a little farther in chipping away at some of this ridiculous myth and fiction that Rosecrans just put Granger out there in left field and forgot about him!

It also strikes me that Rosecrans had acted something in the manner of a Lee by giving discretionary license and blessing to anything Granger might want to undertake in the way of seeking an active role in support of the army’s important left flank; that is, he gave Granger a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his capability as a West Point graduate! But the question arises whether Rosecrans could have more effectively and immediately directed Granger to bring Steedman’s division into action earlier that what actually happened.

The question might be better directed to an examination of Thomas’s actions! Thomas was directly charged by Rosecrans for commanding the affairs of the entire left of the army, and by 11:00 A.M. he had control of roughly 2/3rd’s of the active Federal forces on the field. Thomas must have generally known of Granger’s location in the Rossville area. To think otherwise would be incredibly absurd! Given the situation he was facing by 1:00 P.M. on September 20, did it not make sense that Thomas might have called Granger down to his aid? Were not Thomas’s perogatives in this regard and by that time inclusive of all of the forces within his reach? If in the crush of such a severe combat strain we excuse a lapse in Thomas’s overview of the situation, must we not also extend the same consideration to Rosecrans?

The more I look at this situation, the more I am inclined to believe that both Granger and Steedman did exactly what Rosecrans had anticipated, urged and allowed them to do. What stinks about the whole thing is that these same two officers later thought to blame their chief for not having given them clear direction! But then, Rosecrans had made the biggest personal blunder of his entire military career by having left the field while the battle still raged, hadn’t he?

The raw adventure, magnificent heroics and sheer drama of Granger’s arrival at Snodgrass Hill combine to make this story one of the Civil War’s best told, true episodes. Nothing can ever change that. But the questionable story surrounding Granger’s motives and reasoning for making that march, I think, needs to be scrutinized and re-examined by future historians. It just might be time for Granger to come down off of that haystack!


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Powell October 29, 2007 at 5:05 am


Certainly there is a lot of mythmaking concerning Granger’s arrival. However, I think you have left out a critical element of the equation that does much to explain how all this mythology came to be.

Just a few years after the war, members of Steedman’s staff began to circulate the idea that Steedman was not under Granger’s orders, and that Steedman made the decision to disregard his current assignment and march to join Thomas. (Thier basis for the idea of Steedman’s independence was one order issued directly from Rosecrans to Steedman a few days before, bypassing Granger’s Corps HQ. Very weak, in retrospect.)

The first intimations of this are probably found in William Shanks’ book, published in 1866 – “Personal Recollections of Distinguished Generals.” Shanks was very sympathetic to Steedman, and credited him with a great deal of initiative.

Of course, these claims drew considerable reaction from Granger Staffers. Fullerton’s piece, which you quoted, was written as a direct refutation of an earlier speech by John C. Smith, in which Smith attributed all of Granger’s discussion of disobeying orders to Steedman, and had Granger wringing his hands helplessly on the sidelines.

Rosecrans is really only the secondary victim here, caught in the free-fire zone between Steedman and Granger. Each group of backers was trying to prove that their man had the real soldierly qualities of initiative and decisiveness. In order to do that, they had to exagerate their boss’s independence.

Certainly Granger’s orders required two diverse missions: guard Rossville Gap and support Thomas. However, bear in mind that all of the Army of the Cumberland’s discussion the night before was how to close up to the north, towards Rossville Gap, and Granger’s mission to support Thomas should be seen in that light – Rosecrans was expecting that Thomas and Granger would eventually link up somewhere near Cloud Church.

When Granger made the decision to shift south, he did leave roughly half of his force – McCook’s Infantry Brigade and Minty’s of Cavalry – to guard the gap while he took Steedman’s two brigades to join the fight.

I agree that the idea of the march “against orders” is vastly overdone by popular history. Granger was acting within his orders, and personally I am pretty suspicious of the way the scene is portrayed by either Fullerton or Smith, to name two of the principals involved in the later myth-building.


Joe Meyer October 30, 2007 at 1:37 am


Thanks for the interesting comments and additional insights! I found them to be very illuminating.

Perhaps Jerry Korn is somehow related to William Shanks!

Would you be interested in conversing?


Joe Meyer October 30, 2007 at 5:39 pm


I found your comments to be most interesting and instructive. The machinations of both Granger’s and Steedman’s staff as you’ve described them are reminiscent of those of Grant’s and Rosecrans’s at Iuka and Corinth, although probably not so subtle!

Perhaps Jerry Korn and William Shanks are somehow related to each other in that they each attempted to color history to their own satisfaction.

Great comments, Dave! I am most appreciative.


Dave Powell May 23, 2009 at 3:07 pm


For some reason, I just got an email notifying me of this response, I had forgotten I’d made it.

In any case, Chickamauga was a Union disaster that needed a lot of hero-making, which also contributed to the various stories. Granger was for a time one of those heroes, but Grant and Sherman found him to be a bit difficult, which is why you see him easing out of the picture in 1864 to command sideshows.


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