Part 8 of the series on Major Ramon T. de Aragon. After the fall of Vicksburg, Major De Aragon’s brigade is recalled to Tennessee as the Yankee forces under Rosencrans advance on Chattanooga. Ector’s Brigade was to play a pivotal role in the opening of hostilities at Chickamauga Creek.
For the first six months of 1863 Middle Tennessee was given a reprieve from the horrors of war. As the dramas at Vicksburg and Gettysburg unfolded, an impatient Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War pressured Rosecrans unceasingly to move against Bragg and “liberate” the rest of Tennessee. Finally, on June 23, Rosecrans moved his army to the offensive and through a series of rather clever maneuvers, forced Bragg to fall back through the mountains to Chattanooga.
It was inevitable that Rosecrans would follow and attempt to take the city – Chattanooga was the rail center of the South and its capture would be a crippling blow to the Confederacy’s ability to move men and material. Bragg expected Rosecrans to cross Walden’s Ridge and attack Chattanooga from the North. Rosecrans knew this and obliged him by sending two brigades of infantry along with some artillery to do that very thing while the main body of his army crossed the Tennessee River to the West at Bridgeport, Alabama.
The constant struggle of the previous year had taken its toll on Bragg’s unreliable constitution and August 21, 1863 found him in the army hospital at Cherokee Springs near Ringold, Georgia. Jefferson Davis had declared a day of fasting and prayer for the entire South and most of the officers in Chattanooga were in church with the local citizenry when the Federal artillery of Captain Eli Lilly fired its first round from a ridge on the North bank of the Tennessee river. The Federal demonstration took the Confederates completely by surprise and convinced them that this was the main attack of Rosecrans’ army. Bragg had only Patton Anderson’s Brigade of infantry west of town and Bragg called him in from the Hog Jaw Valley opposite Bridgeport. The only Rebels left along the river in that area were the men of the 3rd Confederate Cavalry deployed as pickets.
Bragg had gone through channels earlier asking Joe Johnston for reinforcements and Johnston promised to send eleven brigades from Mississippi. Bragg now contacted Johnston directly but Johnston sent only the six brigades, numbering nine thousand men, of Walker’s and Breckinridge’s Divisions. Johnston later agreed to send the brigades of Brigadier Generals Evander McNair and John Gregg, but these only for a limited time. Major De Aragon’s regiment, as part of Walker’s Division, left Mississippi for Chattanooga by train on August 23. They arrived the evening of August 27 and were ordered into camp at Chickamauga Station ten miles east of Chattanooga. Breckinridge and his troops arrived on September 2.
On August 30, Bragg learned from a Stevenson, Alabama resident that the Yankees had crossed the Tennessee River at Caperton’s Ferry and the next day the 3rd Confederate Cavalry reported that the Bluecoats were in force on Sand Mountain. Having realized that he had been deceived, Bragg did not think that he could successfully defend the city and decided to practice a little trickery of his own. He would lure Rosecrans into the North Georgia mountains and there possibly defeat his army piece by piece. Even as the Federals were crossing the river, Bragg was planting “deserters” with a story of the Army of Tennessee in headlong retreat toward Atlanta.
After the fall of Vicksburg and the defeat of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg in July, President Jefferson Davis was willing to listen to any ideas. Beauregard had long suggested concentrating in Middle Tennessee troops from South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia. Lieutenant General James Longstreet of the Army of Northern Virginia, prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, had proposed that he and Joe Johnston join forces with Bragg to defeat Rosecrans. Now he renewed his suggestion, submitting that Lee go on the defensive in Virginia and that Longstreet lead reinforcements to Tennessee. On September 5, Davis and Lee agreed to send Longstreet with the bulk of his corps, which included many men from Georgia, to strengthen Bragg’s army. Their route was originally to have been through Knoxville, but that town fell into Union hands on September 9. They were forced to take the longer way through North Carolina to Atlanta, then north to Ringold. Bragg had already ordered Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry to Chattanooga. Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner had also been called in from Knoxville. Earlier in the year, Lieutenant General William Hardee had been sent to Mississippi to take the place of General Pemberton, who had surrendered at Vicksburg. Davis sent Lieutenant General D. H. Hill also of the Army of Northern Virginia, to replace Hardee in the Army of Tennessee. When all reinforcements arrived, Bragg would have over seventy thousand troops to Rosecrans’ fifty-seven thousand. For the first time the Army of Tennessee had the expectation of meeting the enemy with a numerical superiority.
Confederate troops began leaving Chattanooga on the evening of September 7. Major General Walker had been given command of a “Reserve Corps” consisting of his and Brigadier General Saint John Liddell’s divisions. His new corps, including Major De Aragon’s regiment, moved south from Chickamauga Station by way of Greysville and Ringold.
The following day, as the sun was going down, Federal Brigadier General John Beatty of Thomas’ Corps stood at the top of Lookout Mountain. As he looked down McLemore’s Cove, a valley which lay between Lookout Mountain and Pigeon Mountain to the east, he saw long lines of dust moving south as Bragg’s columns seemingly “retreated.” When the mountain people of the area were questioned they all related stories of the Rebel army in disarray and fleeing in the direction of Rome, Georgia
Rosecrans set up his headquarters in Chattanooga and immediately ordered his Corps commanders in pursuit. He spread his forces over an immense area from Chattanooga south to Alpine, Georgia. Major General Thomas T. L. Crittenden’s Corps was anchored in Chattanooga with divisions moving south toward Ringold and through Rossville, Georgia to Lee and Gordon’s Mill. Major General George H. Thomas’ Corps, in the center, crossed the Raccoon/Sand Mountain Range to Lookout Valley. On September 9, his lead division crossed Lookout Mountain through Steven’s Gap and into McLemore’s Cove, some fifteen miles from Crittenden’s position. Major General Alexander McCook’s Corps moved far to the South through Winston Gap toward the towns of Alpine and Summerville, Georgia. No one noticed that Bragg had stopped his southward movement at LaFayette, Georgia and was waiting for an opportunity to strike.
Bragg’s cavalry had detected that Rosecrans’ army was spread too thin and Bragg determined to trap Thomas’ advance division, commanded by Major General James S. Negly, in McLemore’s Cove. Elements of Buckner’s Corps led by Major General Thomas C. Hindman were to enter the mouth of the cove to the North, trapping the Federals. Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Division of Lieutenant General D. H. Hill’s Corps was to cross Pigeon Mountain through Dug Gap and come down on Negly’s flank from the east when the sounds of Hindman’s attack were heard. Negly began to suspect that something was about to happen and solicited Thomas for support, prompting Thomas to send Brigadier General Absolam Baird and his division into the cove. Sensing a trap, both Federal divisions went back through Steven’s Gap and the golden opportunity was lost.
Lieutenant W. B. Richmond, Aide de Camp to Lieutenant General Polk, gave some general information regarding the movements of Major De Aragon’s unit during this period. Richmond wrote in his notes on Friday, September 11, that he reached Walker’s headquarters at the head of Dug Gap west of LaFayette just at dark. At 8:00 a. m. the following morning, the division had arrived at a new position on and to the right of the Ringold &LaFayette Road at the intersection of the Dalton Road just east of Rock Springs Church. Bragg had discovered Crittenden’s people at Lee and Gordon’s Mill and ordered Polk to attack with his corps. At 3:00 a. m. on September 13 Walker was ordered to take position on the left of Cheatham’s Division. At 6:00 a. m. Hindman was ordered into place between Cheatham and Walker. Finally, at 2:00 p. m. Walker was instructed to swing from right to left in order to strike the enemy, which was said to be at Pea Vine Church. By this time Rosecrans had deduced that Bragg was not in flight and was in fact concentrating around LaFayette. He pulled Crittenden back and brought in McCook and Thomas. Another chance to bushwhack a portion of the Yankee army had slipped away.
September 14, Bragg pulled his army back toward LaFayette and devised a third scheme. The next day he met with his corps commanders and outlined his plan to demonstrate against Crittenden’s troops at Lee and Gordon’s Mill while the rest of the army moved to the right as far as Reed’s Bridge Road, attack Rosecrans’ left flank and cut him off from Chattanooga. On September 19 Bragg addressed his troops telling them they should “march against the enemy and crush him”.
Rosecrans moved his headquarters to the Gordon Lee mansion at Crawfish Springs, Georgia At nightfall on September 17 the Yankees were in a line along the west side of Chickamauga Creek extending from Lee and Gordon’s Mill southwest to Bailey’s Crossroads in McLemore’s Cove. Rosecrans’ intelligence reports were poor. Signal Stations on Lookout Mountain could see columns of dust moving north but could not identify them. Finally there was enough information to determine that the Rebels were concentrating between Rock Springs Church and Pea Vine Church.
Bragg hesitated several days, long enough for Rosecrans to concentrate his forces, yet he did not wait for the reinforcements from Virginia to arrive before he decided to move. On September 17 only the vanguard of Longstreet’s Corps, Hood’s Texas Brigade, had arrived at Catoosa Station near Ringold.
Bragg’s plan called for Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson, in command of a “provisional division,” and Forrest’s Cavalry, supported by Walker’s Reserve Corps, to cross Chickamauga Creek on September 18 at Reed’s Bridge and Alexander’s Bridge. They would then come down on Rosecrans’ left flank at Lee and Gordon’s Mill, driving him back into McLemore’s Cove where he would be trapped. The bridges were assumed to be beyond the Federal left. As the battle developed, Buckner’s Corps would cross the creek at Thedford Ford and Leonidas Polk and his corps would cross at Lee and Gordon’s Mill. D. H. Hill would be in support further upstream.
On the morning of September 18, Bragg’s army began moving. That day Ector’s Brigade consisted of the 29th North Carolina Infantry, 10th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), 14th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), 32nd Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), Stone’s Alabama Battalion Sharpshooters, Pound’s Mississippi Battalion Sharpshooters, and Major De Aragon’s own regiment, the 9th Texas Infantry. Walker’s and Buckner’s Corps used the same road on the way to their crossing points and their units became entangled. It was early afternoon before they approached Chickamauga Creek.
Waiting for the Confederates at Alexander’s Bridge were Federal Colonel John T. Wilder and his “Lighting Brigade” along with Eli Lilly’s Artillery. The men of Liddell’s Division did battle with the Yankees for possession of the bridge while Ector’s and Wilson’s Brigades waited in support on either side of the road to the rear at a point due east of Lee and Gordon’s Mill.
Further downstream at Reed’s Bridge, Bushrod Johnson was held up by Federal Colonel Robert H. G. Minty’s Cavalry and the Chicago Board of Trade Artillery. While Johnson was fighting his way across Bragg became impatient. Major General John Bell Hood of Longstreet’s Corps had arrived on the field from Ringold and Bragg sent him to take command of the situation. A portion of Forrest’s Cavalry under Brigadier General H. B. Davidson crossed the creek at Fowler’s Ford, one half mile south of Reed’s Bridge, around 3:00 p. m. Minty, knowing he was flanked, fell back along the Brotherton Road to Lee and Gordon’s Mill. This left Wilder unsupported and when he learned that Johnson was moving down Jay’s Mill Road in his rear he too retreated in the same direction as Minty. His left came under fire from Davidson’s Cavalry as his men tore the flooring from the bridge, rendering it useless. The fight for Alexander’s Bridge had lasted four hours.
After Wilder and Minty retreated, Hood and Forrest began pushing for the Federal left at Lee and Gordon’s Mill as planned. They were stopped by Wilder who had regrouped and had been reinforced. The Rebels dug in where they were for the night. Buckner in the meantime had seized Thedford Ford at 2:00 that afternoon but didn’t cross – he had been waiting for Walker’s troops to appear on the opposite bank which was to have been his signal to advance. All night Wilder’s men listened as thousands of Rebels moved into position to the North.
Walker had been ordered, in his words, “to cross Chickamauga Creek at Alexander’s Bridge if practicable, if not at Byram’s Ford 1 ½ miles below.” He was told that he would have to fight for the bridge as it was held by the Yankees. As he could not use the damaged bridge after it was taken he had his infantry cross at Byram’s Ford. They reached the ford at 4:30 p. m. and it took all night for Walker to get all of his corps across. The ordinance wagons were not taken over till daylight because of the “rocky and uneven nature of the ford.” Wilson’s Brigade was left to guard the wagons and Ector’s Brigade bivouacked about a mile west of the ford. Walker’s Reserve Corps was now the extreme right of the Confederate army instead of being in the center as planned. The surgeons set up their hospital tents in the fields that lay along the creek between the two bridges.
By morning Bragg had three divisions on the west side of the creek. As they pushed for the Federal left flank Rosecrans grasped Bragg’s intent and began shifting his force north along the Chattanooga – Lafayette Road. During the night Thomas moved from his place in the middle of the Union line and passed across the rear of Crittenden, forming on his left. McCook shifted north to connect with Crittenden and became the right flank. The Yankee line now extended five miles from the McDonald house on the North to Lee and Gordon’s Mill to the South.
Bushrod Johnson’s Provincial Division had begun to move across Reed’s Bridge at about the same time Walker began his crossing at Byram’s Ford. As his last brigade, that of Brigadier General Evander McNair, marched across they were detected by pickets belonging to Union Colonel Dan McCook. McCook reported to Thomas that one lone Rebel brigade was isolated near the bridge. Thomas dispatched Colonel John Croxton’s Brigade of Brannon’s Division at 7:30 .a. m. on the morning of September 19 to capture this brigade and develop the enemy. Reed’s Bridge had been burned and Croxton thought he had the “lone” brigade trapped.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s Division moved south toward Lee and Gordon’s Mill and were replaced by Davidson and his cavalry in the vicinity of Jay’s Mill just off Reed’s Bridge Road. They routed Dan McCook’s Brigade and were there waiting for Croxton when he arrived. Croxton’s troops pushed the Rebel Cavalry back until Forrest himself arrived with one of his division commanders, Brigadier General John Peagram. Together they organized their line and stopped the Yankee advance. The Battle of Chickamauga had begun.
Early that morning Forrest had been ordered to move down the road toward Reed’s Bridge and develop the enemy. When he encountered Croxton’s troops he rode down Jay’s Mill Road looking for infantry and found Colonel Claudius C. Wilson’s Brigade of Walker’s Division. He asked Wilson to bring his troops forward but Wilson and Walker both insisted on written orders from Bragg before moving. At this time, Leonidas Polk sent forward Forrest’s own cavalry brigade under the command of Colonel George C. Dibrell.
Croxton sent back a report that he had encountered a large cavalry force and Brannon sent Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer’s Brigade forward. Wilson came up on the left of Forrest’s cavalry and attacked Croxton’s right, prompting Croxton to send a message to Thomas asking which of the four or five enemy brigades in his front was the one he was supposed to capture. Dibrell advanced up Reed’s Bridge Road in search of Croxton’s rear and collided with Van Derveer’s infantry.
Bragg and Walker heard Wilson’s men engage the enemy and Bragg ordered Walker to attack with all the force he had. Forrest, however, had found Ector’s Brigade one-half mile away in the Youngblood field about the time Dibrell engaged Van Derveer. This time Forrest ignored Walker and called directly on Ector to come up. Wilson was pushing Croxton back on the left so he sent Ector in to support Dibrell on the right. The brigade arrived at Jay’s Mill soon after 9:00 a. m. They formed on the left of Dibrell’s Cavalry and attacked Van Derveer’s front. C. B. Kilgore, Adjutant of Ector’s Brigade, related this account after the war:
“On Friday night, September 18, 1863, Ector’s Brigade, of which I was adjutant, crossed Chickamauga Creek, and on Saturday morning, the 19th, formed on the extreme Confederate right, supporting General Forrest’s cavalry, which was very heavily engaged. The fighting soon became fierce for us, and we were barely able to hold our ground. General Ector became uneasy in regard to the protection of his right flank, and asked me to go to General Forrest and urge him to be very vigilant in his protection of it. I galloped up to where one of his batteries was engaged, as I had been told he was there. He had on a linen duster, with a sword and pistol on the outside of the duster, and was exposed to very heavy fire of infantry and now and then a shot from the enemy’s batteries. I said: ‘General Forrest, General Ector directed me to say to you that he is uneasy in regard to his right flank.’ He replied: ‘Tell General Ector that he need not bother about his right flank, I’ll take care of it.’ I reported to my commander, and about an hour later news reached us that Wilson’s brigade had been hard hit and driven back, and General Ector sent me again to Forrest to tell him that he was now uneasy about his left flank. I found him near the same spot, right in the thickest part of the fight, the battery blazing away and every man fighting like mad. I told him what General Ector had directed me to say, and this time he got furious. He turned around on me and shouted, loud enough to be heard above the terrible din that was in the air: ‘Tell General Ector that, by God, I am here, and will take care of his left flank as well as his right.’ It is hardly necessary to add that we were not outflanked on either side.”
Ector had the choice to charge or halt and return fire – he chose the latter. The brigade had no artillery support and the guns of Union Lieutenant Frank Smith’s Regular Battery tore holes in their line. They engaged in severe fighting till 11:00 a. m. when they were obliged to retire. As the brigade withdrew Union Brigadier General Absalom Baird’s Division came into position on Brannon’s right. Brigadier General John King’s Regular Brigade began a “passage of lines,” filing through Croxton’s line and opened fire on Wilson’s men. At that time the 9th Texas withdrawal took them across King’s front and distracted most of his brigade leaving only one battalion to face Wilson. Lieutenant Robert Ayres, 19th U. S. Infantry wrote the following in his report:
“We engaged the enemy and repulsed him, pursuing to the front some three-fourths mile and halted. Here the 9th Texas Regiment passing along our front from left to right, received our fire, which caused them to break and run, and many came into our lines as prisoners.”
Forrest ordered Wilson to pull out but he was struck by yet another Yankee unit before he could comply. At 11:00 a. m. the forest surrounding Jay’s Mill fell silent as the Rebels broke off the attack. The men of Ector’s Brigade along with Wilson’s troops fell back to the Youngblood field. General Forrest, in his report after the battle, had this to say about the performance of Ector’s and also Wilson’s brigades:
“Until the arrival of Major-General Walker (being senior officer present) I assumed temporary command of the infantry, and I must say that the fighting and the gallant charges of the two brigades just referred to excited my admiration. They broke the enemy’s lines, and could not be halted or withdrawn until nearly surrounded.”
Bragg ordered Walker to send Liddell’s Division to Forrest and at 11:00 a. m. ordered Major General Cheatham and his division up on the right to support Walker. Liddell hit Baird’s Division in a counterattack, surprising and overwhelming the brigades of Brigadier General John C. Starkweather and Colonel Benjamin F. Scribner. Federal Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson arrived on the field and with remains of Brannon’s and Baird’s units forced Walker back one and one-half miles.
By 12:00 noon Cheatham had formed immediately in the rear of Walker’s line of battle and hit the Federals hard at Brock field. There, he fought the Yankees to a standstill. His troops, however began to run out of ammunition at 2:00 p. m. and his right began to fall back until reinforced by Forrest.
Rosecrans’ moved his headquarters north to the Widow Glenn’s house a little after 10:00 a. m. He then started sending divisions north to reinforce Thomas. He focused his efforts on denying Bragg the Lafayette Road. By 12:35 p. m. Thomas had been reinforced and his line extended more than a mile from the Kelly field south past the Brotherton house.
Confederate Major General A. P. Stewart’s Division was sent to support Cheatham but a weak spot was detected in the center of the Union line near the Brotherton house and he turned left and attacked there at 3:15 p. m. His troops drove the enemy as far as the tan yard on the Dyer farm west of the Lafayette Road, capturing twelve guns. Federal Major General Joseph J. Reynolds had earlier organized a reserve line of some twenty guns on a ridge that ran through the Brotherton farm. He brought these guns and some nearby infantry to bear on Stewart’s troops and pushed him back across the road. Stewart’s arrival had, however, saved Cheatham’s left flank. Stewart committed his last brigade, that of Brigadier General William B. Bate, to the fight at 3:45 p. m. Bate’s men along with those of Brigadier General Henry D. Clayton broke the Union center shortly after 4:00 p. m., but Stewart had no more troops to send in to take advantage of the situation.
On the far left of the Confederate line, Hood’s Division drove elements of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis Division across the Lafayette Road in fighting most bitter and disorganized. At 4:00 p. m. Major General Phillip Sheridan’s men arrived to stop the Rebels from claiming success at that point.
Bragg continued to send troops to his right in an attempt to get between the Yankees and Chattanooga. Major General Cleburne’s Division made a six mile march north from a point near Pea Vine Church, crossed Chickamauga Creek at Thedford ford, and joined a part of Cheatham’s Division in an ill conceived night attack against Thomas’ line at Winfrey field. The Confederates were repulsed with the loss of a most valuable officer – Major De Aragon’s old brigade commander, Brigadier General Preston Smith, who was killed during the assault.
At sunset on September 19, the LaFayette Road divided the two armies except on the Union left where the line turned slightly to the East. The day’s casualties were fairly evenly divided although the command structure of Bragg’s army was in somewhat better shape than that of his Union counterpart and Bragg had fresh troops that had not yet been engaged.
Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk arrived at Bragg’s headquarters, located near Thedford’s Ford, at 9:00 p. m. Bragg decided to once again reorganize his army, dividing it into two wings. Polk was to command the right wing, which would be made up of the divisions of Cheatham, Cleburne, Breckinridge, Liddell, and Walker. The left wing, consisting of Buckner’s Corps, Hindman’s and Bushrod Johnson’s Divisions, Longstreet’s Corps (under the command of John Bell Hood,) and the Battalions of Eldridge, Williams, and Robertson, would be commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet.
Longstreet arrived at Catoosa Station near Ringold at 2:00 p. m. on the afternoon of September 19, only to find that Bragg had sent no one to meet him. His horses arrived on a second train at 4:00 p. m. He and two aides, Lieutenant Colonels Moxley Sorrel and P. T. Manning, found their own way to the battleground, nearly being captured on the way. They finally came on Bragg asleep in his ambulance at 11:00 p. m. Longstreet woke him and they met for one hour as Bragg outlined his plan for the following day.
Bragg’s plan of attack for Sunday, September 20 was for D. H. Hill’s two divisions, those of Breckinridge and Cleburne, to attack at dawn on the right. Then Walker and Cheatham and on down the line to Longstreet attacking with Hood’s and Buckner’s Corps. Rather than the open fields that were the common location of major conflicts of the day, the battle along Chickamauga Creek was being fought in forests so thick that visibility was severely limited. Bragg’s order to his commanders was for each brigade to attack when they saw the unit on their right move forward.
Polk’s headquarters were located at Alexander’s Bridge. D. H. Hill had not been told of the meeting with Bragg and was unable during the night to find either Bragg or Polk and thus was unaware of the command change which made him subordinate to Polk. He also was completely in the dark as to the plan for the attack which he was supposed to lead in the morning.
The night of September 19 was extremely cold. The Yankee troops suffered through with little water as Bragg’s army held Chickamauga Creek. Polk awakened at 5:47 a. m. Sunday morning and listened in vain for the sound of the guns which would indicate the beginning of Hill’s attack. As time slipped by he learned that Hill never received any orders so he went about sending instructions to Hill and the division commanders of his wing. Bragg also wondered why his war machine wasn’t moving and sent aides looking for Polk. One Major Pollock B. Lee reported to Bragg that he had found Polk well behind the lines about an hour after sunrise, sitting on a farmhouse porch reading a newspaper and waiting for his breakfast. When informed of Bragg’s concern, Polk was quoted as saying:
“Do tell General Bragg that my heart is overflowing with anxiety for the attack – overflowing with anxiety, sir.”
At 9:30 a. m. the order to attack was finally given. Brigadier General Ben Hardin Helm of Breckinridge’s Division, who was incidentally a brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln, led the “Orphan Brigade” forward seven hundred yards to a ridge two hundred yards away from the Yankee breastworks, occupied by Scribner’s and King’s Brigades, on the Alexander’s Bridge Road. The Federals watched in apprehension as the Rebel skirmishers fell back and their battle flags were planted on the crest of the ridge. Helm was silhouetted on his horse in the middle of his line. A brief silence fell over the field; then, screaming the “Rebel Yell,” the Kentuckians swarmed off the ridge.
Cleburne did not receive the order to attack until 10:00 a. m. and so failed to move his division forward as planned. The Orphan Brigade split into two groups as they neared the Yankee line and the portion led by Helm was decimated. The two remaining Brigades of Breckinridge’s Division – those of Brigadier Generals Daniel W. Adams and Marcellus A. Stovall drove the enemy to the Lafayette Road where they stopped to regroup. The Rebels had finally succeeded in cutting the Federal line of communication and now threatened the only avenue of escape that was left – the road through McFarland Gap.
Between 9:00 a. m. and 10:00 a. m. Walker was sent for to support Hill’s attack. Brigadier General States Rights Gist and his brigade had just arrived on the field from Rome, Georgia where he had been on detached service. Gist was put in command of Walker’s Division and Colonel Peyton H. Colquitt was given command of Gist’s Brigade. Ector’s and Wilson’s Brigades, having taken heavy casualties during the fighting of the previous day, numbered about five hundred men each.
Gist was ordered to take the division into the fight behind Breckinridge’s line. D. H. Hill gave him instructions to send Wilson and Ector in behind Colquitt in support. After Helm was killed, Gist attacked through Helm’s line and was repulsed. Colonel Colquitt was killed in the assault. As the line fell back, the men of Ector’s and Wilson’s Brigades continued to fire from cover for about ten minutes till ordered by Hill to withdraw. Walker then sent word to Gist to support the advance of Liddell’s Division. Liddell engaged the enemy at the Lafayette Road but fell back. Gist’s Brigade halted on the road. Ector and Wilson came up on his left and bivouacked there for the night.
About 11:00 a. m. Rosecrans moved his headquarters north to a ridge west of the Brotherton house. All morning he had been shifting his forces north to reinforce Thomas. Major John Mendenhall began collecting idle artillery on a high ridge, south of Snodgrass Hill called Horseshoe Ridge. A courier named Captain Sanford Cobb Kellog reported to Rosecrans that a gap existed between the divisions of Major General Joseph Reynolds and Brigadier General Thomas Wood. Brigadier General John M. Brannon’s troops were there, but back from the line and obscured from Kellog’s sight by the trees. Rosecrans himself was not sure of Brannon’s position and at 10:45 a. m. sent an order to Wood to close up on Reynolds line. The firing in that area had abated and Wood read the order at 11:00 a. m. and moved to obey as Rosecrans had publicly censored him earlier for not moving his division promptly when instructed.
James Longstreet had the opportunity to survey the field for the first time that morning. He learned that the bulk of the enemy opposing his wing was concentrated in the woods west of the Brotherton farm, so he massed his wing opposite that point, some three hundred yards east of the Brotherton cabin. His column of eight brigades, eleven thousand men, was five brigades deep and one fourth mile wide – a formation of unprecedented depth. His front was about equal to the width of the Brotherton field. Longstreet gave the order to advance at 11:10 a. m. – ten minutes after Wood read the order to move his division to the North.
Wood’s move created a hole one-fourth mile wide between the lines of Jefferson C. Davis and Brannon. Through this hole roared three divisions of Longstreet’s wing. Federal Colonel Charles Harker’s Brigade moved first behind Brannon’s line. Colonel George P. Buell followed and his skirmishers were still in the Brotherton field when the Rebels reached the edge of the woods. Buell had only moved a brigade front when, in his words, “the shock came like an avalanche on my right flank.” As Brigadier General Evander McNair’s Troops hit his moving column, Buell watched the entire right wing and part of the center of the Federal army melt away.
Bushrod Johnson’s troops cut through the Federal line and pushed a mile through the Union center. Yankee troops of Sheridan’s and Davis’ Divisions along with the bulk of Van Cleve’s and Negley’s men ran from the field. At 11:45 a. m. five Confederate brigades came out of the woods and charged into the Dyer field. Rosecrans and corps commanders Crittenden and McCook were caught up in the rout and carried through McFarland Gap and north to Rossville. Rosecrans quit the field at 12:00 noon thinking the entire army, including Thomas, had been routed.
Bushrod Johnson later gave this most eloquent rendition of the scene:
“Our lines now emerged from the forest into open ground on the border of long, open fields, over which the enemy were retreating… The scene now presented was unspeakably grand. The resolute and impetuous charge, the rush of our heavy columns sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the onward dash of artillery and mounted men, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke, the noise of fire-arms – of whistling balls and grape-shot and of bursting shell – made up a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur.”
At 2:45 p. m., Longstreet is quoted as saying:
“They have fought their last man and he is running.”
The Rebels then came under fire from Mendenhall’s guns on Horseshoe Ridge. Polk had failed to break the Federal left so Longstreet decided that the left wheel he had planned was not practicable. He turned Hood loose against the Yankees on Horseshoe Ridge and Hood’s troops captured Mendenhall’s guns before being driven back by the combined forces of Federal commanders Wood, Opdyke, and Harker. Hood himself was wounded below the hip – the leg was condemned and later removed by Dr. T. G. Richardson at a house in Tunnel Hill, Georgia.
Thomas regrouped on Snodgrass Hill with what was left of his corps and the remains of the Federal right wing and was joined there by Major General Gordon Grainger and Brigadier General James B. Steedman of the reserve corps. Rosecrans had sent word for Thomas to hold till nightfall and then withdraw to Rossville. Rosecrans then went on to Chattanooga to organize the defense of the city. After sunset the Union forces one by one crept off through McFarland Gap. At 10:00 p. m. the brigade of Colonel Dan McCook was the last Yankee unit to leave the field.
Thomas formed a defensive line along Missionary Ridge as far as Chattanooga Creek, but he and Rosecrans agreed that the position was untenable. He began to withdraw at 9:00 p. m. on September 21 and was gone before dawn. The Yankees had fallen back to their entrenchments around Chattanooga.
All of Bragg’s officers urged immediate pursuit of the Federal army. Forrest, having sent his men to hound the retreating enemy, sent a message to Bragg urging him to act: “Every hour is worth a thousand men.” Bragg refused to move because, unbelievably, he refused to accept that his Army of Tennessee had won a decisive victory. He cited the huge loss of the army’s horses and mules as reason enough to delay any pursuit. When he finally did move, instead of crossing the river to the North of Chattanooga and cutting off Rosecrans line of communication and supply, he advanced directly on the town and found the Union army well entrenched there.
The combined casualties of both armies for the battle were thirty-seven thousand one hundred twenty-nine. The casualties of Ector’s Brigade were fifty-nine killed, two hundred thirty-nine wounded, and one hundred thirty-eight missing. Colonel Young of Major De Aragon’s regiment was wounded through the left breast.
On September 22, Polk, in a communication from his headquarters near Mission Mills listed Walker’s Division as being “on the left of Anderson, who is on the Mission Mills & Chattanooga Rd, covering another parallel road with a good gap. Part of preparations to advance on Chattanooga.” Then in a circular from the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee in the field near Red House Ford on the same day, items I – IX are concerned with orders relating to the battle and preparations for the advance on Chattanooga. Item X:
“Brigadier-General Ector with his Brigade will report to General Johnston in Mississippi: The command will march to Ringold, or the northern terminus of the road, and there take the cars.”
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