Chickamauga: A Battlefield Guide with a Section on Chattanooga

By Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview

Overview of the Second Day, September 20, 1863

Polk's failure to see that his subordinate Hill received and understood his orders resulted in Bragg's "day-dawn" attack going in three hours late, after the Union left had built log breastworks and been further reinforced by Rosecrans. The lead Confederate division, John C. Breckinridge's, succeeded in getting around the Union left flank, but reinforcements were not in place to support this success -- another result of Polk's lack of preparation -- and it was driven back. The other divisions of the Confederate right launched courageous but piecemeal and uncoordinated attacks against the front of Thomas's by now well-protected lines and were slaughtered.

Shortly before midday Longstreet advanced his wing, properly ranged in depth to exploit a breakthrough, and happened to strike a portion of the Union line recently vacated by Wood's division as a result of a mix-up in orders from Rosecrans. Longstreet's powerful attacking column roared through the gap. Despite valiant efforts by several Federal units, particularly a number of artillery batteries and the infantry of Sheridan's division, their onslaught proved for a time unstoppable, and the entire Union center and right collapsed in a rout that carried them -- along with McCook, Crittenden, and Rosecrans himself -- all the way back to Chattanooga.

On the Union left, however, Thomas's by now heavily reinforced XIV Corps continued to stand, and some of the remnants of the broken Union center rallied on a chain of hills on the right rear of Thomas's position. Thomas went there and as senior officer took command on the field, coordinating the defense and infusing new confidence into the troops. With the aid of timely reinforcement by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, who marched from Rossville on his own responsibility with a division of his Reserve Corps, Thomas held on to his position throughout the afternoon, despite repeated furious assaults by Longstreet's wing trying to complete its success. Receiving orders to withdraw from Rosecrans, who by now was in Chattanooga, Thomas pulled out about dark, ending the battle.

-39-

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