Tom Christianson on “Opening of the Battle of Chickamauga”
In the history of the Civil War, the Western Theater has long been overshadowed by the the Eastern Theater. Only recently have serious studies by renowned historians Stephen Z. Starr in his three volume work, The Union Cavalry in the Civil War (1985) and David Evans’ Sherman’s Horsemen (1996), focused on cavalry operations in the Western Theater. During this same time, the battle of Chickamauga has become one of the most studied events of the war, researched by William Glenn Robertson, and a number of other military historians including our own Lt. Col. Tom Christianson, U. S. A. (Retired). As a military historian, Tom taught history at West Point and the Army Command and General Staff College. He has worked with Glenn Robertson and participated in the “staff walks” for military leadership classes studying the battles and battlefields of the Civil War. Other than Gettysburg, perhaps no other site has been studied as closely as Chickamauga, which was designated as the first National Park in 1890.
At our August Picnic meeting Tom gave a rousing account of the events leading up to the fight for Chattanooga. This city was strategically critical to both the North and South since it was the gateway to the heart of the industrial and agricultural South. For the first time in the Civil War, the Federal Cavalry played a pivotal role. It had taken the first two years of the War for the small Union Cavalry force in the West to evolve into an effective fighting force equal in their own right to the infantry and artillery. As David Evans notes, by 1864, “more than one out of every ten Civil War soldiers was a cavalryman.”
As the two great armies moved toward Chattanooga, the Union forces were not adequately prepared to meet nor well informed as to the size and proximity of Braxton Bragg’s Army. In the initial Confederate attack on September 18, the Federal cavalry played a critical role in buying the time Rosecrans desperately needed. Against odds of 7 to 1, Colonel Robert H. G. Minty’s small brigade of Cavalry, which included the only Regular Cavalry Regiment in the Western Theater, the 4th United States, held off for ten hours the advance of Bushrod Johnson’s 7,000 Rebel infantry at Reed’s Bridge. This action foiled a determined attempt by Braxton Bragg to turn the Federal left flank. At the same time, Colonel Wilder’s Brigade of Cavalry held the Rebels at Alexander’s Bridge, about 1600 yards south, buying Rosecrans’ command the time needed to avoid almost certain disaster. As a result, Rosecrans was able to concentrate his corps and effectively meet Bragg’s army on the 19th. An intense two-day battle followed ending with the Union forces withdrawing to Chattanooga, where they were they were isolated by Confederate forces, setting the stage for the “Siege of Chattanooga.” This Confederate “victory” caused the South 17,800 casualties, the Union 16,000. Stunned by his losses, Bragg failed to take this opportunity to destroy the Union army. Instead he occupied Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and the Chattanooga Valley, effectively blockading the city.