The Crisis at Chickamauga

By Gates P. Thruston, Chief of Staff to Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook,
Commanding Twentieth Corps (The Right Wing)

The furious initial attack on the Federal left on the morning of the 20th, although repulsed, unfortunately led to changes in Rosecrans's army materially affecting the results of the general conflict. Thomas, discovering his position turned and his front assaulted, hurried messengers to Rosecrans for assistance. Two aides, in rapid succession, called for reenforcements. All was still on the Federal right. The fight was raging with grand fury on the left.
Rosecrans felt that his apprehensions of the morning were to be realized. The Confederates were doubtless massing on his left. They had reached the much-coveted Chattanooga road. McCook was at once notified that Thomas was heavily pressed, that the left must be held at all hazards, and that he must be ready to reenforce Thomas at a moment's warning. Five minutes later came the order to hurry Sheridan's two brigades to the left. Negley's troops, replaced by Wood, had started. Van Cleve, with two brigades, was also sent to aid Thomas. McCook was now left with one of Sheridan's brigades and two of Jefferson C. Davis's, all depleted by Saturday's losses.

They were unable to form a connected front, but joined Wood on their left. Captain Kellogg, of Thomas's staff, hurrying along the line with orders unfortunately reported to Rosecrans that he had noticed " Brannan was out of line, and Reynolds's right exposed." Turning to an aide (Major Frank Bond), Rosecrans directed him to order Wood "to close up on Reynolds as fast as possible and support him." In fact, Reynolds was not needing help, and Brannan was in position on his right, but slightly in rear. Wood, whose left connected with Brannan's right, passed to the rear of Brannan to reach Reynolds's position thus a wide gap was left in the Union line. McCook had already called up Wilder to strengthen his front, and sent for the main cavalry to protect the right. The right had unexpectedly become, as it were, the rear of the army.

Unhappily for the National army, Bragg was not now massing his forces on our left. He had just been defeated and repulsed there. Bragg's main plan had failed; but in the quiet forest, within almost a stone's-throw of our right, and in the still overclouding mist, were Longstreet and Buckner, with the left wing of the Confederate army massed in battle array, impatiently awaiting the signal for attack.

Longstreet's troops were placed in column of brigades at half distance—a masterpiece of tactics. Hood, a soldier full of energy and dash, was to lead the column, his own division being massed five brigades deep, with the brigades of Kershaw and Humphreys as additional supports.

The order to advance came at last. The deep Confederate lines suddenly appeared. The woods in our front seemed alive. On they came like an angry flood. They struck McCook's three remaining brigades, the remnants of the Federal right. Under the daring personal exertions of McCook and Davis, they made a gallant but vain resistance. The massed lines of the enemy swarmed around their flanks. Pouring through the opening made by Wood's withdrawal, they struck his last brigade as it was leaving the line. It was slammed back like a door, and shattered. Brannan, on Wood's left, was struck in front and flank. His right was flung back; his left stood fast. Sheridan, hastening to the left with two brigades, was called back, and rushed to the rescue. His little force stayed the storm for a time. Wave after wave of Confederates came on; resistance only increased the multitude. Brannan's artillery, attacked in flank, rushed to the rear for clearer ground, and, with the Confederates at their heels, suddenly plunged into Van Cleve marching to the aid of Thomas. Disorder ensued; effective resistance was lost. The Reserve Artillery of the center, well posted in rear, unable to manoeuvre in the undergrowth, hedged around by infantry a half hour before, was now without immediate support. The sudden rush of Longstreet's compact column through the forest had foiled all plans. The astonished artillerists were swept from their guns. General Negley, with one of his brigades isolated in rear, shared the general fate of the right.

When Longstreet struck the right, Rosecrans was near McCook and Crittenden. Seeing our line swept back, he hurried to Sheridan's force for aid. With staff and escort he recklessly strove to stem the tide. They attempted to pass to the left through a storm of canister and musketry, but were driven back.

All became confusion. No order could be heard above the tempest of battle. With a wild yell the Confederates swept on far to their left. They seemed everywhere victorious. Rosecrans was borne back in the retreat. Fugitives, wounded, caissons, escort, ambulances, thronged the narrow pathways. He concluded that our whole line had given way, that the day was lost, that the next stand must be made at Chattanooga. McCook and Crittenden, caught in the same tide of retreat, seeing only rout everywhere, shared the opinion of Rosecrans, and reported to him for instructions and cooperation.
Briefly, this is the story of the disaster on our right at Chickamauga: We were overwhelmed by numbers; we were beaten in detail. Thirty minutes earlier Longstreet would have met well- organized resistance. Thirty minutes later our marching divisions could have formed beyond his column of attack.

But Longstreet had now swept away all organized opposition in his front. Four divisions only of the Union army remained in their original position-Johnson, of McCook's corps; Palmer, of Crittenden's, and Baird and Reynolds, of Thomas's. Three had been cut off and swept away. Longstreet's force separated them. He says he urged Bragg to send Wheeler's cavalry in pursuit. Strange to report, no pursuit was ordered.

An incident of the battle perhaps contributed to the delay. When Sheridan and others were sent to the left, the writer hastened down toward Crawfish Springs, instructed by McCook to order the cavalry to the left to fill the gaps made by the withdrawal of infantry. I was but fairly on the run when Longstreet struck our right. The storm of battle was sweeping over the ground I had just left. Hastily giving the orders and returning, I found the 39th Indiana regiment coming from a cross-road, a full, fresh regiment, armed with Spencer's repeating-rifles, the only mounted force in our army corps. Calling upon Colonel T. J. Harrison, its commander, to hurry to the left, we led the regiment at a gallop to the Widow Glenn's.

The sound of battle had lulled. No Union force was in sight. A Confederate line near by was advancing against the position. Harrison, dismounting his men, dashed at the enemy in a most effective charge. Wilder, coming up on our right, also attacked. Wilder had two regiments armed with the same repeating-rifles. They did splendid work.

Longstreet told Wilder after the war that the steady and continued racket of these guns led him to think an army corps had attacked his left flank. Bragg, cautious by nature, hesitated. By the time he was ready to turn Longstreet's force against Thomas, valuable time had elapsed.

Brannan, partly knocked out of line, had gathered his division on a hill at right angles to his former position, and a half mile in rear of Reynolds. General Wood came up with Harker's brigade and part of George P. Buell's, and posted them near Brannan's left. Some of Van Cleve's troops joined them, and fragments of Negley's.

General Thomas, ignorant of these movements and of the disaster to the right of the Union army, had again been attacked by Breckinridge and Forrest. They were again in Baird's rear with increased force. Thomas's reserve brigades, Willich, Grose, and Van Derveer, hurried to meet the attack. After a fierce struggle the Confederates were beaten back. Thomas, expecting the promised assistance of Sheridan, had sent Captain Kellogg to guide him to the left. Kellogg, hurrying back, reported that he had been fired on by a line of Confederates advancing in the woods in rear of Reynolds, who held the center of our general line.

The men in gray were coming on his right instead of Sheridan! Wood and Harker hoped the force advancing in the woods on their new front was a friendly one. The National flag was waved; a storm of bullets was the response. It was Stewart and Bate coming with their Tennesseans. They had finally forced their way across the ragged edge of the Federal right, and were following Hood. Fortunately Thomas had just repulsed Breckinridge's attack on his left, and Stanley, Beatty, and Van Derveer had double-quicked across the " horseshoe " to our new right. They did not come a moment too soon. The improvised line of Federals thus hastily formed on "Battery Hill" now successfully withstood the assault of the enemy. The Union line held the crest. Longstreet was stayed at last. Gathering new forces, he soon sent a flanking column around our right. We could not extend our line to meet this attack. They had reached the summit, and were coming around still farther on through a protected ravine. For a time the fate of the Union army hung in the balance. All seemed lost, when unexpected help came from Gordon Granger and the right was saved.

When Longstreet first struck our right I was hurrying toward Crawfish Springs, as stated above, to order the cavalry to the left. I brought bach with me Harrison's regiment, which, with Wilder's brigade, gallantly charged the Confederates in flank. Harrison captured some two hundred prisoners and turned again upon the enemy. Finding no Federal infantry in sight, I passed to the northward, taking with me Harrison's disarmed prisoners, partly under charge of my small escort, to prevent their recapture. We had a lively double- quick race, pushing our prisoners at the point of sword and carbine to get them to a place of safety. Only the predominance of the gray uniforms prevented the Confederates, three hundred yards away, from riddling our little party in the chase. We soon reached our retreating forces. Placing the prisoners in safe custody, I turned and rode over the Ridge toward the front, no enemy appearing.

Riding on, I struck the Dry Valley road, running along the east slope of the Ridge. Near by, on the left, I found Sheridan and Davis, with the remnants of their five brigades. General Phil was furious. Like the great Washington on several occasions, he was swearing mad, and no wonder.

The devoted Lytle and the truest and bravest had fallen in vain resistance around him. His splendid fighting qualities and his fine soldiers had not had half a chance. He had lost faith. Hearing the sound of battle on our left, I offered to ascertain the situation with Thomas on the left, and report as soon as possible. I hurried off at a racing gallop, directly through the open woodland, with my few faithful soldiers of the 2d Kentucky cavalry (of the Headquarters escort), toward the increasing sound of musketry. As we neared the firing we came suddenly upon a line of gray much too close to be agreeable. Fortunately it was intent on other game in its front, and we escaped with only a few whizzing compliments. We were too far to the right. We had struck the wrong side, and were behind the Confederates. Circling to the left we were soon among the soldiers in blue in rear of the Union lines.

Galloping through the wounded as best we could, I checked my horse before the form of an officer borne in the arms of his comrades to find that it was an old home friend, Colonel Durbin Ward, a moment before severely wounded.
I soon reached General Thomas. He was intently watching the conflict near the crest, a few steps in rear of the battle-line. General Wood and other officers were near. I reported briefly the situation on the right. Thanking me, he requested me to try to bring up Sheridan's and Davis's troops to aid his right. In his official report he states that I came with General Garfield. We probably reached him about the same time, but General Garfield had come out from Rossville, by the Lafayette road, and I had crossed almost directly from the extreme right. We gave him the first tidings from the troops cut off. Hurrying back on my mission, full of hope that the day was not lost, we soon reached the identical spot on the Dry Valley road where we had left Sheridan and Davis. Strange to say, no Confederate cavalry or infantry appeared, and there seemed still no pursuit. Forrest, Wheeler, Wharton, Roddey—half the cavalry of the Confederacy—were with Bragg, yet no cavalry apparently came through the gap of a mile or more to pursue or follow our retreating forces on the right. At our recent fight at Murfreesboro, Wheeler's whole force had been smashing around in our rear. It had been about as uncomfortable for nervous recruits there as on the battle-front.

Unfortunately Sheridan's and Davis's force had drifted down the road toward Rossville. Hastening after them, we found they had already entered the narrow road or defile at McFarland's Gap. I tried to halt the rear of the column, but without success. The miseries of a mounted officer trying to pass marching infantry on a narrow roadway can be well imagined. Time was precious. I rode furiously through the thicket, alongside, and appealed to officers. "See Jeff, Colonel?" they said. "See Phil?" Some old trudger in the ranks called out, "We'll talk to you, my son, when we get to the Ohio River!" A long half-hour was lost in scrambling along this wretched defile before I reached the head of the column. There I found Generals Sheridan, Davis, and Negley. We were about half-way between the field and Rossville. We held a hasty conference. Davis ordered a "right-about" at once, and marched briskly to the front; Lieutenant-Colonel William M. Ward followed with the 10th Ohio. Sheridan was still without faith. He may have thought there was danger at Rossville, or that his troops had not regained their fighting spirit. He insisted on going to Rossville. Darkness would catch him before he could reach the field from that direction. Negley was vacillating: he finally went to Rossville.

We soon reached the battle-field with Davis's and Ward's troops, but the night was then near.

They did not get into action, but it was a cheerful sight to see at least some of the troops cut off in the morning in line again on the right of General Thomas, ready for an emergency.

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 3, pp. 663-5.