I’ve heard the phrase “hot mess” before, but Chickamauga National Battlefield gave it a whole new meaning. The first time I visited, about seven years ago, temperatures soared into the upper nineties with a humidity of about 700%. Because few interpretive markers dot the landscape, I had no idea what I was looking at beyond a confusing tangle of scary woods—and I got to sweat like a fiend as I did it. (Great image, I know.)
I got to see Chickamauga with new eyes last week thanks to my friend Lee White, a historian and interpreter at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Lee is working on an upcoming book for the Emerging Civil War Series, Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, due out in September in time for the sesquicentennial. I spent a couple days with him taking photos for his book.
Historically, Lee explained, the battlefield has not had a lot of signage to explain the events that transpired there. Worse, the park’s driving tour only covers the actions of September 20—the third day of the battle, where Maj. Gen. George Thomas fended off Confederate attacks while the rest of the army withdrew safely from the field back to the protection of Chattanooga. The stalwart defense earned Thomas his nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is the largest military park in the world and the oldest Civil War battlefield. It covers more than 9,000 acres. It’s also one of the most heavily monumented battlefields. Some 1,4000 monuments dot the landscape—and as Lee easily demonstrated by the extensive bushwhacking we did, those monuments are scattered everywhere throughout the forest, too. We followed some Byzantine paths through the woods—paths I doubt wild game could find—to some pretty cool places. All the while, Lee regaled me with story after story after story. It made me wonder just how many stories there were tucked away in that deciduous jungle—and in Lee’s head!
I’m already psyched about Lee’s book, but listening to him spin stories made me all the more excited. It’s always such a privilege to be out on the field with a historian who not only knows his stuff so thoroughly but who’s also a good storyteller. Lee’s book, I know from the glimpses I’ve already seen (and from what I’ve just heard), is going to be gangbusters.
One major distinction about Lee’s book is that he and his colleagues treat Chickamauga as a three-day battle, whereas traditional battle narratives focused mostly on September 19 and 20. Lee focuses on the actions on September 18 near Reed’s Bridge and Alexander’s Bridge that open the battle and begin the process of funneling troops to the battlefield. Union Major General William Rosecrans had taken his army out to find General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army but quickly found the tables turned, and the hunter became the hunted. Confederates drew Rosecrans into battle of September 18 and then the bushwhacking began in earnest on September 19 and lasted through the next day.
Lee describes the battle as “a soldiers’ battle,” where command decision meant virtually nothing because the thick woods made it so hard to maintain command structure and unit cohesion. The woods also made maneuver almost impossible, so strategy took a backseat to gritty, white-knuckle slugging-it-out.
The woods surprise me a little. I expected something akin to the Wilderness in Virginia, which had been a dense, second-growth forest, so thick with vegetation that it was known as “the dark, close wood.” But the forest at Chickamauga, Lee pointed out, was a more mature forest, with taller trees and less undergrowth. In fact, in many areas, the Park Service has done landscape restoration by removing much of the brush to reopen the understory so visitors can better understand what soldiers saw. Undergrowth or not, the woods of Chickamauga had a foreboding confusion all their own.
The story of Chickamauga also has a colorful cast of characters, beyond the panic-prone Rosecrans and the irascible and unloved Bragg (whom Lee tends to give a little more credit to than most people do because, after all, Bragg’s saddled with a bunch of command cast-offs that he can’t do anything with/to because of their various political connections).
Also on the stage at Chickamauga are Thomas, who’ll eventually go on to command the army after the fall of Chattanooga; future president James Garfield, Rosecrans’ wily chief of staff who made a militarily sound decision that may have also cost Rosecrans his reputation; Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, the First Corps commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, sent west to bolster flagging Confederate fortunes; Patrick Cleburne, the “Stonewall” of the West; and the infamous Confederate cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest, who, says Lee, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be at Chickamauga as he is on other battlefields.
I was surprised to learn that Federals did not see Chickamauga as the big loss that history has since described it as. “They accomplished their main strategic objective,” Lee points out: “They protected Chattanooga.” Rosecrans’ other objective, to destroy Bragg, conveniently became less important once Rosecrans became the hunted.
The initiative Rosecrans had maintained through the summer’s Tullahoma Campaign, ending in the capture of Chattanooga, fell apart at Chickamauga. Yes, Rosecrans still held Chattanooga when all was said and done, but the tone of the war in Tennessee shifts as Bragg bottles Rosecrans up in the city. Only when U.S Grant eventually arrives does momentum shift. In fact, Lee points out, the biggest repercussion of Chickamauga is that it sets up the rise of Grant—which, of course, changes the entire nature of the war.
Also of note is the high butcher’s bill: more than 32,000 casualties (18,000+ Union and 16,000+ Confederate), making it the costliest battle in the Western Theater and second only to Gettysburg in the overall war.
I could’ve spent days exploring the battlefield, and I’m grateful for the time Lee spared for me. I appreciate this great western battle all the more now that he’s made some sense of the hot mess for me. I can’t wait until Bushwhacking comes out—which will give Lee the chance to make sense of the hot mess for you, too.