Some battles are so decisive that they define victory or defeat for generations – or millennia – to come.
Most battles aren’t like that. Much more often, war is grinding attrition. Especially when the combatants have harnessed their national will and resources to the effort. Technology plays a role, and sometimes skill; but mostly wars drag on because neither side will admit defeat.
Short of obvious victors, then, in the aftermath of battle the combatants are often left arguing about who won. Both sides need to claim success, if only to keep up morale on the home front. And a perceived defeat can be as bad as a real disaster. Just go ask William Westmoreland in the spring of 1968, after the Tet Offensive.
The Civil War is full of such battles. Indecisive clashes that push the battlefront one way or the other, that seem to grant a momentary advantage to one side or the other, only to be offset in the next go-round. Some victories are more clear-cut than others, of course: No one is really going to argue that John Pope wasn’t badly defeated at Second Manassas/Bull Run, or that the Federals didn’t suffer a stinging defeat at Fredericksburg. But what of Stones River? Antietam? Who won there? Authors and readers are still arguing about those outcomes.
Even the very nature of assessing blame can take on strange aspects. Did the Army of the Potomac win at Gettysburg? If so, was it because of George Gordon Meade, or in spite of him? Edwin Coddington’s venerable but still monumental The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command insists Meade played a pivotal role. Allen Guelzo’s widely acclaimed Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, by contrast, has a sulky, virtually clueless Meade nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. As for Robert E. Lee’s role in the whole affair, let’s not get off on that tangent. Everybody down to the 3rd corporal in Company C of the 26th North Carolina has been singled out for their own singular, disastrous blunder contributing to the Army of Northern Virginia’s lack of success on the far side of the Mason-Dixon line.
Which brings me to North Georgia. September 18-20, 1863.
At first blush, Chickamauga seems to belong more in the category of a Second Bull Run rout than a drawn contest. That’s exactly how an agitated (over-excited) Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana viewed it: “Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run,” he telegraphed on that discouraging Sunday afternoon. A third of the Union Army of the Cumberland was driven from the battlefield.
Army commander William S. Rosecrans and two of his three corps commanders were caught up in that rout. The rest of the army, now under George Thomas, only held on long enough to disengage and leave the field under cover of night. The Federals could not claim an advantage in any of the usual trophies of success – they did not hold the field, they lost far more in captured men, cannon, and flags than they took, and for the next month, they faced the unpalatable options of surrender or starvation within their trenches encircling Chattanooga.
But they held Chattanooga. Rosecrans’s opponent, Confederate General Braxton Bragg, marched out of that city on September 8; Federals seized it the very next day. Never again would the streets of Chattanooga see Confederate troops, except as prisoners themselves, on the way north to places like Camps Morton, Douglas, or Rock Island.
Everyone knew Chattanooga was (as many an old Federal explained) the prize of the whole campaign. Rosecrans might have suffered a reverse along the banks of West Chickamauga Creek, but when the dust settled he held the objective, and that is what mattered. Just as vehemently, old Confeds pointed to the 51 Union cannon they captured, the 5,000 prisoners, and the spectacle of a Union army commander legging it rearward.
I note with some degree of [personal delight that this conflict still flares to life, now waged in the trenches of the internet, on Facebook and other discussion sites.
Having written my own modest mountain of pages on Chickamauga, naturally enough, people ask me who I think “won” the battle. It is an obvious question, after all.
The answer, less so.
The only way to really understand Chickamauga’s seemingly simultaneously contrarian outcomes is by turning to theory.
Baron Jomini defined the science of war as having two levels: Strategy and tactics.
Strategy has to do with the overall outcome; setting goals and objectives, defining the decisive theater, and concentrating war-making resources at the decisive point.
Tactics, conversely is the science of maneuvering forces so as to bring about battle at the decisive point, and with overwhelming force. Jomini divided the latter level into two realms; Tactics and Grand Tactics. Tactics was about maneuvering forces once battle was joined, while Grand Tactics was about maneuvering troops not yet in contact with the enemy.
Military theorists from Clausewitz onward have basically accepted these definitions, though modern theory has refined Grand Tactics into its own operational level of war. Of course, terminology can be slippery. The Grand Tactical level was sometimes also known as minor strategy. And some theorists have defined a new level – Grand Strategy – to better fit alliance warfare on a global scale: In WWII, for example, the joint decision by Britain and the United States to defeat Germany first, before concentrating on the Pacific war, is sometimes defined as grand strategy.
But for our efforts, we need to grasp only tactics and operations. Rosecrans never proved himself to be a master tactician on the battlefield. In each of his three largest engagements – Corinth, Stones River/Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga – his army was attacked and nearly (or, in the latter case, actually) routed. At Corinth a determined Confederate attack penetrated his defensive line to the very center of his position. At Stones River, he badly underestimated his opponent. His plan called for the Confederates to attack his own Right Wing, under General Alexander McCook, and when Bragg did exactly that Rosecrans wasn’t prepared to properly support the right. At Chickamauga, his interference with the chain of command led directly to the fatal order that would be his downfall. While each crisis was a group effort, Rosecrans must bear his share of the blame in each case.
Rosecrans’s forte lay in what the Soviet military would come to call the Operational Art of War. Meticulously planned, skillfully executed schemes of maneuver designed to bring his opponent to battle at the time and place of his choosing. His masterpiece could be said to be the Tullahoma operation, a movement so well crafted that Bragg ultimately fled Middle Tennessee without risking battle.
Seven weeks later, Rosecrans repeated that success, this time leveraging Bragg of out Chattanooga via a series of movements across some of the most forbidding terrain of the entire war; crossing a major river, climbing a series of mountains, and doing so in a region that sparse on foodstuffs and forage.
If anything, Chickamauga came about because Rosecrans was too successful, and misread his opponent badly during the final stages of this operation. Convinced Bragg was in headlong retreat, Rosecrans converted his maneuver into a pursuit, only to discover that Bragg still intended to fight. That fight began on September 18, 1863.
So my answer is two-fold. Yes, the Union army was soundly defeated at Chickamauga. But Rosecrans’s operational skills were such that he had already beaten Bragg in the larger campaign, at the operational level.
And as the Soviets proved rather decisively in 1945, brilliance in operational art trumps tactical finesse every time.