Winners and Losers

Waterloo pyramid
The Lion Pyramid at Waterloo

Cannae.  Waterloo.

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.

William Rosecrans

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.

Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain viewed from Missionary ridge
Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain viewed from Missionary ridge

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.

20 Responses to Winners and Losers

  1. Very nice, but (there is always a “but”) the one thing I have learned from your books—I’m almost to the end of Vol. 2—is that WSR was lucky his army was not totally destroyed. If not for the command dysfunction in Polk’s Right Wing, it well could have been. Between the hanging left flank in Kelly Field and the infamous gap between Kelly Field and Snodgrass Hill …

    Shoot, Bragg damn near got the job done on the 19th.

    1. This is true. But then, no army conducts a completely flawless campaign or battle. Usually victory comes down to who makes the fewest blunders.

  2. An excellent article, and thank you for adding to my understanding of the several levels at which the military art is practiced. Also for reminding us that successful campaigns decide wars; that successful campaigns can include unsuccessful battles.

  3. After my first trip to Chickamauga, I wondered why the Union armies would spend so much time commemorating a battlefield where they lost (at least as I understood the battle at the time). It was really the monumentation that forced me to take another look at the battle’s outcome and how to interpret it.

    Great post, Dave. Really enjoyed it.

  4. Great post as always, Dave. I have long felt that we undervalue Rosecrans. He had his flaws, but also some brilliance.

  5. Rosecrans’ unforgivable sin was the depressive funk into which he sank after his defeat at Chickamauga. While his army almost starved to death in Chattanooga, Rosecrans became paralyzed in a deep depression. It was only after Rosecrans was relieved of command and U.S Grant teamed with George Thomas that the Confederate siege of Chattanooga was lifted. Great generals possess the ability to rebound, even from the most devastating defeats. Grant is a prime example of this rebound ability. After getting his butt kicked in the first day of Shiloh, Grant sloughed off suggestions to retreat. He told W.T. Sherman he’d beat the rebels the next day. And he did! Grant’s resilience again shone through at Vicksburg. After months of failing to take the city in battle (and failing to dig a canal around the city), Grant marched and sailed his troops and supplies south of Vicksburg and on to victory. After the stalemate at the Wilderness, Grant kept marching south toward Richmond. He troops cheered him for it. He showed the same steadfastness after his defeats at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. The ability to keep-on-truckin’ is a great asset not only in war but also in life.

    1. I would dispute this. I don’t see Rosecrans sinking into a “depressive funk” after Chickamauga. Exactly the opposite, in fact. Rosecrans laid the framework for the operations that Grant would later take credit for.

      1. Great response, Dave. This seems to be the thinking of several other current historians who have written a similar opinion based on their own independent research. I changed my opinion about Rosecrans after reading your work and that of these writers. This post today is absolutely wonderful! Thank you for the education.

      2. “A depressive funk” might have been too strong a phrase. How about “paralyzed by indecision.” I agree that plans to lift the siege had been developed before Grant arrived in Chattanooga on Oct. 23, 1863. But Rosecrans had done nothing to put those plans into action. He was “paralyzed by indecision.” Here are the important dates: Sept. 19-20, 1863, Battle of Chickamauga is fought and lost. Between that defeat and the arrival of Grant – more than a month – nothing was done to implement the so-called Brown’s Ferry Plan to relieve the siege. After arriving in Chattanooga on Oct. 23, 1863, it took Grant one day to approve the Brown’s Ferry Plan. And within four days (Oct. 27) of Grant’s arrival, the plan was implemented and the siege was lifted. The best laid plans are worth nothing unless they are acted upon. Grant was a man of action. Rosecrans was paralyzed by indecision.

      3. Grant certainly won the battle of memory when it comes to Rosecrans, didn’t he?

  6. Reblogged this on All things Confederate and commented:
    ‘And as the Soviets proved rather decisively in 1945, brilliance in operational art trumps tactical finesse every time.’ The author may be right, in essence, but he forgets to mention that the Soviets paid a very bloody price for being tactically obtuse. For every German soldier killed they lost ten of their own.

    1. Well, I didn’t forget it, but I did omit it. The post wasn’t about the Eastern Front. I would also point out that you err the other way – the ratio was far from 10 to 1. That figure sounds like a hold-over from the 1980s. The best estimates now put Soviet Killed (and missing) at between 8 and 11 million men. German Killed range from 4 to 5.5 million men, with about 80% of those coming in the East.

      Doing that math, we have ratio of more like 3 to 1.

      Admittedly, hard numbers are still in dispute, even after the large ex-Soviet data dumps of the 1990s. Still, the Germans undoubtedly won every battle back to Berlin.:)

  7. Bob,
    I would still differ. Grant’s timing in the case of the cracker line plan could not have been better. He showed up literally at the last minute, and got to take credit for an op that was in the planning for weeks. Kind of Like if Eisenhower had arrived in England on June 1, 1944, and a week later, Normandy “happened.”

    The opening of the Cracker Line required three things. 1) the arrival of sufficient troops to control Lookout Valley, and keep the line through Running Water Canyon and Wauhatchie open. 2) completion of at least the first of several river boats that were being built at Stevenson and Bridgeport. 3) completion of the pontoons that would serve as both assault boats and the basis for the new bridge at Brown’s Ferry. All three elements had to be ready to go, or the plan would have been useless, because each was a vital link in the chain that ran from Bridgeport to Chattanooga.

    Now, the 11th Corps reinforcements began arriving in early October, but they did so without their own wagons, so that their mobility was greatly restricted. Movement of the corps was also halted in the first week of October, due to Wheeler’s raid, which probably delayed Hooker’s final assembly by close to two weeks.

    Construction of the river boats could only have been possible in the first place because Rosecrans ordered their machinery shipped to Bridgeport via railroad, even before the campaign began. He ordered them built under a priority after Chickamauga, but it took roughly a full month to get the first one operational.

    Same with the 50 pontoon/assault boats. Rosecrans ordered work to begin on them around the end of September, understanding that he would have to bridge the river somewhere; but it took time to cut the lumber, cut it at captured sawmills, and build the boats. They, too, where ready about the end of October.

    Once all three pieces were ready, the plan could begin at any time. Grant was being (at best) disingenuous when he said, in his memoirs, that he couldn’t understand why Rosecrans’s hadn’t implemented the plan – he knew full well why, because it was explained to him by both Rosecrans and Thomas.

    Personally, I think that Rosecrans’s relief – he was sent packing on Oct 19 – actually delayed implementation by a few days. Why? Because Thomas and Baldy Smith had to take Grant around on an inspection tour to show him how the plan would work. Hence, Ops didn’t begin until 28 October. Had Rosecrans remained in command, I think it likely the op might have begun as early as the 21st or 22nd.

    Complex operations don’t happen off the cuff, or overnight. Especially complex logistical operations. Far too few Civil War writers really appreciate that logistics DRIVES operational tempo, though many will give lip service to how “important” the subject is. Hence the whole “Rosecrans was dazed and doing nothing” school of thought.

    Rosecrans was doing a great deal. Just nothing that has been really appreciated in the literature. That’s not Rosecrans’s fault…

    1. Dave: I respectfully disagree with several of your main points. Let’s take them one at a time. First – You make it sound like Grant in his Memoirs was the only one who thought Rosecrans was incompetent following Chickamauga. I agree that Grant in his Memoirs could be unfair to those against whom he held a grudge. Grant was especially unfair to George Thomas. But Grant wasn’t alone in condemning Rosecrans’ post-Chickamauga actions (or inactions). For example: While visiting the besieged Chattanooga, Asst. Scty. of War Charles Dana wrote, “The practical incapacity of Rosecrans is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears contagious . . .” Even Lincoln doubted Rosecrans’ post-Chickamauga abilities. After corresponding by telegraph with Rosecrans, Lincoln wrote that the general appeared “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” Second – It wasn’t as if Rosecrans faced impossible odds while hunkered down in Chattanooga. Rebel Gen. Braxton Bragg’s position was not all that strong, either. His 40,000-plus troops were stretched very thin along a 7-mile front. Also, Rosecrans, whose lines were much more compact, had almost three weeks to shift troops into the Lookout Valley and free up Haley’s Trace as a supply route for Chattanooga. Instead, Rosecrans allowed James Longstreet to occupy the area unopposed on Oct. 8. Third- You give far too much credit to Rosecrans for developing plans to lift the siege. Actually, Gen. William “Baldy” Smith was almost exclusively responsible for the plans. And Smith developed the plans largely on his own initiative. Fourth – You imply that Smith’s plans were ready in time for an Oct. 21 or 22 D-Day, if only Rosecrans would have been allowed continue as commanding general. Not true. Smith didn’t finalize his plans until Oct. 19, when he made a final trip to Brown’s Ferry. (Coincidentally, this was the same day Rosecrans was relieved.) After that, Smith had to draw up detailed plans on paper with corresponding maps, had to convince the rest of the army’s staff that the extremely complex amphibious undertaking was workable and finally had to assemble all the equipment and troops needed for D-Day. It took Thomas (who temporarily replaced Rosecrans until Grant arrived) three days just to assemble the boats and pontoons. Fifth – You implied Grant took a long while to approve the plan. Even though Grant was completely unfamiliar with the plan until he arrived at Chattanooga in the evening of Oct. 23, it took him less than 24 hours approve it and give the go-ahead. Troops were then assembled and D-Day was launched in the early hours of Oct. 27 (not Oct. 28 as you wrote), less than 3 ½ days after Grant arrived on the scene. Bottom Line: Your defense of Rosecrans is full of what-ifs, maybes and shoulda-couldas. Grant needs no such defense.

      1. A War Dept Board looked into the opening of the Cracker Line and concluded Rosecrans was the originator of the plan. Conclusion is on page 20.

        William Le Duc who piloted one of the boats that opened the Cracker Line also credited Rosecrans with the plan. P 429-20 of the following

  8. This is not a comment on the post itself, but is intended for the blog admins. The “Notify me of new comments via email” feature appears to not work. I clicked it, but have yet to receive any email notifications. Not a big deal, just a minor admin issue that might need someone’s attention.

  9. More insightful analysis by the pre-eminent authority on Chickamauga. The only “fly in the ointment” which I’d toss into the mix is that Rosey’s opponent was Bragg, after all, and his disfunctional command “family” of Hardee, Polk, Wheeler, D.H. Hill, etc. with the late addition of another expert carper in Longstreet . Some teams thrive on that – the Reggie Jackson Yankees come to mind. Most fall apart. The Army of Tennessee was always fighting on two fronts – on the field and in headquarters.

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