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The Real First Day of Chickamauga: September 18, 1863
By Dale Phillips
Presentation to CCWRT on 20 May 2010, Summarized by Mike Rhein
©Cincinnati CWRT, 2010
The expression, "fog of war," had no better application of it than on the events of Sept. 18, 1863 at a meandering creek in north Georgia called "Chickamauga.
Wait a minute. Was not the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20? Well..mainly so. There were horrific casualty lists on both sides those two days. Yes, there was that famous shattering assault by Confederate General James Longstreet which demolished the center of Union General William Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland on Sept. 20, not far from Dyer Field. What about that heroic stand on a hill, later to be named Lytle Hill, that day also? Let us not forget the subsequent rearguard struggle on Horseshoe Ridge led by Gen. George Thomas on the 20th which saved the Union Army from total destruction. And what about the fierce fighting all day on Sept. 19 at places such as Jay's Mill, Brock Field, Winfrey Field, Brotherton Field and Viniard Farm?
However, as our May speaker, Dale Phillips of George Rogers Clark National Historic Park (Indiana) emphasized, the events occurring at nondescript bridges such as Dyer, Reed and Alexander spanning Chickamauga Creek dictated what would happen on Sept. 19-20, 1863.
Mr. Phillips, with 33 years in the National Park Service and beginning his new assignment this year at the Abraham Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois, described the operations in late August-early September, 1863 of Gen. Rosecrans and Confederate General Braxton Bragg prior to the Chickamauga Battle which would claim over 34,000 in dead, wounded and missing. He lauded Rosecrans' maneuvers, featuring three Union corps (Thomas Crittenden, George Thomas and Alexander McCook) going through parts of the Cumberland Mountains, Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain to force Bragg to retreat southward from Chattanooga, Tennessee into north Georgia, as "one of the most brilliant campaigns of the war." Mr. Phillips said that, at one point in the campaign, Gen. Rosecrans' army was "spread over 50 miles."
The speaker related that Rosecrans (left) believed Bragg to be retreating in confusion, his perception fueled by Confederate "deserters" asserting Bragg's Army of Tennessee to be in "disarray." The so-called deserters were chosen by Bragg to go behind the Union lines to plant this deception. Bragg in the meantime, according to Mr. Phillips, was being reinforced by Gen. W.H.T. Walker's Mississippi troops, Gen. Simon Buckner's men from Knoxville, Tennessee and Longstreet's corps from Virginia, boosting Bragg's army to 66,000, eclipsing the Army of the Cumberland's 57,000.
Bragg (right) tried several times to trap Rosecrans in the area of McLemore's Cove (situated west of Chickamauga Creek) between Lookout and Pigeon Mountains) prior to Sept. 18. Rosecrans "discovers his predicament and pulls his army together," Mr. Phillips said. By Sept. 17 Union cavalry Colonels John Wilder (Thomas' 14th Corps, Fourth Division, First Brigade) and Robert Minty (Cavalry Corps, Second Division, First Brigade) were dispatched to guard Alexander's and Reed's bridges (north of Lee and Gordon's Mill), respectively, and patrol the areas east of Chickamauga Creek.
Minty's and Wilder's troopers combined totaled about 3,000, according to Mr. Phillips. (the speaker added that Wilder's brigade, composed of mounted infantry, was equipped with Spencer seven-shot repeating rifles, considerably increasing its firepower). During the night of Sept. 17, Mr. Phillips noted, this slim Union cavalry force heard trains pulling into Ringgold Station, unloading Longstreet's corps. Minty and Wilder repeatedly sent messages, attesting to this disconcerting development, but Gen. Crittenden refused to believe that a large rebel force (about seven to ten thousand) was that close to the Union position.
On the morning of Sept. 18th, Confederate Gen. Bushrod Johnson (left) was ordered to take Reed's Bridge (north of Alexander's Bridge) and drive opposing Union forces southward down the western side of Chickamauga Creek to McLemore's Cove. This movement, Mr. Phillips stressed, was the beginning of the Chickamauga battle. (Right: Jim Ogden at Reeds Bridge, CCWRT 2009 Tour Photo by Bob Limoseth.)
However, Col. Minty (left), with the Seventh Pennsylvania, Fourth Michigan and Fourth U.S. cavalry regiments plus the Chicago Board of Trade Artillery Battery, put up stubborn resistance. Col. Wilder (below) sent part of his 72nd Indiana, 123 Illinois and part of Captain Eli Lilly's (yes, that Lilly who would one day establish the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Co. after the war) 18th Indiana Light Artillery to Dyer's Bridge (north of Reed's) while defending Alexander's Bridge with parts of his 17th and 72nd Indiana, the 98th Illinois and the rest of Lilly's battery.
Minty held Reed's Bridge until about 3 p.m. and then fell back under increasing Confederate pressure. At 4 p.m. Wilder was flanked and retreated to Viniard's Field, Mr. Phillips said. Oh, back to that "fog of war" thing again. Both Gens. Crittenden and Thomas Wood dismissed Wilder's and Minty's reports regarding the large rebel presence in the area, but, as Mr. Phillips said, "they found out it was true." He added that Union Gen. Alexander McCook (20th Corps) thought there was "only a lone rebel brigade across from Reed's (bridge)." In grim reality, there were 20,000 Confederates.
Minty and Wilder frustrated Bragg's plan to ensnare Rosecrans in McLemore's Cove with their stalwart defense most of the day on Sept. 18. The impact of this defensive effort, in Mr. Phillips' viewpoint, was that "if Bragg had gotten over the creek (Chickamauga) early in the morning (of the 18th), he would've blocked the Chattanooga Road and pushed Rosecrans back to McLemore's Cove and be trapped." In conclusion, Mr. Phillips, citing Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill's opinion of the costly Confederate victory at Chickamauga 20 years after the battle, said that "it was a barren victory that sealed the fate of the Confederacy."
An image of Captain Lilly is available in the Indiana Historical Society Digital Images collection at Captain Eli Lilly.
Eric Wittenberg argues that Minty was "one of the very best Union cavalry brigade commanders but has been largely overlooked because of his service in the Western Theater." See Eric's essay on Minty at Rantings of a Civil War Historian.
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