On the second day of the battle of Chickamauga the Confederates came close to destroying the Army of the Cumberland. They were prevented from reaching this goal by a stubborn defense of Major General George Thomas, who earned that day the title of The Rock of Chickamauga.
Thomas, a native born Virginian, stood with the Union at considerable personal cost. His beloved three sisters turned his pictures to the wall, regarded him as dead to them and had no further communications with him for the remainder of his life. Relatively unknown today, Thomas was probably the ablest Union commander of the War not named Grant or Sherman,
Thomas commanded the Union left, and his men were involved in heavy fighting from 9:30AM to Noon on September 20, beating off a heavy two division Confederate attack.
Through a comedy of errors in miscommunication a gap appeared in the Union center when a division led by Brigadier General Thomas Wood moved out of the line. At 11:10 AM Longstreet attacked the Union center with three divisions, one of those divisions going right through the gap in the line created by Wood’s withdrawal. After several hours of hard fighting the Union center and right collapsed.
Thomas held the field on the Union left, forming his men into a semi-circle and beating off Confederate assault after Confederate assault. He only withdrew after he was ordered to, and after darkness fell. His stand deterred the Confederates from what could have been a disastrous pursuit of the retreating Union troops.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s special investigator, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana was at the battle and he telegraphed the news to Stanton that would soon have the entire North hailing Thomas as the Rock of Chickamauga. (Ironically on September 20, Dana, convinced that the battle was lost, and demanding an escort to Chattanooga, helped distract Union Colonel John Wilder from ordering a counterattack against Longstreet by his mounted infantry brigade that may have stopped the collapse of the Union center.)
CHATTANOOGA, September 21, 1863–2 p.m.
Garfield, chief of staff, becoming separated from Rosecrans in the route of our right wing yesterday, made his way to the left, and spent the afternoon and night with General Thomas. He arrived here before noon to-day, having witnessed the sequel of the battle in that part of the field. Thomas, finding himself cut off from Rose-crams and the right, at once brought his seven divisions into position for independent fighting. Refusing both his right and left, his line assumed the form of a horse-shoe posted along the slope and crest of a partly wooded ridge. He was soon joined by Granger from Rossville, with the brigade of McCook and division of Steedman, and with these forces firmly maintained the fight till after dark. Our troops were as immovable as the rocks they stood on. The enemy hurled against them repeatedly the dense columns which had routed Davis and Sheridan in the morning, but every onset was repulsed with dreadful slaughter. Falling first on one and then another point of our lines, for hours the rebels vainly sought to break them. Thomas seemed to have filled every soldier with his own unconquerable firmness, and Granger, his hat torn by bullets, raged like a lion wherever the combat was hottest with the electrical courage of a Ney.
Every division commander bore himself gloriously, and among brigade commanders, Turchin, Hazen, and Harker especially distinguished themselves. Turchin charged through the rebel lines with the bayonet, and becoming surrounded, forced his way back again. Harker, who had two horses shot under him on the 19th, forming his men in four lines, made them lie down till the enemy were close upon him when they suddenly rose and delivered their fire with such effect that the assaulting columns fell back in confusion, leaving the ground covered with the fallen. When night fell this body of heroes stood on the same ground they had occupied in the morning, their spirit unbroken, but their numbers greatly diminished. Their losses are not yet ascertained. Van Cleve had this morning 1,200 men in the ranks, but this number will probably be doubled by evening in stragglers. Neither he, Sheridan, nor Davis fought with Thomas. The divisions of Wood, Johnson, Brannan, Palmer, Reynolds, and Baird, which never broke at all, have lost very severely. We hear unofficially from Brannan that but about 2,000 effective men remain in his division. Steedman lost one-third of his men. Thomas retired to Rossville after battle. Dispositions have been made to resist the enemy’s approach on that line, but if Ewell be really there, Rosecrans will have to retreat beyond the Tennessee.
Thomas telegraphs this morning that the troops are in high spirits. He brought off all his wounded. Of those at Crawfish Spring, our main field hospital, nearly all have been brought away. It now seems probable that not more than 1,000 of our wounded are in the enemy’s hands, and Rosecrans has sent flag to recover them. The number of prisoners taken by enemy is still uncertain. It will hardly surpass 3,000, besides wounded.
In artillery our loss is probably forty pieces. Many were left because all of their horses had been killed. Of rebel prisoners we have already sent 1,300 to Nashville.
[C. A. DANA.]