Civil War – Chickamauga aftermath and the firing of Northern generals

Submitted by C.J. Johnson

 

In late September 1863, one of the bloodiest, largest battles occurred in north Georgia, near the banks of Chickamauga Creek. The United States Assistant Secretary of War, Charles Dana, was there with the Army of the Cumberland, to file reports directly to Washington on the progress of the battle. According to history.com, “Exhausted by the rapid succession of events the prior day, Dana had found a restful place that fateful morning and settled down in the grass to sleep.

When Bushrod Johnson’s soldiers came crashing through the Union line, he was suddenly wide awake. ‘I was awakened by the most infernal noise I ever heard,’ he remembered. ‘I sat up on the grass and the first thing I saw was General Rosecrans crossing himself–he was a very devout Catholic. ‘Hello!’ I said to myself, ‘if the general is crossing himself, we are in a desperate situation’…

Just then Rosecrans rode up and offered Dana some advice. ‘If you care to live any longer,’ the general said, ‘get away from here.’ The whistling of bullets grew steadily closer, and Dana now looked upon a terrible sight. ‘I had no sooner collected my thoughts and looked around toward the front, where all this din came from, than I saw our lines break and melt way like leaves before the wind.’ He spurred his horse toward Chattanooga, where he telegraphed the news of the disaster to Washington that night.”

Following the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, in which 16,000 casualties were inflicted on the Union army, on September 23 President Lincoln met with Secretary of War Stanton and other cabinet members and military leaders on the situation of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lincoln wanted reinforcements sent to Chattanooga as soon as possible. There was a problem, though. There were no other Union forces close by.

Thanks to the railroad lines and telegraph communications, Federal troops commanded by General Joseph Hooker, in Virginia at the time, were in Tennessee or North Alabama in about ten days. Supplies, equipment, and horses and mules were also in place in what seemed to be record time.

Meanwhile, someone needed to bear the blame for the Chickamauga defeat. The two generals (McCook and Crittenden) in charge of the corps involved in the collapsed flank and gap in the line were prime targets. Rosecrans fired both of them, in part to protect his position.

On September 28, Union generals Alexander M. McCook and Thomas Crittenden were ordered to appear at Indianapolis, Indiana for a court of inquiry regarding the defeat at Chickamauga. Both men were removed from command. Kentucky, General Crittenden’s home state, wrote President Lincoln strongly requesting another look at the decision to remove General Crittenden from command.

Finally, five months later in February 1864 both men were cleared by a military court. However, the decision did nothing for the careers of either man. Neither would command a corps now. General Rosecrans, who had fired Crittenden and McCook, lost his job as well. Rosecrans was replaced by General George Thomas, “the Rock of Chickamauga,” who held off Confederates at Chickamauga while the bulk of the Union force fell back to Chattanooga.