Monday, August 27, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and the Battle of Chickamauga

Since the release of “Spirit of the Rebellion,” I have received a lot of questions about a great many things in the story. So, today I thought I’d address one of the questions concerning the Battle of Chickamauga. Readers wanted to know if Rosecrans really received faulty information on that battlefield. Did he truly create a hole in his line that the Confederate army promptly exploited because of that information? And if so, what, if anything, happened to Rosecrans since the battle ended in a Union defeat? Although fictionalized to some extent in the book, (I am a novelist, see the disclaimer...) let me give you some of the facts.

In late 1863, President Lincoln desperately needed some good news. In fact, he was desperate for a substantial Union victory. Opposition in congress from moderates who wished to end the war, rioters in New York who opposed the draft, foreign policy breakdowns and facing the election in 1864, weighed heavy on his mind. Needless to say, Abraham Lincoln had his worries. He wanted a win at Chickamauga.

Battle of Chickamauga
The Battle of Chickamauga was indeed, a Union defeat, but this battle ultimately led to the demise of the South. How can defeat be a good thing? Set backs are usually followed by change. The Union general, William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland had recently defeated General Braxton Bragg of the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Rosecrans was a competent leader, a good strategist, and his career was on the rise. But even the best make mistakes. However, Lincoln was in no position or mood to tolerate mistakes.

William Rosecrans and Braxton Braggs
Heroes rise from the ashes of defeat, and fortune smiles upon others. During the heat of the battle, Rosecrans received intelligence that a wide gap existed between General Thomas J. Wood’s division on the right and General John Reynolds’ division on the left. Without confirmation, Rosecrans ordered troops to fill a gap that didn't exist. This in turn, created an actual gap. It was a misfortune of timing. While the Union troops were dealing with the relocation of soldiers, the Confederates, under James Longstreet, used this moment to deliver a “sledgehammer blow,” 23,000 men strong, through the newly created gap. Defeat was inevitable.

George H. Thomas, a Virginian fighting for the Union earned his name “The Rock of Chickamauga” for his defense of Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill. Shortly after the battle of Chickamauga, he replaced Rosecrans as the leader of the Army of the Cumberland. The Cumberland Army then retreated to Chattanooga. The failure of Confederate General Bragg to follow-up and exploit the Union defeat, allowed Thomas to consolidate his forces at Chattanooga

So, how did a Confederate victory ultimately lead to the South’s defeat? Two new players walked onto the stage. Given overall command, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived with reinforcements. William Tecumseh Sherman followed with the Union Army of the Tennessee. From Chattanooga, Sherman began his march to Atlanta, while Grant headed out with the intention of taking Richmond. The Petersburg campaign against General Robert E. Lee followed.

As a side note, Mary Todd Lincoln's brother,  the Conferate Brig. General, Benjamin Helm, died September 20, 1863, during the battle of Chickamauga. Abraham Lincoln is said to have made the following statement. "He now knew how King David felt when his army killed his rebellious son, Absolom."

Victories and action by Grant and Sherman consolidated support for President Lincoln, and helped ensure his re-election in 1864... 

Victory from defeat.  And, perhaps, somewhere in here, the premise of a new story....