The Battle of Chickamauga, fought on September 19–20, 1863, marked the end of a Union offensive in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia called the Chickamauga Campaign. It was the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater of the Civil War and had the second highest number of casualties in the war, following the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Fought between the Union Army of the Cumberland under Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, it was named for West Chickamauga Creek, which meanders near the battle area in northwest Georgia and ultimately flows into the Tennessee River about 3.5 miles northeast of downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Colonel Robert L. Kimberly wrote about the battle shortly afterward.
It was after midnight when the Union regiment, having passed Gordon’s Mills, went into bivouac in a thicket near the road. The men felt that they were on a battlefield, and were glad enough of the scanty rest that was to be had before daylight should call them to action again. Nothing could be seen of the position, but it was certain that the troops were massed rather than strung out in line, and the road was jammed with artillery and trains. In the morning the regiment with the rest was moved further along toward Rossville, Georgia on the Chattanooga Road, until it was near the Widow Glenn house, where Union Major General William Rosecrans’ headquarters had been established.
Further down the road and apparently to the right of it, there broke out, about the middle of the forenoon, the sound of a severe engagement. This was renewed again and again, and the report went about that a force sent to dispute the enemy’s passage of the Chickamauga, needed more than one reinforcement.
Finally, soon after noon, Major General John Palmer’s division was deployed in groups and moved straight across the Rossville Road to the attack. No enemy was in sight when the movement began. The troops’ objective was striking and crushing the enemy’s left flank. The movement started in an open wood; beyond this was a large open field, and about halfway across it, a strip of woodland. The 41st was in the first echelon and advanced to the woodland. But, beyond this the fighting was terrific. From the edge of the woods in front, there came a storm of rifle balls, and back of this were batteries in rapid action. Away to the right, the battle swept, and it was plain that the enemy’s flank was not found.
The 41st Infantry fired its last cartridges and was recalled to replenish the boxes. This was done hurriedly, back in the open wood, and it was hardly finished when the enemy fell furiously on Brigadier General Horatio P. Van Cleve’s division, which was on the right of Palmer’s. Brigadier General William Hazen was near the 41st when this happened. Some idle batteries were at hand, and Hazen quickly posted these to check the onslaught, for Van Cleve’s men were beginning to come back. Then the brigade was moved into the path of the storm which was bearing back the division of Van Cleve. Colonel Aquila Wiley broke his line to the rear by companies, to let the retreating crowds pass through, and then wheeled back into line. The 41st Infantry was still in the open wood, and in front was a large cornfield. Through this, the Confederates were swarming, but their first line had spent its force and lost its formation. Close behind came the second line in perfect order. Van Cleve’s retreating regiments had broken up Hazen’s line as they swept through, but the 41st had kept in form by breaking to the rear to let the fugitives pass, as has been told. Wiley opened on the Confederate second line, with volleys by front and rear ranks, and the advance was instantly checked. But, it was soon apparent that the regiment was out-flanked. Shots began to come from the right rear. Then Wiley made a change of front to face to the right and sent a volley into the gathering enemy there. Then a change back, to face the front and check the main advance. Never had the marvelous effect of volley firing been more clearly demonstrated; the fiery Confederates could not stand against it. The closed ranks of the 41st were in sharp contrast with the loose line in front and the wandering foes on the right. A hundred yards at a time the regiment fell back while loading, and easily held the enemy at bay. Then a commanding crest was reached, where a battery had taken post. Here it was proposed to stand, but the enemy did not come on. He was reforming his lines, as could be plainly seen from the crest. But night drew near, and the battle was over for the day.
Much of the night was taken up with getting into a new position — slow and tiresome marching in the darkness. The next morning, before the enemy moved, the 41st was lying behind a barricade of rails and logs, an open field behind it. There were troops to right and left, showing that a general line of battle was posted. Rations were not abundant, and of water, there was none at all.
A detail was sent to fill canteens; the men did not return but fell into the hands of the enemy, who held the water supply that was ours the day before. The intense suffering occasioned by this lack of water can hardly be imagined; pangs of hunger seemed mild in comparison. Before night, men’s tongues were swollen and their lips blackened and cracked until the power of speech was gone. It was far on into the next night when that time of awful thirst was ended.
The morning was well along when it became apparent that the enemy was advancing upon the Union lines. Nothing was to be seen in the woods to the front but soon the well-known Confederate yell was heard, and the skirmishers became engaged, falling back before the enemy’s line of battle. Then the line itself was in view, coming on with true Southern impetuosity.
From behind its barricade of rails, the 41st opened fire, and to right and left the fight was on. The Confederates returned the fire with spirit, but their advance was checked, and they did little or no damage to the men behind the barricades.
The attacking line rapidly thinned out under the steady fire; then it became unsteady, and finally, it turned and fled. This was the regiment’s first experience behind a defended line. Slight as was that defense of rails, it changed the whole character of the fighting. The enemy was severely punished, as was plain to be seen, and had been able to make no return in kind. The men began to wonder if an attacking force could cover three hundred yards or so before a well-directed fire should destroy it.