Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale, the Battle of Chickamauga, Sep 18-20, 1863
By William Lee White
TVCWRT Book Review, by David Lady
The three-day battle fought along Chickamauga Creek was the second-bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, fought in the old-growth timbered forest of northwestern Georgia. There, hindered by very poor visibility due to thick undergrowth and deep shade, commanders on both sides often lost track of the enemy and even of their own men as black-powder smoke and dust gathered into a deadly fog that made it nearly impossible to command or maneuver effectively. Regiments stumbled into each other quite by surprise, and the chaotic, close-range engagements were indeed “Bushwhacking on a grand scale.” These battlefield conditions forced each individual soldier to become ‘the captain, the general, and the grand private” all in one, asserted one frustrated commander, Brigadier General John Turchin.
William Lee White attempts to bring order to the story of this battle as part of Savas Beatie Publishers Emerging Civil War Series, popular histories offering “… compelling, easy to read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important stories. “
Chickamauga is certainly one of the war’s most important stories, for the battle’s outcome not only confirmed the Union hold on Chattanooga (by 1863 the most important railroad junction remaining to the western Confederate armies), but also directly caused the Federal government to appoint General Ulysses Grant to the supreme command of all Federal armies in the west. This battle ruined the reputation of one Federal commander, William S. Rosecrans, and significantly boosted the reputation of another, General George H. Thomas, since known to history as the ‘Rock of Chickamauga.” This battle was Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s only victory of the war, yet his fellow Confederates and many historians have since argued that Bragg ‘lost’ the battle almost as soon as he won it.
Author William Lee White is a National Park Service Ranger and historian at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, and he is the only currently serving Chickamauga ranger to be born on the battlefield (the hospital that he was born in has since become part of the park grounds). He has spent most of his park service career explaining this battle to thousands of visitors as he led them through the heavily wooded landscape, telling the story of this largest engagement of the Western Theater.
I find his book to be a useful combination of battle narrative and battlefield driving tour. It departs from the National Park Service Driving Tour, which only covers the events of the third day of the battle. White’s book allows you and your party to view the battle from sites where the significant events of all three days of fighting took place, in the chronological order that the events took place. Although this route is longer and will require backtracking, the time spent will repay you with a much better overview of the battle.
The book is extremely well-illustrated with photos of participants, points of view, and notable and sometimes unnoticed monuments. Very useful is White’s including GPS coordinates for each dismount site on the route. Log these coordinates into your navigation device, and enjoy a less-stressful touring experience.
William White writes a brisk, interesting narrative, covering the movements by both armies which led to their meeting in this wilderness. He briefly, but clearly presents the reasons why Army commanders Rosecrans and Bragg tried to conduct the battle as they did. White adequately covers all of the significant events of the three days and takes on a number of long-standing myths about the battle, doing an especially good job of accounting for General Rosecrans notorious “ill-written order” that caused a gap to appear in the Federal line of battle, leading to the Federal defeat. Several excellent appendixes conclude the book: one devoted to the movement of Longstreet’s Confederate Corps from Virginia to the battlefield; the ‘Civilians at Chickamauga;’ ‘Chickamauga in Memory’- the development of the National Park, erection of memorials, and reunions conducted by Civil War veteran’s on the battlefield.
There are some weaknesses with White’s presentation of the facts. His maps are only average and depict the battle action at a very high level; they are not much help in visualizing the narrative. Two of White’s key assertions are open to criticism: his defense of Rosecrans’ abilities goes too far as he argues unconvincingly that Rosecrans should have been left in command of the Army of the Cumberland after the battle, rather than replaced by General Thomas. He also gives short shrift to Confederate General Longstreet’s skill as a battlefield tactician, attributing Longstreet’s placement of his units for the critical breakthrough attack of the third day to as series of accidents rather than to good leadership and good staff activity. This attack was the decisive event of the battle, breaking the Federal Army in two and routing nearly half of the it along with Rosecrans and two of his Corps commanders, into flight all the way back to Chattanooga.
Finally, this first edition needs editing by a good proof-reader to eliminate irritating spelling and grammatical errors. Savas Beatie publishing house has lost some credibility while saving an editor’s salary.
This is not a definitive study of the battle; it is not intended to be that. It is a good introduction to the battlefield which I hope will be carefully proof-read before the second edition. I cautiously recommend it for someone seeking an understanding of the battle and the battlefield without becoming mired in tactical and organizational details.
For detailed accounts of the battle, use Peter Cozzens This Terrible Sound and Powell and Patrick’s The Maps of Chickamauga, or the US Army War College Guide to the Battle of Chickamauga (pub U. Kansas Press and my personal choice for a battlefield guide).