I apologize for this post being a day late for its 145th anniversary posting, but I misplaced my notes and it took a little longer than planned to finish. I’m not nearly as versed in the western theater, so any and all comments are welcome.
By September 17, 1863, the three Union corps of Rosecrans’ army had closed up and, although not yet united, were much less vulnerable to individual defeat. Despite this, Bragg decided to initiate his attack against the Union left on the morning of the 18th and cut them off from their supply base at Chattanooga.
As Bragg’s forces moved north along the LaFayette Road toward Major general Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps, his cavalry and infantry fought with Union cavalry and mounted infantry under the command of Colonel Robert Minty and Colonel John T. Wilder. The forces under Hood, Walker, and Buckner crossed West Chickamauga Creek against this pressure and bivouacked just to the west of the creek. Although Bragg had achieved some degree of surprise, he failed to exploit it. Rosecrans, observing the dust raised by the marching Confederates in the morning, anticipated Bragg’s plan. He ordered Thomas and McCook to Crittenden’s support, and while the Confederates were crossing the creek, Thomas began to arrive in Crittenden’s rear area.
I’ve never been able to find much information on these opening moves of the fight against the Union cavalry and mounted infantry picketing the creek. I was delighted when I found the following account of this opening phase of the battle in the vicinity of Reed’s Bridge by a sergeant of the 4th U.S. Cavalry. The source is Sergeant Larson, 4th Cav, by James Larson (San Antonio: Southern Literary Institute, 1935).
General Minty’s brigade was posted near Reed’s Bridge over Chickamauga Creek late on the afternoon of September 17th. The 4th U.S. Cavalry led the advance, and encamped about a quarter of a mile from the bridge, after posting a strong picket about a quarter of a mile on the far side of the bridge. The remainder of the brigade encamped to the rear of its lead regiment. (Larson, pg 174).
“The meat not required for our mess was divided among the others, who started frying it at once and soon had a finished their breakfast and even had a little time to take a smoke when all of a sudden shots were fired at our picket post on the other side of the Chickamauga, soon followed by other shots which rapidly increased to volleys. Men at once ran to their horses and saddled them up without waiting for orders, and the horses were all saddled when the trumpeter sounded “boots and saddles”. As soon as the trumpeter had the last note of the call out of his trumpet he sounded “to horse.” (Larson, page 175)
“We moved out at a gallop by fours, but when we arrived at the bridge we had to file off by twos and cross it ata walk. It was so narrow that two horses could hardly pass side by side and it was a badly built bridge too, besides being so old that it swayed to and fro, creaking and groaning as if ready to fall at any moment.
“After crossing we came on a very large level and open space, which looked like it had been a plantation once, but there was no fence around it then. On the other side of this opening ran a long range of low hills, covered with timber and underwood, and where the road ascended the hills we came to our men, who were disputing the enemy’s advance on the road and as far to the sides as it were possible for so small a body of men to do. The enemy was rapidly deploying and coming into line of battle along those low hills, which left no doubt that it was a general advance of the right wing of Bragg’s army. Hence it became necessary for the 4th Cavalry to fall back to better and more suitable ground. To attempt to stop or make any resistance to the advance of the whole wing of the Confederate Army in the position we then held, would have been worse than folly. To withdraw, we had to recross the old shaky and tottering bridge, and that had to be done very slowly and carefully else it was likely to break down before half the regiment had crossed.
“Orders were at once given to form skirmish lines by companies, and in a moment the twelve companies stood in a line across the open flat, facing the advancing enemy. The companies retained their formation in a column of four so that each company really represented a single man on a skirmish line. There was a great advantage for us in that formation because the enemy was on much higher ground than we were and every man in a company from front to rear could use the carbine over the heads of those in front. A tremendous fusillade was opened on the enemy at once, which had the effect of checking them up short, and it was high time, too, because they were pushing the advance rapidly.
“Then we began the retreat by companies, in alphabetical order. Company A moved slowly toward the bridge as though there were nothing whatever to hurry about, crossed over by twos and at once formed line, facing the enemy again, close to the bank of the Chickamauga. While Company A executed that move, all the other companies kept up a steady fusillade and held the enemy in check, at least in our immediate front, but they were deploying rapidly to right and left along those hills under cover of the timber. Company B next took up the move for the bridge, and went across, came in line with company A, and so the order of retreat was carried out until the twelve companies all had crossed and stood in line on the opposite side of the Chickamauga ready to receive the Rebs as soon as they should move forward out of the hills and timber which sheltered them. The support for the last companies in crossing was the line that was formed by companies already across.
“The movement was beautifully executed, and although under fire continually it was done as slowly and steadily as if on drill or parade. It would have been a grand sight for anyone to witness at a safe distance. For us it was a source of pride and it was undoubtedly a lesson to the enemy, which served to make them cautious and prevented them from attempting to press us too hard, as they could see they had steady troops to deal with.
“After taking up this new line we stood quietly awaiting further developments. We had passed through the first act in the drama without any serious loss, considering the position we had been in. A few killed and wounded, of course, and some horses too. The greatest part of the loss, however, was borne by the picket reserve who met the first onset of the enemy before we arrived on the scene. Most of them were killed or captured. My splendid horse had received two bullets. One was just back of the stirrup strap, entering his stomach, and of course, would cause his death, although he still carried me. The other also entered his body just in front of the hip.
“This was the opening scene of the great Battle of Chickamauga, but with the cavalry, or at least with Minty’s Brigade, that battle commenced on the eighteenth day of September at about 6 o’clock in the morning. That seemed also to be the day and hour Bragg really intended to set his whole army in motion. At least we met his right wing under Bushrod Johnson all right, but it seemed they were not in any great hurry to move across the open flat to attack us again. Perhaps the steady and orderly manner in which we walked out of the trap in which we were in had made it necessary for them to bring some of their artillery.
“General Minty came down the road with the balance of the brigade and the Board of Trade battery on a brisk gallop and in a twinkle the battery was in position on the hill and let loose on the Rebs, firing right over our heads. The very first discharge of that battery created a stir in the enemy’s line. A wheel was knocked from under one of their guns and before it was replaced another one of their guns was disabled.” (Larson, pages 177-179)
Larson leaves out the fight happening nearly simultaneously involving their sister brigade, Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, but he is purportedly writing only what he actually saw himself.
I would be very interested to hear from any of my readers more familiar with the battlefield and its history than I am as to how accurate Larson’s version of the fighting is. As previously mentioned, I haven’t been able to find much information on these opening scenes of the battle.