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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Battle of Chickamauga, September 18 - 20, 1863

For Lake County's 96th Illinois Infantry, Chickamauga was "A battle of tremendous proportions and fraught with mighty import."

Today, this American Civil War battle is not as well known in the North, likely because it was a Union defeat. So, on this 150th anniversary, let us look back and remember.

Lithograph by Kurz and Allison, 1890. Library of Congress.

The Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, September 18 - 20, 1863 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 two months earlier.

The battle was named for Chickamauga Creek, and fought between the Army of the Cumberland under Major General William Rosecrans and Confederate Army of the Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. For the 96th Illinois, this was their most intense engagement of the war.

The opposing generals at Chickamauga:
Maj. General William Rosecrans and General Braxton Bragg
Early in September 1863, Rosecrans had forced Bragg's army out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, but Bragg was determined to reoccupy the city. He decided to meet Rosecran's army head-on. As Bragg marched north on September 18, his cavalry and infantry fought skirmishes against Union cavalry and infantry with the key engagement at Reed's Bridge.

Captain Blodgett of the 96th's Company D "caught a bullet in the shoulder" near McAfee Church, but remained with the company although the wound was painful.

Fighting began in earnest on the morning of September 19, and though Bragg's men made a strong assault they could not break the Union lines.

According to the 96th’s history, by the end of Saturday, the men were "'spoiling for a fight.' Half in hopes that they might be spared the dangers of the battle, and half in fear lest they might not share in its honors."

Late on the morning of Sunday, September 20th, General Rosecrans was misinformed that he had a gap in his line. Moving units to fill the supposed gap, Rosecrans inadvertently created an actual gap. The breach was exploited with deadly force by Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps. Longstreet's attack confused the Union ranks and drove one-third of the Union army, including Rosecrans himself, from the field.

Major General George H. Thomas took over command, and Union units, including the 96th Illinois, created a defensive line on Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill. The Confederates repeatedly assaulted the Federals, but the Union lines held. Thomas was thereafter known as the "Rock of Chickamauga."

Snodgrass Hill where the 96th Illinois and other Union troops
fought off repeated attacks by Longstreet's corps.
Curt Teich Postcard Archives, RC488.

The 96th Illinois's Lt. Col. Isaac Clarke of Waukegan, led his men up Horseshoe Ridge. “Clarke sat calmly on his horse near the left of the Regiment, speaking words of cheer to the men as they met the terrible fate. A moment later a bullet struck him, inflicting a mortal wound. He was assisted from his horse and carried to the rear upon a blanket,” and subsequently died.

Lt. Col. Isaac L. Clarke
The loss of Clarke caused confusion in the ranks. A staff officer approached Capt. George Hicks of Company A: "hurriedly, with arms outstretched... his manner and tone indicating intense excitement," and informed Hicks of the loss of Clarke.

Hicks immediately assumed command of the Regiment: "Comrades, you have made one charge-a gallant charge. On yonder hillside lie the bodies of your fallen comrades. Forward to avenge their deaths!"

After the days' desperate battle, “The Union forces were well exhausted and almost out of ammunition, except as they took it from the cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded.” Twilight ended the battle. Union forces retired to Chattanooga while the Rebels occupied the surrounding heights. The 96th Illinois and 121st Ohio were the last organized body to leave the field.

George E. Smith of the 96th Illinois Company D wrote to his sister in Millburn two weeks after the battle: "I suppose you have all heard of the fight in which we were engaged at Chickamauga, and are all waiting with beating hearts to hear the result." He had survived those fateful days with only his foot being scraped by a bullet.

The Union suffered an estimated 16,170 casualties and Confederates 18,454. The 96th Illinois played a critical role, always in the front line and at the right where the work was most severe. 

The 96th Illinois's losses in killed and wounded were the heaviest of any regiment in the Reserve Corps. Of the 419 men who went into the fight, 200 were killed or wounded, and 34 captured.