Friday, September 23, 2016

Stones River National Battlefield

Tucked away outside of Murfreesboro, TN, an hour outside of Nashville, is Stones River National Battlefield.  On New Year's Day, 1863, Union troops tenaciously refused to leave the field of battle, despite being pummeled by the Confederate army all day long.  As a result, in the Western Theater, the Confederates were forced to continue the retreat that began in Kentucky two months earlier and continued throughout the remainder of the Civil War.

As with many battlefields, visiting requires imagining.  Imagine still being groggy from just waking up.  You haven't had your coffee yet, and you're in the middle of fixing breakfast, perhaps thinking that the new year could bring an end to this war, when the enemy suddenly comes rushing out of the adjacent woods with a rebel yell loud enough to send you into a panic.  That's how the battle of Stones River started.

The surprised Union troops dug in inside a thickly overgrown thicket with large boulders and shallow gullies.  Ordinarily such a place would be perfect to fend off attackers, but the Confederates thundered into the thicket in force with a shower of lead.  The scared Union soldiers began retreating through the woods.  The boulders and gullies that would have been their defense instead turned into obstacles that severely hampered their retreat rather than helping it.  As a result, the thicket turned into a slaughter pen.

The Slaughter Pen

As the battle raged on for the next four hours, the Confederates continued to roll up the Union line, pushing them back 3 miles, capturing 3000 prisoners, and defeating them in detail.

The only part of the Union line that held that first day was in what came to be known as "Hell's Half-Acre".  Hazen's Brigade fought off attack after attack until bodies littered the field in front of them.

Site of Hazen's Stand:  Hell's Half-Acre

Despite their certain defeat, the Union army refused to leave the field.  Gen Rosecrans even ordered his left flank to move further left to reinforce the heights to the east of Stones River.  The next day, Gen Bragg ordered an assault on the Union left flank, but his troops were decimated by enfilading fire (shooting into their side) from 58 cannons.  The Union seized the initiative with a counter-attack, pushing Bragg's army back to where it started from.  Union reinforcements arrived that evening, and Bragg, realizing he was out-numbered retreated farther south toward Chattanooga.

Stones River is not one of the more famous battlefields, but the Park Service has done a good job with it (as always, viewing a simulation, such as from historyanimated, of the battle beforehand is very helpful).  The auto tour takes you around to the various parts of the battlefield in chronological order to help preserve the story, and the cell phone tour does an adequate job of describing the action at each part.  There is a short trail through the Slaughter Pen (the overgrown thicket) that gives a great appreciation for what fighting must have been like on that morning as Confederates rushed in and Union troops tried to escape.  Metal silhouettes placed around the battlefield help with visualizing the opposing lines.  The highlight of the tour was the monument to Hazen's Brigade.  Established mere months after the battle, it was the first battlefield monument constructed.  It sits right beside the railroad tracks, so troops being moved along those tracks later in the Civil War would have seen it, producing undoubtedly sober reminders of the realities of war.

Hazen's Brigade Monument

The only disappointment was traveling to the heights where the Confederates were destroyed by cannon fire.  Directions to the area aren't great, there are no storyboards to orient you, and I'm relatively certain the cannons placed up there are facing the wrong direction.  Touring the battlefield only takes a couple of hours and provides yet another sobering reminder of the sacrifice required to preserve freedom.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

Most people with a basic knowledge of the Civil War are most familiar with the eastern theater -- famous battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Bull Run.  The western theater by contrast is much less well known, except for the fall of Vicksburg, along the Mississippi River.  Just as in our history books, during the war itself, the South also placed much less emphasis on the western theater than the eastern theater, in terms of the generals, units, and resources they sent there.  And, perhaps, that ultimately led to their final undoing in the months following the devastating defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863.

In September of 1863, always afraid his army was out-manned and out-gunned, Confederate General Braxton Bragg began retreating through Tennessee.  After stopping briefly in Chattanooga, only to be out-flanked by the larger Union army, Bragg begins retreating again into northern Georgia.  Union General William Rosecrans believes that Bragg would continue to retreat and spreads his army to maneuver Bragg's army by force.  Instead, for the first time in 6 months, Bragg finally decides to make a stand around Chickamauga Creek.

This time Rosecrans gets spooked and makes plans to pull his army back north to the safety of Chattanooga by conducting a series of leapfrog maneuvers with different parts alternately defending against the Confederates and then maneuvering north.  In the confusion of the battle, Rosecrans believes his left flank needs reinforcement against Confederate strikes and mistakenly moves part of his army from the middle to reinforce his flank.  That opens up a hole in the middle of his line right at the time the Confederates charge that part of the line.  Seeing their good fortune, the Confederates charge through the gaping hole near the Brotherton farm cabin, abandoned the day before when the Union troops arrived.

The Brotherton Cabin.  Confederate troops exploited the inadvertent gap in the Union line flanking Union troops from left to right in this picture.
Despite repeated Confederate assaults along the Union line, the Union army tenaciously holds on, refusing to cede control of the field.  As darkness falls, however, the Union troops withdraw back to Chattanooga.  There, just a few miles up the road, the story continues...

The Union army dug in at Chattanooga.  This time, the Confederates have the advantage, setting up a siege line around the city, anchored at the Tennessee River on both sides of the city with strong positions on Lookout Mountain and east onto Missionary Ridge.  Angry at the embarrassing loss at Chickamauga and the choking siege in Chattanooga, Lincoln fires Rosecrans and brings Grant east to take control.

Grant made quick work.  He broke the Confederate line at the Tennessee River on the west side by silently crossing the Tennessee at night, right under the noses of the sleepy Confederate pickets guarding it, and opening a supply line to the west.  Right on the heels of that, he orders Gen Sherman to attack the Confederate right flank with Gen Thomas and Gen Hooker making a noisy demonstration on the Confederate center and left.  Gen Hooker finds that Lookout Mountain has been abandoned and continues charging up the ridge as the Confederates retreat up and over Missionary Ridge just to the east, reinforcing to counter Sherman's attack on their right.  Sherman attacks piecemeal, squandering his advantage, and the Confederates hold off the assault at Missionary Ridge, but Gen Bragg once again gets cold feet and once again retreats back down through Georgia, leaving the high ground and the vital Tennessee River and railways to the Union army.

The battlefield on Lookout Mountain bears little resemblance today to how it must have looked in late 1863.  Rather it affords a spectacular view of the Confederate position as they besieged the Union army down in the city. 

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River from the Edge of Lookout Mountain
While taking in the view, imagine being a Confederate on the line here with the commanding view over the Union army holed up down below.  Imagine cannon behind you, ready to fire at the first massed movement, slowly choking out the Union army.  Then turn east and south, imagining giving up this perfect position because the General feared being overrun and began retreating back to where you had just whupped some Union bootie, leaving your army nothing to show for it.  Thus, Chattanooga was really another defining moment.  By this point in the war, the Confederates were truly whipped in the west and on their heels fighting a defensive war in the east.  It was only a matter of time...