Historians like to say the Civil War was won in the West, and when they do, they usually mean the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 and the fall of Atlanta in September 1864. But you could argue that the real key to the West—and thus the war — was the interlocked battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga in the fall of 1863. And one man — Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood — had a uniquely central role in both, first as a goat, then as a hero.
At the momentous hour, Wood was a few days short of 40, a slender, mustachioed Kentuckian and a career Army officer who had graduated from West Point and served with distinction in the Mexican-American War and in cavalry postings on the frontier.
For more than a century after the Civil War, the Western Theater, where Wood came to grief and then glory, remained underappreciated in the national consciousness. The great iconographers of the war — Douglas Southall Freeman, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote (even, most recently, Ken Burns) — all focused on the Eastern Theater and the battles between Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and a batch of mainly hapless federal generals in charge of the Army of the Potomac.
History is a living subject that evolves over time, with each generation finding its own truth amid never-ending debates. Many historians have come to see that while the East was largely a stalemate until the very end, the West was a grand drama of movement and maneuver that ultimately left the Confederacy a husk ready to fall at the slightest touch.
“With the short distance between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, it’s like two guys slugging it out in a phone booth,” said David E. Roth, editor and publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine. “In the Western Theater, there is a lot more territory, wide open, lots of room for open-field running.”
The fall of Chattanooga, “the gateway to the South,” offered the prospect of direct penetration into the heart of Dixie. Ringed by the Cumberland Mountains, Chattanooga was a bastion on the Tennessee River, anchored by railroad to the South’s entire northern defensive perimeter, a shield at the center of gravity for the entire war. Beneath that shield lay the Confederacy’s military-industrial complex, a series of factories producing war materiel in central Georgia and Alabama.
“Militarily, and I’m emphasizing the word militarily, much of the decision of the war was determined by what happens in the Western Theater,” said Jim Ogden, a historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
In 1862, no less a personage than Abraham Lincoln said taking the railroad near Chattanooga was “fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.” The next year, the president wrote to his leading general in the area, William Rosecrans, “If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the rebellion must dwindle and die.”
Maj. Gen. Rosecrans, a cautious tactician, took Chattanooga from Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg without a battle through a series of brilliant flanking maneuvers in early September 1863. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland, numbering about 58,000, then pursued the retreating Bragg into north Georgia, hoping for the kill. Bragg was feigning weakness and hoping for a kill of his own.
Alarmed by the loss of Chattanooga, Jefferson Davis rushed troops to Bragg from all over the Confederacy, including the vaunted 1st Corps detached from Lee’s eastern army and led by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Those 15,000 eastern troops traveled 900 miles by train.
Bragg had about 66,000 men waiting when Rosecrans’s troops streamed through the north Georgia mountains. The two armies met on Sept. 19, 1863, along a three-mile stretch on the west side of Chickamauga Creek. A titanic battle ensued over two days, the second largest of the war, by casualties, after Gettysburg, which had been fought only three months earlier.
After the inconclusive first day, Rosecrans, a brittle leader who tended to overanalyze and overreact, was exhausted.
What happened next is still subject to dispute.
According to some accounts, Rosecrans accused Wood of failing to follow an order to move his division.
“By your damnable negligence, you are endangering the safety of this entire army, and by God, I will not tolerate it,” Rosecrans snapped, according to one account. “Move your division at once, as I have instructed, or the consequences will not be pleasant for yourself.”
The alleged confrontation took place in front of subordinate officers, and Wood was mortified.
A few hours later, at 11 a.m. Sept. 20, Rosecrans, operating under the impression that a gap had opened in his line, sent a courier to Wood with a fateful order: “The general commanding directs that you close upon Reynolds as fast as possible and support him.”
Those 16 words ended up getting hundreds of men killed.
Rosecrans was instructing Wood to take his division of about 4,000 men, in the face of the enemy, and move it to support Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds’s division a half-mile north.
But in the confusion of the battlefield, Rosecrans had been led to believe there was a gap where none existed; in fact, Brig Gen. John M. Brannan’s division was occupying the ground next to Reynolds.
Wood pointed this out to the man who delivered the order, Lt. Col. Lyne Starling, according to those accounts that are least charitable to Wood.
“Then there is no order, for that was the object of it,” Starling said.
But Wood said he would carry out the order anyway; Rosecrans had issued it.
Starling asked for time to inform Rosecrans of the changed circumstances. He was just 600 yards away.
Wood refused to wait. He allegedly said he was “glad the order was in writing, as it was a good thing to have for future reference” and he “would not part with it for five thousand dollars.” He placed it, with a flourish, into his pocket, some witnesses said.
To follow Rosecrans’s order, Wood would have to move his division out of the line and next to Reynolds but behind Brannon — creating a gap at his old position.
Historians have debated Wood’s motives — nerves, confusion, blind obedience. Wood would defend his action to his dying day, saying that he was following orders. But his biographer, Dan Lee, attributed it to spite in “Thomas J. Wood: A Biography of the Union General in the Civil War.”
“Like all clever employees of murky-thinking bosses, he decided to exploit that confusion,” Lee wrote. “He wanted to take a measure of revenge on Rosecrans and he could do it by obeying the written order to the letter.”
Others dispute that Wood acted out of ignoble motives.
“Thomas J. Wood is too professional a military officer, too much a man determined to preserve representative democracy, to act of out of spite,” Ogden said. “Wood did not react to that order in a vacuum.”
Ogden said Wood consulted with the commander in charge of that sector, Gen. Alexander McCook, and had arranged for the area to be covered before moving his troops.
But there is no disputing the consequences of the action. It was perhaps the biggest single-order mistake of the war.
What Wood did not know was that Longstreet, with five divisions totaling 15,000 men, was at that moment getting ready to launch a charge into the area that Wood was vacating. And Longstreet was just as unaware as Wood.
“Pure, dumb luck,” Ogden said of Longstreet’s charge. “No Confederate was in a position to see Wood’s division pull out of line.”
Longstreet’s assault split the Union line in half and nearly led to the wholesale destruction of Rosecrans’s army. Panic, collapse and a rout followed. Thousands of Union soldiers ran. “We’ll see you on the other side of the Ohio,” they told their officers.
Only the stalwart stand of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and his corps on Horseshoe Ridge kept the line of retreat open and saved Rosecrans’s army, an act for which Thomas would forever be known as the “Rock of Chickamauga” and would one day receive a statue at Thomas Circle in downtown Washington.
To his credit, Wood stayed on the battlefield with Thomas, demonstrating the courage of the professional soldier he was.
“His pride would never let him openly admit his guilt, but his subsequent actions show that he did grasp the horror of what he had done,” Lee wrote. “After that day Wood was never the same general again. He was better.”
Wood’s horse was shot out from under him. He was not one of the many generals — Rosecrans among them — who fled to avoid capture. Perhaps that is why Wood was not among the generals sacked in the purge that followed the great defeat.
Rosecrans and his men fled to Chattanooga, about 15 miles away, where they hunkered down and allowed Bragg and his pursuing army to take possession of the surrounding mountains.
The rebels encircled the Union army and put it to siege. Rosecrans seemed paralyzed, like a duck that had been hit over the head, Lincoln later said.
Chickamauga had cost the Union 16,170 casualties, including 1,657 deaths. The South lost 18,454, with 2,312 killed — attackers always had more losses — but Confederate forces now owned the terrain.
The consequences were immediate and far-reaching. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had Lincoln awakened for the first time in the war. The battle was the Confederacy’s first great victory in the West. Rosecrans’s army was now trapped in Chattanooga, slowly starving.
This time it was the North that rushed in reinforcements. Gen. William T. Sherman came from Vicksburg with 17,000 men from the Army of the Tennessee. Gen. Joseph Hooker came from Virginia with 20,000 men from the Army of the Potomac; Hooker’s men came by rail, 1,157 miles in nine days, with 3,000 horses riding with them.
Most important, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived to assume overall command. The first thing Grant did was to relieve Rosecrans and elevate Thomas to take his place.
In October, the new Union leaders established the “cracker line” of pontoon boats and relays to get hardtack into besieged Chattanooga and feed the hungry troops, who were surviving on mules, horses, cats and dogs.
By Nov. 23, Grant had about 56,000 troops, enough to go on the offensive. But Bragg and his 46,000 Confederates held all the high ground, including the imposing 400-foot Missionary Ridge.
Bragg had more than 50 cannons on that steep ridge. It was as secure a position as any army had occupied on any battlefield of the war.
During the next couple of days, Grant sent Sherman to attack Bragg from the north and moved Hooker in from the south. Hooker took mist-shrouded Lookout Mountain in what came to be called the “Battle Above the Clouds.” But Sherman was held at bay by the terrain and by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s division, the best Confederate troops in the West.
Finally, at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 25, Grant asked Thomas to make a “demonstration” against the center, to relieve the pressure on Sherman.
A demonstration meant a show of force, not an all-out assault. Thomas’s troops were supposed to just take the rifle pits held by several thousand rebels at the foot of Missionary Ridge. No one expected them to assault the ridge itself. That was impossible.
But that’s what happened. Twenty thousand men rose as one and scaled the ridge, screaming: “Chickamauga, Chickamauga.”
Wood’s division was one of four making the charge in Thomas’s corps, right in the center of the action. “Without waiting for orders, the vast mass pressed onward up the rugged ascent, in the race for glory, each man apparently eager to be the first on the summit,” Wood later wrote. “Speaking for myself, individually, I frankly confess I was simply one of the boys on that occasion.”
It remains one of the great charges in military history. The Union took the ridge, capturing 37 cannons and 2,000 prisoners. With the rest of his army, Bragg reeled back into Georgia, in full retreat. Chattanooga was secured, and the next year, Sherman would use it as his base when he invaded the South, taking Atlanta and Savannah, in Georgia, and Charleston and Columbia, in South Carolina. Grant would go East to take on Lee. In April 1865, the two major Confederate armies surrendered to Grant and Sherman.
The road to Appomattox ran through Missionary Ridge. Wood recalled the charge 27 years later as “the proudest, most exultant moment of my life (and if I should live a quarter century, as I trust I may, that moment will remain without peer.)”
He didn’t live a quarter-century longer. He died in 1906 at 82, the last surviving member of his West Point class.
Having seen the worst and the best of war in the space of three months, he lived out the last decades of his life in uneventful retirement, as if the universe was balancing the books for all he had been through.
The moment of extreme success never fully blotted out the moment of extreme failure.
Wood spent his final years writing in the New York Times and elsewhere to defend his actions at Chickamauga. He also took up the battle of Chattanooga, protesting the memoirs of Grant and Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, who led one of the divisions next to Wood’s on Missionary Ridge: They were trying to take too much credit for the great charge, credit his boys deserved. As Wood learned, failure is an orphan, but success has a thousand fathers.
He accused Grant and Sheridan of giving accounts that “utterly pervert the truth of history,” with Grant trying to give more of the credit to his favorite, Sherman. But Grant, Sherman and Sheridan are the immortal heroes today, the sainted trinity of Union generals. All three men rose to be the top general in the U.S. Army, and all three had tanks named after them, a signal honor for a hard-charging infantry general. All three are also memorialized with equestrian statues in Washington: at Sheridan Circle, Sherman Square, and, in Grant’s case, outside the Capitol.
Wood is a forgotten footnote.
But in the end, at least, he had balanced his own books.