William Starke Rosecrans / Samuel Woodson Price / Oil on canvas, 1868 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Museum of American History; transfer from the Veterans Administration Center, Dayton, OH, 1957
Like so many battles in the American Civil War, the common denominator of both the Union and Confederate leaders was their training at the United States Military Academy. The Battle of Chickamauga, September 19 and 20, 1863, was no exception.
General William S. Rosecrans commanded the Army of the Cumberland, and he had undertaken a mission almost three months prior to Chickamauga to place his force between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the vital rail center at Chattanooga. The Army of Tennessee was commanded by Braxton Bragg, a general characterized by Civil War historian Steven Woodworth as being “an able organizer and administrator [who] excelled as an inspector” and “possessed a good eye for strategy.”
Bragg and Rosecrans had met before. For three days, from December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863, these same two armies had fought at Stones River near Murphreesboro, Tennessee, in a savage battle—and Union victory—that took the lives of 3,000 men and cost both sides 24,000 total casualties. Though Bragg and Rosecrans were several years apart, they shared a West Point education, and each had been a highly capable cadet. Each man graduated fifth in his class, Bragg in 1837 and Rosecrans in 1842.
However, it was another West Pointer, George Henry Thomas, who proved himself to be a skilled soldier and the most steadfast leader in the thickest and hottest of fires. Thomas graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1840, making him an underclassman during Bragg’s training and an upperclassman during Rosecrans’s time as a cadet. Woodworth notes that during the height of the battle on September 20, Thomas “gathered the remnants of General W. S. Rosecrans’s shattered force and held his ground long enough to prevent the army’s total destruction [and] for this he earned the sobriquet The Rock of Chickamauga.”
After the collapse of Vicksburg—and the subsequent loss of the entire Mississippi River—and after Lee’s terrible loss at Gettysburg, both in the summer of 1863, the South was desperate for a measure of success. North’s only success at Chickamauga was in the form of a retreat, which it owed to General Thomas for his resistance to the Confederate force. The Union army would encamp at Chattanooga, under siege by Bragg’s army. The South’s victory at Chickamauga, like so many other victories, was diminished by its inability to replace its losses.
After this Union setback, Abraham Lincoln would bring more generals and troops from the Mississippi theater to the east. Two more West Point graduates would lead the efforts to alleviate the burden of the siege at Chattanooga. They were men who had achieved victories in the West and who came east under orders to finish the war for Lincoln.
One of those was William Tecumseh Sherman, whose fame would forever be attached to the fiery swath he would cut through Georgia in late 1864; Sherman was sixth in his West Point class in 1840. The other man brought east was a bit of an anomaly, never a great student, and a man who had pretty much failed at most of the civilian jobs he took after his first tenure in the U. S. Army. However, of those West Point officers who rose high in the ranks of the Union army during the war, none rose higher than the man who graduated twenty-first out of thirty-nine in the class of 1843—Ulysses S. Grant. Also, none would be more important to the ultimate Union victory.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits
Steven E. Woodworth, A Deep and Steady Thunder: The Battle of Chickamauga (Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2006)