A Pursuit: Two Views

Braxton Bragg’s many critics, in the years that followed Chickamauga, would argue that his failure to follow up his victory with a pursuit ultimately doomed the Confederacy. Lafayette McLaws denied this. After all, McLaws argued he knew there was a pursuit – he commanded it.

On September 22nd, McLaws, Nathan Bedford Forrest (and some Yankees) had an encounter just outside Chattanooga. What transpired between the two men? Here are two very different views on the matter:


Forrest and his Escort, charging, from the Tennessee State Library and Archives         

Sometime after 1:00 p.m. Colonel Holman tested the main Union defenses. Dibrell had left Holman with orders to proceed up the Rossville Road “as far as possible in the direction of Chattanooga.” He pressed to within a half-mile of the place until he came upon Union entrenchments manned by elements of Thomas’s XIV Corps. Holman dismounted both regiments and probed the forts. His first effort was rebuffed with loss. To support this thrust, Captain Morton unlimbered his four guns and opened fire. Holman’s line pressed forward once more, but soon came tumbling back. These Federals were more than just a mere rearguard.

Holman was contemplating his next step when “Forrest came dashing up at full speed, followed by his escort, and asked impatiently (emphasizing the questions with an oath) ‘What have you stopped here for? Why don’t you go on into Chattanooga?’” The corps commander was in his usual lather, and still convinced Rosecrans was in full retreat. Momentarily stupefied by the sudden appearance of his superior and the series of rapid-fire queries, Holman hastily explained that “the enemy in considerable force was strongly entrenched not more than two hundred yards in front.” Forrest scoffed, adding that “he believed he could take Chattanooga with [just] his escort.” True to his nature, Forrest accepted nothing as fact until he had seen it demonstrated with his own eyes, and so proceeded to test the theory personally. “Putting spurs to horse, he and a portion of his escort galloped in the direction of the enemy,” leaving Holman to watch in dust-covered astonishment. Within minutes they were back, having suffered a “hot fire” that cost Forrest yet another mount—this one also shot in the neck—and left several empty saddles among the escort.

A short time later, General McLaws appeared up the Rossville Road, at the head of his division. McLaws’s march had not passed without incident. After broaching McFarland’s Gap, he reported, his column “became constantly engaged . . . sometimes with quite large organized bodies, but they gave way after some fighting.” The “organized bodies” consisted of Federals from Minty’s rearguard, which skirmished with Brig. Gen. William T. Wofford’s Georgians at the head of McLaws’s column. Conspicuously, McLaws made no mention of seeing any Rebel cavalry until he encountered Forrest and his men somewhere on the Rossville Road. Wheeler’s Corps, which should have been equally active in the Chattanooga Valley supporting his movement, had yet to put in any notable appearance. At the Watkins farmstead, where the Moore Road branched off from the La Fayette Road to turn toward Missionary Ridge, Forrest and McLaws conferred.[1]

Descriptions of this meeting contradict one another. Forrest’s biographers insist that Forrest was still full of fight, remaining convinced that every hour lost was a disaster for Confederate arms, and that Rosecrans must be attacked before he escaped the trap of Chattanooga. Accordingly, “Forrest . . . proposed that they should venture an attack in the still demoralized condition of the enemy.” According to their pens, McLaws refused. His orders, he insisted, were to merely picket the roads into Chattanooga.[2]

McLaws recalled the encounter very differently. According to the Georgian, once Wofford “drove the enemy into the works about town, of course my further advance was checked, as my force was entirely too small to risk an assault.” Instead, McLaws deployed his main line astride the intersection at the Watkins House, seized Watkins Hill as an artillery platform, and ordered his men to throw up defensive works of their own. While in the process of doing so, continued McLaws, Forrest rode up. Just moments earlier, with Holman, the big cavalryman was all afire to pursue, heedless of caution, until he led his escort forward toward the enemy lines. Now—at least according to McLaws—he was just the opposite. “Gen. Forrest joined me with a small body of cavalry,” recalled McLaws, “and told me that I was risking the loss of my command, as the rest of the army was not within seven miles of me.” (This was not entirely accurate, for Frank Cheatham’s division was even then occupying Missionary Ridge at the Sutton house, but Cheatham’s troops were at least two miles distant, and the bulk of the army was indeed much farther away.) As McLaws related the tale, Forrest now counseled immediate retreat. “I told him it was not my intention to retire unless driven back,” insisted McLaws. Forrest next offered to scout McLaws’s right flank, where there was a gap between his infantry and Cheatham’s men. “He was gone perhaps half an hour, when he re-appeared riding a broken-down horse and with but two or three men. . . . [H]e had not gone over half a mile,” recalled McLaws, “when he came upon a considerable body of infantry . . . who ordered them to surrender. The only reply he gave was for his men to charge, he leading it.”[3]

The Confederate pursuit had been thoroughly blunted. It was clear to McLaws, if perhaps not to Forrest, that only a well-prepared large-scale assault could capture Chattanooga. Accordingly, McLaws determined to hold his ground and wait for reinforcements. Cheatham left his troops and made his way forward to visit McLaws about 10:00 p.m. that night. Cheatham “told me that he had been ordered to report to me with his division,” recalled McLaws, “but on crossing Missionary Ridge, had encountered such a large force of the enemy . . . that he deemed it wise to return to the ridge.” McLaws ordered Cheatham to stay where he was, and “to hold his command in readiness to come to my assistance” should the Yankees attack. No support was needed. The Federals were content to rest and strengthen their earthworks.[4]

[1] Lafayette McLaws, “Chickamauga,” Cheeves Family Papers.

[2] Jordan and Pryor, Forrest’s Cavalry, 353.

[3] Lafayette McLaws, “Chickamauga,” Cheeves Family Papers. McLaws may well have been relating a version of the same incident described by Holman.

[4] Ibid.



7 Responses to “A Pursuit: Two Views”

  1. John Shelley Says:

    I live in the UK and was able to purchase the first volume of Mr Powell’s trilogy for Christmas 2014 and the second volume for Christmas 2016. I would dearly love to complete the trilogy for Christmas 2016, then I can begin to read it ! Does anyone know whether volume three is imminent ?

    • Dave Powell Says:

      John, Volume 3 will be released this month. It should be available in the UK shortly thereafter.

      • John Shelley Says:

        Hi Dave, I didn’t realise the message would go directly to you, please accept my apologies. In any event, your message just made my Christmas !!. I am English, 68 years old and have studied the Civil War since I was 10 years old. I have a library of several hundred books on the subject, my favourite being Freeman’s four volumes on Robert E Lee who has been an inspiration and role model throughout my personal and business life. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to getting volume three of your trilogy. Whilst writing this I had a thought; would it be possible to buy a copy from you and have you sign it ?. Of course I would pay for the book, your signature and postage and packaging; it would mean a great deal to me. Very best regards, John

  2. Dave Powell Says:

    John, Yes, you can get a signed copy from me. The best way is to go to Savas Beatie, order through them, and I will ship it. You can pay with a credit card, no need for currency exchange, etc.


    • John Shelley Says:

      Hi Dave, Thank you SO much. I take it that Savas are a book store in the US ? Can I place an advanced order ? Many thanks and very best regards, John

  3. Dave Powell Says:

    John, Savas is the publisher. They can take an advanced order, handle all the details, and the like. It’s the best way to get a signed copy of the book.

  4. Check Out Dave Powell’s Chickamauga Blog | Emerging Civil War Says:

    […] His Sept. 7 post “A Pursuit: Two Views“: […]

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