Fridays with Dave Powell

Recently, my friend Robert Carter has started doing a regular feature on a Chickamauga group page, on Facebook.

It occurred to me (belatedly) that these should be posted here, as well…

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#12 FRIDAYS WITH DAVE POWELL—May 10, 2019
A conversation with Chickamauga’s leading author.

QUESTION: Dave, after Longstreet’s Breakthrough and Thomas’s gathering of troops on Horseshoe Ridge, there was a 900-yard gap in the Federal line between Snodgrass Hill and the Kelly Field that was never closed. Was this a missed opportunity for the Confederates? Could they have exploited this gap? Why did they miss it? In addition, did Longstreet also miss an opportunity on the Confederate left flank?

ANSWER: The Confederate breakthrough left the Federals grouped in two distinct lines – the half-moon or semi-circle around Kelly Field, and a long line that ran from the open end of Snodgrass Field across Hills One, Two, and Three, then due west along the spine of a narrow ridge for several hundred more yards. The Kelly Field Line largely faced east, in an arc; the Horseshoe Ridge Line largely faced south.

Between them lay 900 yards of open timber, undefended. That gap was never filled. It offered a way to further split the Union lines, turn the flanks of both positions, and complete the destruction of the Army of the Cumberland. So why didn’t this happen?

The easiest answer to that question is one of ignorance: Senior Rebel commanders were simply unaware that the gap existed. This is primarily due to poor battlefield reconnaissance, and the experiences of two Confederate brigades early on the afternoon of September 20. Those brigades were Joseph B. Kershaw’s South Carolina command and Benjamin G. Humphreys’ four Mississippi regiments. Both brigades belonged to Lafayette McLaws’ Division, but since McLaws and his remaining two brigades were not yet present, both were temporarily commanded by Kershaw – who also retained control of his own brigade.

When Kershaw’s large brigade (five regiments and a battalion) drove Federal Colonel Charles G. Harker’s brigade back to the Snodgrass Hill mass, Kershaw’s line became stretched across an extremely wide front – perhaps 1,600 yards. Most of Kershaw’s men fetched up against the slopes of Hill One, but as the 8th South Carolina tried to flank Harker’s line to the east, that regiment drifted into the very gap in question. They met little opposition, only stragglers and perhaps a skirmish line; in contrast to the fierce resistance encountered by the rest of Kershaw’s men.

The 8th was so far to the east (the Confederate right) that when Humphreys’ four regiments came up to support Kershaw, his brigade entered the fight between the 8th and the rest of the South Carolina line. Humphreys’ two left-most regiments met with equally fierce resistance from Harker’s reformed troops cresting the ridge in Snodgrass Field, so much so that Humphreys decided the position was impregnable and chose to fall back several hundred yards.
Here the story gets murky. Kershaw, acting as both brigadier and divisional head, remained constantly with his own brigade’s left wing through the engagement, never taking the time to examine Humphreys’ action or digest the reports (if any were made) of his own 8th SC Regiment. Since the 8th left no official report nor any detailed personal accounts, we simply don’t know if the men of the 8th understood they had found a gap – we do know that they never reported it to any senior officer, since no senior officer talks about such a report. Humphreys only adds to the confusion. He had just assumed command of the brigade after Gettysburg, where former commander William Barksdale was killed, and Humphreys himself later admitted he was too cautious on September 20. He focused on the fierce bullet-storm faced by his left-most regiments, ignoring the much weaker opposition on his own right.

As a result, though elements of two Rebel brigades faced off against (and in the 8th’s case, entered) the gap, word of this weakness never filtered up to higher command. The situation was further complicated by the fact the corps commander John B. Hood was down with a crippling leg wound, and no other officer took over that role. Thus, with Longstreet in command of the entire Wing, the next two steps below him in the chain of command – corps commander and division commander – were effectively vacant. Though Kershaw nominally stepped up to divisional command in McLaws’s absence, he never effectively filled that role, remaining with his brigade for the duration of the fight.

Later in the day, as A. P. Stewart’s and Evander Laws’ (formerly Hood’s) divisions reentered the fight, there was some movement towards the gap, but that movement came after 6 p.m. Acutely aware of his position’s vulnerabilities here, Union Corps Commander George Thomas had already decided to withdraw by that time. As a result, while some of the Federals fleeing Kelly Field at dusk on September 20 ended up being captured by Humphreys’ troops along the Glenn-Kelly Road, the Federals were gone by the time that movement amounted to anything.

The gap was potentially decisive; but given that the gap was obscured by timber, at least partially protected by Union skirmishers, there were serious holes in the Confederate chain of command, and poor scouting (or at least, reporting) meant that the Confederates never exploited it. The few Rebels who knew it was there failed to grasp its significance, and none of the more senior commanders were even aware it existed. Longstreet is usually faulted here, but unrealistically so, given the circumstances.

Was there a better chance to turn the Union line out on the Confederate left? Perhaps. It is worth noting that Longstreet did indeed try to do exactly that; ordering Hindman’s division to reinforce Bushrod Johnson, then engaged on the left, and who felt he was in position to outflank the Horseshoe Ridge line. Had not James B. Steedman’s division of Yankees come up in the nick of time and been sent to oppose Johnson, the Rebels would have indeed outflanked Thomas’s line. Evan as it was, Deas’s brigade of Hindman’s division did extend well beyond Steadman’s newly positioned right, and only determined fighting and the exhaustion of Deas’s men prevented a Union catastrophe. Once Deas was repulsed, however, that seemed to settle the issue.

Some have argued that if Longstreet had committed his last division under William Preston to an attack on the far left instead of a final charge up Hills One and Two, he might have pushed through McFarland’s Gap to either flank Steedman or move up to Rossville. The terrain on Steedman’s immediate right, however, is extremely rugged – probably very difficult for any troops to maneuver through. As for Rossville, it is often overlooked that Jefferson C. Davis’s division of the Union XX Corps, plus a number of other polyglot, rallied forces, blocked the gap. It seems unlikely that Preston’s three brigades could have swept them aside easily or quickly. After all, similar polyglot rallied scraps of brigades and regiments mounted an impressively stubborn defense on Horseshoe Ridge. I view the Confederate Left as unlikely to have produced a decisive result.

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One Response to “Fridays with Dave Powell”

  1. Sir Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Dave. I despise Facebook and refuse to setup an account (feels like cooperating with evil) so, I suppose I lose access to a lot of decent content. Appreciate you re-posting.

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