#15 FRIDAYS WITH DAVID POWELL—August 23, 2019

WHO’S TO BLAME? ROSECRANS AND THE GAP

QUESTION: Dave, after the Battle of Chickamauga recriminations and finger-pointing ran rampant in the high command of both armies. With a Federal defeat, I’m sure both Army of the Cumberland commander William S. Rosecrans and division commander Thomas J. Wood had their detractors and supporters. Since it was Wood’s Division that left the gap on September 20, there were those on Rosecrans’ staff that blamed Wood totally for the mistake, but it seems Rosecrans himself did not blame Wood personally. Talk to us about the rumors and blaming that went on in the Federal army after the battle. In addition, who did the men in the ranks blame for their defeat?

ANSWER: While Thomas Wood would appear to be an obvious candidate for assigning blame, (and in fact did catch a lion’s share of that blame from Rosecrans partisans in years to come) initially, he was not targeted for the “fatal order of the day.” In Rosecrans’s report of the battle, Wood was named in Rosecrans’ “List of Special Mentions,” as well as praised by Thomas, Crittenden, and McCook. The fact that Wood’s division was not driven from the field but instead were crucial in helping to defend Horseshoe Ridge probably saved Wood from a court of inquiry – which, given his possession of Rosecrans’ written order, would almost certainly have cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Despite all the praise, however, the army fractionalized in the days after Chickamauga. Both Thomas Crittenden and Alexander McDowell McCook bore the brunt of criticism in the immediate aftermath of the battle, for having fled the field. Rightly or wrongly, the army feared serving under both men again – especially McCook, whose corps had now been routed on a field of battle for the third time in as many battles. Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga added up to a record of failure the troops refused to ignore.

Some of Rosecrans’ staff soured on Wood for another reason: his vindictive campaign to have James S. Negley punished for that officer’s decision to abandon Snodgrass Hill just minutes before Wood’s own troops arrived there. Wood seems to have made a real pest of himself at army headquarters, as noted in Charles A. Dana’s gossipy (and equally vindictive) dispatches to Washington. Dana speculated that Wood might be grinding that axe against Negley to cover his own failures at the Brotherton farm.

Negley was ill and went home pending his own court of inquiry within days of reaching Chattanooga. His subsequent efforts to return were rebuffed, even after that court cleared him of wrongdoing as well. When the Federal army was reorganized that fall, the Union XX and XXI Corps were eliminated, removing the need for McCook and Crittenden; Negley’s Division was similarly broken up, obviating Negley’s position. Negley, understanding that this boded ill for his future as a soldier, attempted to return to the army over that winter, until no less a person than U. S. Grant ordered him out of the department.

Officially, Wood experienced no stigma from the “fatal Order.” He remained in active service, commanding a division of the IV Corps under Howard into 1864. He suffered a severe leg wound at Lovejoy Station in August of that year. He commanded troops at Nashville, and was promoted to Major General near the end of the war. He also served during reconstruction, but retired in 1868. His leg wound and a hernia suffered when his horse threw him at Chickamauga invalided him out of the service.

After the war, a number of Rosecrans partisans attempted to blame Wood for following the order. The most prominent of these was probably Capt. Henry Cist, who excoriated Wood in his History of the Army of the Cumberland, published in 1882. Wood, then living in Toledo, responded with alacrity, mounting a vigorous defense in the New York Times, dismissing Cist as a rear-echelon poseur. Cist, who wasn’t present on the battlefield, was actually with the Army of the Cumberland’s permanent headquarters in Chattanooga from September 9, 1863; thus Cist had no firsthand knowledge of what happened at the Brotherton Farm.

John B. Turchin, the expatriate Russian officer who commanded a brigade at Chickamauga, faulted Wood for following the order too quickly, though without the same degree of conspiratorial blame-finding Cist brought to the debate. Turchin’s history of the battle appeared in 1887, just one of many opinions expressed on the subject. Wood partisans (chief among them Emerson Opdycke of the 125th Ohio, a member of Wood’s old division) retaliated with published opinions of their own.

Interestingly, almost everyone seemed to forget McCook’s presence – even Wood, who mentioned McCook but also insisted that the decision was taken on his own responsibility – but it cannot be ignored that McCook directly influenced the decision to move immediately, and took responsibility for filling the resultant gap.

The rank and file of the Army of the Cumberland might not have known of the particulars of McCook’s involvement, but – as noted above – they definitely felt McCook was at fault. There was little grumbling among the troops when McCook and Crittenden departed the army.

In an interesting coda to the affair, McCook and Crittenden each held limited commands again. McCook was sent to Washington DC, where he was in command when Jubal Early assaulted the city’s defenses in July 1864. Crittenden was given a division in Virginia during the Spotsylvania Campaign, but lasted little more than a month until he requested to be relieved, feeling that he had been passed over in rank.

One Response to “#15 FRIDAYS WITH DAVID POWELL—August 23, 2019”

  1. Tom Shay Says:

    I am looking for a photo of George Steahlin from Orwigsburg, PA. He was in 7th PA Cavalry and was at Chickamauga. The photo of their monument’s dedication does not have any names on it. Any help is appreciated!
    Tom Shay

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