Analysis of Thomas Wood’s Actions at Chickamauga William Brooks

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Analysis of Thomas Wood’s Actions at Chickamauga

William Brooks

It is September 20, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga involving the Army of the Cumberland under Major General William Rosecrans and the Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. Brigadier General Thomas Wood, commanding the First Division, XXI Corps, Army of the Cumberland, is in the battle line just west of Lafayette Road and Brotherton Field. At 11:00 a.m. he receives the following order: “Headquarters Department of the Cumberland, September 20 – 10.45 a.m. Brigadier-General Wood, Commanding Division, the General commanding directs that you close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him. Respectfully, Frank S. Bond, Major, and Aide-de-camp.” With the events that take place after this order is issued, General Thomas S. Wood’s place in history becomes etched in stone. According to the Civil War Times Illustrated, this order “was the determining factor in a great battle – one of the most desperately fought battles of American history” (pg 381).

Before discussing General Woods’ role at Chickamauga, we must look at his background, which has an important bearing on how he reacted during the battle. Wood graduated from West Point and served with distinction in the Mexican-American War where he won a brevet for gallantry. Unlike many of his peers, he remained in the army until the start of the Civil War. Wood was commissioned a Brigadier General of Volunteers on October 11, 1861, and he commanded a division at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. He saw little action, as his division incurred only four casualties. At the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, he commanded a division. His service in the battle was less than stellar. When he was ordered to lead the attack against Bragg’s retreating Confederates, Wood did not attack aggressively and allowed Bragg to withdraw his forces unmolested. His losses at Perryville were two missing. Wood’s division fought at the Battle of Murfreesboro in December 1862. He served with distinction and was wounded during the fight. His division played a crucial part in allowing the Union forces to maintain control of the field. On September 19 and 20, 1863, Wood commanded a division at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Wood began the morning of September 19 at Lee and Gordon’s Mill. The brigades of Colonel George Buell and Colonel Charles Harker were with him. His third brigade remained behind at Chattanooga. At 3:00 p.m. Wood received an order to move north from Lee and Gordon’s Mill and take position to the right of Brigadier General Horatio Van Cleve. Wood was aware that there were Confederate troops across Chickamauga creek to his front under the command of Confederate General Bushrod Johnson. He was concerned about leaving his position undefended and sent word to Major General William Rosecrans that other troops needed to fill his position. Major General Alexander McCook, XX Corps commander, received the message and advised Wood that he would have a brigade take his place. Wood moved his division north up Lafayette Road and arrived at Viniard Field around 3:30 p.m. He met with Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis to discuss how to best use Wood’s brigades. As they were discussing opportunities, an aide to Colonel Hans Heg arrived with news that Heg’s command, located to their north, was about to fall back. Within minutes, Wood and Davis saw Federal troops pouring out of the woods to the north in disorder. In order to meet this emergency, Wood immediately ordered Harker’s brigade to attack north up Lafayette Road to try to make contact with other Union forces. At 4:00 p.m. Harker attacked and struck the left flank of Confederate forces under command of Brigadier General John Gregg, forcing them to withdraw to the east.

Shortly after ordering Harker to attack, Wood ordered Buell to advance and support Brigadier General William Carlin’s brigade, which was beginning to falter. Before the advance could begin, Carlin was routed and his forces withdrew through Buell’s brigade, interfering with his advance and disrupting his lines, forcing him to withdraw in order to regroup. At 4:30 p.m. Buell tried to defend “the ditch,” a stream bed just west of Lafayette Road, but was forced farther west by attacking Confederates. Wood withdrew the brigade behind a line of mounted infantry under Colonel John Wilder and reformed his men. Harker was then attacked by General Gregg’s troops, but repulsed them. Historian Thomas Connelly states: “Hood ordered a belated assault across the Lafayette Road. Hood seized the road and penetrated to the west side of the road at Viniards Farm. By dark, he was driven back by a strong flanks attack from fresh Union troops marching from the direction of Lee and Gordon’s Mill” (pg 206). These troops were Wood’s division. Wilder’s artillery and repeating rifles stopped the oncoming Confederate advance. Around 5:30 Wood ordered Buell to advance. Buell pushed Brigadier General Henry Benning’s Confederate brigade back east of Viniard Field. The fighting was now over for Wood’s division for the day and he withdrew his brigades to an area just east of the Widow Glenn House. Buell states in his official action report: “The whole of this afternoon’s fighting was done under the eye of General Wood, who was ever present” (Official Records pg 655).

On this first day, Wood performed admirably. Upon receiving orders to move from Lee and Gordon’s Mill, he notified his commanding officer of a potential problem caused by his leaving and then followed the orders. Any delay by Wood would have caused him to arrive later at Viniard Field. He might not have been in position to contain the Confederate breakthrough. When he arrived at Viniard Field, the situation was chaotic; Union forces were being routed. Wood reacted promptly and efficiently by ordering Harker to attack north and Buell to attack east. Harker successfully reversed the Confederate breakthrough and Buell pushed the Confederates out of Viniard Field.

At 1:30 a.m. on September 20, Wood moved his division north from the Widow Glenn’s to just north of the Dyer House. In the early morning Major General James Negley received orders to move his division north. Wood received instructions to occupy Negley’s former position. Negley did not begin moving north promptly, and Wood received the blame for Negley’s tardiness. Rosecrans was furious at the delay and berated Wood in front of Wood’s staff. Shelby Foote, in The Civil War Narrative, states that Rosecrans told Wood, “What is the meaning of this sir? You have disobeyed my specific orders. By your damnable negligence you are endangering the safety of the entire army, and by God I will not tolerate it! Move your division at once, as I have instructed, or the consequences will not be pleasant for yourself” (pg 731). It is interesting to note that the Action Reports of Wood, his brigade commanders, and his regimental commanders do not mention this incident. Lieutenant Colonel Lyne Starling, Chief of Staff for XXI Corps, who was present with Wood on the 20th, gave testimony in the Courts of Inquiry of Major Generals McCook and Crittenden and did not mention this incident. Various authors use this confrontation as the reason Wood obeyed the crucial order he received at 11:00 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m. Wood’s division was in place on the western edge of Brotherton Field, straddling the Brotherton Road. His line consisted, from left to right, of the brigades of Colonel Sidney Barnes (part of Van Cleves division but assigned to Wood this day), Colonel Harker and Colonel Buell. At 11:00 a.m. Wood received the infamous order from Rosecrans to move his division north. Major General Alexander McCook of the XX corps was with Wood when he received the order. Wood told McCook that if he pulled out, he would leave a gap in the Union line. McCook advised Wood to obey the order, and McCook would have one of his divisions cover the gap. Thus assured, Wood pulled his division back and to the north to get around Brannan’s division. Barnes was first, followed by Harker then Buell. As the division was moving north, Confederate forces under Lt. General James Longstreet attacked and hit the gap that Wood’s departure caused. The rear of Buell’s brigade was struck by the Confederate advance. The 13th Michigan, after turning and attacking the Confederates, withdrew to the northwest after being repulsed. A second regiment, the 26th Ohio, stubbornly withdraws to the northwest as well. Wood recognized the danger for the Union army, as the Confederates were now in position to take the Union left flank in the rear. Accordingly, Wood stopped Harker and the remaining elements of Buell’s brigade at the northern edge of Dyer Field. He had no artillery available, which was crucial for successful actions. Around 12:30 p.m., Wood attacked advancing Confederate forces under Brigadier General Jerome Robertson, the famed Texas Brigade. He routed Robertson, and his forces wounded Major General John B. Hood in the process. By wounding Hood, Wood’s forces removed a tenacious fighter at an important time for the Confederates. Wood’s division remained at Dyer Field and was attacked by forces under Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw around 1:00 p.m. He held off Kershaw until 1:30, when Kershaw turned Wood’s right flank. Wood then withdrew his division in order to Snodgrass Hill where Major General George Thomas, XIV Corps commander, had formed a line of defense. Wood’s division took position to the left of Colonel Timothy Stanley’s brigade in Snodgrass Field, just to the northeast of Horseshoe Ridge, facing southeast. Over the next three hours, his division repulsed multiple Confederate attacks. Forces under Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin Humphrey attacked at 1:30 p.m. and Brigadier General Archibald Gracie’s brigade attacked at 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Wood’s forces beat them both back. At 7:00 p.m. Wood received orders from Thomas to withdraw to Rossville. Wood’s division withdrew in good order and arrived in Rossville around 10:00 p.m. Colonel Harker said in his official action report: “I may here be permitted to remark that the presence of such tried and experienced officers as Major-Generals Thomas and Gordon Granger and Brigadier –Generals Wood and Garfield at the important position held by our troops, did much to inspire them with confidence during the eventful afternoon of the 20th” (Official Records pg 695-696).

By looking at Wood’s actions on September 20, we can see that he performed exceptionally well, contrary to the beliefs of some. Many people believe that Wood obeyed the order of 11:00 a.m. because of the earlier tongue lashing he received from Rosecrans. According to Jerry Korn, “nevertheless, Wood was reluctant to invite another dressing down for not obeying Rosecran’s commands. He began to move his division behind Brannan to join Reynolds” (pg. 57). Steven E. Woodworth states: “Wood however was adamant. He was in no mood for getting clarifications – and possibly tongue lashings – from Rosecrans. He would obey immediately and literally even if the order made no sense and appeared disastrous” (Six Armies in Tennessee, page 115). John McKay, in Civil War Sites in the Southern States, believes “Wood just happened to have been personally and profanely berated by Rosecrans for failure to promptly obey orders just an hour previous. Wood knew full well that Brannan was exactly where he was supposed to be, and despite the warnings of his own staff officer that such a move would be disastrous, decided to follow his orders to the letter” (pg 169). These gentlemen appear to be basing their analysis solely on the episode between Rosecrans and Wood occurring early on September 20 and not looking at important factors impacting Woods decision at that time.

After looking at all the other factors, I disagree that Wood was in error for obeying the order. First, Wood was an experienced division commander and a career officer. He was considered solid in combat. Glenn Tucker states in Great Battles of the Civil War: “If there was an error, it was in the order and not in Wood’s response. He did what any good general ought to do on the battlefield. He obeyed” (pg 384) Second, on September 19, Wood had a similar experience that occurred prior to the “tongue lashing episode.” While in position at Lee and Gordon’s Mill, Wood received orders to move north. Concerned about Confederate troops to his front, Wood notified Rosecrans of his concern. Before anyone took his place, he moved his division to the north per his orders. Present at Rosecran’s headquarters when Wood’s message arrived, Major General McCook ordered one of his brigades to take Wood’s place. Third, Wood had no reason to question another movement to the north. All prior troop movements by Rosecrans had been to the north – the union left. General Philip Sheridan states: “The events of the day [19th] had indicated that Bragg’s main object was to turn Rosecran’s left; it was therefore still deemed necessary that the army should continue its flank movement to the left” (pg 279). With regards to September 20, Sheridan states: “The necessity for shifting the army to the left was obvious” (pg 280). Thus when Wood received the order, he had no reason to doubt the need for the northern movement. Furthermore, the order directed Wood to move “as soon as possible.” This wording became even more ominous to Wood because he received the order directly from Rosecrans and not through his corps commander, which would have been the norm. Receiving the order directly from Rosecrans led Wood to believe the movement was crucial and must be made with haste. Most importantly, Major General McCook was present when Wood received the order. It is clear from the Official Records that Wood advised McCook that his departure would leave a gap in the Union lines. McCook advised Wood to obey his orders and that McCook would use his corps to cover the gap. The preceding five factors must be considered when looking at the events involved with the order. Judging Wood’s response on the tongue lashing incident alone is improper and shallow. It is interesting to note that in 1864, the Military Court of Inquiries investigated McCook for not filling the gap promptly but chose not to investigate Wood.

Furthermore, if Wood had disobeyed the order and remained in position, the outcome of the battle would have been much different. At dawn on September 19, Wood had 2,679 troops available for action; Barnes’s brigade numbered 1,202. It is safe to assume that Wood’s division and Barnes’s brigade took losses in the fighting around the Viniard Field that afternoon. Accordingly, on September 20 Wood would have had fewer troops available for action. Rosecrans assigned Wood a weak position to defend, the western edge of Brotherton Field. During the fighting on September 19, Union forces failed to defend a ridge that ran through the middle of Brotherton Field. On September 20, this crest ran parallel to Wood’s lines approximately fifty yards to his east. Because of this, he would not have been able to see advancing Confederates until they were within fifty yards of his position. Wood’s troops would have been able to fire one volley, possibly two, before the on-rushing Confederate forces reached his defensive line. Thus Longstreet’s 16,000 would have overwhelmed Wood’s division. If that had occurred, Wood would not have been available to hold the Confederates advancing towards Thomas’s rear. Therefore, Thomas would not have had the time to prepare a defensive line on Snodgrass Hill, and the Union defeat would have been complete.

It is obvious that Wood’s actions at Dyer Field saved the day for the Army of the Cumberland. While Thomas received the lion’s share of the credit for his defense of Snodgrass Hill, Wood’s actions at Dyer Field seem to be overlooked by many. Perhaps the importance of his actions at Dyer Field would have contradicted the picture that some wanted to paint of Wood – that he followed an order in a fit of anger, knowing the order was wrong. Regardless, the truth is more important than the legend. Wood’s attacks at Dyer Field gave Thomas more than an hour to put together a defensive position. H. V. Boynton states: “Wood, seeing Hood’s forces moving north through the Dyer Fields, performed an act which ranks as a vital move…This check enabled Brannan to form his line in rear of Harker on Snodgrass Hill” (pg 49). After his defense at Dyer Field, Wood successfully withdrew his division to Snodgrass Hill, where he successfully repulsed many Confederate attacks. When ordered to withdraw to Rossville, his division did so in order.

In conclusion, Tomas Wood performed exceptionally well at the Battle of Chickamauga. Without his contributions, Rosecrans would have suffered an even worse defeat. While Thomas received the credit for his defense of Snodgrass Hill, Wood should have received even more credit for his actions at Dyer Field on September 20. One would not expect a man who would obey a wrong order just to spite his commanding officer to have a subsequent military career which proved exceptional. However, Wood’s career rocketed after the Battle of Chickamauga. When Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Western Theatre in October 1863, he kept Wood as a division commander. General Sheridan stated that upon arrival Grant had a “host also of great division commanders, among whom were growing soldiers and fighters … T. J. Wood...” (pg 125). At the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, Wood’s division was the first to breach the Confederate lines on Missionary Ridge. Despite being severely wounded, he remained on the field during the Battle of Lovejoy’s Station in August 1864. He participated in the Battles of Franklin and Nashville in November 1864. At Nashville, he assumed command of the IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland after its commander was wounded. In January 1865, Wood received a promotion to the rank of Major General of Volunteers. Wood’s actions during and after Chickamauga show that he was not an officer who would make decisions out of spite. Brigadier General Thomas Wood should share the title “Rock of Chickamauga.”


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