This week marks the 149th anniversary of the two-day battle. Between September 19 and 20, 1863, Confederate and Union forces sought to destroy one another near West Chickamauga Creek, just south of Chattanooga. Nearly 4,000 men were killed, and thousands more injured, in what would become a Pyrrhic victory for the South. In the next months, the defeated Federal troops would re-arm and sweep down from Tennessee to capture Atlanta.
For many years, Carrollton resident Robert Carter visited the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and noticed a problem: without a tour guide, it was almost impossible for a visitor to make sense of what happened there. The entire park covers over 8,000 acres of green trees and rolling hills, dotted with stone monuments. But the monuments give little information about why the park should even exist. Visitors appreciate the beauty, but not necessarily the history.
“I really wanted something that people could take out on the battlefield and use,” he said. What he had in mind was a guidebook, one similar to those which have been made for other Civil War sites, but which was strangely lacking for Chickamauga. “There’s not that much scholarship that’s been done on Chickamauga. It kind of ticked me off.”
That’s why Carter wrote “The Battle of Chickamauga: The Fight for Snodgrass Hill and the Rock of Chickamauga.” It is the first of what Carter says will be a series of interpretive guidebooks that will provide a “you are there” experience for park tourists. The book is already on sale at the park gift shop, and is available through Amazon.
The “Snodgrass Hill” in the book’s title refers to a portion of the battlefield where Union Gen. George Thomas – known afterwards as the “Rock of Chickamauga” – rallied Federal troops and fought off repeated Confederate assaults, so that the rest of the Union forces could make an orderly retreat back into Chattanooga. It was a pivotal moment in a key battle of the Civil War, and that is why Carter wanted to focus upon it.
Carter, who lives in Carrollton and is the band director of Villa Rica High School, says that while music is his first love, he “could have easily been a history teacher.”
In fact, the smoke of war has always been part of Carter’s past. His father was a gunner aboard one of the Landing Craft, Tank (LCTs) which rolled up to Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. The young Carter had the presence of mind to record the events of that Longest Day in a three-page diary for his as-yet unborn children. Carter’s father thereafter had an avid interest in military history, and toured many Civil War battlefields with his sons.
That early experience became a lifelong obsession for Robert Carter. But no Civil War event he has studied has sparked more interest than the Battle of Chickamauga.
“In those two days there were over 37,000 casualties (killed, wounded or missing). It’s the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War – it’s only behind Gettysburg, which was a three-day battle.”
The Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., is considered to be the deadliest day in Civil War history, with 23,000 casualties on both sides. But Carter says his original research for the book shows that the tally for the second day of Chickamauga may top that number.
It is facts and research like that which makes Carter’s book stand out. “I’ve been a school teacher for 39 years, and if you are going to be effective with students, you’ve got to tell the stories.”
The central story of the Battle of Chickamauga is about a serious mistake. On the second day of battle, the Union commander, William Rosecrans, who had repelled several assaults the previous day by Confederate General Braxton Bragg, issued what Carter calls “a bad order.” Mistakenly believing a gap had developed in his line of troops, Rosecrans ordered one of his divisions to plug the supposed gap. But that movement created an actual hole in the line – a breach that opened just as Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s troops were moving up. The Confederates pushed through the gap, causing the entire Union line to collapse.
Some Union troops formed a defensive line around Snodgrass Hill, also known as Horseshoe Ridge. There, Gen. George Thomas, XIV Corps Commander, took charge and resisted several Confederate assaults, allowing Federal troops to get away.
The Confederates won the field and therefore the battle – but Union forces would strike back in November and be victorious in Battle of Chattanooga.
For his book, Carter has created 14 stops for Chickamauga tourists, taking them to key points in the battle. And he has enlisted the aid of a master mapmaker to create vivid maps “that put you right in the middle of the action.” So far, Carter’s book has been very successful; in fact, it sold out at the battlefield gift shop the first week it was available.
Carter believes his book is factual enough to please a serious student of the war, but is unintimidating enough for someone who simply wants to know something about it.
“I hope these books will be valuable to people who want to spend a couple of hours” at the battlefield, he says. “It’s about a two mile walk, just a nice morning or evening stroll.”