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Shaara / THE SMOKE AT DAWN
Recoil and Reposition
Near Rossville, Georgia—September 21, 1863
The prisoners were marched away under guard of only a few of his men. It was clear to Forrest, and to anyone in his command, that these Federal troops were not frightened, seemed instead to be relieved to be out of the fight. He moved the horse past them, stared up along the muddy road, and beyond, to a wide ridgeline. There were Yankees there, too, some in the road, many more just lying flat in the grass, some seated against a scattering of timber. They were stragglers, no weapons, their equipment no doubt part of the scattered heaps alongside the road. He watched for any sign of aggression, his own instinct, a hint of danger from these enemy troops. But there was only the despair, the paralysis that comes from defeat, most of the Yankees with no energy for escape, for anything at all. His horsemen were gathering them up, forming them into uneven columns just off the road, and Forrest could see the exhaustion, filthy, ragged men, torn shirts, remnants of blue uniforms. The horsemen had dismounted, rough shouts to the new prisoners of what would happen to them, useless threats, the ridiculous boasting Forrest tried to ignore. He glanced back to an aide.
“Gather ’em up, send ’em to the rear. And tell my boys to keep that nonsense to themselves.”
Forrest sat high on the horse, spoke out toward a group of a dozen men, the prisoners closest to him, most too tired to stand.
“You boys get to your feet. The march is back that ways. There’s food, water. Get going.”
The Federal troops seemed to recognize his authority, something in his voice, the uniform, and they began to obey, rising up with slow, automatic movement. Forrest had no idea if there was food anywhere behind him, but to these men, it didn’t matter. Any promise was better than what they had now.
The air was damp and cool, and he thought back to the early morning, climbing into the saddle, the anticipation, pure excitement over what might come. The fight that had consumed this countryside for most of two days was over completely, nothing at all happening anywhere near Chickamauga Creek. But the Federals had left a rear guard behind, several squads of cavalry, protecting the troops whose retreat was absolute. From the reports of his own advance scouts, Forrest knew that through every mountain pass the Yankees were flowing away with the kind of panic that makes men vulnerable. But not all the Yankees were in disarray. He knew of General Thomas, the tough fight the afternoon before that required too many deadly attacks from most of the Confederate forces on the field. Forrest wouldn’t know anything yet of the army’s casualty counts. That would come later, all those official reports, commanders trying to elevate themselves above the bloodletting, that no matter the confusion, the mistakes, the loss of so many good men, the generals could, after all, claim victory. He thought of Thomas, the Virginian who went north. Thomas had gathered up what he could, hunkered them down on a broad hill, good high ground, beating back every assault. Now Thomas and his Yankees were gone, pulling what remained of the Federal forces northward with as much order as those men could muster, protecting the rabble, the rest of the Union army, from being annihilated.
With the dawn, Forrest had gathered a force of some four hundred cavalrymen, had pushed out hard into the misty daylight, slogging through the mud and rain, driving hard to find the Federal position, if there was one to find. He had to believe, as they all did, that Thomas had given the Federal army the enormous benefit of time, that the Yankees might make good their escape through the mountain passes, a desperate drive toward the defensive lines around Chattanooga. If Forrest could cut them off, even a piece of that army, it would be a marvelous success. What he saw now was a hollow victory, his men finding only the basest remains of the Federal infantry. The cavalry was still out there, more of the Federal rear guard, but it was a toothless threat, a final effort to protect the men in blue slogging their way over the mountains.
He glanced back again, a larger column of his troopers gathering closer, coming together, re-forming after the latest skirmish, and called out, “Push on! No pause. Rest will come later. Care for your mounts, but we’ve got an opportunity here. I mean to make the most of it. Major Harvey.”
The officer moved closer, and Forrest could see the man’s weariness, felt it himself.
“Major, take fifty men, move out through those scattered trees. There’s Yankees scampering away on every path, every trail. Round up what you can. Be sharp, keep your eyes out for a skirmish line, for any sign of an ambush. But I’m betting the Yankee cavalry’s mostly gone. If we’d have started sooner, pushed them harder . . .”
He let the words trail away, stared back down the muddy road, over the heads of his men. He knew they were exhausted, that their mounts were in worse shape than the men, little time for forage, for water, for rest at all. He felt the soaking wetness from the rain, magnifying his own weariness, adding to his frustration. This is our chance, he thought. Our best chance in months. And by God, we’re letting them get away.
He looked again up the long slope, saw past the debris in the road, the hill cresting in a scattering of timber.
He spurred the horse, felt the unfamiliar gait, the uncomfortable rhythm, had a sudden flash of sadness. His own horse had gone down with a fatal wound not an hour before, another brief skirmish with Yankee cavalry that had gone his way. The Yankees had gotten the worst of it, again, but the wound to the horse had given him a jolt. He had seen that before, many times, the great obedient beasts standing tall in the storm of shot, absorbing the musket fire as though it were just part of their duty. Some horses could suffer a half-dozen wounds, yet still move forward, seemingly oblivious to agony or pain, determined only to serve. But his own mount had been hit in some vulnerable place, a horrible spurt of blood, which Forrest had tried to stop with his own hand. The animal had staggered, and even as his men drove the Yankees away, Forrest had dismounted, focusing on the beast, had spoken to it, soothing words, as though it might help. But the wound was deep, the blood unstoppable, and within short minutes the horse had collapsed, one more casualty. There were other horses there, of course, but the unfamiliar mount was the cavalryman’s curse, suddenly astride a stranger, no bond between them, no rhythm to the ride. Forrest tried to ignore that, had driven the fresh animal to the head of the column, resuming the pursuit. He reached down and slapped the horse’s neck.
“Let’s go to work, old boy. This is a glorious day. You’ll see that for yourself.”
He crested the hill, saw a larger hill to the front, a long, high ridge that spread out to the north, speckled with a scattering of trees. To the left, westward, was the vast hulk of Lookout Mountain, rising up into heavy mist, the crown of the enormous rock disguised by a layer of fog. He glanced that way, nothing to see, pushed the horse beyond the ridge, rode down into a low bowl, the timber closing in on the road. Careful, he thought. One coward, trying to be a hero, taking his last shot at some officer on a horse. Not how I want to die. Stand up and face me, bluebelly. Let’s see who the better man might be.
Beside him, one of his officers moved close, the man’s voice, Captain Seeley.
“Sir, that’s the big ridge. Mission Ridge. The enemy’s likely to make a stand there. Good defensive position.”
“Nope. They’re not making a stand anywhere, not today. You see all that equipment along the road? They’re whipped. We keep pushing them hard, we’ll haul in the whole Army of the Cumberland. About time, too. I want to see the faces of all those bluebellies who thought they could shove their way anyplace they saw fit. We handed them Tennessee. But not Georgia.” He paused. “Let’s get to the top, see what kind of view we have of Chattanooga. If the fog’s not low in the valley, I’m wagering you’ll see just how right I am.”
He raised his hand, pointed toward the long ridge, spurred the horse to a trot. The climb was long and steady, and he knew the young captain would be alert, wouldn’t just take Forrest’s word for it. Good, he thought. I’m not certain, either. He doesn’t need to know that. My job’s simple: Convince them they can whip the entire Yankee nation. This past couple of days, that’s just what we did. If I have my way, we’ll finish the job.
He reached the wide crest, another glance at the enormity of Lookout Mountain, but the fog was high, the valley that spread out below clear, bathed by patches of late morning sunlight.
He saw his men, and Major Harvey, farther along the ridge, a gathering near a small cluster of trees, the men surrounding a pair of bluecoats. The major was waving to him, a beaming smile, and Forrest rode that way, his men spreading out just behind the ridge, good training. They would know how visible they might be, the ridgeline mostly open. Any thick mass of cavalry could be a perfect target for enemy artillery. Harvey was still waving, excited energy, and Forrest obliged him, kept his eyes on the two Yankees. He saw the signal flag, heard a whoop high in the tree, looked up, saw one of his own men sitting on a fat branch.
“What you have here, Major?”
“Two prisoners, sir. Signalmen. Good place for ’em to be, sir. They were up in the trees, waving them flags like they was calling out for Heavenly Deliverance. Guess it didn’t work.”
Forrest looked at the two men, both staring up at him, curious. He focused on the younger man, hoped to see fear, but the man was stoic, defiant. Forrest leaned out closer, said, “What’s your name, son?”
“Kirkman. I’m from Illinois. Not telling you nothing else.”
“Don’t much care if you do, Mr. Kirkman from Illinois. What I want from you is right there.” Forrest pointed to the man’s chest, the field glasses hanging on a thin leather strap. There was no protest, the man sliding the strap over his head.
“Here you go, rebel. I reckon you captured these, too.”
“Yep, that I did. Major, call your man down from that tree. I’d fancy my own look.”
The trooper slipped down quickly, no order required, and Forrest dismounted, took the field glasses from the Yankee’s hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Kirkman. Now, I’ll just be taking a look at what your army is up to.”
Forrest moved to the tallest tree, saw the limbs trimmed, a perfect ladder upward. He draped the field glasses over his neck, climbed, felt the ache. He had taken yet another wound in the fighting the day before, a nagging slice across his back, soothed by the constant motion from the horse. But he felt it now, stiffening, a burning stab. He tried to ignore the pain, moved up higher, one limb at a time. He reached the platform the Yankees had used, their observation point, the last sturdy limb where the thinner branches had been cleared away. He stood gingerly, one hand on the tree, steadied himself, now saw why the signalmen were there. Below him the valley stretched for miles, north and west, and far out in front, the looping meanders of the Tennessee River. Just this side of the river was the city of Chattanooga, lined with stout earthworks and lines of cut timber, most of that work done by Confederates a month or more before. Even at this distance he could make out the flow of humanity, pouring through the mountain passes, across the flat plain, masses of men in blue.
On every road, in every open field, Federal troops were on the move toward the town. But there was little order, nothing to resemble a march at all. He wanted to shout, felt a great flood of joy, could see what remained of the Federal Army of the Cumberland, a distant swarm of blue insects, a massive ant bed stirred up by the Hand of God. He looked to the left, the near side of the river that wound past the base of Lookout Mountain. There was blue there as well, wagons, teamsters making use of the good road that ran westward along the river, salvaging whatever they could carry, some no doubt hauling the wounded, a great many wounded. Yes, by God, we whipped them. Anyone who has a horse is making his way out of those hills quick as the horse will take him. The whole army . . . they’ve got their minds set on one thing: getting out of this place completely. If we push them hard enough, quick enough, we’ll shove them right out of Chattanooga, back north, maybe all the way to Nashville.
He looked down, called out.
“Captain, I need to send a message to General Polk. I want to make sure General Bragg sees it as well. These are strict orders, you understand?”
He saw Captain Seeley, the young man motioning for a courier, a piece of paper emerging from the man’s coat.
“What’s the message, sir?”
Forrest stared out again across the open valley, could feel the desperation in the enemy soldiers even now, miles away, could sense the panic he knew he had to exploit. He scanned the ridgelines to the south and west, hoping to see more columns of Bragg’s men, the victorious army driving their pursuit with lustful energy, completing the great victory. But there was only the fog, thick timber hiding the roads, no signs of movement from Bragg’s army at all. Surely, he thought. Surely he knows. They must come. It is so . . . simple.
He thought of the words, knew that Polk might hesitate, and so Bragg must be told as well. They despise each other, he thought. Two cackling hens. Well, today it’s time to be soldiers. Your enemy is right out there, beaten and disorganized and they know what it feels like to be routed from the field. In fear there is opportunity. Our opportunity.
“Tell him . . . our position, our strength. We do not have the numbers up here to do much more. The army must come up. We must push them . . . hit them. Tell the general . . . we must press forward as rapidly as possible.”
He thought of climbing down, saw Seeley writing furiously, but Forrest felt frozen, the pain in his back, the exhaustion holding him in place. We must keep them scared, he thought. Drive them wherever we can, let them know we’re right behind them. Demons, chasing them to hell. We have you, he thought. We have you in our hands. And now we will crush you.
For most of the day, Forrest had waited atop Missionary Ridge with pulsing frustration, continued to send couriers back to the places where the generals were supposed to be. By late afternoon, he had grown sick of his impotence, unable to do anything more than watch from his perfect vantage point as the flood of Yankees drifted across the wide plain into Chattanooga. With no instructions, no words of encouragement from the commanders, he made the decision to leave his horsemen up on the ridgeline, while he and a small number of troopers rode back southward to face the generals himself.
Bragg’s Headquarters— Near Chickamauga Creek—September 21, 1863
The room was hot, a roaring wood fire from a wide stone hearth, the thick air intoxicating, sleep inducing, Bragg’s aides supporting themselves in small camp chairs or leaning against the crude walls. The wetness in Forrest’s uniform had turned to sweat, both from the heat in the headquarters and Forrest’s manic pacing. He thumped his boot heels into the wooden floor, turned, made the short march back the other way, waited for Bragg to complete some detail, jotting notes on a piece of paper, reading, then rereading, what seemed to Forrest to be a deliberate effort to hold the horseman back.
A new burst of pain drove through Forrest, and the words came now, his weariness and the agony of the wound breaking down his discipline.
“Sir! Please! I was told you received my dispatches.”
Bragg looked up, blinked, as though fighting back sleep. “Yes. Calm yourself, General.”
Forrest could wait no more. “General Bragg, the enemy is filling the defenses at Chattanooga. I have seen it myself. I have sent messages back here, imploring this army to take advantage of the opportunity the enemy is providing us. That opportunity will not last, if we allow him to find the full protection of the barricades in the city. I firmly believe that a swift and decisive push against those works will convince the enemy he cannot remain, that Chattanooga is no safe haven. He is inclined still to retreat. He is beaten, a whipped dog that needs only a sharp strike from us. He will either surrender, or he will scamper away.”
Forrest was running out of words, nothing coming yet from Bragg. He had little respect for Bragg as a leader, had already experienced Bragg’s tendency to make battlefield decisions based on personality clashes with his own subordinates rather than whatever the enemy might be doing. If Bragg had one characteristic Forrest respected, it was a fierce dedication to discipline. Bragg might shoot a miscreant soldier just to prove a point.
But there was nothing fierce in Bragg’s demeanor now.
“General Forrest, I appreciate your zeal for combat. I share it, as you must certainly know. There is great honor in besting the enemy. I am told we bested him right here. My ranking generals seem convinced we handed General Rosecrans a crushing blow. It puzzles me why officers who are supposed to know something of battles can be so misled by first impressions.”
Forrest stopped moving, tried to decipher whatever message Bragg was giving him.
“Sir, do you not believe the enemy was swept away from this field? Every officer I have spoken to insists we secured a major victory along Chickamauga Creek. Is that not what . . . you believe?”
“General Polk sent one of his commanders . . . Maney, I believe . . . sent him forward to observe the mountain passes. He reports much the same as you. But General Polk has not performed to my expectations, to my orders. I am examining even now a path of corrective action. And so, place yourself in my position, Mr. Forrest. Polk has been derelict, and yet I am to believe everything he tells me. I have thus far no complaint against you. And yet I am to act solely upon your observations. I can most reliably depend upon those things I can see for myself, General. Have you ridden across these fields, these wood lots, these patches of forest? I can rarely recall such carnage, such a human tragedy. The dead and severely wounded of both sides lie mingled in a horror that no general can accept lightly, that no civilian can ever understand. The mothers and wives of our fallen men will find no comfort in this so-called victory.”
Forrest stared, a glance at one of the aides, a young captain, who avoided his eyes.
“General Bragg, is not the duty of my cavalry to offer you reliable information? You said yourself we have performed well.”
“You fought well, yes. I have not heard any reports of your men failing to carry out their orders. But with all respects to your accomplishments and your reputation, I learned long ago to distrust cavalry. There is a great deal of romance in your service, is there not? All that professed gallantry can lead to carelessness, more time spent impressing the ladies along the way than accuracy in locating the enemy. With respects to you, Mr. Forrest, I must accept your reports with a measure of skepticism.”
Forrest felt a boiling anger sprout in his brain, the insult more than casual. But still . . . Bragg was in command. And every officer in the army had been insulted by Bragg more than once. He took a long breath, tried to calm the instinctive response, unclenched a tight fist, a weapon that one part of him wanted to plant squarely across Bragg’s chin.
“Sir, I can only offer you what I saw myself. The enemy is in full retreat away from here. He has made a frantic withdrawal through the mountains. I made every attempt to engage him, push a fight against the obstacles he put in our path. His rear guard did little more than delay us. Every observation I made tells me that right now, there is no fight in the Federal army. We must drive General Rosecrans from the sanctuary they seek in Chattanooga. He is defeated. He is inclined toward further retreat. We must see it so. We must not allow him the false confidence of believing us too weak to crush him.”
Bragg shook his head, stared down at the desk. “I wish this entire army shared your passion, Mr. Forrest. But we are in no condition to drive forward with any conviction. We must recover our wounded, regroup, sort out the units. Entire regiments are jumbled about, their officers confused, stumbling about seeking their commands.”
“Sir, I am told that General Longstreet is prepared to move forward, that he has gathered a sizable force. . . .”
Bragg sniffed loudly, and Forrest saw something awaken in the man, the familiar fury he had seen before, that every officer in the army had seen before.
“Do not speak to me of General Longstreet. The man marches his troops into my command intending to conquer all that lies before him, as though he has been anointed with superior genius, superior forces. Am I to believe that his mission here is simply to assist me? For reasons I do not understand, the president and General Lee believe I require his help in order to succeed. The newspapers trumpet Longstreet’s name as though he alone can save our cause! Are we so inept, so consumed with misdeeds and errors that only a man from the East can deliver us? I will entertain no such notions, General. It is of no interest to me what General Longstreet believes possible, or what he intends to do. I am in command of this army, and I shall make the decisions as to how it is used. We must regroup, we must reorganize, we must replenish. We have been bloodied. We have endured severe losses.”
“What of the enemy’s losses? The enemy has abandoned this field to us. He is fleeing in a panic. Or . . . he was. I fear now we have granted him a full day to calm his demons. Every moment we delay is worth a thousand men.”
“Too many thousands of men lie out there, never to return. General Forrest, I have allowed you to speak your mind, because I know your horsemen have performed ably, and with honor. Please return to your command, and extend my deepest appreciation for their service. We shall reevaluate our situation in the morning, when this army has regained a portion of its strength. Then we will decide how best to deal with the enemy. If what I am told is accurate, and mind you, I still have my doubts, then isn’t it possible that General Rosecrans is already preparing to march away from here completely, abandoning Chattanooga, and perhaps all of Tennessee? Is not that what a great victory will grant us?”
Forrest felt the responses erupting inside of him, the heat in the room dizzying him.
Bragg rubbed a hand through his beard, seemed satisfied by Forrest’s lack of protest. “Yes, you see? I am well aware of our options. Now, I can see you are tired. It is very late, after all. We are all drained by what has happened here. Be assured, this command recognizes your good work. Get a good night’s rest. I will have orders for you tomorrow, or soon after.”
Orders to do what? Forrest kept the question to himself, saw Bragg’s eyes drift shut, a perfect symbol of the day’s end. Forrest wanted to say more, tried to ignite the protests again, but on one point Bragg was right. It was very late, close to midnight, and Forrest had been in the saddle nearly all day, and two days before that. The helplessness was overwhelming him, the anger and frustration pulling away. Nothing he could say to Bragg would change the man’s resolve to simply . . . do nothing. He does not believe the enemy is crushed, does not accept what I saw with my own eyes. There is nothing more for me to do here.
Bragg seemed to come awake again, said, “A night’s rest, General. Do you a great deal of good.”
Forrest said nothing, turned to the open door, felt the cool wet breeze flooding the heat in the fire-lit room. He moved out through the door, thought, There will be no rest for the men over there. In Chattanooga, the enemy is doing his own regrouping, reorganizing. He is fortifying those works, and gathering himself for what he must believe is our inevitable attack. But there is nothing . . . inevitable. Except perhaps . . . that those dead men General Bragg so mourns will have died for no good reason.
He moved out into the chilling mist, the darkness giving way to the light from a single lantern. His staff was mounting their horses, and Forrest took the reins from an orderly, climbed up into the saddle, sharp pain in his back, a small grunt he tried to keep silent. He looked at the others, saw Captain Seeley watching him, questioning, expectant, the enthusiasm of the young.
“Orders, sir? Is General Bragg going after them?”
Forrest shook his head, looked down, the horse moving uneasily beneath him.
“Captain . . . I cannot imagine what General Bragg is going to do. I only wonder . . . if he does not see the value in what we have accomplished here, does not understand the magnitude of our success, the opportunity that we were given. If he has so little faith that we can win victories . . . then why does he fight battles?”