October 5, 1863 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis received a petition requesting General Braxton Bragg’s removal as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Twelve of Bragg’s subordinates signed the appeal.
Davis had been aware of animosity toward Bragg ever since the Battle of Chickamauga the previous month. Even though the Confederates had won that battle and now lay siege to the Federal Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, the hostility increased. Davis wrote to Bragg on October 3, “The opposition to you both in the army and out of it has been a public calamity in so far that it impairs your capacity for usefulness…”
Bragg had made things worse by removing General Thomas C. Hindman from command for allegedly failing to trap the Federals a week before Chickamauga, and then removing General Leonidas Polk for a supposed delay on Chickamauga’s second day. Davis explained in his letter that he recommended not pressing charges against Polk: “It was with a view of avoiding a controversy, which could not heal the injury sustained and which I feared would entail further evil.”
Bragg’s subordinates responded with the petition asking Davis to oust their commander. All four corps commanders (Polk, James Longstreet, D.H. Hill, and Simon B. Buckner) signed, along with eight generals commanding divisions or brigades. The generals acknowledged “that the proceeding is unusual among military men,” but “the extraordinary condition of affairs in this army, the magnitude of the interests at stake, and a sense of the responsibilities under which they rest to Your Excellency and to the Republic, render this proceeding, in their judgment, a matter of solemn duty, from which, as patriots, they cannot shrink.” It continued:
“Two weeks ago this army, elated by a great victory, was in readiness to pursue its defeated enemy. Today, it is certain that the fruits of victory of the Chickamauga have now escaped our grasp. The Army of Tennessee, stricken with a complete paralysis, may deem itself fortunate if it escapes from its present position without disaster.”
The officers asserted that Bragg’s poor health affected morale and “unfits him for the command of an army in the field.” They stated, “In addition to reinforcements, your petitioners would deem it a dereliction of the sacred duty they owe the country if they did not further ask that Your Excellency assign to the command of this army an officer who will inspire the army and the country with undivided confidence…”
Davis left Richmond the day after receiving the petition, hoping “to be serviceable in harmonizing some of the difficulties” by personally visiting Bragg and the army. His traveled aboard a special train with his secretary Burton Harrison, Colonels William P. Johnston and Custis Lee (sons of Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee), and General John C. Pemberton, who had surrendered Vicksburg three months before.
The travelers arrived in Atlanta on the 8th and then moved on to Chattanooga the next day. The train stopped briefly in Marietta along the way, where Davis offered words of encouragement to the cheering crowd. At Chickamauga Station, soldiers cheered and bands played as the train pulled in. Davis mounted a horse as the crowd hollered, “Speech!” Davis responded, “Man never spoke as you did on the field of Chickamauga, and in your presence I dare not speak. Yours is the voice that will win the independence of your country and strike terror to the heart of a ruthless foe.”
Davis and his group rode into Bragg’s headquarters on Missionary Ridge on the night of the 9th and had a private conversation with him. Bragg blamed his subordinates for the army’s troubles and declined Davis’s request to replace Polk with Pemberton. He then refused to reinstate Polk and offered to resign. Davis would not accept the resignation of the only Confederate general to have won a major victory since Chancellorsville five months before.
Davis and Bragg then held a council of war with Bragg’s corps commanders: Longstreet, Hill, Buckner, and Benjamin F. Cheatham (replacing Polk). They discussed the current military situation and then Davis asked the men to assess Bragg’s performance. When no one spoke up, Davis insisted on a response. Longstreet finally said “that our commander could be of greater service elsewhere than at the head of the Army of Tennessee.” Davis asked the others if they agreed, and they did. The meeting ended awkwardly.
The next day, Davis met with Bragg again and inspected the army. Davis then met with Longstreet and asked if he would be willing to replace Bragg as army commander. Longstreet replied, “In my judgment, our last opportunity was gone when we failed to follow the success at Chickamauga, and capture or disperse the Union army, and it could not be just to the service or myself to call me to a position of such responsibility.”
Davis refused Longstreet’s suggestion of Joseph E. Johnston to replace Bragg, and he also refused Longstreet’s resignation. Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, the other most qualified man to replace Bragg in the Western Theater, also turned down the job. This left Davis with the remaining corps commanders who lacked qualifications, and Johnston, who twice declined arguing that Bragg was the better choice. Davis even considered General Robert E. Lee, but Lee expressed a desire to stay in Virginia. This posed a major dilemma for Davis.
After considering the matter for three days, Davis approved a major organizational shift in the Army of Tennessee. He wrote to Bragg, “Regretting that the expectations which induced the assignment of that gallant officer to this army have not been realized, you are authorized to relieve Lieutenant General D.H. Hill from further duty with your command.”
Bragg suspended Hill, a longtime adversary, and replaced him with Major General John C. Breckinridge. Davis authorized trading Polk for Hardee in the Alabama-Mississippi department. Buckner’s corps became a division, and Buckner was soon granted a leave of absence. Longstreet remained a corps commander but only led his two Virginia divisions.
On October 14, the day after the reorganization announcement, Davis addressed the Army of Tennessee. He applauded the troops for “the glorious victory on the field of Chickamauga,” and noted the importance of “devotion, sacrifice, and harmony… Though you have done much, very much yet remains to be done. Behind you is a people providing for your support and depending on you for protection. Before you is a country devastated by your ruthless invader…”
Davis admonished the troops for criticizing Bragg, warning, “He who sows the seeds of discontent and distrust prepares for a harvest of slaughter and defeat.” He declared, “To zeal you have added gallantry; to gallantry energy; to energy, fortitude. Crown these with harmony, due subordination, and cheerful support of lawful authority that the measure of your duty may be full.” He ended by praying “that our Heavenly Father may cover you with the shield of his protection in the hours of battle, and endow you with the virtues which will close your trials in victory complete.”
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 814-18
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79, 84-85
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 417-20, 421-22
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Loc 52113-125