June 24, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans finally began moving his Federal Army of the Cumberland to oppose General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of the Tennessee at Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Rosecrans had hardly moved since occupying Murfreesboro after the Battle of Stones River in January. He spent the last six months reorganizing his army, while Bragg held a line on the Duck River centered at Tullahoma. The armies skirmished intermittently during that time, but now the Lincoln administration began seriously pressing Rosecrans to launch an offensive to prevent Bragg from sending troops to break Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, having heard little from Rosecrans regarding upcoming strategy, notified him, “I deem it my duty to repeat to you the great dissatisfaction felt here at your inactivity.” Rosecrans explained that not attacking Bragg served Grant better than attacking because an attack might drive Bragg out of Tennessee and into Mississippi. Rosecrans cited a military axiom that no nation should fight two decisive battles at the same time. (When Grant heard this later, he remarked, “It would be bad to be defeated in two decisive battles fought the same day, but it would not be bad to win them.”)
The Lincoln administration remained unimpressed with Rosecrans’s plan to help Grant by doing nothing. Halleck finally telegraphed him on the 16th, “Is it your intention to make an immediate move forward? A definite answer, yes or no, is required.” Rosecrans responded, “In reply to your inquiry, if immediate means tonight or tomorrow, no. If it means as soon as all things are ready, say five days, yes.”
On Rosecrans’s self-imposed five-day deadline, he sent Halleck an ambiguous message: “We ought to fight here if we have a strong prospect of winning a decisive battle over the opposing force, and upon this ground I shall act. I shall be careful not to risk our last reserve without strong grounds to expect success.” Rosecrans finally devised a plan in which he would flank Bragg’s army and force the Confederates to fall back behind the Tennessee River.
Bragg had just over 46,000 effectives on a line along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. The line ran west-to-east, from Shelbyville on his left to Wartrace on his right. His supply depot was at Tullahoma, 15 miles southeast of Wartrace. Rosecrans planned to feint against Shelbyville while moving around Bragg’s right, taking the gaps in the Cumberland foothills and forcing Bragg to defend his right (eastern) flank in the Duck River Valley. Rosecrans hoped to avoid attacking the strong Confederate defenses head-on; he would instead rely on maneuver to force them out of their positions. Fearing spies, he would not share any specifics of his plans with his superiors.
Rosecrans wired Halleck at 2:10 a.m. on the 24th: “The army begins to move at 3 o’clock this morning.” The troops moved out of Murfreesboro in multiple columns, with the four corps led by Major Generals Gordon Granger, Alexander McCook, George H. Thomas, and Thomas L. Crittenden. The army consisted of 87,800 men, but just 65,137 joined this march; the rest stayed back at various garrisons to guard the army’s lines of communication and supply.
Rain began falling during the march, which a Federal soldier noted was “no Presbyterian rain, either, but a genuine Baptist downpour.” The rain continued for the next 17 days, turning the roads to mud and slowing the advance. Skirmishing broke out as Granger’s corps feinted against Bragg’s left. Granger drove Confederate cavalry out of Guy’s Gap and into the trenches outside Shelbyville.
McCook’s corps advanced on Wartrace and pushed Confederate defenders from Liberty Gap to Bellbuckle Gap. Thomas’s corps knocked the Confederates out of Hoover’s Gap while driving toward Manchester, and Crittenden’s corps occupied Bradyville. By the night of the 24th, Bragg was scrambling to determine what point of his line was under the most serious threat.
The next day, Confederates staged a day-long attempt to regain the passes at Hoover’s and Liberty gaps. The Federals were finally driven back, but when Bragg received word that Federal reinforcements were on their way, he ordered a withdrawal that night.
Learning that Federals seriously threatened his right, Bragg directed Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk to reinforce Major General Patrick R. Cleburne at Liberty Gap. But when Thomas threatened to get between the Confederates and Chattanooga, Bragg ordered his men to fall back to Tullahoma to protect their base, flank, and rear. Meanwhile, skirmishing continued at Shelbyville, with Granger’s Federals taking many prisoners. They eventually occupied Shelbyville as the Confederates fell back with the rest of the army to Tullahoma.
As Thomas’s Federals occupied Manchester, Rosecrans dispatched a force to attack the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad in the Confederate rear. Mounted Federal infantry under Colonel John T. Wilder destroyed railroad tracks and supplies at Decherd, temporarily cutting off Bragg’s communications with Chattanooga. Meanwhile, Federals at Manchester continued moving southeast toward Hillsboro and Pelham, threatening the vital railroad.
Bragg held a council of war on the night of the 28th to discuss his options. Polk urged a withdrawal, but Lieutenant General William Hardee proposed digging trenches and holding their ground. The meeting ended when Bragg said he would wait for further developments before deciding what to do.
By the 30th, Rosecrans had three corps threatening Tullahoma from the northeast, while Wilder’s Federals threatened the Confederate rear. That night, Bragg decided that his position was untenable and he ordered a retreat. The Confederate army abandoned their six-month hold on Tullahoma and fell back south of the Elk River, near Decherd, where Bragg planned to make a stand.
Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 764-65; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 291, 295-96; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 663-67, 671-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 314-17, 319; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-30; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 370; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 669; Wilson, David L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 642