The Slow Federal Advance in Tennessee

July 2, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland captured Tullahoma, but Rosecrans still faced criticism for not moving against Chattanooga fast enough.

Generals Bragg and Rosecrans | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As July began, Rosecrans continued outmaneuvering General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee, despite continuous rain that turned roads to mud. Bragg soon found himself in danger of being outflanked and forced to abandon his supply depot at Tullahoma.

The Confederates fell back to Decherd on the Elk River, but a Federal mounted infantry brigade penetrated their rear and threatened to cut their railroad supply line. Although the Confederates outnumbered them, the Federals carried Spencer carbine rifles that could fire seven shots without reloading.

At a council of war, Bragg asked his subordinates, “The question to be decided instantly (is) shall we fight on the Elk or take post at the foot of the mountain at Cowan?” Major General Leonidas Polk favored Cowan, but Major General William Hardee said, “Let us fight at the mountain.” Bragg did neither because he did not want to fight with his back to the Tennessee River. Bragg instead continued falling back east, into the mountains and across the Tennessee toward Chattanooga.

The next day, Federal troops occupied the abandoned Confederate positions at Tullahoma without a fight. The Federals crossed the Elk on the 3rd, with the cavalry riding ahead and clashing with the Confederate rear guard near Cowan. Bragg pulled across the Cumberland plateau at Sewanee Mountain, and Rosecrans halted the pursuit.

In nine days, the Federals had pushed the Confederates back 85 miles while losing just 560 men, including less than 100 killed and 12 missing. They captured 1,634 Confederates, most of whom were Middle Tennessee conscripts who willingly surrendered. The Federals also took 11 cannon and a large amount of supplies. This short, battle-free campaign cost the Confederates Middle Tennessee. Bragg confided to a chaplain, “This is a great disaster.”

The bulk of Bragg’s army crossed the Tennessee and entered Chattanooga on the night of the 6th. Since Bragg had crossed the same river last July to begin his advance into Kentucky, his men had marched nearly 1,000 miles and fought two major battles–Perryville and Stones River. Bragg considered them both Confederate victories, but he retreated after both, and now he was back where he started a year ago.

Rosecrans had conducted a brilliant campaign of maneuver; even southern newspapers grudgingly conceded that it was “masterful.” Rosecrans’s only blunder was one over which he had no control—his nearly bloodless success was overshadowed by the major events taking place at Gettysburg and Vicksburg at the same time. But now that those campaigns were winding down, the Lincoln administration turned to Rosecrans to destroy the Confederacy.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wired him on the 7th: “Lee’s army overthrown; Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?” Rosecrans quickly responded:

“You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from Middle Tennessee. I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.”

Rosecrans then wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck listing the reasons why he could not immediately resume his advance. Rosecrans explained that his men needed to replace a 350-foot railroad bridge across the Duck River, replace another railroad trestle south of the bridge, and build corduroy roads for his supply wagons. He also expressed concern about being in a potentially vulnerable position because:

  • Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederate Army of East Tennessee held Knoxville on Rosecrans’s left, or eastern flank
  • General Joseph E. Johnston’s revised Confederate Army of Mississippi was on Rosecrans’s right, or western flank
  • General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee remained dangerous in his front at Chattanooga

Rosecrans wanted to wait until the proposed Federal drive on Knoxville began before he resumed his advance. But the administration worried that if Rosecrans did not move, Johnston would join forces with Bragg. Halleck wired Rosecrans:

“You must not wait for Johnston to join Bragg, but must move forward immediately… There is great dissatisfaction felt here at the slowness of your advance. Unless you can move more rapidly, your whole campaign will prove a failure.”

Halleck accompanied the wire with a confidential letter: “The patience of the authorities here has been completely exhausted, and if I had not repeatedly promised to urge you forward, and begged for delay, you would have been removed from your command.” But Rosecrans would not heed such warnings. He continued meticulously preparing to launch a new offensive against Bragg.

—–

References

Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 764-65; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 301; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 813; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 646, 673-74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320, 323, 335; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 234; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 375, 377-78, 380, 391; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 216; 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; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 746

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