The Impending Chattanooga Campaign

July 25, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans prepared his Federal Army of the Cumberland to advance on Chattanooga, while his superiors continued pressing him to move faster.

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit:

Rosecrans had executed a nearly flawless campaign to capture Tullahoma in early July. He had outmaneuvered General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee and pushed it back to the vital railroad city of Chattanooga. But Rosecrans’s near-bloodless victory was overshadowed by the more sensational Federal victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson.

The Lincoln administration strongly urged Rosecrans to follow up this success by continuing to pressure Bragg until his army was destroyed. Rosecrans urged his superiors not to underestimate the tremendous effort it took to capture Tullahoma, and he stated that advancing on Chattanooga would “involve a great deal of care, labor, watchfulness, and combined effort” to succeed.

In addition, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio from Cincinnati, was supposed to spearhead the drive on Knoxville in eastern Tennessee. Burnside was to confront Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederate Army of East Tennessee, which would protect Rosecrans’s left flank and help increase pressure on Bragg at Chattanooga.

Rosecrans planned to use Burnside’s start as a signal to begin his own forward movement. When he explained this to Halleck, the general-in-chief replied, “General Burnside has been frequently urged to move forward and cover your left. I do not know what he is doing. He seems tied fast to Cincinnati.”

Burnside was waiting for his beloved IX Corps to return from Vicksburg, and he had sent his cavalry to stop Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raid through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Thus, Rosecrans would have to move forward without waiting for the Knoxville offensive.

While Buckner’s Confederates loomed on Rosecrans’s left, General Joseph E. Johnston’s revised Army of Mississippi hovered on his right, or western flank. With Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals busy occupying Vicksburg and keeping the Mississippi River open to Federal traffic, the Lincoln administration became increasingly worried that Johnston might join forces with Bragg.

When Halleck warned Rosecrans that the administration’s patience was wearing thin, Rosecrans replied, “We shall move promptly, and endeavor not to go back.” He then bitterly added that he hoped to “avoid such remarks and letters as I am receiving lately from Washington, if I could do so without injury to the public service.”

Halleck responded just as angrily, “While I am blamed here for not urging you forward more rapidly, you are displeased at my doing so.” He claimed that Rosecrans had “no possible grounds” to base his “tone of displeasure toward me,” and it should not hinder military operations.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Confederate officials granted Johnston’s request to relieve him of all authority over Bragg’s army. This discontinued Department No. 2, or the Western Theater Department. Bragg was assigned to command the new Department of Tennessee, which included Buckner’s Department of East Tennessee. However, Bragg instructed Buckner to continue reporting directly to Richmond rather than him, making coordination between the two commanders unnecessarily difficult as they prepared to defend Chattanooga and Knoxville.

In mid-July, Bragg wrote his superiors at Richmond requesting that he join forces with Johnston’s army in Mississippi. This would produce a force of about 70,000 men, roughly equal to Grant’s 77,000-man army at Vicksburg. Johnston opposed such a plan; he later wrote, “Such a combination might have been advantageous before or during the siege of Vicksburg, but not after its disastrous termination.”

Bragg sent Major General Leonidas Polk, one of his corps commanders, to convince President Jefferson Davis to permit a concentration of the western armies. Polk suggested that Bragg join forces with not only Johnston, but Buckner as well, which would give them 80,000 men. This new super-army could then defeat Rosecrans’s smaller force before turning on Grant. Polk urged quick action because rumors abounded that Grant was preparing to either capture Mobile or join forces with Rosecrans. Davis considered the matter into August.


References; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 675-76

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