August 16, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland finally began moving out of Tullahoma to capture the vital railroad city of Chattanooga.
By the 11th, Rosecrans was still at Tullahoma, over two weeks after being ordered by General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to confront General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Capturing this “Gateway City” would give the Federals control of southern railroads moving to and from Nashville, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. It would also give the Federals a vital base on the Tennessee River from which to invade the Deep South. Rosecrans had cited numerous reasons for the delay, including harvesting crops, establishing supply lines, repairing railroads, and having adequate protection on his flanks.
Rosecrans had begun moving some infantry and cavalry, but then he informed Washington that he needed more time to collect railroad cars for his supplies. Also, he insisted that he needed Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio to move into eastern Tennessee to guard his left flank, and he received word that Burnside needed two more days to get going. Rosecrans wrote, “His movement should be felt before ours on the left.”
Rosecrans assured Burnside on the 12th, “We will be at the Tennessee River by the time you reach Kingston. Do you want the excess of rations we have there?” But Rosecrans soon had to change his plans because the railroad bringing men and supplies from Tracy City, “built for bringing coal down the mountains, has such high grades and sharp curves as to require a peculiar engine.” The only train available was “broken on its way from Nashville,” thus the advance was suspended “until that road was completely available for transporting stores to Tracy City.” This took four more days.
The Army of the Cumberland finally began moving on Sunday the 16th, heading out of Tullahoma toward Chattanooga, 65 miles southeast. The army consisted of 50,000 infantry in three corps, screened by 9,000 cavalry and bearing 200 heavy guns. Rosecrans planned to trap Bragg between his army and Burnside’s by feinting north of Chattanooga while attacking south and west of the city.
The Federals moved with extreme precision, as Rosecrans spread his three corps across a 50-mile front to cover the three main Cumberland Mountain passes. This was a risky move because Bragg could have isolated and destroyed any of the three corps in detail. However, Bragg was unaware of Rosecrans’s approach. The Cumberland Mountains were formidable obstacles to bypass, but they also screened the Federal advance from Bragg, whose Confederates could not see them approaching on the other side of the range.
Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps was to feint north of Chattanooga by crossing the Tennessee at Blythe’s Ferry, about 45 miles upriver. Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps in the center and Major General Alexander McCook’s XX Corps on the right would comprise the main threat, moving southwest and threatening Chattanooga downstream.
On the 16th, Crittenden crossed Walden’s Ridge, while Thomas and McCook crossed the Tennessee about 50 miles downriver from Chattanooga. Rosecrans informed Washington at 9:35 that night:
“All three corps are crossing the mountains. It will take till Wednesday night to reach their respective positions. I think we shall deceive the enemy as to our point of crossing. It is a stupendous undertaking. The Alps, with a broad river at the foot, and not fertile plains, but 70 miles of difficult and mostly sterile mountains beyond, before reaching a point of secondary importance to the enemy, in reference to his vital one, Atlanta.”
Colonel John T. Wilder, who commanded the “Lightening Brigade” of mounted infantry under Thomas, screened the Federal center while the official Federal cavalry screened the left and right. Wilder’s horsemen advanced on terrible roads, covering just 20 miles on the 18th before entering the Sequatchie Valley the next day.
The Federals captured a few Confederate scouts, and after interrogating them, Wilder reported, “I do not think there are any forces of consequence this side of Tennessee River.” Wilder’s Federals then turned to help screen Crittenden as he feinted to Bragg’s north. By the 19th, Thomas and McCook were at Bridgeport, Alabama, about 35 miles downriver from Chattanooga.
Rosecrans awaited Burnside’s advance, writing him, “The head of your column ought to appear soon if you are in time.” Rosecrans explained that he intended to attack Chattanooga from the south, between Bridgeport and Rome, and concluded, “Let us have full co-operation. Telegraph me position, progress, and plan.”
Burnside reported, “We have had a serious delay in mounting the cavalry and accumulating forage and subsistence, but all the columns are in motion.” However, he moved slowly while awaiting the return of his beloved IX Corps from Vicksburg, and his army was still 130 miles from Knoxville.
At Chattanooga, Bragg remained unaware that Rosecrans’s Federals were closing in on him, though he continued scrambling to get reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston in Mississippi and Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner in eastern Tennessee. On the 20th, Confederates learned that Rosecrans’s army had crossed the mountains and reached the Tennessee at Stevenson and Bridgeport, southwest of Chattanooga. They learned that Burnside’s 30,000-man army was advancing from Kentucky as well.
Bragg, with just 40,000 men at Chattanooga, hesitated to assume the offensive in the face of such superior numbers. President Jefferson Davis declined a suggestion from Adjutant General Samuel Cooper to order Bragg to attack.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18794; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 317; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 677; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 32-33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 397-98; 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. 670; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 137-38