August 21, 1863 – Federal artillery opened fire on Chattanooga, as Major General William S. Rosecrans tried enveloping the vital railroad city.
Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland closed in on General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee inside Chattanooga from two directions. Rosecrans planned to feint from the north while attacking from the southwest, thus pushing Bragg northeast toward Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio in eastern Tennessee.
Confederate scouts finally spotted the Federal approach on the 20th, but Bragg still could not identify from which direction the Federals were approaching. Bragg called for reinforcements; he had just two army corps under Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and D.H. Hill. His third corps, under Lieutenant General William Hardee, had been sent to reinforce General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Mississippi.
The next morning, Colonel John T. Wilder led his Federal mounted infantry brigade and a section of guns up Stringer’s Ridge, across the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to the north. Wilder began firing on the town at 9 a.m., just as unsuspecting residents gathered in churches to observe President Jefferson Davis’s proclaimed day of fasting and prayer. The Federal guns sunk a steamboat on the unguarded south riverbank and disabled another. Other shells hit nearby Confederate fortifications.
Bragg, at a hospital in northern Georgia, hurried back to Chattanooga to find out what was happening. Reports indicated that Federal forces were along the Tennessee on either side of Chattanooga. Bragg could not determine from which direction the main Federal attack might come. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, whose Confederates held Knoxville, reported that Burnside was approaching that city in eastern Tennessee.
That night, Bragg notified Johnston that he needed reinforcements. Johnston agreed to send 9,000 men in two divisions immediately. Buckner initially planned to hold eastern Tennessee “to the last,” but by the 23rd he conceded to Bragg:
“Alone I can do little against him (Burnside). By co-operating with you we may effect something against Rosecrans before junction of their armies. I will endeavor to hold my troops in a position to do this, and if facts develop as I now believe I will constitute the right of your army.”
Neither Bragg nor Buckner knew that the cannon fire north of Chattanooga was part of an elaborate ruse to fool them into thinking that Rosecrans and Burnside would join forces and descend on Bragg from the north. The real threat would come from the southwest, as Rosecrans used Burnside to protect his northern flank.
Bragg moved to meet the false northern threat by shifting the Confederates at Bridgeport, Alabama, to the north. This left Bridgeport, the destination for Rosecrans’s real threat, undefended. Bragg also dispatched a division to reinforce Buckner while he awaited what he thought would be a major Federal attack from the north.
The Federals spent the next few days scouting the Confederate defenses and moving closer to Chattanooga. Confederate deserters alleged that D.H. Hill’s corps consisted of just one brigade occupying Chattanooga, two brigades holding Bridgeport, about 35 miles downriver to the southwest, and two divisions guarding the various river fords.
Another deserter reported that Polk’s corps was positioned “in the rear of Chattanooga and along the base of Lookout Mountains.” When asked why they opted to leave the Confederate army, the deserters said “because they became satisfied that Bragg was making preparations to retreat.” This indicated to Rosecrans that his ruse was working. Colonel Wilder reported from north of Chattanooga:
“We have made them believe that our force is at least 10,000 strong. They evidently believe we will try to cross the river in the vicinity of Harrison’s Landing. I think they will try to defend the line of the river above here, making Lookout Mountain their line on the left, being at the same time prepared to run if outflanked.”
However, Bragg would soon be reinforced by Johnston’s 9,000 men, making his army roughly the same size as Rosecrans’s, even though he still did not know Rosecrans’s grand plan. The deserters reported that there were two brigades at Bridgeport, but Bragg had already pulled them out to meet the northern threat. Had Bragg left them there, they might have discovered that Rosecrans’s primary drive would come from that direction.
Rosecrans’s army was now firmly in position north and southwest of Chattanooga. The two corps southwest near Bridgeport were poised to cross the Tennessee and launch their main attack. However, bridge crossings and nearby railroads needed to transport supplies had been destroyed. The Federals labored to repair these while trying to cope with the rugged, mountainous area.
Major General Jefferson C. Davis, commanding a division in Major General Alexander McCook’s XX Corps, secured a crossing at Caperton’s Ferry, about 15 miles upriver (i.e., below) Bridgeport. Major General Philip Sheridan, also heading a division under McCook, secured a “middle crossing” closer to Bridgeport, with Federals replacing the wrecked railroad trestle with a makeshift bridge made of nearby trees, barns, and houses.
Major General Joseph J. Reynolds, commanding a division in Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps, secured an “upper crossing” at Shellmound by making a pontoon bridge from nearby flatboats. The Federals began crossing on the 29th, headed by Davis’s men at Caperton’s Ferry. The crossing continued into September and included skirmishing with nearby Confederate pickets.
On the 31st, a Confederate sympathizer reported that a large Federal force was crossing the Tennessee southwest of Chattanooga at Carpenter’s Ferry, near Stevenson. Confederate cavalry reported that Federals were moving on Bragg’s left and rear, toward Dalton and Rome in Georgia, with Lookout Mountain screening them.
Bragg, unsure what to do, remained stationary and ordered Hill to continue scouting Federal movements, “keeping in view a concentration at the earliest moment at such point the enemy may cross.” Hill was to cover the area northeast of Chattanooga, where the Federals would not be. Bragg also asked Hill, “If you have any influence in Richmond, beg for arms.”
Johnston’s reinforcements, led by Major General William H.T. Walker, arrived and Bragg dispersed them along the defense line facing northeast, still unaware that the main threat was to the southwest. A civilian notified Bragg that two Federal corps had crossed the Tennessee at Caperton’s Ferry, but Bragg was reluctant to believe a random person’s story.
Major General Joseph Wheeler, commanding Bragg’s cavalry, then confirmed the civilian’s claim, reporting that “the enemy moved into the valley this evening with a very heavy force of cavalry.” The Federals still had not crossed in force by the end of August, so Bragg had a chance to catch them halfway across the river if he hurried. Bragg thought it over as the month ended.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18802; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 318; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 686; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 342, 344; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-34; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 400, 402