September 9, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland captured the important city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, without firing a shot.
Two weeks after finally moving out of Tullahoma, Rosecrans’s Federals were within striking distance of Chattanooga, one of the most prized railroad hubs in the Western Theater. The city was defended by General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Rosecrans assigned XXI Corps under Major General Thomas L. Crittenden to feint against Bragg’s right northeast of the city, while Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps and Major General Alexander McCook’s XX Corps crossed the Tennessee to threaten Chattanooga from the southwest.
As September began, the bulk of Rosecrans’s army continued crossing the Tennessee southwest of Chattanooga at Bridgeport, Alabama, and Shellmound, Tennessee, virtually unopposed. The Federals completed their crossing on the 4th. By this time, Crittenden had completed his feint and, leaving a token force to observe the Confederates, moved his remaining corps southwest to cross the river with the rest of the army.
By this time, Bragg had figured out Rosecrans’s plan, but he did not know that only a small force remained to the north. Bragg feared that if he attacked the Federals to the southwest, those to the north would attack his right and rear. He positioned Major General D.H. Hill’s corps to face north while sending Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to reconnoiter the southwest. Bragg also dispatched Major General William H.T. Walker’s divisions (on loan from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Mississippi) to guard the supply lines at Rome, Georgia.
Bragg wrote Hill on the 4th, “There is no doubt of the enemy’s position now. Wheeler is gone to develop them, and Walker goes to railroad to Rome to head them off from our communications. If you can cross the river, now is our time to crush the corps opposite. What say you? The crushing of this corps would give us a great victory and redeem Tennessee.”
This plan might have worked brilliantly, considering that just a small Federal force, not a corps, remained to the north. But Bragg, who had been outmaneuvered by Rosecrans so many times in the past, began having doubts. He wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“With our present dispositions we are prepared to meet the enemy at any point he may assail, either with a portion or with the whole of his forces, and should he present us an opportunity we shall not fail to strike him. My position is to some extent embarrassing in regard to offensive movements. In a country so utterly destitute we cannot for a moment abandon our line of communications, and unable to detach a sufficient force to guard it, we must necessarily maneuver between the enemy and our supplies. The approach of his right (southwest) column is directly on our left flank and seriously threatens our railroad. No effort will be spared to bring him to an engagement whenever the chances shall favor us.”
Davis urgently asked the next day, “What is your proposed plan of operation? Can you ascertain intention of enemy?… can you not cut his line of communication and compel him to retreat for want of supplies?” Bragg had no answers.
Meanwhile, Rosecrans’s Federals moved east, scaling Sand Mountain and then Lookout Mountain below Chattanooga. Skirmishing intensified as the Federals moved closer to Bragg’s army. Before Bragg could attack the Federals to his north, he received word that the Federals southwest of him now threatened his rear and communications. Rosecrans had outmaneuvered Bragg again, just as at Tullahoma.
Late on the 7th, Bragg began moving his army out of Chattanooga to prevent being trapped by Federals and the surrounding rivers and mountains. Like Tullahoma in July, Rosecrans had outmaneuvered Bragg. Thus, the Army of Tennessee abandoned Chattanooga, the great Confederate prize of the West, without firing a shot. The Confederates withdrew into northern Georgia.
Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederates, who were withdrawing from Knoxville, joined forces with Bragg on the 8th, as he was withdrawing his army from Chattanooga. Skirmishing occurred in northwestern Georgia at Winston’s Gap and Alpine. Later that day, as Rosecrans positioned his men to defend against an expected Confederate attack, he received word that Bragg was pulling out. He wrote Halleck, “The enemy has decided not to fight at Chattanooga.”
A brigade of XXI Corps entered Chattanooga without resistance on the morning of the 9th. Rosecrans selected an Illinois regiment of mounted infantry to raise the U.S. flag over the city, and he wired Halleck that morning, “Chattanooga is ours without a struggle and East Tennessee is free. Our move on the enemy’s flank and rear progresses, while the tail of his retreating column will not escape unmolested.”
This was a major Federal victory, as Chattanooga was the gateway to the southern heartland, controlling the railroads from Tennessee to Virginia to the Carolinas and into the Deep South. Lincoln had called capturing Chattanooga “fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.” Rosecrans had conducted a brilliant campaign of maneuver. Since June 24, he had sustained hardly any casualties while clearing Confederates out of Middle Tennessee and capturing Tullahoma in July, and now Chattanooga.
Without waiting to set up a supply base, Rosecrans ordered the rest of XXI Corps, along with XIV and XX corps, to immediately pursue Bragg’s forces. His army was spread out over 40 miles, and some of his subordinates expressed concern that Bragg could easily ambush them in this mountainous, hostile territory. Rosecrans discounted such a risk due to the influx of Confederate deserters claiming that the men were demoralized and Bragg was in full retreat. However, Bragg had planted these men to deceive the Federals.
The Confederates fell back through Rossville Gap, where they could hide from the Federals behind Missionary Ridge. They halted at La Fayette, across Pigeon Mountain from McLemore’s Cove, nearly 30 miles from Chattanooga. Bragg reorganized the army into four corps under Major Generals Leonidas Polk, William Hardee, Buckner, and Walker, with each corps having two divisions.
Confederate scouts reported that the Federal army was spread out. They also observed Thomas’s lead Federal division under General James Negley crossing Lookout Mountain and moving through Stevens’s and Cooper’s gaps into McLemore’s Cove without support. Bragg planned to trap him there the next day, and then turn on the other elements of Rosecrans’s army in detail.
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