September 12, 1863 – Confederate reinforcements began heading to the Army of Tennessee, while General Braxton Bragg missed two prime opportunities to defeat the Federal Army of the Cumberland outside Chattanooga.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, directed his quartermaster to prepare for the transfer of two veteran divisions under Lieutenant General James Longstreet–those of Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws–to reinforce Bragg’s army in northwestern Georgia. These 12,000 men began boarding trains on the 8th, the day before the fall of Chattanooga.
The boarding continued into the 9th, when the New York Herald published an article revealing the secret plan to reinforce Bragg with Longstreet’s men. With most of the men already on their way, the operation continued despite it no longer being a secret. Lee told Longstreet before he left, “General, you must beat those people out there.” Longstreet replied that the Federals “shall be beaten if I live.”
Due to the recent fall of Knoxville, Longstreet’s Confederates had to travel 900 miles, through the Carolinas and up through Atlanta on as many as 10 different railroad lines, to get to the Army of Tennessee, which was just 550 miles away. The journey would take over a week.
Meanwhile, Major General William S. Rosecrans directed his Federal Army of the Cumberland to advance into northwestern Georgia and hunt down Bragg’s supposedly demoralized army. The Federals were spread out among the mountains and rugged terrain around Chattanooga:
- Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps comprised the army’s left flank, which was anchored at Chattanooga
- Major General Alexander McCook’s XX Corps comprised the army’s right flank, which was isolated several miles south around Alpine, Georgia, near the Alabama state line
- Major General George H. Thomas’s XIV Corps held the center, which was also isolated as it moved east through Stevens’s Gap in Lookout Mountain
- Thomas’s lead division under Major General James S. Negley was far ahead of the rest of the corps, moving east through McLemore’s Cove and heading for Dug Gap in Pigeon Mountain
The two wings of Rosecrans’s army were separated by 45 miles, with Thomas halfway between them.
Bragg hoped to take advantage of Rosecrans’s sprawl by destroying Negley’s division and then attacking XIV Corps before it could be reinforced. He assigned two divisions–Major General Patrick Cleburne’s under Lieutenant General D.H. Hill and Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s under Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk–to the mission. Cleburne was to attack the Federal front as it reached Dug Gap, and Hindman was to move southwest, assault Negley’s flank at Davis’s Crossroads in McLemore’s Cove, and cut him off from the rest of Thomas’s corps.
Hindman received the orders on the night of the 9th and put his men in motion. Cleburne was sick, and when the orders finally reached Hill early on the 10th, he gave several reasons why he could not comply. Bragg ordered Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner (recently arrived after abandoning Knoxville) to advance instead of Hill, but when Buckner met with Hindman, they both agreed not to attack because they incorrectly believed that Negley was creating a diversion for an attack on La Fayette, farther east.
Bragg sent another order for Hindman to attack, but it arrived too late for Hindman to act on the 10th, so he planned to comply the next day. Early on the 11th, scouts reported to Bragg that rumors of a Federal attack on La Fayette were unfounded because McCook and Thomas were still too far apart from each other. Bragg then reiterated his orders for Hindman to attack, once again supported by Cleburne rather than Buckner.
By the time that Hindman cautiously advanced, another Federal division had come up to support Negley. As skirmishing broke out, the Federals fell back past Davis’s Crossroads, over Chickamauga Creek, and through Stevens’s Gap, their only escape route. There they formed a defensive line. Thomas reported, “All information goes to confirm that a large part of Bragg’s army is opposed to Negley.”
Early on the 12th, Thomas informed Rosecrans that he would bring the rest of his corps up to support the new defense line. Guessing that most of Bragg’s army was around La Fayette, east of Stevens’s Gap, Thomas stated, “If a force could be thrown in from Chattanooga in his rear, it would be difficult for him to escape.” Rosecrans, confident the Confederates were withdrawing from La Fayette toward Rome, replied:
“Your dispatches of 10:30 last night and again of 4 this morning have been received. After maturely weighing the notes, the general commanding is induced to think that General Negley withdrew more through prudence than compulsion. He trusts that our loss is not serious.”
Rosecrans did not seem to understand that his army was in potential danger. Thomas confided in his staff, “Nothing but stupendous blunders on the part of Bragg can save our army from total defeat. I have ordered Negley to fall back from McLemore’s Cove, and I believe we may be able to save this corps. But Bragg is also in position to strike McCook and Crittenden before they have a chance to extricate themselves.”
Major General Philip Sheridan, commanding a division in McCook’s isolated corps at Alpine, told a fellow officer, “This is all wrong. We have no business here, we ought to be in Chattanooga.” Crittenden’s corps advanced south from Chattanooga and occupied Lee and Gordon’s Mill, with Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s division ahead of the rest of the corps near Ringgold.
Bragg’s opportunity to destroy Negley was lost, but now he saw a new opportunity with Wood just 15 miles from his La Fayette headquarters. Bragg ordered Polk to attack, but Polk’s Confederates got lost along the way, giving Crittenden enough time to bring the rest of his corps up to within supporting distance of Wood.
Polk then decided that he was outnumbered, even though Crittenden had just three divisions to his four. This second missed opportunity infuriated Bragg; his corps commanders were likewise enraged by Bragg issuing orders that were “impossible” to carry out.
On the Federal side, Crittenden had pulled his corps together not because he feared an attack, but because he was poised to join the rest of the army in pursuing what many believed to be a demoralized army in retreat. Crittenden wrote Brigadier General James A. Garfield, Rosecrans’s chief of staff, “It has always been the plan of the enemy to make stubborn defenses on a retreat. I do not yet believe that there is a strong force of infantry in the vicinity of La Fayette.”
However, Rosecrans finally began realizing that his army was dangerously separated in enemy country. He warned Crittenden that “there is far more probability of his attacking you than that he is running.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18820; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 324; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 708; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 348-49; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6381; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 406-07; 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. 671; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 137-38