September 21, 1863 – The Federal Army of the Cumberland retreated into Chattanooga after its disastrous defeat at Chickamauga, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee cautiously pursued.
By the morning of the 21st, five Federal divisions under Major General George H. Thomas had fallen back to defensive positions at Rossville Gap, while the rest of Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal army withdrew into Chattanooga. Thomas held this line all day, awaiting another Confederate attack.
President Abraham Lincoln, who had received a message describing the defeat late the night before, woke John Hay, his private secretary, early this morning and said, “Well, Rosecrans has been whipped, as I feared. I have feared it for several days. I believe I feel trouble in the air before it comes.” The president grieved not only the defeat but the death of his brother-in-law, Confederate Brigadier General Ben Hardin Helm, who commanded the division that included the “Orphan Brigade.”
Rosecrans sent a disheartening message that morning: “Our loss is heavy and our troops worn down… We have no certainty of holding our position here.” Lincoln ordered Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to lead his Army of the Ohio out of Knoxville to reinforce the Federals at Chattanooga. He then wrote Rosecrans, “Be of good cheer. We have unabated confidence in you, and in your soldiers and officers… save your army by taking strong positions until Burnside joins you, when, I hope, you can turn the tide.”
General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, spent most of the day dispatching scouts to pinpoint the Federals’ location. After determining that two major forces were at Rossville and Chattanooga, Lieutenant General James Longstreet suggested that the Confederates should either move northeast to prevent Burnside from reaching Rosecrans, or attack Rosecrans while he was still demoralized.
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry ascended Missionary Ridge and observed the Federals below. Forrest was convinced that they were disorganized and vulnerable. He wrote Bragg urging him to quickly send the infantry to finish Rosecrans off, as “Every hour is worth a thousand men.” When Bragg did not respond, Forrest rode to his headquarters to plead his case.
Bragg refused to renew the attack because he had lost 30 percent of his men, including 10 generals. Half his artillery horses were dead, and a forward movement would pull the army too far from the railroad, which was needed to resupply his army. Forrest said, “General Bragg, we can get all the supplies our army needs in Chattanooga.” But Bragg still refused. The Confederate army was almost just as demoralized in victory as the Federal army was in defeat. Forrest stormed off, asking, “What does he fight battles for?”
Around 9 p.m., Thomas addressed a potential threat to his flanks by pulling his forces back into Chattanooga to join the rest of Rosecrans’s army. Lincoln wrote Rosecrans asking him to “relieve my anxiety as to the position and condition of your army.” Rosecrans answered the next morning: “We have fought a most sanguinary battle against vastly superior numbers. Longstreet is here, and probably (Richard) Ewell (from Virginia), and a force is coming from Charleston.” He was right about Longstreet, but rumors about Ewell and troops from Charleston were false.
Rosecrans asserted that while his army had suffered great losses, his men “have inflicted equal injury upon the enemy. The mass of this army is intact and in good spirits. Disaster not as great as I anticipated… Our position is a strong one. Think we can hold out several days, and if re-enforcements come up soon everything will come out right.” He also stated, “We are about 30,000 brave and determined men, but our fate is in the hands of God, in whom I hope.”
Lincoln began realizing that Rosecrans’s situation was not as hopeless as initially feared. He told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “If he can only maintain his position, without (doing anything) more, the rebellion can only eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals.”
That day, Major General Ulysses S. Grant received Halleck’s message from the 15th ordering him to send some of Major General William T. Sherman’s men to Chattanooga, adding, “Urge Sherman to act with all possible promptness.” Grant wrote Sherman at Vicksburg, “Please order at once one division of your army corps to proceed to re-enforce Rosecrans, moving from here by brigades as fast as transportation can be had.” Grant added another division along with one from Major General James B. McPherson, and placed all three under Sherman’s direct command.
Bragg decided that rather than directly attacking Rosecrans’s Federals, he would put them under siege. He began arranging for his men to occupy Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, where they could control the flow of supplies into the city and starve the Federals into surrender. Rosecrans risked destruction if he tried pulling his army out of Chattanooga, so he directed his men to build defenses and waited for reinforcements to help him fight his way out.
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