September 23, 1863 – Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland continued building defenses in Chattanooga while General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee began laying siege.
Rosecrans, having recently suffered his most serious defeat at Chickamauga, pulled his Federals into Chattanooga. In so doing, he gave up the strong high ground atop Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge overlooking the city. Bragg’s Confederates promptly took those positions, pointing cannon down on the Federals below and posting sharpshooters along the Tennessee River to cut off the supply lines and keep the enemy trapped within the city.
The only remaining supply depot for the Federals was at Bridgeport, Alabama, 27 miles downriver from Chattanooga. Supplies had to be transported overland from Bridgeport through the mountains on a trip that took between eight and 20 days. Rosecrans soon put his men on half-rations. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, observing the Federal army on behalf of the War Department, warned Washington that the troops could not survive past two weeks.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding a corps in Bragg’s army, urged Bragg to detach part of his force to confront Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, about 100 miles northeast. This would not only prevent Burnside from reinforcing Rosecrans, but it could also result in the Confederates regaining eastern Tennessee.
Longstreet then proposed that Bragg’s remaining force cross the Tennessee River, flank Rosecrans, and force his surrender. To Longstreet’s dismay, Bragg instead decided to use his whole army to besiege the Federals. This would take time, which was exactly what the Federal high command needed to rescue Rosecrans’s army.
Rosecrans telegraphed his superiors on the 23rd, “We hold this point, and cannot be dislodged except by very superior numbers.” He asked for “all reinforcements you can send hurried up.” President Abraham Lincoln had urged Burnside to reinforce Rosecrans, but Burnside seemed unable to move any time soon.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck asked Major General Ulysses S. Grant to send part of his Army of the Tennessee under Major General William T. Sherman to Chattanooga, but that would take time because Sherman’s men needed to repair the damaged Memphis & Charleston Railroad as they went so they could supply themselves along the way. The only other viable source for reinforcement came from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
Meade attended a meeting at Washington with Lincoln, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Halleck. Meade, expecting to be admonished for not confronting General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fast enough, told his superiors that if they were not satisfied with him, they could accept his resignation. Halleck replied that he had no doubt Meade would rejoice at being removed, but he would have no such luck.
Lincoln explained that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether part of Meade’s army could be detached to rescue Rosecrans’s army trapped in Chattanooga. Stanton suggested transferring 30,000 troops. Meade listed several reasons why he objected to such a plan, including the fact that he needed all available men for an offensive he planned to launch soon. The meeting ended at 1 p.m., with Lincoln and Halleck rejecting Stanton’s idea and Meade returning to his headquarters.
Later that night, Stanton summoned Lincoln, Halleck, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and other War Department officials to another meeting that eventually ran into the next morning. After consulting with railroad officials, Stanton unveiled a detailed plan to pull troops from Meade’s army and send them to Chattanooga via the commandeered railroad system.
Lincoln and Halleck opposed the plan because it would leave Meade unable to confront Lee in northern Virginia, and Rosecrans would be starved into surrender before the troops could rescue him. Stanton argued, “There is no reason to expect General Meade will attack Lee, although greatly superior in force, and his great numbers where they are are useless. In five days 30,000 could be put with Rosecrans.”
Seward sided with Stanton, who brought in Colonel D.C. McCallum, director of the Department of Military Railroads. McCallum confirmed Stanton’s remarkable claim that the troops could be transported to Chattanooga within five days. The troops would have to travel 1,233 railroad miles during that time, something that had never been tried in history. Lincoln, fearing yet another military disaster, said, “I will bet that if the order is given tonight, the troops could not be got to Washington in five days.”
But McCallum swore on his life that his calculations were correct. Lincoln finally approved the plan, but he would not agree to send 30,000 men as Stanton wanted. Instead, Stanton would transfer Meade’s two smallest corps–XI and XII–which totaled closer to 23,000 men.
Stanton, having gambled that Lincoln would approve, already summoned the presidents of three railroads to “come to Washington as quickly as you can” to work out the travel schedule. They met at noon to discuss how to handle the four railroad changes along the way. Stanton issued several orders assembling dozens of trains for the transfer.
Major General Joseph Hooker, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, was recalled to active duty and placed in command of XI and XII corps. Hooker was given authority to commandeer all the railroads and equipment he needed for the transfer.
Halleck telegraphed Meade, “Please answer if you have positively determined to make any immediate movement. If not, prepare the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps to be sent to Washington, as soon as cars can be sent to you. The troops should have five days’ cooked provisions. Cars will probably be there by the morning of the 25th.”
Meade, who had left Washington thinking that Lincoln and Halleck rejected detaching troops from his army, asked for confirmation after receiving this message. Halleck replied by ordering that “Eleventh and Twelfth Corps be immediately prepared to be sent to Washington, as conditionally ordered before.”
Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps was stationed on Meade’s front line, in view of the Confederate army. Meade directed Major General John Newton’s I Corps to replace Slocum’s troops. Meade told Newton, “It is important that this should be done with the utmost dispatch, and that the movement and relief of the Twelfth Corps should be effected without the knowledge of the enemy so far as it is practicable to accomplish it.”
As Newton’s Federals moved, they intercepted a Confederate message stating, “Camps on Culpeper and Stevensburg Road, to the right of Pony Mountain, have disappeared within the last two hours. Infantry can be seen moving toward Stevensburg. A few wagons also moving in that direction.” However, the Confederates did not know the reason for the movement. Most of Slocum’s men reached Brandy Station by 5 p.m., with most of Newton’s men taking their place at the front.
Hooker issued orders leaving the command structures of XI and XII corps intact. He also directed the troops to move with five days’ cooked rations, and he instructed, “Have the baggage reduced (to) minimum limit, leave with 200 rounds of ammunition for the artillery and 40 for the infantry… Officers must reduce their horses to the smallest limit.”
Slocum had been one of Hooker’s harshest critics after the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville. When he learned that Hooker would be his superior for this operation, he immediately protested to Lincoln. Explaining that he had vowed never to serve under Hooker again, Slocum wrote:
“My opinion of General Hooker both as an officer and a gentleman is too well known to make it necessary for me to refer to it in this communication. The public service cannot be promoted by placing under his command an officer who has so little confidence in his ability as I have. Our relations are such that it would be degrading in me to accept any position under him. I have therefore to respectfully tender the resignation of my commission as Major-General of Volunteers.”
Unwilling to accept the resignation of such a valuable officer, Lincoln pledged to keep Hooker at a respectable distance from Slocum while everybody scrambled to hurry the reinforcements to Chattanooga in record time.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 329; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9716; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 760, 763-65, 782; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 353-54; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 557-59; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79, 101-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 413-14; 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. 675; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 137-38