September 25, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln wrote an irate message to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside after Burnside’s repeated refusals to reinforce Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland under siege in Chattanooga.
As the Battle of Chickamauga raged, the Lincoln administration continued pleading with Burnside to send some or all of his troops southwest to reinforce Rosecrans. Burnside had traded messages with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, but Lincoln got involved the day after Rosecrans’s defeat. The president wrote Burnside, “Go to Rosecrans with your force without a moment’s delay.”
Halleck sent a message of his own, telling Burnside that if General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee kept Rosecrans pinned in Chattanooga, he could “throw a force immediately into East Tennessee” to prevent a junction of the two Federal armies. Halleck wrote, “General Rosecrans will require all the assistance you can give him to hold Chattanooga.”
Burnside replied by explaining that he could not send any men because they were too busy clearing Confederate guerrillas out of eastern Tennessee. He added, “When you remember the size of our forces, the amount of work which it has had to do, and the length of line occupied, you will not be surprised that I have not helped General Rosecrans.”
Burnside then wrote, “I sincerely hope that he (Rosecrans) will be able to at least check the enemy for seven or eight days, within which time I shall be able to make considerable diversion in his favor.” This did not satisfy the administration, especially considering that Rosecrans had just informed them that without reinforcements, he would have to abandon Chattanooga. Halleck wrote Burnside the next day:
“I must again urge you to move immediately to Rosecrans’ relief. I fear your delay has already permitted Bragg to prevent your junction… If the enemy should cross the Tennessee above Chattanooga, you will be hopelessly separated from Rosecrans, who may not be able to hold out on the south side.”
Burnside sent another dispassionate response on the 23rd, assuring his superiors that “every available man shall be concentrated at the point you direct, and with as little delay as possible,” but offering no specifics. Lincoln finally ran out of patience, and two days later he wrote a scathing reply:
“Yours of the 23rd. is just received, and it makes me doubt whether I am awake or dreaming. I have been struggling for 10 days, first through Gen. Halleck, and then directly, to get you to go to assist Gen. Rosecrans in an extremity, and you have repeatedly declared you would do it, and yet you steadily move the contrary way.”
Lincoln could not understand why Burnside was “still saying you will assist him, but giving no account of any progress made towards assisting him.” Composing himself, Lincoln put the letter in an envelope marked “Not sent” and set it aside. Burnside wrote again on the 27th, trying to justify his actions (or lack thereof): “You in your telegraph speak of my delay. I have made no delay. I was ordered to move into East Tennessee, making this the objective point.”
Burnside argued that moving toward Chattanooga would enable Confederates to reoccupy eastern Tennessee. He also implied that his superiors knew nothing of the harsh terrain in the region and therefore had no understanding of “the difficulties under which we have been laboring.” This time Lincoln sent his response:
“My order to you meant simply that you should save Rosecrans from being crushed out, believing if he lost his position you could not hold East Tennessee in any event; and that if he held his position, East Tennessee was substantially safe in any event.”
He then sent a second message: “Hold your present positions, and send Rosecrans what you can spare in the quickest and safest way.” Lincoln reiterated, “East Tennessee can be no more than temporarily lost so long as Chattanooga is firmly held.” Halleck then sent a harsher missive to Burnside:
“Telegram after telegram has been sent to you to go to his assistance with all your available force. These orders are very plain, and you cannot mistake their purport. It only remains for you to execute them. General Rosecrans is holding Chattanooga and waiting for re-enforcements from you.”
Burnside still made no noticeable effort to leave eastern Tennessee. His reluctance was emboldened near month’s end, when 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen led by Brigadier General John S. Williams occupied Jonesborough. They had been ordered by Major General Samuel Jones, the Confederate district commander, to move southwest from Blountsville to screen a large troop movement intended to drive Burnside out of eastern Tennessee.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 329; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 353-55; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 414-15; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 68