Confederate Dissension at Chattanooga

September 30, 1863 – Tensions reached a boiling point among the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanders. This led to a command change, a call for Richmond to help, and even a death threat.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

Although the Confederates held strong positions as they besieged the trapped Federal Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, dissension spread through the ranks like a disease. General Braxton Bragg, commanding the army, had blamed many of his subordinates for bungling orders before and during the Battle of Chickamauga, and his subordinates in turn blamed him for making poor decisions after the battle.

Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk, D.H. Hill, and Simon B. Buckner secretly met with James Longstreet and urged him, as senior commander, to inform Richmond about Bragg’s “palpable weakness and mismanagement manifested in the conduct of the military operations of this army.” Longstreet obliged by notifying Secretary of War James A. Seddon:

“Our chief has done but one thing that he ought to have done since I joined this army. That was to order the attack upon the 20th. All other things he has done he ought not to have done. I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander.”

Longstreet recommended sending General Robert E. Lee from Virginia to replace Bragg. However, the Confederate high command opted to keep Lee in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia for now. Despite all the dissent, Bragg’s siege of Chattanooga was succeeding, with Major General William S. Rosecrans in desperate need of supplies and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federals timidly remaining at Knoxville.

Besides laying siege to Chattanooga, Bragg sent Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry on a raid into eastern Tennessee. Bragg also ordered Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to raid Federal communication lines in the Sequatchie Valley. Wheeler, who had a depleted cavalry force with little raiding experience, nevertheless took on the mission, telling subordinates, “I have my orders, gentlemen, and I will attempt the work.”

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Forrest received a message from one of Bragg’s assistant adjutants upon returning from a scouting mission across the Hiwassee River: “The general commanding desires that you will without delay turn over the troops of your command, previously ordered, to Major-General Wheeler.”

The message did not explain that Bragg wanted Forrest to provide more troopers for Wheeler’s upcoming raid. Forrest, who was already outraged by Bragg’s failure to follow up his victory at Chickamauga with one more assault that could have destroyed the Federal army, refused to serve under Wheeler. Forrest also remembered Bragg’s lack of respect for his abilities, having called Forrest “ignorant” and “nothing more than a good raider.”

Forrest wrote a response in which he called Bragg a two-faced liar and promised to confront him at his headquarters as soon as possible. A few days later, Forrest stormed into Bragg’s Missionary Ridge headquarters in a rage. Bragg tried shaking hands with him, but Forrest refused, saying:

“I am not here to pass civilities or compliments with you, but on other business. You commenced your cowardly and contemptible persecution of me soon after the battle of Shiloh, and you have kept it up ever since. You did it because I reported to Richmond facts, while you reported damned lies. You robbed me of my command in Kentucky and gave it to one of your favorites–men that I armed and equipped from the enemies of our country.

“In a spirit of revenge and spite, because I would not fawn upon you as others did, you drove me into West Tennessee in the winter of 1862, with a second brigade I had organized, with improper arms and without sufficient ammunition, although I had made repeated applications for the same. You did it to ruin me and my career.

“When, in spite of all this, I returned with my command, well equipped by captures, you began again your work of spite and persecution, and have kept it up; and now this second brigade, organized and equipped without thanks to you or the government, a brigade which has won a reputation for successful fighting second to none in the army, taking advantage of your position as the commanding general in order to further humiliate me, you have taken these brave men from me.

“I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damn scoundrel, and are a coward; and if you were any part of a man, I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them, and I will hold you personally responsible for any further indignities you endeavor to inflict upon me. You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”

This ended Forrest’s association with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, but Bragg’s order to transfer Forrest’s men to Wheeler stood regardless. On the 30th, Wheeler led 4,000 troopers and eight guns on a raid of the Federals’ vulnerable communications and supply lines that lasted into October.

Bragg’s relationships with Polk and Major General Thomas C. Hindman had also become strained. Bragg was outraged that Polk did not attack as ordered on the second day at Chickamauga. He demanded an explanation, and when Polk did not immediately respond, Bragg sent another demand. Bragg also blamed Hindman for failing to attack the isolated Federals at McLemore’s Cove a week before the battle.

When Bragg tried suspending both commanders, his superiors at Richmond told him that he only had the authority to arrest them, and only if he could “show cause by preferring charges as prescribed.” Bragg responded by officially charging Polk with disobedience and dereliction of duty; he also called Polk’s reluctance to explain his actions of the 20th “unsatisfactory.”

Bragg began rounding up officers to back his charges as he sent Polk to Atlanta to await further orders. The dissension within the army would only worsen as the siege continued, prompting President Jefferson Davis to consider going to Chattanooga to resolve the matter himself.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 330; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 761-62, 765-67, 812; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 355; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 415-16; 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. 676; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 819

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