October 2, 1863 – Reinforcements from the Federal Army of the Potomac arrived at Bridgeport, Alabama, after being hurried from northern Virginia to support the Army of the Cumberland besieged in Chattanooga.
As the month began, Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland sat trapped in Chattanooga with their supplies running out. The Confederate Army of Tennessee, led by General Braxton Bragg, held positions on the mountains and hills overlooking Chattanooga, and since Bragg did not believe he had the strength to attack the Federals directly, he decided to besiege them instead.
Meanwhile, Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps and Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac were hurrying to reinforce Rosecrans. Their overall commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, arrived at Nashville on the 1st. By that day, his entire XI Corps and part of his XII Corps had moved through Nashville toward Chattanooga.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, received enough information to finally conclude that XI and XII corps were gone. He wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I consider it certain that two corps have been withdrawn from General (George G.) Meade’s army to re-enforce General Rosecrans.” Lee stated that a scout “saw General Howard take the cars at Catlett’s Station, where his headquarters had been established, and saw other troops marching toward Manassas, which he believes to have been the Twelfth Corps.”
Lee then advised Davis: “Everything that can be done to strengthen Bragg ought now to be done, and if he cannot draw Rosecrans out in any other way, it might be accomplished by operating against his re-enforcements on the line of travel.” Bragg had the upper hand at Chattanooga, but these reinforcements would help even the odds. And more Federals could potentially join Rosecrans from Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio in eastern Tennessee and Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals heading east from Mississippi.
By the 2nd, all of XI and XII corps had arrived at Bridgeport, southwest of Chattanooga. The force consisted of nearly 20,000 men, 3,000 horses, 60 guns in 10 batteries, and 100 railcars filled with ammunition, equipment, provisions, and other necessities. The 1,159-mile railroad trip took just seven days, making it the fastest troop transfer in history up to that time. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed Thomas A. Scott, managing the railroad at Louisville, “Your work is most brilliant. A thousand thanks. It is a great achievement.”
However, getting these troops to Rosecrans remained a problem. The Confederates controlled not only all the roads south of the Tennessee River, but the road linking Bridgeport to Chattanooga north of the river as well. The only viable route to the city was a convoluted path over Walden’s Ridge and through the Sequatchie Valley.
But President Abraham Lincoln remained optimistic nonetheless; he wrote Rosecrans on the 4th, “If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the rebellion must dwindle and die. I think you and Burnside can do this…” Lincoln proposed that Rosecrans attack Bragg. Soon, the reinforcements were augmented by the arrival of elements of Sherman’s Federals from the west.
Meanwhile, despite its tremendous victory at Chickamauga and its siege of Chattanooga, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was in vast disarray. Bragg had relieved Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk and Major General Thomas C. Hindman of their commands for allegedly disobeying orders, and Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest had left the army after threatening Bragg’s life.
Bragg had sent Polk to Atlanta to await formal charges of disobedience and dereliction of duty. When Davis learned of this, he recommended that Bragg (his personal friend) drop the charges against Polk (his other personal friend). As Davis explained, “It was with a view of avoiding a controversy, which could not heal the injury sustained and which I feared would entail further evil.”
Pressing charges would mean a court-martial, “with all the crimination and recrimination there to be produced… I fervently pray that you may judge correctly, as I am well assured you will act purely for the public welfare.” Noting the hostility of Bragg’s subordinates toward their commander, Davis stated, “The opposition to you both in the army and out of it has been a public calamity in so far that it impairs your capacity for usefulness…”
Davis dispatched Colonel James Chesnut to meet with Polk at Atlanta and assess the army’s condition. Chesnut discussed the situation with Polk and then met with Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who told him about the army’s “distressed condition, and urged upon him to go on to Richmond with all speed and to urge upon the President relief for us.”
Nearly every high-ranking officer in Bragg’s army–12 corps, divisional, and brigade commanders–signed a formal petition asking Davis to remove Bragg from command. The petition acknowledged “that the proceeding is unusual among military men,” but “the extraordinary condition of affairs in this army, the magnitude of the interests at stake, and a sense of the responsibilities under which they rest to Your Excellency and to the Republic, render this proceeding, in their judgment, a matter of solemn duty, from which, as patriots, they cannot shrink.” The appeal read:
“Two weeks ago this army, elated by a great victory, was in readiness to pursue its defeated enemy. Whatever may have been accomplished heretofore, it is certain that the fruits of victory of the Chickamauga have now escaped our grasp. The Army of Tennessee, stricken with a complete paralysis, will in a few days’ time be thrown strictly on the defensive, and may deem itself fortunate if it escapes from its present position without disaster.”
The commanders argued that Chattanooga must be taken back, but if Bragg was not removed, “this campaign is virtually closed.” The incoming Federal reinforcements “must be met as nearly as possible by corresponding re-enforcements to this army,” but even “the ablest general could not be expected to grapple successfully with the accumulating difficulties of the situation.”
They pleaded, “In addition to reinforcements, your petitioners would deem it a dereliction of the sacred duty they owe the country if they did not further ask that Your Excellency assign to the command of this army an officer who will inspire the army and the country with undivided confidence…”
The officers diplomatically refrained from listing all their criticisms of Bragg, instead simply stating that “the condition of his health totally unfits him for the command of an army in the field.” When the petition reached Chesnut on the 5th, he forwarded it to Davis and urged him to come address these issues in person as soon as possible.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 330-31; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 765-66, 814-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 356-57; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79, 84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 416-18; 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