December 2, 1863 – General Braxton Bragg turned the Confederate Army of Tennessee over to Lieutenant General William Hardee, and President Jefferson Davis began looking for a permanent army commander.
On the last day of November, Bragg’s request to be removed from command had been granted. Bragg notified his superiors that he would relinquish command on December 2 at Dalton, Georgia. In the meantime, he submitted “a plain, unvarnished report of the operations at Chattanooga, resulting in my shameful discomfiture” via special messenger. The report included a personal letter to his friend, President Davis, who had supported him:
“The disaster admits of no palliation, and is justly disparaging to me as a commander. I trust, however, you may find upon full investigation that the fault is not entirely mine… I fear we both erred in the conclusion for me to retain command here after the clamor raised against me…”
Bragg charged that Major General John C. Breckinridge had been drunk throughout the three days of battle at Chattanooga and called him “totally unfit for any duty” during the withdrawal. Bragg alleged that Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham was “equally dangerous.” This further demonstrated that Bragg’s demise was at least partly due to his inability to accept responsibility for mistakes and to instead blame his subordinates.
In an emotional ceremony, Bragg passed command to Hardee on the 2nd. Although most of the officers and men in the army despised Bragg and celebrated his departure, he issued a farewell address to them: “The announcement of this separation is made with unfeigned regret. The associations of more than two years, which bind together a commander and his trusted troops, cannot be severed without deep emotion.”
Hardee, who had no desire for army command, only agreed to replace Bragg temporarily. He stated that while he appreciated “this expression of (Davis’s) confidence… feeling my inability to serve the country successfully in this new sphere of duty, I respectfully decline the command if designed to be permanent.” Hardee announced to his new army:
“The overwhelming numbers of the enemy forced us back from Missionary Ridge, but the army is still intact and in good heart… Only the weak and timid need to be cheered by constant success. Let the past take care of itself; we can and must secure the future.”
Before leaving, Bragg wrote a second letter to Davis, in which he still called himself “General, Commanding” at “Headquarters Army of Tennessee.” Bragg rhetorically asked, “What, then, shall be our policy?” He then boldly offered unsolicited military advice:
“The enemy has concentrated all his available means in front of this army, and by sheer force of numbers has triumphed over our gallant little band… Let us concentrate all our available men, unite them with this gallant little army, still full of zeal and burning to redeem its lost character and prestige, and with our greatest and best leader at the head, yourself, if practicable, march the whole upon the enemy and crush him in his power and glory…”
Bragg concluded, “I believe it practicable, and trust that I may be allowed to participate in the struggle which may restore the character, the prestige, and the country we have just lost.” Bragg then left the army and headed to Richmond to await further orders. Despite Bragg’s questionable record as military commander, Davis would soon find a new job for him in the administration.
Meanwhile, since Hardee made it clear that he would only lead the Army of Tennessee on an interim basis, Davis had to hurry to find a permanent commander. The list of generals to choose from was very short, even if he did not rule out those he personally disliked. The day after Hardee took over, Davis wrote General Robert E. Lee in northern Virginia. He explained the situation and asked, “Could you consistently go to Dalton, as heretofore explained?”
Davis had asked Lee to head the Army of Tennessee in September, and Lee demurred. Now Lee did so again, not wanting to leave his Army of Northern Virginia. He answered, “I can if desired, but of the expediency of the measure you can judge better than I can. Unless it is intended that I should take permanent command, I can see no good that will result, even if in that event any could be accomplished. I also fear that I would not receive cordial co-operation.”
Lee explained that if he left, he would have to turn his army over to Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, who was “too feeble to undergo the fatigue and labor incident to the position.” Lee then warned Davis that the Federals sought to invade Georgia “and get possession of our depots of provisions and important manufactories.” He proposed giving General P.G.T. Beauregard (currently heading the Charleston defenses) command of the army and reinforcing it with troops from Mississippi, Mobile, and Charleston. Lee added:
“I think that every effort should be made to concentrate as large a force as possible, under the best commander, to insure the discomfiture of (Ulysses S.) Grant’s army. To do this and gain the great advantage that would accrue from it, the safety of points practically less important than those endangered by his army must be hazarded. Upon the defence of the country threatened by General Grant depends the safety of the points now held by us on the Atlantic, and they are in as great danger from his successful advance as by the attacks to which they are at present directly subjected.”
However, Davis loathed Beauregard and would not consider giving him command of the Army of Tennessee. Davis also would not consider the highest-ranking general in the Confederacy, Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, because he had performed administrative duties throughout the war and was too old for field command. This left just one viable option, and to Davis’s dismay, it was someone who had been hostile toward him almost since the war began.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 349-50; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 868-69, 878; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 380; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6544-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-43