Major General Edmund Kirby Smith commanded the Confederate Army of East Tennessee, which consisted of some 9,000 officers and men. Smith had arguably the most difficult assignment of all Confederate commanders, which was to protect the vital railroads of an unforgivingly mountainous region against Federal threats in the face of an overwhelmingly Unionist populace.
Smith’s best troops were stationed north of Knoxville under Brigadier General Carter L. Stevenson to face Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s 10,000 Federals at Cumberland Gap. Smith kept his remaining force, mostly raw recruits, at Chattanooga to face the 31,000-man Army of the Ohio approaching from northern Alabama. The line that Smith had to defend between Cumberland Gap and Chattanooga stretched roughly 180 miles.
Smith repeatedly asked Richmond to send more men, and he finally got 6,000 reinforcements in early July. Despite this, Smith reported on the 2nd that a Federal “attack may be daily looked for.” He asked General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi at Tupelo, for more men once again. Bragg, under no orders to do so, finally complied by sending him 3,000 troops under Major General John P. McCown, a man whom Bragg said lacked “capacity and nerve for a separate, responsible command.”
With Chattanooga reinforced, Smith began thinking that his best defense would be to take the offensive. He wrote a confidential letter to Stevenson with an idea to outflank his old friend Morgan at Cumberland Gap and then advance into Kentucky. He could use the same path that Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate troopers had already opened into that state. Smith then notified Bragg that even though the Army of the Ohio was closing in on Chattanooga, “I am mobilizing my command for movement on General Morgan or into Middle Tennessee, as the circumstances may demand.”
Meanwhile, the Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell continued its extremely slow drive through northern Alabama toward Chattanooga. Operating in enemy territory, Buell’s supply lines were regularly cut by Confederate raiders and local residents, causing extensive delays. Adhering to the Articles of War, Buell prohibited retaliation against civilians. By July 8, Buell approached Stevenson, Alabama, having advanced just 90 miles in three weeks. He was still not even halfway to Chattanooga.
Major General Henry W. Halleck, Buell’s superior, notified him that Bragg’s army was mobilizing either to confront Buell at Tuscumbia or Chattanooga, or to confront Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals at Memphis or Corinth. Halleck wrote:
“A few days more may reduce these doubts to a certainty, when our troops will operate accordingly. The President telegraphs that your progress is not satisfactory and that you should move more rapidly. The long time taken by you to reach Chattanooga will enable the enemy to anticipate you by concentrating a large force to meet you. I communicate his views, hoping that your movements hereafter may be so rapid as to remove all cause of complaint, whether well founded or not.”
Buell responded to Halleck’s admonition: “I regret that it is necessary to explain the circumstances which must make my progress seem so slow. The advance on Chattanooga must be made with the means of acting in force; otherwise it will either fail,” as Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel had done in May, or else the city would “prove a profitless and transient prize… The dissatisfaction of the President pains me exceedingly.”
Halleck responded the next day:
“I can well understand the difficulties you have to encounter and also the impatience at Washington. In the first place they have no conception of the length of our lines of defense and of operations. In the second place the disasters before Richmond have worked them up to boiling heat. I will see that your movements are properly explained to the President.”
Buell’s Federals repaired the railroad lines damaged by raiders, and his men at Stevenson began receiving supplies from Nashville. But the raiders continued their harassment, which included burning bridges around Nashville on the road to Chattanooga.
As Buell prepared to inch closer, E.K. Smith wrote to President Jefferson Davis warning that the Federals were “an overwhelming force, that cannot be resisted except by Bragg’s cooperation.” Smith did not share his secret plan to outflank Morgan’s Federals and advance into Kentucky. Five days later, Smith wrote the Confederate adjutant general that “Buell with his whole force” had reached Stevenson, 30 miles from Chattanooga, and was “daily expected to attack.” Noting that Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry had broken the Federal supply line at Murfreesboro, Smith stated, “This may delay General Buell’s movement and give General Bragg time to move on Middle Tennessee.”
Shifting responsibility to Bragg, Smith wrote, “The safety of Chattanooga depends upon his cooperation.” Smith also wrote Bragg, “Buell with his whole force, is opposite Chattanooga, which he is momentarily expected to attack. If possible hasten your movement on East Tennessee. The successful holding of Chattanooga depends upon your cooperation.” But Bragg had problems of his own, as he explained to Smith the next day:
“We are fearfully outnumbered in this department. I have hoped you would be able to cope with General Buell’s force, especially as he would have to cross a broad and deep river in your immediate presence. That hope still exists; but I must urge on you the propriety of your taking command in Chattanooga. The officer I sent you (McCown), I regret to say, cannot be trusted with such a command, and I implore you not to entrust him indeed with any important position.”
Ignoring Bragg’s recommendation, Smith wrote, “Buell has completed his preparations, is prepared to cross (the Tennessee River) near Bridgeport, and his passage there may be hourly expected. General Morgan’s command moving on Knoxville from Cumberland Gap. Your cooperation is much needed. It is your time to strike at Middle Tennessee.”
Bragg replied, “Confronted here by a largely superior force strongly intrenched,” which could “now be enabled to unite against us,” Bragg said it was “impossible… to do more than menace and harass the enemy from this quarter. The fact is we are fearfully outnumbered in this department, the enemy having at least two to our one in the field, with a comparatively short line upon which he may concentrate.”
But Smith’s dire messages finally compelled Bragg to change his mind, and on July 21 he ordered his Army of Mississippi to move out of Tupelo and head to Chattanooga. Unbeknownst to Bragg, Buell was not nearly as poised to attack as Smith had claimed. But President Davis had expected Bragg to regain Middle Tennessee, and this could be more easily accomplished if he started from Chattanooga rather than Tupelo.
Bragg left the forces under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price in northern Mississippi, putting Price in charge of the District of Tennessee. Bragg notified Davis, “Will move immediately to Chattanooga in force and advance from there. Forward movement from here in force is not practicable. Will leave this line well defended.”
Bragg began moving out with 35,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. The move would not be easy because Buell’s Federals blocked his path. The cavalry would embark on a 430-mile trip, moving south to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, turning east to Rome, Georgia, and finally turning northwest to Chattanooga. The infantry’s journey would be even longer, moving by train southeast to Mobile, Alabama, turning northeast to Atlanta, Georgia, and then marching northwest to Chattanooga, a distance of nearly 800 miles.
- Cozzens, Peter, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 1997.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.