Trains carrying the vanguard of General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi reached Chattanooga, a vital railroad town in southeastern Tennessee. Bragg intended to defend Chattanooga against an advance by Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio.
Buell was at Huntsville, Alabama, when he received word on July 31 that Bragg had arrived at Chattanooga two days before, and “On the same evening two trains came in with soldiers. Railroad agent says he has orders to furnish cars for 30,000 as fast as he can.” Buell had been moving sluggishly through northern Alabama due to Confederate raids on his supply lines. He just recently restored his line from Nashville to Stevenson and finally returned his men to full allowances with the arrival of 210,000 rations.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal armies farther west, was unaware of Bragg’s intentions. He received varying reports from Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Mississippi at Corinth, that Bragg was headed to Vicksburg, or Mobile, or Chattanooga. This left Grant to report that “nothing absolutely certain of the movements of the enemy has been learned,” except “a movement has taken place from Tupelo, in what direction or for what purpose is not so certain.”
Brigadier General Philip Sheridan, commanding Rosecrans’s cavalry, conveyed what he had learned from a captured Confederate officer: “The enemy have been and still are moving in large numbers to Chattanooga, via Mobile and Montgomery, concentrating at Rome, Ga. A large number of troops are at Saltillo (10 miles north of Tupelo), not less than 10,000.” The Confederate troops near Saltillo belonged to Major General Sterling Price, who was moving north from Tupelo.
Bragg personally arrived at Chattanooga on July 30. The next day, Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Army of East Tennessee, came down from Knoxville to meet with him. Bragg sought to liberate Nashville from Federal occupation, but Smith wanted Bragg to hold off Buell while he led his army into Kentucky.
The men agreed to coordinate their movements with each other, with Smith telling Bragg, “I will not only cooperate with you, but will cheerfully place my command under you subject to your orders.” Bragg was the ranking officer, but since his army was operating in Smith’s department, the men decided to act as equals. This virtually doomed the offensive before it even began.
Smith would initiate the action by moving against the Federals stationed at Cumberland Gap. If Bragg’s cavalry was available, Bragg and Smith would combine their forces and cut Buell’s supply lines in Middle Tennessee. Without developing any specifics, Bragg would confront Buell while Smith invaded Kentucky. The two Confederate forces in Mississippi under Price at Saltillo and Major General Earl Van Dorn at Vicksburg would prevent Grant from reinforcing Buell.
Bragg informed Richmond that he and Smith had “arranged measures for material support and effective cooperation.” Bragg explained that Smith would advance on Cumberland Gap: “Should he be successful, and our well-grounded hopes be fulfilled, our entire force will then be thrown into Middle Tennessee with the fairest prospect of cutting off General Buell, should that commander continue in his present position.”
Bragg made no mention of a Kentucky incursion, instead emphasizing Middle Tennessee as his main objective. He stated that if Grant reinforced Buell, “Van Dorn and Price can strike and clear West Tennessee of any force that can be left to hold it.”
Bragg informed Price of this plan, which Price took to mean that he should take the offensive against either Grant or Rosecrans. Price contacted Van Dorn and asked him to join forces for a push north. The first goal for this operation would be to retake Corinth. Price wrote, “This will be our opportunity, and I am extremely anxious that we shall avail ourselves of it.” Price thought the Federals had been weakened in order to strengthen Buell’s army. Miscommunication had begun almost from the start.
Timing and coordination were essential for this plan to succeed. This would prove very difficult for Bragg, who not only had to coordinate his army’s movements with Smith’s, but he had to keep command over Van Dorn and Price as well. The first move was Smith’s, as he tried to take Cumberland Gap while calling for reinforcements from western Virginia.
- Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1990.
- 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.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.