As the Confederates escaped from Kentucky into eastern Tennessee, Federal officials at Washington implored Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Army of the Ohio in Kentucky, to pursue and destroy them. However, Buell had repeatedly resisted going into that harsh region, instead proposing to go to Nashville to defend against a possible Confederate thrust there.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck clearly informed Buell that the “capture of East Tennessee should be the main object of your campaign,” and if the Confederates could operate in that unforgiving region, so could the Federals. In response, Buell essentially admitted his inferiority in a long dissertation explaining why his army could not survive there.
Buell wrote, “The spirit of the rebellion enforces a subordination and patient submission to privation and want which public sentiment renders absolutely impossible among our troops.” Buell also asserted that because Confederate General Braxton Bragg was authorized to enforce the death penalty, “the discipline of the rebel army is superior to ours.”
Meanwhile, administration officials received reports from Governors Richard Yates of Illinois, David Tod of Ohio, and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana criticizing Buell’s handling of the Kentucky campaign. The governors were especially bitter toward Buell because his army had been recruited mostly from their states, and an election was approaching. Morton may have been Buell’s harshest critics among the governors. On October 21, he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln:
“An officer, just arrived from Louisville, announced that Bragg has escaped with his army into east Tennessee, and that Buell’s army is countermarching to Lebanon. The butchery of our troops at Perryville was terrible. Nothing but success speedy and decided, will save our cause from utter destruction. In the Northwest distrust and dispair are seizing upon the hearts of the people.”
This added more pressure to the situation, and Halleck telegraphed Buell the next day:
“It is the wish of the Government that your army proceed to and occupy East Tennessee with all possible dispatch. It leaves to you the selection of the roads upon which to move to that object… Neither the Government nor the country can endure these repeated delays. Both require a prompt and immediate movement toward the accomplishment of the great object in view–the holding of East Tennessee.”
During that time, Bragg and his demoralized Confederates had slipped through Cumberland Gap and reached Knoxville unmolested. After two days of minimal Federal activity, Buell received orders from Halleck: “The President directs that on the presentation of this order you will turn over your command to Maj. Gen. W.S. Rosecrans, and repair to Indianapolis, Ind., reporting from that place to the Adjutant General of the Army for further orders.”
Under General Order Number 168, the Department of the Cumberland was revived to emphasize its goal. Jurisdiction included Kentucky, Tennessee (east of the Tennessee River), and Federal-occupied parts of northern Alabama and Georgia. Major General William S. Rosecrans was currently commanding the Army of the Mississippi when he was notified of the change. Halleck wrote him: “You will receive herewith the order of the President placing you in command of the Department of the Cumberland and of the army of operations now under Major-General Buell. You will immediately repair to General Buell’s headquarters and relieve him from the command.”
Rosecrans had been chosen to command due to his recent victories at Iuka and Corinth in northern Mississippi under Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Rosecrans believed that Grant had treated him unfairly, and when he asked to be reassigned to another command, Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln saw an opportunity to put him in Buell’s place.
Rosecrans’s assignment mollified the embittered northern governors as well. Governor Morton wrote to Lincoln on behalf of himself and Illinois Governor Yates on the 24th: “We were to start tonight to Washington to confer with you about Kentucky affairs. The removal of General Buell and appointment of Rosecrans came not a moment too soon… The action you have taken renders our visit unnecessary.” That same day, Halleck sent Rosecrans instructions:
“The great objects to be kept in view in your operations in the field are: First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga, Cleveland, or Athens, so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States. It is hoped that by prompt and rapid movements a considerable part of this may be accomplished before the roads become impassable from the winter rains… I need not urge upon you the necessity of giving active employment to your forces. Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.”
Halleck explained that Rosecrans would receive support from three main sources:
- Major General Jacob D. Cox’s 20,000 Federals in western Virginia’s Kanawha Valley would divert Confederate attention;
- Grant’s 49,000 Federals would prevent the Confederates in Mississippi from reinforcing Bragg in Tennessee;
- Major General Horatio G. Wright’s Department of the Ohio would send 20,000 men as needed from headquarters at Cincinnati.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was not impressed with Lincoln’s decision to give Rosecrans army command. He told the president, “Well, you have made your choice of idiots. Now you can await the news of a terrible disaster.”
By this time, Buell had not yet received Halleck’s order to relinquish his command. As Rosecrans spent the next few days arranging the transfer, rumors of the change spread throughout Buell’s army. Buell finally received notice from a newspaper article on the 29th, while he and his troops were heading toward Nashville. He wrote Halleck, “If, as the papers report, my successor has been appointed, it is important that I should know it, and that he should enter on the command immediately, as the troops are already in motion.”
Buell was well aware that he had been under mounting scrutiny from the administration, and he was not very upset or surprised about losing his job. He confided to Major General George H. Thomas, his second-in-command, “Under the circumstances, I am sure I do not grieve about it.”
Halleck did not respond to Buell. Instead, Rosecrans caught up to the Federal army at Bowling Green the next day, where he met with Buell and effected the command transfer. What had been the Army of the Ohio under Buell was now officially designated the Fourteenth Army Corps.
Thomas was not happy with the change. The administration had offered Buell’s job to Thomas in September, but Thomas had asked that Buell be retained because he had saved Louisville from the Confederates (albeit slower than hoped). Now, with Buell officially removed, Thomas expected to be offered the job once more. He did not expect Rosecrans, an officer whom he outranked, to be moved ahead of him.
Rosecrans’s military success in Mississippi and his frustrations serving under Grant made him a more logical replacement for Buell. Politics may have played a role as well, as Thomas was a Virginian, and placing a southerner in command of such an important army could affect the upcoming midterm elections. Thomas protested being passed over to Halleck: “Although I do not claim for myself any superior ability, yet feeling conscious that no just cause exists for overslaughing me by placing me under my junior, I feel deeply mortified and aggrieved at the action taken in this matter.”
Thomas even felt comfortable enough to share his misgivings with Rosecrans himself, who implored him to stay on. Thomas agreed when Rosecrans offered him command of the largest division in the army. Then Halleck explained that Rosecrans’s promotion in rank was retrograded to precede Thomas’s. This ended Thomas’s protest: “I have no objection whatever to serving under General Rosecrans now that I know his commission dates prior to mine.”
As for Buell, Grant would offer him a command in Major General William T. Sherman’s army two years later, but Buell said “it would be degradation to accept the assignment offered” because he had once outranked Sherman. Grant later called this “the worst excuse a soldier can make for declining service.” This ended Buell’s military career.
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