Major-General William S. Rosecrans had his Federal Army of the Cumberland camped around Murfreesboro in middle Tennessee, having hardly moved since the Battle of Stones River in January. Rosecrans spent the past six months reorganizing his army and requesting reinforcements, supplies, and horses from his superiors at Washington. Now, with Ulysses S. Grant laying siege to Vicksburg and Robert E. Lee invading Pennsylvania, Washington started pushing harder than ever for Rosecrans to get moving.
Opposing Rosecrans was General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee, which held a line on the Duck River, centered at Tullahoma. The armies had skirmished intermittently since January, but Rosecrans’s general inactivity had for the most part given Bragg’s men the longest respite from major combat that any Confederate army ever enjoyed in the war.
In late May, President Abraham Lincoln had urged Rosecrans to advance, if only to keep Bragg from reinforcing the Confederates gathering in northern Mississippi to threaten Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. Rosecrans did nothing, and a week later General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck warned him that if he did not move, part of his army would be sent to reinforce Grant. A corps from the Department of the Ohio had already been sent to Grant, so this was no idle threat. Rosecrans responded by asking his top 15 generals, “Do you think an immediate advance advisable?” None did.
On June 10, Rosecrans unveiled a new plan for an offensive, but most of his subordinates doubted it would work. Brigadier-General (and future U.S. President) James Garfield, one of the few who supported advancing, came away with “a sense of disappointment and mortification almost akin to shame.” Garfield believed that the Cumberland army was strong but did not have “that live and earnest determination to… make its power felt in crushing the shell of the rebellion.”
Halleck, still waiting for a firm plan from Rosecrans, notified him, “I deem it my duty to repeat to you the great dissatisfaction felt here at your inactivity.” Rosecrans explained that not attacking Bragg served Grant better than attacking because an attack might drive Bragg out of Tennessee and into Mississippi. Rosecrans cited a military axiom that no nation should fight two decisive battles at the same time. (When Grant heard this later, he remarked, “It would be bad to be defeated in two decisive battles fought the same day, but it would not be bad to win them.”)
The Lincoln administration remained unimpressed with Rosecrans’s plan to help Grant by doing nothing. Halleck finally telegraphed him on the 16th, “Is it your intention to make an immediate move forward? A definite answer, yes or no, is required.” Rosecrans responded, “In reply to your inquiry, if immediate means tonight or tomorrow, no. If it means as soon as all things are ready, say five days, yes.”
On Rosecrans’s self-imposed five-day deadline, he sent Halleck an ambiguous message: “We ought to fight here if we have a strong prospect of winning a decisive battle over the opposing force, and upon this ground I shall act. I shall be careful not to risk our last reserve without strong grounds to expect success.” Rosecrans finally devised a plan in which he would flank Bragg’s army and force the Confederates to fall back behind the Tennessee River.
Bragg had just over 46,000 effectives on a line along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. The line ran west-to-east, from Shelbyville on his left to Woodbury on his right. His supply depot was at Tullahoma, southeast of Shelbyville. Rosecrans planned to feint against Shelbyville while moving around Bragg’s right, taking the gaps in the Cumberland foothills and forcing Bragg to defend his right (eastern) flank in the Duck River Valley. Rosecrans hoped to avoid attacking the strong Confederate defenses head-on; he would instead rely on maneuver to force them out of their positions. Fearing spies, he would not share any specifics of his plans with his superiors.
The feinting movement began on the 23rd, when elements of Major-General David S. Stanley’s Federal Cavalry Corps moved out of Murfreesboro toward Shelbyville. This successfully led Bragg to believe that the main Federal attack would be on his left flank. At the same time, the Fourteenth Corps under Major-General George H. Thomas moved toward Hoover’s Gap on Bragg’s right. If the Federals could move through the gap, they could land in Bragg’s rear.
Rosecrans wired Halleck at 2:10 a.m. on the 24th: “The army begins to move at 3 o’clock this morning.” The troops moved south-southeast out of Murfreesboro in four columns:
- The far left (western) column consisted of the Reserve Corps under Major-General Gordon Granger
- The near left column consisted of the Twentieth Corps under Major-General Alexander McD. McCook
- The near right column consisted of Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps
- The far right (eastern) column consisted of the Twenty-first Corps under Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden
Rosecrans’s army consisted of 87,800 men, but just 65,137 joined this march; the rest stayed back at various garrisons to guard the army’s lines of communication and supply.
Rain began falling during the march, which a Federal soldier noted was “no Presbyterian rain, either, but a genuine Baptist downpour.” The rain continued for the next 17 days, turning the roads to mud and slowing the advance. Skirmishing broke out as Granger’s corps feinted against Bragg’s left. Granger drove Confederate cavalry out of Guy’s Gap and into the trenches outside Shelbyville.
McCook’s corps advanced on Wartrace and pushed Confederate defenders from Liberty Gap to Bellbuckle Gap. Thomas’s corps knocked the Confederates out of Hoover’s Gap while driving toward Manchester, and Crittenden’s corps occupied Bradyville. By the night of the 24th, Bragg was scrambling to determine what point of his line was under the most serious threat.
On the 25th, Confederates staged a day-long attempt to regain the passes at Hoover’s and Liberty gaps. The Federals were finally driven back, but when Bragg received word that Federal reinforcements were on their way, he ordered a withdrawal that night. Bragg was hampered by a lack of reliable information as to the strength of the Federal positions. As such, he was unaware that the Federals on his left flank were weak and that Crittenden was poised to threaten his rear at Bradyville.
Bragg realized the next day that the move against his left was a feint, and that the real threat was on his right. He therefore directed Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate corps on the left, to attack the Federals at Liberty Gap. But when Bragg learned of Thomas taking control of Hoover’s Gap, he ordered the Confederates to fall back to Tullahoma to protect their base, flank, and rear. Meanwhile, Federals occupied Shelbyville after hard fighting, and the Confederates there fell back with the rest of the army toward Tullahoma.
Thomas’s Federals occupied Manchester, which was 12 miles in Bragg’s rear. Rosecrans dispatched Colonel John T. Wilder’s mounted infantry brigade to attack the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, a key line of retreat for Bragg’s army. Wilder’s Federals destroyed railroad tracks and supplies at Decherd, and temporarily cut off Bragg’s communications with Chattanooga. But the line was quickly restored, and driving rain worked in Bragg’s favor to slow the Federal advance. Bragg was able to use the railroad to withdraw much of his army to Tullahoma.
As Thomas’s Federals continued moving southeast toward Hillsboro and Pelham, Bragg held a council of war on the 28th to discuss his options. Bragg had initially planned to make a stand at Tullahoma, but since he was generally detested by his subordinates, he got very little advice or support. Polk urged a withdrawal, while his other corps commander, Lieutenant-General William Hardee, proposed that the men dig trenches and hold their ground. The meeting ended inconclusively, with Bragg saying he would wait for further developments before deciding what to do.
Two days passed with Bragg doing nothing. Meanwhile, Rosecrans had three corps threatening Tullahoma from the northeast, while Wilder’s Federals threatened the Confederate rear. That night, Bragg decided that his position was untenable and he ordered a retreat. The Confederate army abandoned their six-month hold on Tullahoma and fell back south of the Elk River, near Decherd, where Bragg planned to make a stand.
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