The Slow Conquest of Middle Tennessee

Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, continued outmaneuvering General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee, despite continuous rain that turned roads to mud. Bragg soon found himself in danger of being outflanked and forced to abandon his supply depot at Tullahoma, Tennessee. The Confederates fell back to Decherd on the Elk River, but a Federal mounted infantry brigade broke through their rear and threatened to cut their railroad supply line. Although the Confederates had the numerical advantage, the Federals had Spencer carbine rifles that could fire seven rounds without reloading.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

Bragg called a council of war on the night of July 1, where he asked his top commanders, “The question to be decided instantly: shall we fight on the Elk or take post at foot of mountain at Cowen (Cowan)?” Both Lieutenant-Generals Leonidas Polk and William Hardee advised falling back to Cowan, with Hardee adding that the army should fight there. Bragg agreed to fall back, but he would not stop at Cowen because he did not want to fight with his back to the Tennessee River. He instead continued falling back east, into the mountains and across the Tennessee toward Chattanooga.

Hardee interpreted this move as a sign of weak leadership, and he wrote Polk, “I deeply regret to see General Bragg in his present enfeebled state of health. If we have a fight, he is evidently unable either to examine and determine his line of battle or to take command on the field. What shall we do?” The next day, the Federals occupied the abandoned Confederate positions at Tullahoma without a fight. They crossed the Elk on the 3rd, with the cavalry riding ahead and clashing with the Confederate rear guard near Cowan. Bragg pulled back across the Cumberland plateau at Sewanee Mountain, and Rosecrans halted the pursuit.

The Federals had conquered Middle Tennessee in just nine days and without a major fight. Rosecrans had pushed Bragg’s army back 85 miles while losing just 560 men, including less than 100 killed and 12 missing. They captured 1,634 Confederates, most of whom were Middle Tennessee conscripts who willingly surrendered. The Federals also took 11 cannon and large amounts of supplies.

As Bragg fell back with his army, he was joined by army chaplain Charles Quintard, who frankly told him, “My Dear General, I am afraid you are thoroughly outdone.” “Yes, I am utterly broken down,” Bragg admitted. “This is a great disaster.” Quintard tried to reassure him: “General, don’t be disheartened, our turn will come next.” Few Confederates shared the chaplain’s optimism.

Most of Bragg’s men crossed the Tennessee and entered Chattanooga on the night of the 6th. Since Bragg had crossed the same river last July to begin his advance into Kentucky, his men had marched nearly 1,000 miles and fought two major battles–Perryville and Stones River. Bragg considered them both Confederate victories, but he had retreated after both, and now he was right back where he had started a year before. The Federals loomed 50 miles to the northwest.

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit:

Rosecrans had conducted a brilliant campaign of maneuver, which even southern newspapers grudgingly conceded as “masterful.” However, Rosecrans had the misfortune of enjoying this nearly bloodless success at the same time that major events were taking place at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. He therefore did not get the press or the credit that he may have deserved. And now that the more publicized campaigns were winding down, the Lincoln administration turned to Rosecrans, not to congratulate him, but to press him to do more.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wired Rosecrans on the 7th: “We have just received information that Vicksburg is surrendered to Grant on the 4th of July. Lee’s army overthrown, Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?” Rosecrans quickly sent a testy reply: “You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from Middle Tennessee. I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.”

Rosecrans then sent a list of reasons why he could not immediately resume his advance to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. Rosecrans explained that his men needed to replace a 350-foot railroad bridge across the Duck River, replace another railroad trestle south of the bridge, and build corduroy roads for his supply wagons. He also expressed concern about being in a potentially vulnerable position because:

  • Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederate Army of East Tennessee held Knoxville on Rosecrans’s left, or eastern flank
  • General Joseph E. Johnston’s revised Confederate Army of Mississippi was on Rosecrans’s right, or western flank
  • General Bragg’s Army of Tennessee remained dangerous in his front at Chattanooga

Rosecrans wanted to wait until the proposed Federal drive on Knoxville got under way before he resumed his advance. But administration officials worried that Rosecrans’s failure to move would allow Bragg to join forces with Johnston. Halleck replied, “You must not wait for Johnston to join Bragg, but must move forward immediately… There is great dissatisfaction felt here at the slowness of your advance. Unless you can move more rapidly, your whole campaign will prove a failure.”

Halleck accompanied the wire with a confidential letter: “The patience of the authorities here has been completely exhausted, and if I had not repeatedly promised to urge you forward, and begged for delay, you would have been removed from your command.” But Rosecrans would not heed such warnings. He continued meticulously preparing to move against Bragg once more.


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