Major-General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, had executed a nearly flawless campaign to capture Tullahoma, Tennessee, in early July. He had outmaneuvered General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee and pushed it back to the vital railroad city of Chattanooga. But Rosecrans’s near-bloodless victory was overshadowed by the more sensational Federal victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson.
The Lincoln administration strongly urged Rosecrans to follow up this success by pushing on until Bragg’s army was destroyed. Rosecrans urged his superiors not to underestimate the tremendous effort it took to capture Tullahoma, and he stated that advancing on Chattanooga would “involve a great deal of care, labor, watchfulness, and combined effort” to succeed.
In addition, Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio from Cincinnati, was supposed to spearhead the drive on Knoxville in eastern Tennessee. Burnside was to confront Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederate Army of East Tennessee, which would protect Rosecrans’s left flank and help to increase the pressure on Bragg at Chattanooga.
Rosecrans explained to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that he planned to use Burnside’s start as a signal to begin his own forward movement. Halleck replied, “General Burnside has been frequently urged to move forward and cover your left. I do not know what he is doing. He seems tied fast to Cincinnati.” Burnside was waiting for his beloved Ninth Corps to return from Vicksburg, and he had sent his cavalry to stop Brigadier-General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raid through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Thus, Rosecrans would have to move forward without waiting for the Knoxville offensive.
While Buckner’s Confederates loomed on Rosecrans’s left, General Joseph E. Johnston’s revised Army of Mississippi hovered on his right, or western flank. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals were now busy occupying Vicksburg and keeping the Mississippi River open to Federal traffic, so the Lincoln administration became increasingly worried that Johnston might join forces with Bragg.
When Halleck warned Rosecrans that the administration’s patience was wearing thin, Rosecrans replied, “We shall move promptly, and endeavor not to go back.” He then bitterly added that he hoped to “avoid such remarks and letters as I am receiving lately from Washington, if I could do so without injury to the public service.” Halleck responded just as angrily, “While I am blamed here for not urging you forward more rapidly, you are displeased at my doing so.” He claimed that Rosecrans had “no possible grounds” to base his “tone of displeasure toward me,” and it should not hinder military operations.
Administration officials were no doubt influenced by messages from army officers friendly to the Republican Party. Brigadier-General James A. Garfield, a member of Rosecrans’s staff who had recently been elected to Congress as a Republican, wrote to his friend and fellow Ohioan, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, complaining that Rosecrans was moving too slowly:
“I cannot conceal from you the fact that I have been greatly tried and dissatisfied. For many weeks I could not but feel that there was not that live and earnest determination to fling the weight of this great army into the scale and make its power felt in crushing the shell of this rebellion. I feel that the time has now come when no plea should keep this army back from the most vigorous activity.”
Meanwhile, Confederate officials granted Johnston’s request to relieve him of all authority over Bragg’s army. This discontinued Department Number 2, or the Western Theater Department. Bragg was assigned to command the new Department of Tennessee, which absorbed Buckner’s Department of East Tennessee. However, Bragg instructed Buckner to continue reporting directly to Richmond rather than him, making coordination between the two commanders unnecessarily difficult as they prepared to defend Chattanooga and Knoxville.
Bragg’s leadership abilities continued to be seriously questioned. He had admitted that he was a beaten man after losing Tullahoma, and many wondered if he had reached his breaking point. Major-General D.H. Hill, an old friend of Bragg’s, arrived to take command of one of Bragg’s corps. When he met with the commander, Hill wrote, “He was silent and reserved and seemed gloomy and despondent. He had grown prematurely old since I saw him last, and showed much nervousness. His many retreats… had taken away that enthusiasm which soldiers feel for the successful general, and which makes them obey his orders without question, and thus wins for him other successes.”
Despite this, Bragg was so confident that Rosecrans would not make a move that he wrote Richmond proposing that he join forces with Johnston’s army in Mississippi. This would produce a force of about 70,000 men, roughly equal to Grant’s 77,000-man army at Vicksburg. Johnston opposed this plan, later writing, “Such a combination might have been advantageous before or during the siege of Vicksburg, but not after its disastrous termination.”
Bragg sent Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, one of his corps commanders, to convince President Jefferson Davis to permit a concentration of the western armies. Polk suggested that Bragg join forces with not only Johnston, but Buckner as well, which would give them 80,000 men. This new super-army could then defeat Rosecrans’s smaller force before turning on Grant. Polk urged quick action because rumors abounded that Grant was preparing to either attack Mobile or join forces with Rosecrans. Davis considered the matter into August.
- Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Garrison, Webb, True Tales of the Civil War: A Treasury of Unusual Stories During America’s Most Turbulent Era. New York: Gramercy, 1988.