General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was stationed around Chattanooga, in southeastern Tennessee, after being maneuvered out of Tullahoma in July. Bragg had sent one of his corps commanders, Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, to urge President Jefferson Davis to allow a concentration of Bragg’s army with Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner’s at Knoxville and General Joseph E. Johnston’s in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, three major Federal armies operated in the Western Theater:
- Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland held Middle Tennessee from Tullahoma
- Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee held western Tennessee and most of Mississippi from Vicksburg
- Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio held Kentucky and threatened eastern Tennessee
Davis, fearful that Grant might either attack Mobile, Alabama, or join with Rosecrans, sent Bragg a message through Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper: “If we can spare most of Johnston’s army temporarily to re-enforce you, can you fight the enemy?” Bragg replied on August 2, “With the most of his forces, if I correctly estimate them, I should look for success if a fight can be had on equal terms. I have invited a conference with General Johnston, and will write in full. My present inclination is for a flank movement.”
As Bragg prepared to meet with Johnston, he learned that Johnston’s force did not consist of 23,000 well-equipped veterans as supposed, but rather 18,000 ill-clad, demoralized troops. Bragg canceled the meeting because Johnston’s force, though only 5,000 men less than Bragg believed, was “entirely inadequate to enable me to see the enemy beyond the mountains.”
Bragg notified Richmond on the 5th that combining the two forces would produce an army of just 50,000 men, as the remainder would have to guard depots and supply lines. Rosecrans had 60,000 men, and he could be easily reinforced with another 30,000 from Burnside. Bragg wrote:
“After fully examining all resources, I deem them insufficient to justify a movement across the mountains. It would be rashness to place ourselves on the farther side of a country rugged and sterile, with a few mountain roads only by which to reach a river difficult of passage. Thus situated, the enemy need only avoid battle for a short time to starve us out…”
Bragg also noted that Rosecrans was using the Cumberland Plateau to screen his preparations for an advance. If Rosecrans or Burnside would just confront him “on this side of the mountains, the problem will be changed.” Bragg wrote Johnston, “The defensive seems to be our only alternative, and that is a sad one.”
Although a junction between Bragg and Johnston may not have been practical, Bragg was officially given command of the Department of Tennessee on the 6th, which included Buckner’s Department of East Tennessee. Buckner would continue to operate independently in the Knoxville area, but his army would become a corps in Bragg’s larger Army of Tennessee.
On the Federal side, Rosecrans remained at Tullahoma, which he had captured nearly a month ago. Rosecrans busied his army with securing a supply line by repairing the railroad and exchanging tense messages with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck about getting the army moving again. Rosecrans responded to Halleck’s latest message explaining that President Abraham Lincoln, not Halleck, was prodding him to move faster.
Rosecrans expressed relief “that the injustice which I have experienced from the War Department” did not come from Halleck. But then he added, “I say to you frankly that whenever the Government can replace me by a commander in whom they have more confidence, they ought to do so, and take the responsibility of the result.”
Rosecrans repeated previous reasons for the delay in advancing from Tullahoma, including the need to establish communication and supply lines. He explained that “these things would have to be done by any commander, and I think we are doing them as rapidly as our men will admit.” But this only caused more impatience in Washington, and Halleck angrily responded on the 3rd: “Your forces must move forward without further delay. You will daily report the movement of each corps till you cross the Tennessee River.”
Rosecrans wrote later that day, “As I have been determined to cross the river as soon as practicable, and have been making all preparations, and getting such information as may enable me to do so without being driven back, like (General Joseph) Hooker (at Chancellorsville), I wish to know if your order is intended to take away my discretion as to the time and manner of moving my troops?” Halleck answered, “The orders for the advance of your army, and that its movements be reported daily, are peremptory.”
Rosecrans notified his superiors on the 6th: “My arrangements for beginning a continuous movement will be completed and the execution begun by Monday next (August 10)… If, therefore, the movement which I propose can not be regarded as obedience to your orders, I respectfully request a modification of it or to be relieved from the command.”
The acerbic tone of this message was not appreciated in Washington; Lincoln’s secretary John Hay called it “one of the worst specimens of epistolary literature I have ever come across.” But Lincoln had no intention of removing Rosecrans from command yet, and Halleck responded the next day:
“I have communicated to you the wishes of the Government in plain and unequivocal terms. The object has been stated, and you have been directed to lose no time in reaching it. The means you are to employ, and the roads you are to follow, are left to your own discretion. If you wish to promptly carry out the wishes of the Government, you will not stop to discuss mere details.”
Rosecrans then accused Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton of having a personal vendetta against him. To this, Halleck replied:
“I do not think he would willingly do you any injustice, but, as I have before written, neither the President nor the Secretary have been satisfied with your long delays… In my communications I have in no case exaggerated the feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction which has been manifested to me. I know of no one here who has not the kindest and most friendly feelings for you. Nevertheless, many of your dispatches have been exceedingly annoying to the War Department.”
Lincoln finally intervened, writing to Rosecrans on the 10th. He began, “I am sure you, as a reasonable man, would not have been wounded, could you have heard all my words and seen all my thoughts, in regard to you. I have not abated in my kind feeling for and confidence in you.” Then he noted that Rosecrans had refused to attack Bragg before he joined forces with Johnston, and that “impressed me very strangely.”
The president continued, “Since Grant has been entirely relieved by the fall of Vicksburg, by which Johnston is also relieved, it has seemed to me that your chance for a stroke, has been considerably diminished, and I have not been pressing you directly or indirectly. The question occurs, Can the thing be done at all?” Lincoln believed that “by great exertions, you can get to East Tennessee. But a very important question is, ‘Can you stay there?’”
Lincoln concluded by stating, “I make no order in the case–that I leave to General Halleck and yourself. And now, be assured once more, that I think of you in all kindness and confidence; and that I am not watching you with an evil eye.” Rosecrans soon began arranging to advance on Chattanooga.
- 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.
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rutherford, Phillip R. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.