The Chattanooga Campaign Begins

By August 11, Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland was still at Tullahoma in Middle Tennessee. It had been over two weeks since Rosecrans had been ordered by General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to confront General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee defending the “Gateway City” of Chattanooga.  

Capturing Chattanooga would give the Federals control of the railroads connecting Nashville, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. It would also give the Federals a vital base on the Tennessee River from which to invade the Deep South. But the city was defended not only by 40,000 Confederates but also by extremely mountainous and rugged terrain. This would make capturing Chattanooga one of the most difficult missions of the war.  

On top of this, Rosecrans had continually cited reasons for delaying his advance. These included harvesting crops, establishing supply lines, repairing railroads, and needing adequate protection on his flanks. Rosecrans had begun moving some infantry and cavalry, but then he informed his superiors at Washington that he needed more time to collect railcars for his supplies. He also insisted that he needed Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio to move into eastern Tennessee to guard his left flank, and he received word that Burnside needed two more days to get going. Rosecrans wrote, “His movement should be felt before ours on the left.”  

Rosecrans assured Burnside on the 12th, “We will be at the Tennessee River by the time you reach Kingston. Do you want the excess of rations we have there?” But Rosecrans soon had to change his plans because the railroad bringing men and supplies from Tracy City, “built for bringing coal down the mountains, has such high grades and sharp curves as to require a peculiar engine.” The only train available was “broken on its way from Nashville,” thus the advance was suspended “until that road was completely available for transporting stores to Tracy City.” This took four more days.  

Generals Bragg and Rosecrans | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Bragg had not dispatched his cavalry for reconnaissance and therefore had no idea what Rosecrans was doing on the other side of the Cumberland Mountains. One of Bragg’s corps commanders, Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, was confident that Rosecrans would not hazard such a dangerous operation. He wrote his sister on the 14th, “Rosecrans we hear is preparing to move forward, but he is certain to risk nothing if he can help it.”  

But Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland finally began moving on Sunday the 16th toward Chattanooga, 65 miles southeast. The army consisted of 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 200 heavy guns. Rosecrans planned to trap Bragg between his army and Burnside’s by feinting north of Chattanooga while attacking south and west of the city.  

The Federals moved with extreme precision, as Rosecrans spread his three corps across a 50-mile front to cover the three main Cumberland Mountain passes. This was a risky move because Bragg could have isolated and destroyed any of the three corps in detail. But Bragg remained unaware of Rosecrans’s approach. His cavalry was deployed in eastern Tennessee and Alabama when it needed to be scouting the other side of the range.  

Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden’s Twenty-first Corps was to be the feinting column north of Chattanooga. These Federals crossed the Tennessee at Blythe’s Ferry, about 45 miles upriver. The main threat would come from Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps in the center and Major-General Alexander McCook’s Twentieth Corps to the right.  

By day’s end, Crittenden had crossed Walden’s Ridge while Thomas and McCook crossed the Tennessee about 50 miles downriver from Chattanooga. Rosecrans informed Washington at 9:35 that night:  

“All three corps are crossing the mountains. It will take till Wednesday night (the 19th) to reach their respective positions. I think we shall deceive the enemy as to our point of crossing. It is a stupendous undertaking. The Alps, with a broad river at the foot, and not fertile plains, but 70 miles of difficult and mostly sterile mountains beyond, before reaching a point of secondary importance to the enemy, in reference to his vital one, Atlanta.”  

Colonel John T. Wilder, who commanded the “Lightning Brigade” of mounted infantry under Thomas, screened the Federal center while the official Federal cavalry screened the left and right. Wilder’s horsemen encountered terrible roads and covered just 20 miles on the 18th before they entered the Sequatchie Valley the next day.  

The Federals captured a few Confederate scouts, and after interrogating them, Wilder reported, “I do not think there are any forces of consequence this side of Tennessee River.” Wilder’s Federals then turned to help screen Crittenden as he feinted to Bragg’s north. By the 19th, Thomas and McCook were at Bridgeport, Alabama, about 35 miles downriver from Chattanooga.  

Rosecrans awaited Burnside’s advance, writing him, “The head of your column ought to appear soon if you are in time.” Rosecrans explained that he intended to attack Chattanooga from the south, between Bridgeport and Rome, and concluded, “Let us have full co-operation. Telegraph me position, progress, and plan.”  

Burnside responded, “We have had a serious delay in mounting the cavalry and accumulating forage and subsistence, but all the columns are in motion.” However, he moved slowly while awaiting the return of his beloved Ninth Corps from Vicksburg, and his army was still 130 miles from Knoxville.  

At Chattanooga, Bragg remained unaware that Rosecrans’s Federals were closing in on him. His main concern was getting reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston in Mississippi and Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner in eastern Tennessee so that he might be able to go on the offensive.  

On the 20th, Confederates finally learned that Rosecrans’s army had crossed the mountains and reached the Tennessee at Stevenson and Bridgeport, southwest of Chattanooga. They also learned that Burnside’s 30,000-man army was advancing from Kentucky. Bragg hesitated to come out of his defenses unless he was reinforced. Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper suggested that President Jefferson Davis order Bragg to move. Davis declined.  


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