Two weeks after finally moving out of Tullahoma, Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland was within striking distance of Chattanooga, one of the most prized railroad hubs in the Western Theater. The city was defended by General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Bragg had been pleading for reinforcements, and a division led by Major-General John C. Breckinridge arrived on September 2. There had been animosity between Bragg and Breckinridge since the Battle of Stones River, but Bragg was happy to have the extra men nonetheless. Bragg’s army now had about 35,000 men to face what he believed to be 70,000 enemy troops.
Rosecrans was approaching Chattanooga from the north. He now split his army by assigning the Twenty-first Corps under Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden to feint against Bragg’s right northeast of the city, while Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps and Major-General Alexander McCook’s Twentieth Corps crossed the Tennessee River to threaten Chattanooga from the southwest.
As September began, the bulk of Rosecrans’s army was crossing the Tennessee at Bridgeport, Alabama, and Shellmound, Tennessee, virtually unopposed. Bragg called a council of war, where most of his corps and division commanders agreed that the Federals had crossed below them at Stevenson and Bridgeport. But Bragg feared moving against them because it would leave Chattanooga at the mercy of the Federals to the north. So for now he did nothing.
The Federals completed their crossing on September 4. By this time, Crittenden had completed his feint and, leaving a token force to observe the Confederates, moved his remaining corps southwest to cross the river with the rest of the army.
By this time, Bragg had figured out Rosecrans’s plan, but he still did not know that the enemy force to the north was just a small one. Bragg positioned Lieutenant-General D.H. Hill’s corps (now reinforced by Breckinridge’s division) to face north while sending Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to reconnoiter the southwest. Bragg also dispatched Major-General William H.T. Walker’s divisions (on loan from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Mississippi) to guard the supply lines at Rome, Georgia.
Bragg wrote Hill on the 4th, “There is no doubt of the enemy’s position now. Wheeler is gone to develop them, and Walker goes to railroad to Rome to head them off from our communications. If you can cross the river, now is our time to crush the corps opposite. What say you? The crushing of this corps would give us a great victory and redeem Tennessee.”
This plan might have worked brilliantly, considering that an enemy force smaller than a corps remained to the north. But Bragg, who had been outmaneuvered by Rosecrans so many times in the past, began having second thoughts. He wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“With our present dispositions we are prepared to meet the enemy at any point he may assail, either with a portion or with the whole of his forces, and should he present us an opportunity we shall not fail to strike him. My position is to some extent embarrassing in regard to offensive movements. In a country so utterly destitute we cannot for a moment abandon our line of communications, and unable to detach a sufficient force to guard it, we must necessarily maneuver between the enemy and our supplies. The approach of his right (southwest) column is directly on our left flank and seriously threatens our railroad. No effort will be spared to bring him to an engagement whenever the chances shall favor us.”
Davis had been in conference with General Robert E. Lee about the situation in Tennessee. Knoxville had recently fallen, and now there were growing fears in Richmond that Rosecrans would join forces with Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s army in eastern Tennessee to overwhelm Bragg. Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding a corps in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, wanted to be sent to Chattanooga to replace Bragg. He wrote Lee:
“I think that it is time that we had begun to do something in the west, and I fear if it is put off any longer we shall be too late. If my corps cannot go west, I think that we might accomplish something by… putting me in General Bragg’s place and giving him my corps. We would surely make no great risk in such a change and we might gain a great deal. I doubt if General Bragg has confidence in his troops or in himself either. He is not likely to do a great deal for us.”
Finally on the 5th, Lee agreed to send a force under Longstreet to reinforce Bragg’s army. This force consisted of the two crack divisions led by Major-Generals Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood, along with a section of 26 guns under Colonel E. Porter Alexander. The operation was referred to by the Confederate War Department as “Westward Ho.” But with the railroad linking Chattanooga to Virginia now in Federal hands, Longstreet’s men would have to travel 775 miles through the Carolinas and Georgia to get there. And Longstreet was very disappointed that he would not be replacing Bragg but would be serving under him instead.
- Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.