The bulk of Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland was positioned southwest of the vital railroad hub of Chattanooga, which was being defended by General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Bragg expected Rosecrans to move around his left (west) flank to try to get into his army’s rear, but he did not move to stop it out of fear that a token Federal force north of Chattanooga might attack his right (east) flank.
Bragg told President Jefferson Davis that he was reluctant to move either way, prompting Davis to reply on September 5: “What is your proposed plan of operation? Can you ascertain intention of enemy?… can you not cut his line of communication and compel him to retreat for want of supplies?” Bragg had no answers, but he finally got confirmation of Rosecrans’s plan of envelopment from a copy of the Chicago Times, which featured an article written by a reporter at Federal headquarters.
Bragg issued orders on the 6th for his army to mobilize at nightfall “to meet the enemy and strike him.” Still unsure exactly where the Federals were, Bragg stated that he would “meet him in front wherever he should emerge from the mountain gorges.” But then, like he had done before, Bragg had second thoughts and suspended the move. Meanwhile, Rosecrans’s Federals moved east, scaling Sand Mountain and then Lookout Mountain below Chattanooga. Skirmishing intensified as the Federals moved closer to Bragg’s rear and communications.
Still unsure what to do, Bragg called a council of war on the 7th. Lieutenant-Generals Leonidas Polk and D.H. Hill, each commanding a corps, advised Bragg not to abandon Chattanooga. In his usual fashion, Bragg decided on a course of action but then changed his mind: He initially opted to stay, but then he sent orders to begin evacuating Chattanooga that night.
Like Tullahoma in July, Rosecrans had outmaneuvered Bragg. Thus, the Army of Tennessee abandoned Chattanooga, the great Confederate prize of the West, without firing a shot. The Confederates withdrew into northern Georgia. Bragg was roundly criticized for his decision to withdraw, but by the time it was made, his flank was turned. There would have been no strategic reason to stay any longer.
Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederates, who were withdrawing from Knoxville, joined Bragg’s withdrawal on the 8th. Skirmishing occurred at Winston’s Gap and Alpine in northwestern Georgia, with the Federals securing Cooper’s and Stevens’s gaps. Later that day, as Rosecrans positioned his men to defend against an expected Confederate attack, he received word that Bragg was pulling out. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The enemy has decided not to fight at Chattanooga.”
A brigade of the Twenty-first Corps entered Chattanooga without resistance on the morning of the 9th. Rosecrans selected an Illinois regiment of mounted infantry to raise the U.S. flag over the city, and he wired Halleck that morning: “Chattanooga is ours without a struggle and East Tennessee is free. Our move on the enemy’s flank and rear progresses, while the tail of his retreating column will not escape unmolested.”
This was a major Federal victory, as Chattanooga was the gateway to the southern heartland, controlling the railroads from Tennessee to Virginia to the Carolinas and into the Deep South. President Abraham Lincoln had called capturing Chattanooga “fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.” Rosecrans had conducted a brilliant campaign of maneuver. Since June 24, he had sustained hardly any casualties while clearing Confederates out of Middle Tennessee and capturing Tullahoma in July, and now Chattanooga.
Rosecrans, believing that Bragg’s Confederates were in full retreat toward Rome, ordered his army to immediately pursue them. The three Federal corps of Rosecrans’s army were spread out over 40 miles, and some of his subordinates warned that Bragg could turn and destroy any of the three as they moved blindly through the mountain passes.
Rosecrans discounted these warnings partly because he had just scored a second easy victory over Bragg and was confident that he could do it again. Also, Confederate deserters were reporting that Bragg and his army were badly demoralized. A Tennessee soldier stated that if Bragg was pressed, he “will not stop short of Atlanta.” With these reports, Rosecrans “expected to drive Bragg to the sea.” But the deserters were not being truthful.
Bragg fell back through Rossville Gap, where his men could hide from the Federals behind Missionary Ridge. They then halted at La Fayette, less than 30 miles south of Chattanooga. From there, Bragg looked to attack the Federal center, consisting of Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps. Without the center, there would be a 40-mile gap between the left and right wings of Rosecrans’s army.
On top of this, the lead division of Thomas’s corps, led by Major-General James Negley, was at Davis’s Cross Roads, a day’s march from any other Federals. Bragg planned to trap him there the next day, and then turn on the other elements of Rosecrans’s army in detail.
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