General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, directed his quartermaster to prepare for the transfer of two veteran divisions under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet–those of Major-Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws–to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army in northwestern Georgia. These 12,000 men began boarding trains at Orange Court House on September 8, the day before the fall of Chattanooga.
The boarding continued into the 9th, when the New York Herald published an article revealing the secret plan and even identifying the units involved. Fortunately for the Confederates, the Lincoln administration paid little heed to this report at first, and the operation continued as planned. According to Longstreet:
“The success of the plan was thought from the first to depend upon its prompt and vigorous execution, and it was under those conditions that General Lee agreed to reinforce the army in Tennessee, together with the assurance that vigorous pursuit, even to the Ohio River, should follow success… As I left General Lee’s tent, after bidding him good-by, he walked out with me to my horse. As my foot was in the stirrup he said again, ‘Now, general, you must beat those people out in the West.’ Withdrawing my foot to respectful position I promised, ‘If I live; but I would not give a single man of my command for a fruitless victory.’”
Due to the recent fall of Knoxville, Longstreet’s Confederates had to travel nearly 800 miles, through the Carolinas and up through Atlanta on as many as 10 different railroad lines, to get to Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, which was just 550 miles away. The journey would take over a week.
Meanwhile, Major-General William S. Rosecrans directed his Federal Army of the Cumberland to advance into northwestern Georgia and hunt down Bragg’s supposedly demoralized army. The Federals were spread out among the mountains and rugged terrain around Chattanooga:
- Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden’s Twenty-first Corps comprised the army’s left flank, which was anchored at Chattanooga
- Major-General Alexander McCook’s Twentieth Corps comprised the army’s right flank, which was isolated several miles south around Alpine, Georgia, near the Alabama state line
- Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps held the center, which was also isolated as it moved east through Stevens’s Gap in Lookout Mountain
- Thomas’s lead division under Major-General James S. Negley was far ahead of the rest of the corps, moving east through McLemore’s Cove and heading for Dug Gap in Pigeon Mountain
The two wings of Rosecrans’s army were separated by 45 miles, with Thomas halfway between them.
Bragg hoped to take advantage of Rosecrans’s sprawl by destroying Negley’s division and then attacking the rest of the Fourteenth Corps before it could be reinforced. He assigned Major-General Thomas C. Hindman to move his division southwest to Davis’s Cross Roads, while another division under Major-General Patrick Cleburne was to move through Dug Gap. Hindman would hit Negley’s flank while Cleburne hit Negley’s front, and this double envelopment would cut Negley off from the rest of Thomas’s corps.
Hindman received the orders on the night of the 9th and put his men in motion. Cleburne was sick, and when the orders finally reached his superior, Lieutenant-General D.H. Hill, at 4:30 a.m. on the 10th, he explained that he could not comply because Federals had plugged Dug Gap with fallen timber. Bragg, unwilling to squander “this favorable opportunity,” turned to Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner, whose Confederates had just arrived after abandoning Knoxville, to hurry two divisions to join with Hindman.
By the time that Buckner met with Hindman at McLemore’s Cove near Davis’s Cross Roads that afternoon, Hindman began having doubts about the mission. Buckner and Hindman eventually agreed not to attack because they incorrectly believed that Negley was creating a diversion for a Federal attack on La Fayette, farther east. Neither general was aware that Hill had changed his mind and sent Cleburne’s division to join the operation after all.
Meanwhile, Negley’s Federals moved through Dug Gap and unexpectedly came upon enemy skirmishers. Negley quickly learned that two Confederate divisions were on his flank and front, and he responded by setting up defenses near Davis’s Cross Roads. Thomas assessed Negley’s situation and told Rosecrans that he was halting until the entire corps came up.
Rosecrans, refusing to believe that the supposedly demoralized Confederates would contest Negley’s advance, sent a message to Thomas showing his frustration: “The commanding general… is disappointed to learn… that his forces move tomorrow morning instead of having moved this morning, as they should have done… Your advance ought to have threatened La Fayette yesterday evening.”
That night, Bragg moved his headquarters to La Fayette to be closer to the action he expected to take place at McLemore’s Cove. He issued orders for Hindman to “force your way through the enemy… at the earliest hour that you can see him in the morning. Cleburne will attack in front the moment your guns are heard.” When one of Hindman’s aides came to explain to Bragg why he could not attack, Bragg told him that Hindman was to attack, no matter the consequences.
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