General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, ordered one of his division commanders, Major-General Thomas Hindman, to attack the vanguard of the Federal Army of the Cumberland as it moved out of McLemore’s Cove in northern Georgia. Bragg expected Hindman to carry out these orders at dawn on September 11. Once Hindman initiated the assault, he was to be supported by a division under Major-General Patrick Cleburne.
Hindman, reluctant to attack, did not carry out Bragg’s orders. As his troops remained stationary, Federal scouts informed Major-General James Negley, commanding the leading Federal division, that Confederates were gathering to oppose him. In fact, Hindman’s Confederates were on Negley’s left, within artillery range, and Cleburne was in his front. Negley therefore decided to withdraw his troops to more defensible positions. Bragg sent Hindman another message at 4 p.m.: “The attack which was ordered at daybreak must be made at once or it will be too late.”
Meanwhile, Major-General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal army, still refused to believe reports from Major-General George H. Thomas, commanding the corps that included Negley’s division, that his vanguard was under serious threat. Rosecrans instead believed “that the mass of the enemy’s force has retreated on Rome.”
Rosecrans’s attention was partially diverted by the arrival of Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, with a letter from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“This will introduce to you Charles A. Dana, Esq., one of my assistants, who visits your command for the purpose of conferring with you upon any subject which you may desire to have brought to the notice of the department. Mr. Dana is a gentleman of distinguished character, patriotism, and ability, and possesses the entire confidence of the department. You will please afford to him the courtesy and consideration which he merits, and explain to him fully any matters which you may desire through him to bring to the notice of the department.”
Rosecrans and most of his staff saw Dana’s visit for what it was: a way for Stanton to assess his performance and possibly find reason to remove him from command. A reporter wrote that Dana “was received by the army as if he was a bird of evil omen.”
Late on the 11th, Hindman’s Confederates were finally put in motion, but the brief skirmishing that ensued was broken off by nightfall. Negley fell back past Davis’s Cross Roads, over Chickamauga Creek, and through Stevens’s Gap, his only escape route. There his Federals set up defenses. Negley knew full well that he had just escaped disaster.
Thomas reported, “All information goes to confirm that a large part of Bragg’s army is opposed to Negley.” The “sheer repetition of the warnings” finally convinced Rosecrans that the main threat was in the La Fayette area in his center. He ordered Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden, commanding the corps on the army’s left, to move to support Thomas. He also directed Major-General Alexander McCook, commanding the corps on the right, to “close up toward General Thomas to within supporting distance,” if possible.
Bragg met with Hindman and Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner at Bailey’s Cross Roads that night and learned that the Federals had fallen back through Stevens’s Gap. Bragg loudly berated Hindman for squandering this opportunity. Having failed to destroy Thomas’s corps, Bragg now worried that the two corps on the Federal flanks may be closing in on him.
Early on the 12th, Thomas informed Rosecrans that he would bring the rest of his corps up to support Negley’s new defense line. Guessing that most of Bragg’s army was around La Fayette, east of Stevens’s Gap, Thomas stated, “If a force could be thrown in from Chattanooga in his rear, it would be difficult for him to escape.”
Rosecrans, confident the Confederates were withdrawing from La Fayette toward Rome, replied, “Your dispatches of 10:30 last night and again of 4 this morning have been received. After maturely weighing the notes, the general commanding is induced to think that General Negley withdrew more through prudence than compulsion. He trusts that our loss is not serious.”
Rosecrans did not seem to understand that his army was in potential danger. Thomas confided in his staff, “Nothing but stupendous blunders on the part of Bragg can save our army from total defeat. I have ordered Negley to fall back from McLemore’s Cove, and I believe we may be able to save this corps. But Bragg is also in position to strike McCook and Crittenden before they have a chance to extricate themselves.”
Major-General Philip Sheridan, commanding a division in McCook’s isolated corps at Alpine, told a fellow officer, “This is all wrong. We have no business here, we ought to be in Chattanooga.” Crittenden’s corps advanced south from Chattanooga and occupied Lee and Gordon’s Mill, with Brigadier-General Thomas J. Wood’s division ahead of the rest of the corps near Ringgold.
Bragg’s opportunity to destroy Negley may have been lost, but now he saw a new opportunity with Wood, just 15 miles from his La Fayette headquarters. He ordered Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, commanding the corps nearest Wood, to attack. Bragg told Polk that there was “a fine opportunity of striking Crittenden in detail, and I hope you will avail yourself of it at daylight tomorrow. This division crushed, and the others are ours. We can then turn again on the force in the cove.”
Polk was to be reinforced by Hindman’s division and the reserve corps under Major-General William H.T. Walker. Polk was directed to join Major-General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s division at Rock Spring Church, where the attack was to be launched. But Polk did not get there until late that night. Walker’s corps arrived around 8 p.m., but Hindman’s Confederates were still a 10-hour march away.
After scouting the Federal lines, Polk believed that he would be facing Crittenden’s entire corps. He therefore told Bragg that he needed more men, and Bragg told him that he would send him Buckner’s command. On the Confederate left, Hill feared that McCook’s corps was coming up to confront him. This made Polk’s attack even more urgent. Bragg wrote him at 12:30 a.m., “The enemy is approaching from the south, and it is highly important your attack in the morning should be quick and decided. Let no time be lost.”
Meanwhile, Rosecrans finally began to realize that his scattered army might be in serious danger. The Confederates were not retreating as he thought; they were assembling for battle, and reinforcements from Virginia were on the way. Rosecrans ordered McCook to move to McLemore’s Cove to join forces with Thomas.
Rosecrans asked General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to send Major-General Ambrose Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio down from Knoxville to support his right flank. He also asked for part of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee to protect Rosecrans’s left at Tuscumbia, Alabama. Rosecrans downplayed his concerns by assuring Halleck, “I trust I am sufficient for the enemy now in my front.”
- Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.