Bragg’s Third Opportunity

By September 13, the main elements of General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee were poised to destroy a division of the Federal Army of the Cumberland isolated at Ringgold in northern Georgia. Bragg’s attack force consisted of:

  • Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk’s corps, comprised of divisions under Major-Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Thomas C. Hindman
  • Major-General William H.T. Walker’s corps (on loan from General Joseph E. Johnston in Mississippi), comprised of divisions under Brigadier-General States Rights Gist and St. John R. Liddell

The isolated Federal division was led by Brigadier-General Thomas J. Wood, which was part of Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden’s Twenty-first Corps. This corps comprised the left flank of the Army of the Cumberland, Major-General William S. Rosecrans commanding. Of the rest of Rosecrans’s scattered army:

  • Major-General Alexander McCook’s Twentieth Corps comprised the right flank and was situated near Alpine, far to the southwest.
  • Major-General George H. Thomas’s Fourteenth Corps comprised the center and was positioned around Stevens’s Gap. Rosecrans had ordered McCook to make a 57-mile countermarch to the northeast to join forces with Thomas.
  • The bulk of Crittenden’s corps was around Wauhatchie, moving southeast to support Wood’s division at Ringgold.
General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

Bragg ordered Polk to attack early on the 13th. However, Walker did not start getting into position to Cheatham’s right until 4 a.m., and Polk did not order Hindman into line until 6. Polk also waited for reinforcements promised to him in the form of Lieutenant-General Simon B. Buckner’s corps. Bragg, hearing no gunfire from his La Fayette headquarters, visited Polk at 9 a.m. to see why he had not yet attacked.

Polk was instead poised to receive an attack, not to launch one. For the second time in two days, an opportunity to destroy an isolated portion of Rosecrans’s army was lost. This infuriated Bragg, but his corps commanders were likewise furious with Bragg for issuing orders that they considered “impossible” to carry out.

On the Federal side, Crittenden had pulled his corps together not because he feared an attack, but because he was poised to join the rest of the army in pursuing what many believed to be a demoralized army in retreat. Crittenden wrote Brigadier-General James A. Garfield, Rosecrans’s chief of staff, “It has always been the plan of the enemy to make stubborn defenses on a retreat. I do not yet believe that there is a strong force of infantry in the vicinity of La Fayette.”

However, Rosecrans was finally realizing that his army was dangerously separated in enemy country. He warned Crittenden that “there is far more probability of his attacking you than that he is running.”

By this time, the Federal high command was starting to get word that Confederate troops from Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s corps within General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were being transferred to reinforce Bragg’s army. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck directed Major-General Ulysses S. Grant to send all available troops in his department from Corinth, Mississippi, to Tuscumbia, Alabama, so they could be ready to reinforce Rosecrans if needed.

Halleck also wrote Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding the Federal garrison at Memphis: “All the troops that can possibly be spared in West Tennessee and on the Mississippi River should be sent without delay to assist General Rosecrans on the Tennessee River… If you have boats, send them down… Information just received indicates that a part of Lee’s army has been sent to reenforce Bragg.”

Halleck informed Rosecrans that Longstreet would be reinforcing Bragg. He also told Rosecrans that he was pulling troops from Grant to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans notified Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, that “the enemy, reinforced by Johnston and Longstreet from Virginia, doubtless intend us all the mischief in their power.”

Meanwhile, Bragg feared that McCook’s Federals might attack his left flank, which consisted mainly of Lieutenant-General D.H. Hill’s corps. The attack, which had been expected to come on the 14th, did not materialize because McCook was too far away. But that did not stop Bragg from withdrawing his army to La Fayette and building defenses. This gave Rosecrans precious time to join his scattered forces in enemy territory.

The next day, Bragg decided to switch back to the offensive. He held a council of war with his corps commanders (Polk, Hill, Walker, and Buckner), where it was decided to cross Chickamauga Creek and move around Rosecrans’s left. This would cut the Federals off from their supply base at Chattanooga and force them to either fight or flee. They all agreed that the plan was sound. But Bragg issued no orders at this time, possibly because he wanted to wait for the Virginia reinforcements, or maybe because, after missing two golden opportunities, he figured his subordinates would just squander a third.


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