Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland had retreated into Chattanooga following its major defeat at Chickamauga two days prior. Major-General George H. Thomas, whose troops were serving as Rosecrans’s rear guard, led his force into Chattanooga to join the rest of the demoralized army. Rosecrans awaited reinforcements from Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, currently stationed at Knoxville in eastern Tennessee.
President Abraham Lincoln asked Rosecrans about his army’s condition. Rosecrans replied on the morning of September 22, “We have fought a most sanguinary battle against vastly superior numbers.” He correctly reported that Lieutenant-General James Longstreet had brought Confederate reinforcements from Virginia, but he also incorrectly stated that Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Virginia troops were there, “and a force is coming from Charleston.”
Rosecrans asserted that while his army had suffered great losses, his men “have inflicted equal injury upon the enemy. The mass of this army is intact and in good spirits. Disaster not as great as I anticipated… Our position is a strong one. Think we can hold out several days, and if re-enforcements come up soon everything will come out right.” He also stated, “General Burnside will be too late to help us. We are about 30,000 brave and determined men; but our fate is in the hands of God; in whom I hope.”
Lincoln began realizing that Rosecrans’s situation was not as hopeless as initially feared. He told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “If he can only maintain his position, without (doing anything) more, the rebellion can only eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals.”
In addition to urging Burnside to hurry to Rosecrans’s aid, Halleck sent messages to Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s department in Mississippi and western Tennessee. Grant received a wire from Halleck to Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding Federals at Memphis, stating that “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.”
Despite knowing nothing of Rosecrans’s recent defeat, Grant complied immediately. He directed Major-General James B. McPherson, commanding a corps in Grant’s army, to send a division east. Grant then received a message directly from Halleck requesting aid from Major-General William T. Sherman’s corps, adding, “Urge Sherman to act with all possible promptness.”
Grant wrote to Sherman, whose troops were stationed on the Big Black River near Vicksburg, “Please order at once one division of your army corps to proceed to re-enforce Rosecrans, moving from here by brigades as fast as transportation can be had.” Sherman directed one of his divisions to start moving out that night. Grant added another division to the operation, sending three in total under Sherman’s command.
Meanwhile, Bragg was finally convinced that he had won a great victory at Chickamauga. He informed General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding Confederates in Mississippi, that “after four days’ fighting we had driven the enemy from the State of Georgia, and were still pursuing him; that he had encountered the most obstinate resistance, but the valor of our troops, under great privations, had overcome them all. Under God’s providence our loss was severe, but results were commensurate.”
Bragg continued his cautious observation of the Federal movements in and around Chattanooga. He ordered two infantry divisions and cavalry from Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s command to advance on Chattanooga the next morning. Longstreet, who believed that Bragg had agreed to move around Rosecrans’s flank to confront Burnside in eastern Tennessee, visited Bragg to confirm this strategy. According to Longstreet:
“When asked if he had abandoned the course upon which his march was ordered, he said the people would be greatly gratified to know that his army was marching through the streets of Chattanooga with bands of music and salutations of the soldiers… a parade through its streets with bands of music and flaunting banners, were more alluring to a spirit eager for applause than was the tedious march for fruition of our heavy labors.”
Longstreet argued that it would be better to go around Rosecrans and break his flank before going on to defeat Burnside and regain eastern Tennessee, but Bragg said that the cavalry had reported “that the enemy was in hurried and confused retreat, his trains crossing the river… in disorder.” Longstreet later wrote, “General Rosecrans prepared, no doubt, to continue his retreat, anticipating our march towards his rear, but finding that we preferred to lay our lines in front of him, concluded that it would be more comfortable to rest at Chattanooga, reinforce, repair damages, and come to meet us when ready for a new trial.”
Bragg had more than the Federal army on his mind; if this campaign failed in any way, he was getting ready to blame it on his subordinates. He sent an angry message to Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk, who commanded the right (north) wing of the Confederate army during the Battle of Chickamauga. Bragg demanded to know why Polk had failed to launch the assault that Bragg had ordered for the early morning of the 20th. Bragg also informed President Jefferson Davis that some officers may need to be removed from command for dereliction of duty. Bragg was largely unaware that several of his subordinates were working to turn the blame back on him.
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