Major-General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, had just sustained the worst defeat of his career at the Battle of Chickamauga. He responded by pulling his troops into the vital railroad city of Chattanooga. In so doing, he gave up the strong high ground atop Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge overlooking the city.
General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, decided that rather than directly attacking Rosecrans’s Federals, he would put them under siege. Bragg’s troops promptly took Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, where they could control the flow of supplies into Chattanooga and starve the Federals into surrender. The Confederates pointed cannon down on the Federals below and posted sharpshooters along the Tennessee River to keep the enemy trapped within the city.
Rosecrans risked destruction if he tried pulling his army out of Chattanooga, so he directed his men to build defenses and waited for reinforcements to help him fight his way out. The only remaining supply depot for the Federals was at Bridgeport, Alabama, 27 miles downriver from Chattanooga. Supplies had to be transported overland from Bridgeport through the mountains on a trip that took between eight and 20 days. Rosecrans soon put his men on half-rations.
Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding a corps in Bragg’s army, urged Bragg to detach part of his force to confront Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, about 100 miles northeast. This would not only prevent Burnside from reinforcing Rosecrans, but it could also result in the Confederates regaining eastern Tennessee.
Longstreet then proposed that Bragg’s remaining force cross the Tennessee River, flank Rosecrans, and force his surrender. To Longstreet’s dismay, Bragg instead decided to put his whole army in Rosecrans’s front to besiege the Federals. This would take time, which was exactly what the Federal high command needed to rescue Rosecrans’s army.
Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, observing the Federal army on behalf of the War Department, reported that Rosecrans “has determined to fight it out here at all hazards,” but warned that the troops could not survive past two or three weeks. Dana reported that Rosecrans had about 35,000 effectives, but to break out of Bragg’s siege, he would need at least 25,000 more.
Rosecrans, whose mood had swung back and forth between extreme optimism and pessimism the past few days, sent an optimistic message to Washington on the morning of the September 23: “We hold this point, and cannot be dislodged except by very superior numbers.” He asked for “all reinforcements you can send hurried up.” President Abraham Lincoln had urged Burnside to reinforce Rosecrans, but Burnside seemed unable to move any time soon.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had asked Major-General Ulysses S. Grant to send troops from his department in Mississippi and western Tennessee, and Grant hurriedly ordered three divisions to start moving east, led by Major-General William T. Sherman.
Halleck, worried that General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in Mississippi might reinforce Bragg, wrote, “It is quite possible that Bragg and Johnston will move through northern Alabama to the Tennessee to turn General Rosecrans’s right and cut off his communication. All of General Grant’s available forces should be sent to Memphis, thence to Corinth and Tuscumbia, to co-operate with Rosecrans, should the Rebels attempt that movement.”
Grant summoned Sherman to Vicksburg, where Grant shared all of Halleck’s messages and discussed the impending movement. Grant decided to send four divisions to Chattanooga, three from Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps and one from Major-General James B. McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps. Sherman would command this detached force. But the movement would take time because Sherman’s Federals needed to repair the damaged Memphis & Charleston Railroad as they went so they could supply themselves along the way.
Back at Washington, many of the top Lincoln administration officials were unhappy with the state of affairs. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was receiving regular updates on Rosecrans’s situation from Dana, and he had already concluded that Rosecrans should be removed from command. As military telegraphers worked to decipher a coded message from Rosecrans explaining the reasons for his defeat, Stanton snapped, “I know the reasons well enough. Rosecrans ran away from his fighting men and did not stop for thirteen miles.”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles blasted both Stanton and Halleck for failing to give Rosecrans the aid he needed while in enemy territory. Welles wrote:
“I do not find that Stanton has much to say or do. If there are facilities of combination and concentration, it is not developed. No assistance has been rendered Rosecrans. For four weeks the Rebels have been operating to overwhelm him, but not a move has been made, a step taken, or an order given, that I can learn. Halleck has done nothing, proposed nothing, and is now just beginning to take measures to reinforce Rosecrans. Has he the mind, energy, or any of the qualities or capabilities for the important position assigned him?”
With Burnside refusing to move and Sherman needing time to move, the only other viable source for reinforcement came from Major-General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Meade was summoned to Washington for a meeting with President Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck. Expecting to be admonished for not confronting the Confederate army in Virginia fast enough, Meade announced that if they were not satisfied with him, they could accept his resignation. Halleck replied that he had no doubt Meade would be happy with being removed, but he would have no such luck.
Lincoln explained that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether part of Meade’s army could be detached to rescue Rosecrans’s army trapped in Chattanooga. Stanton suggested transferring 30,000 troops. Meade listed several reasons why he objected to such a plan, including the fact that he needed all available men for an offensive he planned to launch soon. The meeting ended at 1 p.m., with Lincoln and Halleck rejecting Stanton’s idea and Meade returning to his headquarters.
But the idea gained traction as the day wore on, and Stanton arranged a midnight conference to discuss it further. John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, rode out to the Soldiers’ Home where the president often stayed, to summon Lincoln back to Washington for the meeting.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Takes Command. Open Road Media, Kindle Edition, 2015.
- Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Cozzens, Peter, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Co. (Kindle Edition), 1889.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.