The Great Federal Troop Transfer

The situation for Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland was dire. The troops were trapped in Chattanooga while General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee occupied positions on the mountains overlooking them. The Federal high command was scrambling to find troops to reinforce Rosecrans, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton hurriedly called a meeting to discuss an idea that had been proposed.

The meeting took place late on September 23 (going into the 24th) at the War Department, and it included Stanton, President Abraham Lincoln, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and other selected officials. Stanton, having consulted with various railroad officials, unveiled a detailed plan to pull troops from Major-General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac in Virginia and send them to Chattanooga via the commandeered railroad system.

Lincoln and Halleck opposed the plan because it would leave Meade unable to confront General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in northern Virginia, and Rosecrans would be starved into surrender before the troops could rescue him. Stanton argued, “There is no reason to expect General Meade will attack Lee, although greatly superior in force, and his great numbers where they are are useless. In five days 30,000 could be put with Rosecrans.”

Seward sided with Stanton, who brought in Colonel D.C. McCallum, director of the Department of Military Railroads. McCallum confirmed Stanton’s remarkable claim that the troops could be transported to Chattanooga within five days. The troops would have to travel 1,233 railroad miles during that time, something that had never been tried in history.

Lincoln, fearing yet another military disaster, said, “I will bet that if the order is given tonight, the troops could not be got to Washington in five days.” But McCallum swore on his life that his calculations were correct. Lincoln finally approved the plan, but he would not agree to send 30,000 men as Stanton wanted. Instead, Stanton would transfer Meade’s two smallest corps–the Eleventh and the Twelfth–which totaled closer to 23,000 men.

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit:

Stanton, having gambled that Lincoln would approve, already summoned the presidents of three railroads to “come to Washington as quickly as you can” to work out the travel schedule. They met at noon to discuss how to handle the four railroad changes along the way. Stanton issued several orders assembling dozens of trains for the transfer.

Major-General Joseph Hooker, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac who was currently at liberty, was recalled to active duty and placed in command of the Eleventh and Twelfth corps. Hooker was given authority to commandeer all the railroads and equipment he needed for the transfer.

Halleck telegraphed Meade, “Please answer if you have positively determined to make any immediate movement. If not, prepare the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps to be sent to Washington, as soon as cars can be sent to you. The troops should have five days’ cooked provisions. Cars will probably be there by the morning of the 25th.”

Meade had met with Lincoln and Halleck on the 23rd about the possibility of sending some of his troops to Chattanooga, but Meade had returned to his army with the understanding that this would be highly unlikely. Now it was becoming a reality, and Meade asked Halleck to confirm whether this was truly the case. Halleck replied by ordering that the “Eleventh and Twelfth Corps be immediately prepared to be sent to Washington, as conditionally ordered before.”

Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps was stationed on Meade’s front line, in view of the Confederate army. Meade directed Major-General John Newton’s First Corps to replace Slocum’s troops. Meade told Newton, “It is important that this should be done with the utmost dispatch, and that the movement and relief of the Twelfth Corps should be effected without the knowledge of the enemy so far as it is practicable to accomplish it.”

As Newton’s Federals moved, they intercepted a Confederate message stating, “Camps on Culpeper and Stevensburg Road, to the right of Pony Mountain, have disappeared within the last two hours. Infantry can be seen moving toward Stevensburg. A few wagons also moving in that direction.” However, the Confederates did not know the reason for the movement. Most of Slocum’s men reached Brandy Station by 5 p.m., with most of Newton’s men taking their place at the front.

Hooker issued orders leaving the command structures of the Eleventh and Twelfth corps intact. He also directed the troops to move with five days’ cooked rations, and he instructed, “Have the baggage reduced (to) minimum limit, leave with 200 rounds of ammunition for the artillery and 40 for the infantry… Officers must reduce their horses to the smallest limit.”

Slocum had been one of Hooker’s harshest critics after the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville. When he learned that Hooker would be his superior for this operation, he immediately protested to Lincoln. Explaining that he had vowed never to serve under Hooker again, Slocum wrote:

“My opinion of General Hooker both as an officer and a gentleman is too well known to make it necessary for me to refer to it in this communication. The public service cannot be promoted by placing under his command an officer who has so little confidence in his ability as I have. Our relations are such that it would be degrading in me to accept any position under him. I have therefore to respectfully tender the resignation of my commission as Major-General of Volunteers.”

Unwilling to accept the resignation of such a valuable officer, Lincoln pledged to keep Hooker at a respectable distance from Slocum while everybody scrambled to hurry the reinforcements to Chattanooga.


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