Chattanooga: Federal Reinforcements Move West

By September 25, three Federal forces were supposedly moving to reinforce Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland, which was besieged in Chattanooga:

  • Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio at Knoxville to the northeast
  • Major-General William T. Sherman’s four Federal divisions from the Army of the Tennessee
  • Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Eleventh and Twelfth Corps from the Army of the Potomac

But Burnside made no clear moves to help Rosecrans, as he was bogged down by the mountainous terrain and Confederate guerrillas. And Sherman’s men needed the Memphis & Charleston Railroad for supplies, which they had to repair as they advanced. This left Hooker’s Federals to rescue Rosecrans from General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.

The first troop train left Culpeper, Virginia, in the late afternoon of the 25th. The trains soon began passing through Washington every hour conveying 23,000 men, 1,100 horses, artillery, ammunition, equipment, food, and other supplies. The trains moved over the Appalachians, through West Virginia and Ohio, across the Ohio River twice, through Kentucky, and on to Nashville. From there, the troops transferred for the final leg of their journey to Chattanooga.

Men of the Eleventh Corps began moving out first, followed by the Twelfth Corps. Federals quickly intercepted messages indicating that the Confederates knew about the movement. As such, Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, urged Major-General Henry W. Slocum, commanding the Twelfth Corps, to move his men to Bealeton Station, across the Rappahannock River from Brandy Station, so they would be better hidden from Confederate view:

“The movement should not commence until after dark, and no preparation for it made or anything done previous to its being dark, so as to conceal the movement as far as practicable. The troops should be screened at or in the vicinity of Bealeton Station from the observation of the enemy’s signal officer on Clark’s Mountain. Watery Mountain will be cleared by our cavalry.”

Meade feared that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, would find out the Federals were leaving and attack his weakened army. Indeed, a Confederate spy in Washington reported on the day the troop trains came through: “Recent information shows that two of Meade’s army corps are on the move, large numbers of troops are at the cars, now loaded with cannon. There is no doubt as to the destination of these troops–part for Rosecrans, and perhaps for Burnside.”

However, Lee could not be sure that this was true because he also received reports stating that the Federals were reinforcing Meade rather than leaving him. Lee wrote his superiors at Richmond, “I judge by the enemy’s movements in front and the reports of my scouts in his rear that he is preparing to move against me with all the strength he can gather.” Lee then wrote Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, whose troops had been detached from Lee’s army to reinforce Bragg:

“Finish the work before you, my dear General, and return to me. Your departure was known to the enemy as soon as it occurred. General Meade has been actively engaged collecting his forces and is now up to the Rapidan (River). All his troops that were sent north have returned and re-enforcements are daily arriving… We are endeavoring to maintain a bold front, and shall endeavor to delay them all we can till you return.”

Despite all the leaked intelligence, War Department officials at Washington desperately tried to keep the movement a secret. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton dispatched agents to meet with Washington reporters and secure their agreements not to write about the operation. However, one correspondent sent a dispatch to the New York Evening Post, which published a story on the rescue mission in its Saturday (the 26th) edition.

Both Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln were enraged that the story was leaked, especially considering that most of the troop trains had not even started heading west yet. The news reached Richmond a couple days later, when President Jefferson Davis notified Lee that two corps were moving to reinforce Rosecrans. Lee received confirmation himself when he obtained a copy of the Evening Post’s article.

The movement proceeded nonetheless. By the morning of the 27th, the railroad had transported 12,600 men through Washington. Field artillery had also passed on 33 railcars, along with 21 baggage cars. Stanton telegraphed former Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott, who had resumed control of the Pennsylvania Railroad and was now regulating train operations west of the Alleghenies from Louisville: “The whole force, except 3,300 of the XII Corps, is now moving.” Two days later, Scott reported that trains were pulling out of Louisville regularly.

Meanwhile, Halleck continued sending messages to Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Army of the Tennessee to send as many troops as possible to Chattanooga. Grant, confined to his bed due to a serious hip injury suffered in New Orleans, urged Sherman to hurry along. Sherman’s Federals were conveyed by boat up the Mississippi River from Vicksburg to Memphis, and then east along the line of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. The last of these troops headed up to Memphis on the 28th, bound for Athens, Alabama.

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit:

Rosecrans seemed energized by the news that he would soon be reinforced. He sent instructions for Hooker to send his Federals directly from Louisville to Bridgeport, which served as the army supply base. Leading elements of Hooker’s force began arriving there at 10:30 p.m. on the 30th, precisely on schedule. Rosecrans had the trains at Bridgeport and Stevenson sent to Nashville to pick up more of Hooker’s troops.

However, so much planning and effort had gone into getting the troops to Rosecrans that it was still unclear how these troops would help break the siege. Rosecrans’s initial plan involved having Hooker’s troops secure the mountain passes in the Lookout Valley so that supplies could be sent from Bridgeport through the valley to Lookout Creek. But heavy rain forced the Federals to remain stationary through the end of September.

In addition to having no clear plan, the arrival of the eastern troops did not exactly boost the morale of the besieged westerners. The western troops had already considered themselves superior to their eastern counterparts because they had not sustained the number and magnitude of defeats that the Potomac army had experienced. And the Eleventh Corps was considered the weakest corps in the eastern army due to its notoriously poor performance at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

On top of concerns regarding strategy and morale, Rosecrans and his staff were under heavy scrutiny by Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana. Dana had been sent to Chattanooga to observe Rosecrans’s army on behalf of the War Department, and he had been sending unfavorable reports to Washington on the army’s condition ever since its defeat at Chickamauga.

Dana sent a private message to Stanton on the 27th, in which he recommended relieving two of Rosecrans’s four corps commanders for disobedience during the Battle of Chickamauga: Major-Generals Alexander McCook and Thomas L. Crittenden, leading the Twentieth and Twenty-first corps respectively. Dana wrote that Rosecrans would probably not relieve them himself because he “is greatly lacking in firmness and steadiness of will. He is a temporizing man” who feared “so heavy an alternative as is now presented.”

Dana then suggested that Rosecrans himself might need to be removed from command. He wrote, “If it be decided to change the chief commander also, I would take the liberty of suggesting that some Western general of high rank and great prestige, like Grant, for instance, would be preferable as his successor to anyone who has hitherto commanded in the East alone.”

Stanton shared Dana’s message with Lincoln, who in turn shared it with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. They both sided with Dana regarding McCook and Crittenden, and on the 28th the War Department issued General Order Number 322 relieving the two generals from duty. The order also ruled that “a court of inquiry be convened… to inquire and report upon the conduct of Major-Generals McCook and Crittenden, in the battles of the 19th and 20th instant.” The officers were sent to Indianapolis until the court convened. Neither was convicted of any wrongdoing, but their commands were not restored.

The Twentieth and Twenty-first corps were merged into a new Fourth Corps in the Army of the Cumberland (the original Fourth Corps on the Virginia Peninsula had been dissolved in August). This new corps consisted of troops mainly from the West, along with Regular army forces. Major-General Gordon Granger, currently commanding the Reserve Corps (and perhaps not so coincidentally good friends with Dana), was assigned to command.

By month’s end, Dana began favoring Major-General George H. Thomas, commanding the Fourteenth Corps, as a replacement for Rosecrans, writing, “Should there be a change in the chief command, there is no other man whose appointment would be so welcome to this army.” To Dana, a command change was becoming inevitable because “the soldiers have lost their attachment for (Rosecrans) since he failed them in the battle, and that they do not now cheer him until they are ordered to do so.”

Stanton tended to agree, as he wrote Dana on the 30th: “If Hooker’s command gets safely through, all that the Army of the Cumberland can need will be a competent commander. The merit of General Thomas and the debt of gratitude the nation owes to his valor and skill is fully appreciated here and I wish you to tell him so. It is not my fault that he was not in chief command months ago.”

Many top officials in the Lincoln administration were starting to press for Rosecrans’s removal, and even staunch supporters such as Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase were now turning their backs on him. Lincoln himself had little faith that Rosecrans could fight his way out of Chattanooga, but he did not want to make a move that might hurt Republican chances in the upcoming state elections. So Rosecrans stayed in command, if only temporarily.


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