Confederate Dissension at Chattanooga

General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee held strong positions on the mountains overlooking Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s besieged Federal Army of the Cumberland within the key railroad city of Chattanooga. But despite their advantage, the Confederates were plagued by dissension, which went all the way to the top. Bragg had blamed many of his subordinates for bungling orders before and during the Battle of Chickamauga, and his subordinates in turn blamed him for making poor decisions after the battle.

On September 26, Bragg’s top corps commanders (Lieutenant-Generals James Longstreet, Leonidas Polk, D.H. Hill, and Simon B. Buckner) met and agreed to urge the Richmond authorities to remove Bragg from command. Longstreet, as senior commander, wrote to Secretary of War James A. Seddon about Bragg’s “palpable weakness and mismanagement manifested in the conduct of the military operations of this army.”

Confederate Lt-Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit:

Longstreet added, “To express my convictions in a few words, our chief has done but one thing that he ought to have done since I joined this army. That was to order the attack upon the 20th. All other things he has done he ought not to have done. I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander.”

Longstreet recommended sending General Robert E. Lee from Virginia to replace Bragg. However, the Confederate high command opted to keep Lee in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia for now. This increased the chance that Longstreet might replace Bragg himself. But despite all the dissent, Bragg’s siege of Chattanooga was succeeding, with Rosecrans in desperate need of supplies and Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federals timidly remaining at Knoxville.

Still, Bragg reached out for as much help as he could get. He wrote to General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding Confederates in Mississippi: “Give us all the assistance you can. Enemy is evidently assembling all his available forces. He is strongly fortified in Chattanooga, but is embarrassed to supply over the mountains. We hold the railroad to Bridgeport. Should he open the route, your cavalry might pass up rear.” Johnston replied that he would send cavalry to disrupt the Federal lines of communication and supply in Tennessee.

Bragg also wrote to Commissary General L.B. Northrop that “the question of subsistence should receive early attention, as our supplies are nearly exhausted at Atlanta.” Northrop angrily replied that feeding Bragg’s army “has been a subject of solicitude since its withdrawal from Kentucky,” and suggested that if Bragg needed more supplies, then he should consider reclaiming eastern Tennessee.

Now that Bragg had the Federals trapped in Chattanooga, he resolved to start shelling them from atop Lookout Mountain. He directed Longstreet to head this operation, and Longstreet assigned Colonel E. Porter Alexander, his artillerist at Gettysburg, to execute the plan. Alexander positioned his 23 guns as best he could, but they were too far from their targets to be effective.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

Bragg then turned to his cavalry to further isolate the Federals. He ordered Major-General Joseph Wheeler to lead his troopers in a raid on Federal communication lines in the Sequatchie Valley. This was supposed to have been coordinated with Johnston’s cavalry raid behind enemy lines, but it was not. Wheeler, who had a depleted cavalry force with little raiding experience, nevertheless took on the mission, telling subordinates, “I have my orders, gentlemen, and I will attempt the work.”

Bragg also sent Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry on a raid into eastern Tennessee. But as Forrest returned from a mission across the Hiwassee River, he received a message from one of Bragg’s staffers: “The general commanding desires that you will without delay turn over the troops of your command, previously ordered, to Major-General Wheeler.”

The message did not explain that Bragg wanted Forrest to provide more troopers for Wheeler’s upcoming raid. Forrest, who was already outraged by Bragg’s failure to follow up his victory at Chickamauga with one more assault that could have destroyed the Federal army, refused to serve under Wheeler. Forrest also remembered Bragg’s lack of respect for his abilities, having called Forrest “ignorant” and “nothing more than a good raider.”

Forrest wrote a response in which he called Bragg a two-faced liar and promised to confront him at his headquarters as soon as possible. A few days later, Forrest stormed into Bragg’s Missionary Ridge headquarters in a rage. Forrest refused Bragg’s offer of a handshake and instead told him:

“I am not here to pass civilities or compliments with you, but on other business. You commenced your cowardly and contemptible persecution of me soon after the battle of Shiloh, and you have kept it up ever since. You did it because I reported to Richmond facts, while you reported damned lies. You robbed me of my command in Kentucky and gave it to one of your favorites–men that I armed and equipped from the enemies of our country.

“In a spirit of revenge and spite, because I would not fawn upon you as others did, you drove me into West Tennessee in the winter of 1862, with a second brigade I had organized, with improper arms and without sufficient ammunition, although I had made repeated applications for the same. You did it to ruin me and my career.

“When, in spite of all this, I returned with my command, well equipped by captures, you began again your work of spite and persecution, and have kept it up; and now this second brigade, organized and equipped without thanks to you or the government, a brigade which has won a reputation for successful fighting second to none in the army, taking advantage of your position as the commanding general in order to further humiliate me, you have taken these brave men from me.

“I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damn scoundrel, and are a coward; and if you were any part of a man, I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them, and I will hold you personally responsible for any further indignities you endeavor to inflict upon me. You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”

This ended Forrest’s association with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, but Bragg’s order to transfer Forrest’s men to Wheeler stood regardless. On the 30th, Wheeler led 4,000 troopers and eight guns on a raid of the Federals’ vulnerable communications and supply lines that lasted into October. Longstreet disdainfully described the raid: “The cavalry destroyed some wagon-trains and supplies, and gave the enemy more trouble than the artillery practice, yet failed to convince him that it was time to abandon his position, but, on the contrary, satisfied him that he was safe from further serious trouble.”

Bragg’s relationships with Polk and Major-General Thomas C. Hindman had also become strained. Bragg was outraged that Polk did not attack as ordered on the second day at Chickamauga. He demanded an explanation, and when Polk did not immediately respond, Bragg sent another demand. Polk ultimately blamed D.H. Hill for the delay, but Bragg called this “unsatisfactory.” Bragg also blamed Hindman for failing to attack the isolated Federals at McLemore’s Cove a week before the battle.

When Bragg tried to suspend both commanders, his superiors at Richmond told him that he only had the authority to arrest them, and only if he could “show cause by preferring charges as prescribed.” Bragg responded by officially charging Polk with disobedience and dereliction of duty. Bragg began rounding up officers to back his charges as he sent Polk to Atlanta to await further orders. The dissension within the army would only worsen as the siege continued, prompting President Jefferson Davis to consider going to Chattanooga to resolve the matter himself.


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