Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland sat trapped in Chattanooga as supplies were slowly running out. The Confederate Army of Tennessee, led by General Braxton Bragg, held positions on the mountains and hills overlooking Chattanooga, and since Bragg did not believe he had the strength to attack the Federals directly, he decided to put them under siege instead.
Meanwhile, Federal troops of the Eleventh and Twelfth corps from the Army of the Potomac were hurrying from Virginia to reinforce Rosecrans. Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding these two corps, arrived at Nashville on October 1. By that time, his entire Eleventh Corps and part of his Twelfth Corps had moved through Nashville on their way to Chattanooga.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, finally had enough information to conclude that the Eleventh and Twelfth corps were no longer part of the Federal army in his front. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I consider it certain that two corps have been withdrawn… to re-enforce General Rosecrans.” Lee forwarded a scout’s report that troops of the Eleventh Corps boarded trains at Catlett’s Station, and the scout “saw other troops marching toward Manassas, which he believes to have been the Twelfth Corps.”
Lee then advised Davis: “Everything that can be done to strengthen Bragg ought now to be done, and if he cannot draw Rosecrans out in any other way, it might be accomplished by operating against his re-enforcements on the line of travel.” Bragg had the upper hand at Chattanooga, but these reinforcements would help even the odds. And more Federals could potentially join Rosecrans from Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio in eastern Tennessee and Major-General William T. Sherman’s Federals heading east from Mississippi.
By the 2nd, all troops of the Eleventh and Twelfth corps had arrived at Bridgeport, southwest of Chattanooga. The force consisted of nearly 20,000 men, 3,000 horses, 60 guns in 10 batteries, and 100 railcars filled with ammunition, equipment, and provisions. The 1,159-mile railroad trip took just seven days, making it the fastest troop transfer in history up to that time. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed Thomas A. Scott, managing the railroad at Louisville, “Your work is most brilliant. A thousand thanks. It is a great achievement.”
However, getting these troops to Rosecrans remained a problem. The Confederates controlled not only all the roads south of the Tennessee River, but the road linking Bridgeport to Chattanooga north of the river as well. The only viable route to the city was a convoluted path over Walden’s Ridge and through the Sequatchie Valley.
President Abraham Lincoln was disturbed by Rosecrans’s military situation, but he was almost equally disturbed by Rosecrans’s attempt to offer political advice. Rosecrans wrote the president on the 3rd: “If we maintain the position in such strength that the enemy are obliged to abandon their position, and the elections in the great States go favorably, would it not be well to offer a general amnesty to all officers and soldiers in the rebellion?”
According to journalist Henry Villard, Rosecrans’s letter “gave great offense and raised suspicions of political aspirations in his part.” Lincoln had been very wary of politically ambitious generals looking to run for office ever since George B. McClellan, and this would ultimately do nothing to help Rosecrans’s career. Ignoring Rosecrans’s message, Lincoln kept focused on his military fortunes, writing on the 4th, “If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the rebellion must dwindle and die. I think you and Burnside can do this…” Lincoln proposed that Rosecrans attack Bragg.
The Confederate army still had the advantage, but it was an army in great disarray, particularly among the top command. Brigadier-General Nathan Bedford Forrest accused Bragg of cowardice and fumed over Bragg’s failure to renew his attacks after the Battle of Chickamauga. Forrest went so far as to leave the army after threatening Bragg’s life.
In addition, Bragg had removed Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk and Major-General Thomas C. Hindman from their commands for allegedly disobeying orders. Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper informed Bragg that he had no power to remove Polk (“The power of a commanding general in such cases is limited to arrest and to the furnishing of charges in order to trial”), but Bragg was determined to get rid of Polk.
On the 2nd, Bragg submitted formal charges against Polk, specifically for failing to initiate the assault at Chickamauga as ordered on September 20, and generally for “neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” Polk was sent to Atlanta until the matter could be resolved. This caused a tremendous outcry against Bragg, as Polk (an Episcopalian bishop) was generally admired and respected by his troops while Bragg was mostly reviled.
When President Davis learned of this, he recommended that Bragg (his personal friend) drop the charges against Polk (his other personal friend). As Davis explained, “It was with a view of avoiding a controversy, which could not heal the injury sustained and which I feared would entail further evil.”
Pressing charges would mean a court-martial, “with all the crimination and recrimination there to be produced… I fervently pray that you may judge correctly, as I am well assured you will act purely for the public welfare.” Noting the hostility of Bragg’s subordinates toward their commander, Davis stated, “The opposition to you both in the army and out of it has been a public calamity in so far that it impairs your capacity for usefulness…”
Davis dispatched Colonel James Chesnut to meet with Polk at Atlanta and assess the army’s condition. Chesnut discussed the situation with Polk and then met with Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, who commanded a corps in Bragg’s army. Longstreet told him about the army’s “distressed condition, and urged upon him to go on to Richmond with all speed and to urge upon the President relief for us.”
A formal petition was signed by 12 corps, divisional, and brigade commanders asking Davis to remove Bragg from command. The petition acknowledged “that the proceeding is unusual among military men,” but “the extraordinary condition of affairs in this army, the magnitude of the interests at stake, and a sense of the responsibilities under which they rest to Your Excellency and to the Republic, render this proceeding, in their judgment, a matter of solemn duty, from which, as patriots, they cannot shrink.” The appeal read:
“Two weeks ago this army, elated by a great victory, was in readiness to pursue its defeated enemy. Whatever may have been accomplished heretofore, it is certain that the fruits of victory of the Chickamauga have now escaped our grasp. The Army of Tennessee, stricken with a complete paralysis, will in a few days’ time be thrown strictly on the defensive, and may deem itself fortunate if it escapes from its present position without disaster.”
The commanders argued that Chattanooga must be taken back, but if Bragg was not removed, “this campaign is virtually closed.” The incoming Federal reinforcements “must be met as nearly as possible by corresponding re-enforcements to this army,” but even “the ablest general could not be expected to grapple successfully with the accumulating difficulties of the situation.”
They pleaded, “In addition to reinforcements, your petitioners would deem it a dereliction of the sacred duty they owe the country if they did not further ask that Your Excellency assign to the command of this army an officer who will inspire the army and the country with undivided confidence…”
The signing officers refrained from military criticisms of Bragg to avoid appearing mutinous. They simply stated that “the condition of his health totally unfits him for the command of an army in the field.” When the petition reached Chesnut on the 5th, he forwarded it to Davis and urged him to come address these issues in person as soon as possible. Bragg learned of the petition asked Davis to come as well. By this time, Davis had already decided to directly intervene.
- Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- 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.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.