General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee, despite having the advantage of laying siege to Federals in Chattanooga, was deeply demoralized. President Jefferson Davis had sent Colonel James Chesnut to assess the army’s condition, and when the officers presented Chesnut with a petition asking for Davis to remove Bragg as commander, Chesnut recommended that Davis come to Chattanooga and deal with the problem in person.
Davis left Richmond on October 6 with hopes “to be serviceable in harmonizing some of the difficulties” within the army. He traveled aboard a special train with his secretary Burton Harrison, Colonels William P. Johnston and Custis Lee (sons of Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee), and Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, who had not been reassigned since surrendering Vicksburg in July.
The travelers arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, on the 8th, where Davis met with Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk. Polk was a close friend of Davis whom Bragg had suspended for alleged dereliction of duty. Davis tried to get Polk to return to the army by telling him that Bragg’s actions were “a great blunder which he deeply regretted.” But Polk was so outraged by Bragg’s allegations that he refused.
The next morning, Davis delivered a speech that was very well received, in which he urged the people to continue the fight for independence. The presidential train then moved on to Marietta, where Davis was greeted by more cheering onlookers as he briefly praised Georgia’s role in the war.
Soldiers cheered and bands played as the train pulled in to Chickamauga Station. Davis mounted a horse as the crowd hollered, “Speech!” Davis responded, “Man never spoke as you did on the field of Chickamauga, and in your presence I dare not speak. Yours is the voice that will win the independence of your country and strike terror to the heart of a ruthless foe.”
Davis and his group rode into Bragg’s headquarters on Missionary Ridge and had a private meeting with the army commander. Bragg blamed his subordinates for the army’s troubles. He accepted Davis’s offer of replacing Polk with Pemberton, but when Polk’s troops protested serving under the northerner who had given up Vicksburg, Bragg relented and Pemberton was withdrawn. Bragg then offered to resign, but it was clear from the start that Davis had no intention of accepting, mainly because Bragg was the only Confederate general to have won a major victory in nearly half a year.
Davis and Bragg then called in Bragg’s corps commanders: Lieutenant-Generals James Longstreet, D.H. Hill, and Simon B. Buckner, and Major-General Benjamin F. Cheatham (replacing Polk). They discussed the current military situation and then, in Bragg’s presence, Davis asked the men to assess their leader’s performance. When no one spoke up, Davis insisted on a response. Longstreet finally said “that our commander could be of greater service elsewhere than at the head of the Army of Tennessee.” Each of the others agreed; Hill did so emphatically. The meeting ended awkwardly.
The next day, Davis met with Bragg again and inspected the army. Davis then met with Longstreet, Bragg’s top subordinate, and asked if he would be willing to replace Bragg as army commander. Longstreet later wrote, “In my judgment, our last opportunity was gone when we failed to follow the success at Chickamauga, and capture or disperse the Union army, and it could not be just to the service or myself to call me to a position of such responsibility.”
According to Longstreet, “The army was part of General Joseph E. Johnston’s department, and could only be used in strong organization by him in combining its operations with his other forces in Alabama and Mississippi. I said that under him I could cheerfully work in any position.” But Davis blamed Johnston for losing Vicksburg, and Johnston had twice refused to take command because he believed that Bragg was the better choice. As such, Longstreet’s suggestion “only served to increase his displeasure, and his severe rebuke.”
Longstreet then offered to resign, “to make place for some one who could better meet his ideas of the important service. He objected that my troops would not be satisfied with the change.” Davis also did not want to replace Bragg with General P.G.T. Beauregard, currently commanding in South Carolina, because of past animosities.
A new meeting was held at Bragg’s headquarters, in which all four corps commanders unanimously declared that Bragg should be removed from command. But besides Longstreet, Johnston, or Beauregard, Davis did not have many more options. Lieutenant-General William Hardee, currently commanding in Alabama, was the other most qualified man to replace Bragg, but he also turned down the job. Davis even considered General Robert E. Lee, but Lee expressed a desire to stay with his army in Virginia. This left Davis with Bragg’s corps commanders, who not only lacked experience for top command but also showed an insubordination that Davis quietly resented.
As Davis considered the matter, Bragg requested permission to remove D.H. Hill from command. Bragg wrote of Hill: “Possessing some high qualifications as a commander, he still fails to such an extent in others more essential that he weakens the morale and military tone of his command. A want of prompt conformity to orders of great importance is the immediate cause of this application.”
Davis approved: “Regretting that the expectations which induced the assignment of that gallant officer to this army have not been realized, you are authorized to relieve Lieutenant General D.H. Hill from further duty with your command.” Hill angrily demanded a written explanation why he was being removed, but Bragg simply told him that Davis made the decision, not him. Hill later demanded a court of inquiry to investigate his conduct, but Davis refused. Bragg and Hill had once been good friends, and it was most likely that since Hill had been the loudest in demanding Bragg’s removal, Bragg took it personally.
Major-General John C. Breckinridge, who despised Bragg so much that he had considered challenging him to a duel, replaced Hill. Davis later authorized Bragg and Johnston to trade the commands of Hardee and Polk. Polk would assume Hardee’s mostly administrative role as camp recruiter and instructor at Demopolis, Alabama; Hardee would supersede Cheatham as commander of Polk’s corps in Bragg’s army. The War Department later dropped Bragg’s charges of disobedience and dereliction of duty against Polk.
Next, Davis met with Brigadier-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had threatened to kill Bragg and asked Davis to give him an independent command. Davis granted Forrest’s request, giving him a cavalry force in northern Mississippi, where he would have authority “to raise and organize as many troops for the Confederate service as he finds practicable.” Davis recommended that Congress promote Forrest to major-general and instructed Bragg to send him two cavalry battalions and a battery.
Bragg dispatched another adversary by relieving Buckner of corps command. The men had exchanged hostile words before Bragg removed him. Although Buckner had commanded the separate Department of East Tennessee, Bragg argued that he had the authority to remove him because that department had been absorbed by the Army of Tennessee and converted into “Buckner’s Corps.” The corps was disbanded upon Buckner’s removal.
Davis addressed the Army of Tennessee as his inspection ended. He applauded the troops for “the glorious victory on the field of Chickamauga,” and noted the importance of “… devotion, sacrifice, and harmony… Though you have done much, very much yet remains to be done. Behind you is a people providing for your support and depending on you for protection. Before you is a country devastated by your ruthless invader…”
Davis admonished the troops for criticizing Bragg, warning, “He who sows the seeds of discontent and distrust prepares for a harvest of slaughter and defeat.” He declared, “To zeal you have added gallantry; to gallantry energy; to energy, fortitude. Crown these with harmony, due subordination, and cheerful support of lawful authority that the measure of your duty may be full.” He ended by praying “that our Heavenly Father may cover you with the shield of his protection in the hours of battle, and endow you with the virtues which will close your trials in victory complete.”
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