A Duck Hit on the Head

Major-General William S. Rosecrans, whose Federal Army of the Cumberland was besieged within Chattanooga, Tennessee, was reinforced by troops from Virginia, but it was becoming clear that he was not up to the task of breaking the siege. As Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Eleventh and Twelfth corps joined Rosecrans’s army, Hooker telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “You may justly claim the merit at having saved Chattanooga.” He placed his four divisions below the city to prevent Confederates from crossing the Tennessee River and attacking the Federal rear.

Despite the reinforcements, there seemed to be no viable plan to break the siege. Information from the city became scarce, and President Abraham Lincoln had to ask Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson, “What news have you from Rosecrans’ Army?…”  

In eastern Tennessee, Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio showed no signs of moving southwest to try to break Rosecrans out. To the west, Major-General William T. Sherman’s Federals from Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee were moving very slowly toward Chattanooga, repairing the railroad as they went in an effort to maintain their supply line.  

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding Federal naval forces on the Tennessee River, informed Grant that the river was low, preventing the larger Federal gunboats from supporting Sherman’s advance. Porter assured Grant that he would bring the vessels up as soon as possible, adding, “My intention is to send every gunboat I can spare up the Tennessee. I have also sent below for light-drafts to come up.”  

As Sherman left Memphis to join his men heading west, his train was attacked at Collierville, about 20 miles out of Memphis, by Brigadier-General James R. Chalmers’s Confederate cavalry. A four-hour fight ensued when Sherman refused to surrender unconditionally. The Confederates finally withdrew upon learning that a Federal division was coming from Memphis to reinforce Sherman. The Federals sustained 110 casualties (14 killed, 42 wounded, and 54 captured); Sherman lost five staff horses and his second-best uniform. The Confederates lost 51 men (three killed and 48 wounded).  

Meanwhile, administration officials were receiving gloomy reports from Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, Stanton’s operative in Chattanooga. Dana had accused two of Rosecrans’s corps commanders, Major-Generals Alexander M. McCook and Thomas L. Crittenden, of fleeing the Battle of Chickamauga, and both were removed from the Army of the Cumberland. They were eventually exonerated, but the damage to their reputations had been done.  

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Dana also called for Rosecrans’s removal, even going so far as implying that Rosecrans might play politics with the administration. Dana wrote on October 11:  

“I judge from intimations that have reached me that in writing his own report of Chickamauga, General Rosecrans will elaborately show that the blame of his failure in this great battle rests on the Administration; that is, on the Secretary of War and the General-in-Chief, who did not see that Bragg would be reinforced, and who compelled him to move forward without cavalry enough, and very inadequately prepared in other respects.”  

Dana sent another message the next day:  

“I have never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose. His mind scatters; there is no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights… Under the present circumstances I consider this army to be very unsafe in his hands.”  

Lincoln became increasingly convinced that Rosecrans could not handle his predicament. The president remarked that Rosecrans seemed “stunned and confused, like a duck hit on the head.” But Lincoln had no replacement in mind, so he continued trying to motivate Rosecrans to fight his way out of Chattanooga. Lincoln wired, “You and Burnside now have (the enemy) by the throat, and he must break your hold or perish.” Rosecrans responded that the Confederates had ripe corn to eat but “our side is barren… we must put our trust in God, who never fails those who truly trust.”  

A week later, Dana received reports that hungry soldiers were shouting “Crackers!” at officers inspecting fortifications. Dana wrote Stanton, “Amid all this, the practical incapacity of the general commanding is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious… If the army is finally obliged to retreat, the probability is that it will fall back like a rabble, leaving its artillery, and protected only by the river behind it.”  

Stanton shared Dana’s reports with Lincoln. Meanwhile, heavy rains made most of the roads outside Chattanooga virtually impassable, preventing supplies from getting over Walden’s Ridge to feed the Federals.  


  • 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.

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