As November began, the Federal army under siege in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now had a secure and reliable supply line. Supplies were being shipped from Bridgeport, Alabama, to Brown’s Ferry on the Tennessee River, and then brought overland into Chattanooga via Moccasin Point. Federal troops began receiving full rations, including hardtack (i.e., “crackers”) for the first time in nearly a month. President Abraham Lincoln wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home in Auburn, New York, that messages “from Chattanooga show all quiet and doing well.”
Now that the troops were being fed, the Federal high command expected them to take the offensive. But this was easier said than done. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federals in Chattanooga, assured General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that the new supply line was “settling the subsistence and forage questions,” but the troops and horses were not nearly strong enough to mobilize for any type of major action.
Getting the Federal army fully operational seemed such an immense task that Grant’s chief of staff, Brigadier-General John A. Rawlins, wrote, “Owing to the difficulties of getting forward supplies and the poverty of the animals, a forward movement from here, before spring, is exceedingly problematical.”
In addition, Grant was responsible for getting supplies to Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, and troops from Major-General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee heading east from Mississippi to reinforce the Federals in Chattanooga. According to Grant, “Sherman’s force made an additional army, with cavalry, artillery, and trains, all to be supplied by the single track road from Nashville. All indications pointed also to the probable necessity of supplying Burnside’s command in East Tennessee, 25,000 more, by the same route. A single track could not do this.”
Grant therefore directed Sherman to stop Brigadier-General Grenville M. Dodge’s command “of about 8,000 men, at Athens, and subsequently directed the latter to arrange his troops along the railroad from Decatur north towards Nashville, and to rebuild that road… The rebuilding of this road would give us two roads as far as Stevenson over while to supply the army.”
Dodge’s division was to continue repairing the railroad until Grant launched his offensive. As a former railroad surveyor and engineer, Dodge had his men complete the work within 40 days. Grant directed the superintendent of military railroads at Nashville to contract with northern manufacturers and commandeer all pre-built bridges for Dodge, as “it is of vast importance that the road from Nashville to Decatur be opened as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, the rest of Sherman’s forces continued moving as fast as possible toward Chattanooga, scattering various bands of Confederate guerrillas along the way. Once all reinforcements arrived, Grant would have roughly 70,000 troops from three different armies:
- Major-General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland
- Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Eleventh and Twelfth corps from the Army of the Potomac
- Sherman’s contingent from the Army of the Tennessee
This combined force would then be mobilized to drive the Confederate Army of Tennessee off Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge overlooking the city.
On the Confederate side, President Jefferson Davis learned that the Federals had secured a new supply line at Brown’s Ferry and wrote General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate army, “The result related is a bitter disappointment, as my expectations were sanguine that the enemy, by throwing across the Tennessee his force at Bridgeport, had ensured the success of the (Wauhatchie) operation suggested by General (James) Longstreet, and confided to his execution.”
Bragg had feuded with nearly all his subordinates, and four (Leonidas Polk, D.H. Hill, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Simon B. Buckner) had been transferred out of the army. Bragg now looked to send Longstreet away. Longstreet had been one of Bragg’s harshest critics, and in October, Davis suggested sending his command to confront Burnside’s Federals at Knoxville. Although the Federals under “siege” at Chattanooga were now receiving supplies and reinforcements, Bragg decided to weaken his force by acting upon the president’s suggestion.
Bragg called his three current corps commanders (Longstreet, Lieutenant-General William Hardee, and Major-General John C. Breckinridge) to a council of war on October 3. Bragg announced that Longstreet’s command would head northeast “to drive Burnside out of East Tennessee first, or better, to capture or destroy him.” Longstreet would also be tasked with securing the railroad line supplying the Confederates up to Loudoun. Joining Longstreet would be Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry.
The officers suggested some more effective alternatives, including attacking Grant’s right flank at Bridgeport or advancing the entire army against Burnside. Bragg rejected these proposals, stating that Longstreet would move out as soon as possible. Longstreet warned that moving out would take time, which would thereby allow “Grant to bolster his forces and break out.” According to Longstreet, “His (Bragg’s) sardonic smile seemed to say that I knew little of his army or of himself in assuming such a possibility.”
Longstreet argued that splitting the army in two would “expose both to failure, and really take no chance to ourselves of great results.” But Bragg’s mind was made up. Longstreet prepared his men for the move, leaving Bragg with just 36,000 men to lay siege to an enemy almost twice their size.
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- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
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