Confederate Forces Split in East Tennessee

General Braxton Bragg, whose Confederate Army of Tennessee was overlooking the Federal forces in Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee, had detached a corps under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet to move northeast and threaten the Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville. Bragg continued his massive army reorganization:

  • Major-General John C. Breckinridge was placed in command of the corps formerly led by Lieutenant-General D.H. Hill. Hill had been removed from the army for being highly critical of Bragg’s leadership. Breckinridge also had a bad history with Bragg; he even wanted to challenge Bragg to a duel after sustaining heavy (and possibly pointless) losses at the Battle of Stones River.
  • Lieutenant-General William Hardee commanded the corps formerly led by Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk. Polk had left the army due to allegations of dereliction of duty at the Battle of Chickamauga. Bragg’s army had formerly contained four corps, but now it had only two that amounted to about 36,000 men.

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander in the Western Theater, commanded the following:

  • Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s army at Knoxville
  • Major-General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga
  • Major-General Joseph Hooker’s contingent from the Army of the Potomac reinforcing Thomas
  • Major-General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee; most of the army was heading east to reinforce Thomas with the rest staying back to man the garrisons in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi

By November 9, Sherman’s troops reached Decherd, where the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad ran through to supply the Federals in Chattanooga. Sherman was now able to telegraphically communicate directly with Grant. Sherman’s destination was Bridgeport, Alabama, a supply depot down the Tennessee River from Chattanooga.

On the Confederate left flank, Bragg conceded the loss of Lookout Valley and decided instead to post troops on Lookout Mountain. Brigadier-General John Jackson, commanding a division in Hardee’s corps, reconnoitered the mountain with other officers and noted, “No line to fight on was recommended by anyone present. Indeed, it was agreed on all hands that the position was one extremely difficult of defense against a strong force of the enemy advancing under cover of a heavy fire.”

By the 11th, most of Longstreet’s force had reached Sweetwater, a point between Chattanooga and Knoxville. Longstreet had no wagons to carry pontoons for building bridges, so the troops were delayed until suitable crossing points could be found on the rivers. Also, rations had not yet arrived as promised, causing further delays. Longstreet telegraphed Bragg, “The delay that occurs is one that might have been prevented, but not by myself… As soon as I find a probability of moving without almost certain starvation, I shall move, provided the troops are up.”

Confederate Gens Braxton Bragg & James Longstreet | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Bragg responded the next day: “Transportation in abundance was on the road and subject to your orders. I regret it has not been energetically used. The means being furnished, you were expected to handle your own troops, and I cannot understand your constant applications for me to furnish them.” Longstreet later wrote:

“General Bragg heard of the delay and its cause, but began to urge the importance of more rapid movements. His effort to make his paper record at my expense was not pleasing, but I tried to endure it with patience. He knew that trains and conductors were under his exclusive control, but he wanted papers that would throw the responsibility of delay upon other shoulders.”

At Chattanooga, Bragg wanted to attack the Federal right at Bridgeport. But bad weather prevented this. Bragg was unaware that Sherman’s men were on their way there, or he might have moved with more urgency. Bragg received a message from Custis Lee, on behalf of President Jefferson Davis:

“His Excellency regrets that the weather and condition of the roads have suspended the movement (on your left), but hopes that such obstacles to your plans will not long obstruct them. He feels assured that you will not allow the enemy to get up all his reinforcements before striking him, if it can be avoided… (the president) does not deem it necessary to call your attention to the importance of doing whatever is to be done before the enemy can collect his forces, as the longer the time given him for this purpose, the greater will be the disparity in numbers.”

Meanwhile, Longstreet gathered his forces at Loudon, still 20 miles from Knoxville. The foul weather greatly impeded their progress. Longstreet dispatched three of Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry brigades to advance on Knoxville ahead of the struggling army. Wheeler moved east to Maryville, south of Knoxville, and then rode north to probe the city’s southern approaches. Longstreet ordered Wheeler to take the heights across from Knoxville on the south bank of the Holston River.

On the 13th, Burnside was informed that enemy forces were “placing guns in positions this evening in the works on the south side of the river.” Burnside wrote Grant, “I think it would be advisable to concentrate the forces in East Tennessee and risk a battle.”

However, Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, observing Federal operations at Knoxville on behalf of the War Department, disagreed. He wrote Grant, “It is certain that Longstreet is approaching from Chattanooga with from 20,000 to 40,000 troops,” and “with Burnside’s present forces he is unable to resist such an attack.” Dana believed that Burnside should consider “what is the most advantageous line of retreat.”

Dana suggested that Grant wedge a force between Longstreet and Bragg, which could “compel Longstreet to return and allow Burnside not only to hold his present positions, but to advance and occupy the line of the Hiwassee (closer to supporting Grant at Chattanooga).”

Meanwhile, Sherman finally reached Bridgeport on the night of the 13th, as his vanguard edged closer to Stevenson. Due to bad roads, rugged terrain, foul weather, and sporadic guerrilla attacks, it had taken him 13 days to travel just 170 miles. Grant directed Sherman to gather his divisions at Bridgeport and have them “ready for moving as soon as possible.” Sherman himself was to come to Grant’s headquarters to discuss the upcoming offensive. Counting Sherman’s Federals, the combined Federal force would number about 72,000, or double Bragg’s size.


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