Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaignsby Steven E. Woodworth
When Vicksburg fell to Union forces under General Grant in July 1863, the balance turned against the Confederacy in the trans-Appalachian theater. The Federal success along the river opened the way for advances into central and eastern Tennessee, which culminated in the bloody battle of Chickamauga and then a struggle for Chattanooga. Chickamauga is usually counted
When Vicksburg fell to Union forces under General Grant in July 1863, the balance turned against the Confederacy in the trans-Appalachian theater. The Federal success along the river opened the way for advances into central and eastern Tennessee, which culminated in the bloody battle of Chickamauga and then a struggle for Chattanooga. Chickamauga is usually counted as a Confederate victory, albeit a costly one. That battle—indeed the entire campaign—is marked by muddle and blunders occasionally relieved by strokes of brilliant generalship and high courage. The campaign ended significant Confederate presence in Tennessee and left the Union poised to advance upon Atlanta and the Confederacy on the brink of defeat in the western theater.
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Six Armies in TennesseeThe Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns
By Steven E. Woodworth
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 1998 Steven E. Woodworth
All right reserved.
The Army Begins to Move
Gray-clad pickets gazed northward through the dim early morning light, made dimmer by the overcast that had come up the night before and the steady drizzle that had started just after dawn. It was June 24, 1863. The sun rose early these midsummer days, and behind the sentries' right shoulders it was already well up, visible now only as a lighter patch in the overcast sky. Below it, the hills of the Highland Rim loomed faintly and intermittently through the shifting curtain of rain, making a lumpy horizon of darker gray against the pale gray sky behind the Southern soldiers' backs. In front of them the cedar-dotted Middle Tennessee landscape rolled gently northwestward, hill and dale, into an indefinite murk toward which these Confederates, men of the First Kentucky Cavalry, strained their eyes. As the foremost outposts of Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, their business was to see and to report what they saw.
One of the Kentuckians must have made out moving shapes emerging from the mist, a vague line of figures a couple of hundred yards off and more or less evenly spaced. He would have recognized them almost immediately as Federal skirmishers. Moments later the cavalrymen were peering over the sights of their carbines and squeezing off the first shots of what was to become a five-month struggle for control of half the state of Tennessee and the momentum of the war. Several hundred yards away, men of the Seventy-second Indiana Mounted Infantry raised their Spencer Repeating Rifles and hammered back half a dozen shots for every one of the Rebels'. The Kentuckians were soon mounting up and galloping back toward their prepared position in the hills, with the Hoosiers--and a full army corps of their comrades--in hot pursuit. The Kentucky cavalrymen would be the first to carry the news to the rest of Bragg's army that William S. Rosecrans's Federal Army of the Cumberland was finally moving out from its base at Murfreesboro.
If Bragg and his men had waited with apprehension for this day, others had waited with considerably more eagerness and less patience. During the six months since the armies last clashed in Middle Tennessee, the Federal authorities in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and General in Chief Henry W. Halleck, had chafed at the inactivity of Union forces in Tennessee, but Rosecrans was not to be hurried.
William Starke Rosecrans was a forty-three-year-old Ohioan who had graduated fifth in the fifty-six-man West Point class of 1842. That brilliant record earned him a place in the elite Corps of Engineers, but his subsequent army career had been disappointing. He missed service in the Mexican War and by 1854 had only just made first lieutenant. Like many a bright officer in that decade, he resigned his commission and turned to civilian pursuits. The outbreak of the Civil War found him in Cincinnati, trying to make a go of a kerosene refining business. The country needed trained soldiers in the spring of 1861, and Rosecrans was soon back in uniform and on the fast track to high rank, first under George B. McClellan in the area that was to become West Virginia and later under West Point classmate Ulysses S. Grant in Mississippi. There, on October 3 and 4, 1862, he experienced his greatest success up to that point, commanding the garrison of Corinth, Mississippi, when it repulsed a determined assault by a small Confederate army under Earl Van Dorn.
Rosecrans came into the limelight at an opportune moment, for the authorities in Washington were just then thoroughly disgusted with Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, who with his Army of the Ohio had, in the campaign then coming to a close, performed so feebly as to allow a Confederate army under Braxton Bragg to go all the way to central Kentucky and then back to Tennessee more or less unscathed. Buell's situation had been difficult. The nature of the war had been changing even as he endeavored to wage it by the old rules, but from Washington he had appeared sadly lacking both in enterprise and in aggressiveness. So before the month was out, Buell was packed off into retirement, and Rosecrans had command of his army, now christened the Army of the Cumberland and operating with Nashville as its base.
Lincoln wanted fighting, and he soon got it from his new army commander. Two months later, having heard that Confederate president Jefferson Davis had weakened Bragg to reinforce Confederate troops in Mississippi, Rosecrans advanced against the Southern army at Murfreesboro, some thirty-five miles to the southeast. There, however, at the battle of Stones River, Bragg had introduced himself to the new Federal army commander, seizing the initiative, overrunning a good bit of the Army of the Cumberland, and coming within a whisker of sending Rosecrans back to Nashville in disgrace. Several factors combined to make it otherwise. For one thing, Bragg had problems of his own because all was not well in the high command of the Rebel army. For another, Rosecrans rose to the occasion, fearlessly riding his lines under deadly fire, even after his chief of staff and close personal friend Maj. Julius Garesche was decapitated by a cannonball only a few feet away, splattering Rosecrans with gore. The commanding general's inspiring leadership steadied the troops in the face of the Confederate attacks.
A third reason for Federal victory at the battle of Stones River was the presence of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, Rosecrans's top lieutenant. Three years older than Rosecrans and two years ahead of him at West Point, Thomas was a Union-loyal Virginian who had served with distinction in every battle of what was now the Army of the Cumberland. Indeed, he could have had the command of it that fall when Bragg was moving north and Washington was disgusted with Buell, but he had declined to avoid a change of commanders in the midst of a campaign. When the campaign was over, for whatever reason, the command went to Rosecrans instead. At Stones River, Thomas was a tower of strength. His crucial section of the line held firm and became the key to stopping the Confederate assault. His sturdy influence steadied Rosecrans through the ordeal. After Stones River, his continued presence in the army, commanding the XIV Corps, was one of its greatest strengths.
Rosecrans had prevailed at Stones River simply by avoiding defeat and thus had received the accolades of victory for what was really a very indecisive battle. The praise Rosecrans received had as much to do with politics as it did with anything that happened on the fields outside of Murfreesboro. Lincoln needed a victory. Less than three weeks before the armies met on the banks of Stones River, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside had led the Army of the Potomac to one of the war's most humiliating and lopsided defeats at Fredericksburg. Lincoln had just given Burnside command in place of McClellan, who, like Buell, had shown a reluctance to advance. That Burnside had now advanced and butchered his army was not exactly a recommendation of Lincoln's policy. The Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War redoubled its carping, the cabinet was bitterly divided, and the generals--and perhaps the soldiers--of the Army of the Potomac were in a well-nigh mutinous humor. The president had remarked grimly, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it."
Then, less than a week before Stones River, Grant's campaign against Vicksburg had come to grief when Confederate cavalry under Earl Van Dorn cut his supply lines, forcing the retreat of his overland expedition and leaving his river-based drive under William T. Sherman to suffer at Chickasaw Bayou a small-scale repetition of the slaughter of Fredericksburg. Union morale needed a victory, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, Stones River would do well enough. Months later Lincoln wrote to Rosecrans, "I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year, and beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over."
And so Rosecrans, for a time, was in very good favor with the authorities at Washington, and Stanton wrote him, "There is nothing within my power to grant to yourself or your heroic command that will not be cheerfully given." Whether because of this extravagant assurance or the shock of his hairbreadth escape from disaster at Stones River or what he had seen of the face of battle there, Rosecrans soon made it clear that he and his command would need a great deal more of everything before they were ready for another such encounter. He would have to move through rough country and would need plenty of scouting. Then, too, he would have long supply lines to guard. That meant he needed more cavalry--and more horses and carbines to mount and equip them. Also, he might have to maneuver a good distance from the railroad and perhaps be out of touch with it for some time. That meant he would need to accumulate mountains of supplies, which would require many more wagons to haul them and, in turn, would require still more horses and mules. Nor was that all. As weeks passed, Rosecrans's list of needs grew to include all manner of supplies, equipment, and reinforcements. Remarkably, the demands were generally met, but as fast as they were, Rosecrans drew attention to additional wants. His plaintive requests went on at such length and with such frequency that Halleck was moved to remonstrate with him at "the enormous expense to the Government of your telegrams; more than that of all the other generals in the field."
Such demands would have gone far, all by themselves, toward wearing out Rosecrans's popularity in the capital, but they were the least of his problems with the Lincoln administration. For nearly a year, Lincoln had been trying to get his generals to implement his strategy of applying constant, relentless pressure on the Confederacy on all fronts at once. His problem had been finding generals who would do so. The only one that had surfaced thus far--and the one who would eventually apply that strategy to achieving Union victory--was Grant. Buell had been among the worst offenders as a general seemingly wedded to the old, scientific, methodical school of warfare in which campaigns were merely giant equations to be solved in the most mathematically arcane manner possible. What Lincoln wanted--and Stanton and Halleck wanted on his behalf--was the kind of hard-driving, pit-bull style of warfare that Grant later characterized with the prescription: "Get at the enemy as quick as you can. Hit him as hard as you can; and keep moving on."
The trouble with Rosecrans, as far as Lincoln was concerned, was that he was not Grant. As weeks stretched into months after the battle of Stones River and Rosecrans made no offensive movement, the Washington authorities became increasingly impatient. Halleck and Stanton tried bluster and blandishment and even old-fashioned nagging but could get no results. Rosecrans responded with excuses and requests for more of everything. On March 1 Halleck telegraphed, "There is a vacant major generalcy in the Regular Army, and I am authorized to say that it will be given to the general in the field who first wins an important and decisive victory." Rosecrans professed to "feel degraded" at the idea of "such an auctioneering of honor." He made it clear that he was far above the quest for battlefield promotion. He was not, however, above requesting of Stanton, presumably pursuant to the secretary's promise to grant anything in his power, that his (Rosecrans's) commission as a major general of volunteers be backdated so that he could outrank Grant. Lincoln himself responded, and though his language was, as always, gentle and soothing, his point was that the matter of relative rank between two generals in different departments was irrelevant, and would Rosecrans please get on with the war?
He would not--at least not for a considerable length of time--though his dispatches occasionally held out hope that the long-sought culmination might be in sight. As spring came and with it the opening of crucial campaigns in both Mississippi and Virginia, Rosecrans's inactivity became still more irksome and the urgings from Washington more insistent though equally futile. When Grant successfully penned John C. Pemberton's Confederate army into the fortifications of Vicksburg, Bragg was able to detach ten thousand infantry to what the Richmond government hoped would be a relieving force under Joseph E. Johnston. Word of the move got back to Washington, but when Halleck taxed Rosecrans with this obvious ill effect of his idleness, the Army of the Cumberland's commander coolly replied that in fact his delay was good strategy. If he attacked Bragg, he might drive him to join Johnston with his whole army and thus defeat Grant. Besides, since Union armies were engaged in mighty struggles in Mississippi and Virginia, strategy dictated that Rosecrans's army, as the republic's last reserve, await the outcomes of those campaigns.
And so Rosecrans planned and prepared and accumulated the stuff of war, and Lincoln may well have reflected that whereas he had appointed Rosecrans in October 1862 in hopes of finding someone who would make war the way Grant was even now doing, he had in fact gotten merely a better Buell.
If Lincoln had his command problems that spring, so did the Confederates. Facing Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland was the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Its commander was Braxton Bragg. A forty-six-year-old native of Warrenton, North Carolina, Bragg was a member of the West Point class of 1837, in which he had ranked fifth. He had gone to war in Mexico nine years later as a captain commanding a battery of artillery and at Buena Vista had won nationwide fame when his guns stopped a crucial Mexican attack. His performance had been comparable to the best of those of the many Mexican War junior officers who were destined for larger responsibility in the Civil War. During the 1850s Bragg followed the example of many brother officers and left the army for civilian employment. He married a Louisiana heiress and settled down to take up the life of a planter.
The Civil War brought him back into uniform, this time a gray one. His first post was Pensacola, Florida, during the days when it appeared that the war might begin there instead of at Charleston, South Carolina. He had demonstrated himself a skillful organizer and rigorous trainer. When things went sour for the Confederacy in Tennessee in February 1862, the South could no longer afford to keep able commanders and large garrisons in such places as Pensacola. Bragg was brought to Corinth, Mississippi, to join the army with which Albert Sidney Johnston hoped to turn the tide in the West. Johnston made his bid at Shiloh, and there he died. In that battle Bragg gained further favorable notice, and though his tactics were not especially creative, they were no worse than anyone else's. Within a few months Bragg found himself promoted to full general and elevated to command of the main Confederate army in the West in place of P. G. T. Beauregard, Johnston's successor, who left the army because of sickness. Bragg began his tenure auspiciously, taking advantage of the scientific, methodical, and uninspired campaigning of Federal generals Halleck and Buell to swing his army all the way into Kentucky, threatening Louisville and Cincinnati, affording Kentuckians the opportunity to rally to the Confederate standard, and seemingly reversing the course of the war in the West. Then everything seemed to go wrong. Kirby Smith, an independent commander whom Jefferson Davis had declined to place under Bragg's authority, failed to cooperate with Bragg and thus hamstrung the campaign. Leonidas Polk, a subordinate general who actually was under Bragg's authority, refused to carry out a key order and thus further deranged Bragg's plans.
Polk was an 1827 West Point graduate who had resigned without ever serving as an officer so as to enter the Episcopal priesthood, in which career he had since risen to bishop. In all those years he had not read so much as a single book on military affairs but nevertheless considered himself a competent general and expert on sundry matters. He might have served out the war in his Louisiana diocese as a likable if eccentric bishop who was a bit of a crank on military matters. He did not because he was ambitious, persuasive, and had an old West Point crony named Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president had appointed Polk major general direct from civilian life. Polk's headstrong incompetence had already cost the Confederacy, and before the Kentucky campaign, Bragg had hinted that the bishop-general needed to go. Davis refused. Bragg, unlike Lee, would not be allowed to assemble his own team of lieutenants but would have to work with whomever Davis felt inclined--or politically obliged--to assign him.
Worse than Polk's disobedience--for the outcome of the Kentucky campaign--was the decision of the Kentuckians themselves. Although the exploits of such colorful Confederate cavalry raiders as John Hunt Morgan might excite much admiration in some quarters, the state's populace was predominantly Unionist. Those who did lean toward the Confederacy and were not already in the gray and butternut ranks were reluctant to take their stand until they could see with more certainty which way the wind was blowing. Recruits were few, and Bragg was left with a large consignment of extra weapons, brought to arm men who had not chosen to join the colors. That so few joined Bragg was significant because the entire campaign was based on the premise that large numbers of Kentuckians would rise to help rid their state of Union troops. That was the expectation held out to Bragg by Morgan and other Kentucky officers in the Confederate army, but it was now demonstrated to have been wishful thinking. Bragg recognized as much, and the Kentucky officers--men such as John C. Breckinridge, Simon B. Buckner, and William Preston--never forgave him for it. Despite a limited tactical success at Perryville, Kentucky, the campaign offered insufficient prospects of long-term success, and so Bragg took his army back to Tennessee.
If the events of October 1862 marked the end for Buell in Kentucky, they were merely the beginning of sorrows for Bragg and the Army of Tennessee. All Southerners were disappointed at the failure of Bragg's fall offensive, as well as those of Lee in Maryland and Van Dorn in Mississippi. The Kentuckians were bitter and directed their ire at Bragg. In doing so they were joined by generals whose own roles in the campaign had been less than sterling successes, notably Kirby Smith and Polk. The latter, who was second in rank to Bragg in what was now coming to be called the Army of Tennessee and who both resented Bragg's authority and coveted his position, began to use his ingratiating manners and winning ways to turn the army's other officers against Bragg.
One of Polk's first converts was his fellow corps commander William J. Hardee. Hardee had a distinguished "Old Army" career behind him, including service in the Mexican War and a stint as commandant of cadets at West Point. He was also the author of the U.S. Army's standard tactics manual. These qualifications gave him considerable respect and influence with the junior officers of his corps, for whom he held regular classes of instruction. Henceforth those classes would subtly be aimed at demonstrating the incompetence of their commanding general.
Others despised Bragg as well. Though a prewar enemy of Jefferson Davis when the latter was secretary of war and Bragg an army officer, Bragg had nevertheless by this time come to be viewed as a Davis protege. It was a dubious distinction, for with it came the enmity of all Davis's foes in politics and the press. Of even more importance within the army was Bragg's strict discipline. One abuse that Bragg was particularly keen on stamping out was drunkenness among the officer corps. Hard-drinking generals like B. Franklin Cheatham and John C. Breckinridge rankled under that regimen. Others, such as John P. McCown, were incompetent and knew that Bragg thought so. The result was a seething unrest among the officer corps of the Army of Tennessee, a bitter concoction of hatred and mistrust that poisoned the army's operations.
That dissatisfaction was an ingredient of Confederate failure at Stones River. McCown blundered, and Breckinridge's performance was open to question. Cheatham was apparently so drunk he fell off his horse, at least, that was what one observer reported. In any case, he too turned in a miserable day's work, and on the whole, the army's command system was creaky and stiff-jointed. Despite these miscues, Bragg nevertheless managed to handle Rosecrans about as roughly on the first day of the battle as Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson would handle Joe Hooker in winning the celebrated victory at Chancellorsville four months hence. The difference was that Hooker would retreat but Rosecrans first held his ground and then took up a position that gave him an advantage over Bragg. Outnumbered and likely to become more so, Bragg had to face the fact that a Civil War army was next to impossible to destroy, and thus the general who had the larger one could keep taking punishment about as long as his nerve lasted and his supply lines remained sound. At Stones River, that general was Rosecrans. So at the urging of his subordinate generals, Bragg reluctantly withdrew another thirty-five miles to the vicinity of Tullahoma.
The bright hopes of victory that had blazed up with word of the first day's success now faded into the cold, dull realization of defeat, and many a Confederate was heartsick. Such bitterness sought a victim, and the natural one was Bragg, who now became the butt of twice as much denunciation as before. Polk, unbeknownst to Bragg, stepped up his lobbying with Davis to have Bragg removed. Also, among the many newspaper articles excoriating him, some had the sound of inside sources and claimed that Bragg had retreated from certain victory and against the advice of all his generals. Stung by the criticism, Bragg did something very foolish. He wrote a circular to his generals mentioning his apprehension that Richmond was about to sack him, asking them if they had advised him to retreat at Stones River, and adding, "I shall retire without regret if I find I have lost the good opinion of my generals, upon whom I have ever relied as upon a foundation of rock." Apparently Bragg had no idea how bad things had gotten in the army. Worse, six of his top supporters among the generals were then absent with wounds or on leave. The result was that most of the generals who replied admitted that they had counseled retreat but urged Bragg to resign anyway. Word of the exchange got back to Richmond, where Davis commented, "Why General Bragg should have selected that tribunal and have invited its judgments upon him, is to me unexplained." He then ordered Bragg's immediate superior, Confederate commander of the western theater Joseph E. Johnston, to go to Tullahoma and look into the matter. Johnston, by his mere presence, would be in immediate command of the army. Then Bragg could be eased out from under him.
Excerpted from Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth Copyright © 1998 by Steven E. Woodworth.
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Meet the Author
Steven E. Woodworth is an assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University. His books include Chickamauga: A Battlefield Guide (Nebraska 1998).
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