This Terrible Sound
The Battle of Chickamauga
By Peter Cozzens, Keith Rocco
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 1994 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
My Dear General, You Are Thoroughly Outdone
Defeat was in the wind. It rose from the steaming bayous of Mississippi, crept through the deep gorges of the Tennessee River, drifted over the rolling fields of southern Pennsylvania.
It touched Major General Daniel Harvey Hill as he sat under the hot July sun in the yard of a mansion on the outskirts of Richmond, carrying his thoughts to dark corners. In two short weeks, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had marched into and been thrown out of Pennsylvania. In the South, the reaction was swift and severe. Disaster. Massacre. Terrible. Useless. These were some of the words Lee's subordinates used to describe the climactic Battle of Gettysburg. The Charleston Mercury carped that the invasion of the North could not have been "more foolish or disastrous." The common soldier registered his views with his feet. On 4 July 1863, while the victorious Army of the Potomac hung dangerously close, some five thousand able-bodied Confederates simply turned their backs on their regiments and melted into the long train of wounded that rumbled south toward Virginia.
Hill may have been grimly satisfied with all this. He had predicted such a defeat in June, when he learned of Lee's plans, and he later wrote, "The drums that beat for the advance into Pennsylvania seemed to many of us to be beating the funeral march of the dead Confederacy."
From Mississippi came a blow equally crushing. The river citadel of Vicksburg had fallen on the Fourth of July This Hill had foreseen as well. When Lee started northward, Hill had confided his fears to his wife: "General Lee is venturing upon a very hazardous movement; and one that must be fruitless, if not disastrous. It would have been infinitely wiser to have brought his army back to Richmond and held it with a small force while his main strength went to the relief of Vicksburg. As it is, there seems to be no ground to hope for Vicksburg."
Nine days later the garrison surrendered, and "Federal gunboats were now plying up and down the Mississippi, cutting our communications between East and West. ... The end of our glorious dream could not be far off," Hill mused. Yet he was strangely serene. "The bitterness of death had passed with me before our great reverses on the Fourth of July."
Although Hill probably gave them little thought, affairs were no better in the Confederate heartland. After lying inert for six months along the Duck River in southern Tennessee, the Confederate Army of Tennessee in late June suddenly found itself fleeing south over the Cumberland Mountains and across the Tennessee River to Chattanooga. After just eleven days, and at a cost of only 560 men, the Army of the Cumberland had swept its old foes nearly out of the state in one of the most brilliant campaigns of the war. Braxton Bragg and his generals were left dazed and befuddled, only temporarily safe in Chattanooga, with the river and mountains between them and the Federals.
Hill's attention was drawn to a gaunt man in a plain brown suit galloping up to the yard. The general listened as President Davis explained the reason for his unexpected call.
"Rosecrans is about to advance upon Bragg; I have found it necessary to detail Hardee to defend Mississippi and Alabama. His corps is without a commander. I wish you to command it," Davis said.
"I cannot do that," Hill pointed out, "as General Stewart ranks me."
"I can cure that by making you a lieutenant general. Your papers will be ready tomorrow. When can you start?"
"In twenty-four hours."
If Hill paused before answering, it must have been for only a moment. Never one to accept authority easily, the petulant North Carolinian had been constantly at odds with Lee during his service with the Army of Northern Virginia. Not surprisingly, he was soon relegated to the Department of North Carolina, a backwater command. Charged with protecting the vulnerable Confederate interior, Hill had too few experienced troops and too much ground to defend. It was an assignment leading nowhere.
So Hill told the story of the circumstances that sent him west out of exile. If Jefferson Davis was as agitated during their conversation as the general would have us believe, then Hill had seen the president in a rare moment of true distress over affairs in Tennessee. Normally, Davis was profoundly preoccupied with events in Virginia. He and Secretary of War James Seddon tried to play a kind of balancing game in the West, shifting forces from place to place to meet the greatest Federal threat of the moment, rather than concentrating their own armies against the weakest Federal army in order to seize the offensive at a time and place of their own choosing, a policy long advocated by General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Senator Louis Wigfall, and other members of what has been called the "western concentration bloc." When Davis did turn his attention westward, it was all too often only after a crisis had turned acute. This was particularly true where the Army of Tennessee was concerned.
Sadly, Davis's actions to date had only made matters worse. After the failure of the invasion of Kentucky in the fall of 1862, a wave of unrest swept over the Army of Tennessee. Corps commanders Leonidas Polk and William Hardee, with at least the tacit support of most of their lieutenants, demanded the ouster of Bragg. Davis permitted Bragg's detractors an audience but decided to retain the general in command. This decision was not unwise under the circumstances, but the president's failure to discipline or transfer at least Polk, the leader of the dump-Bragg movement, was deplorable. The next time Davis acted in Tennessee, it was to strip the army of nearly one-sixth of its infantry to reinforce the defenses of Vicksburg. The timing of this move could not have been more unfortunate, for it came on the eve of a major Federal thrust against Middle Tennessee. Defeat followed. After three days of bloody and inconclusive fighting at Murfreesboro, Bragg abandoned most of the state and fell back to a line of defense behind the Duck River in early January. Major General William Starke Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland remained in Murfreesboro.
But if the Union army was content to remain inactive, Bragg's opponents in the Army of Tennessee were not. Led by Polk, they redoubled their efforts to secure his removal. Again they failed. Davis sustained Bragg, in part because he lacked a suitable successor. The overall commander in the West, Joseph E. Johnston, did not want the job. Davis apparently saw no one to his liking within the Army of Tennessee, and the only other available general officer of appropriate rank and prestige, Pierre G. T Beauregard, was an implacable foe of the administration and its policies. Once again, Davis stopped short of transferring Polk, an error that was to have grave consequences.
By the spring of 1863 it was obvious that there could be no reconciliation between Bragg and Polk. Both were proud, unyielding men, and both were friends of the president. Polk and Davis had been classmates at West Point. Although Davis apparently did not make friends readily while a cadet, he and Polk developed a friendship that would prove lifelong. And the president's loyalty to friends, especially those made during his formative years at West Point, was unwavering.
Polk answered a higher calling after his graduation from the Military Academy. At the first opportunity, he resigned his commission to enter the Episcopal ministry, in which he rose to become Missionary Bishop of the Southwest. While quite successful as a cleric, Polk had little Christian charity where Braxton Bragg was concerned. In his eyes, Bragg was "a poor, feeble minded, irresolute man of violent passions ... uncertain of the soundness of his conclusions and therefore timid in their executions." Polk sought Bragg's removal not because he coveted his command — he actually advocated replacing Bragg with Joseph E. Johnston — but simply because he judged him incompetent, a "weakling, without the qualities requisite for his station."
While Polk certainly was the most vocal of Bragg's critics inside the army, he was hardly the only one. Opposition to Bragg ran deep and sprang from varied and complex sources, some of which had little to do with Bragg himself or his fitness for command. Fellow corps commander William Hardee, never as outspoken as the bishop, urged Bragg's removal because he believed the army had lost faith in his generalship. Generals Patrick Cleburne and St. John Liddell quietly supported the anti-Bragg movement for the same reasons. Others, of whom Tennessean Benjamin Franklin Cheatham was the most notable, held personal grudges against Bragg that stemmed from the commanding general's unfortunate penchant for seeking scapegoats in the wake of defeat. In Cheatham's case, Bragg had good cause. Bragg censured him for being drunk at Stones River, which he evidently was, and blamed the faulty execution of the Confederate attack on the first day of the battle in part on Cheatham's intoxication. All too often, however, Bragg's accusations were baseless. Certainly this was the case when he held John C. Breckinridge accountable for the failure of the climactic attack on the second day at Stones River, which, though made by Breckinridge's division, had been faulty in its conception by Bragg.
Breckinridge and fellow Kentuckian William Preston were estranged from Bragg for other, equally personal reasons as well. Both resented Bragg's undisguised contempt for the Kentucky soldiers in his army, whom Bragg's troubled mind somehow held to blame for the collapse of his invasion of their home state. Also, both were related to Joseph E. Johnston. They resented the favoritism Davis showed in retaining his friend Bragg in command while shelving Johnston, with whom the president did not get along, and they directed their anger at Bragg.
Had Bragg exercised even the most rudimentary tact in dealing with his subordinates, he might have been able to defuse some of the opposition. But while he could speak and write warmly, even tenderly, of his lieutenants to others, he would not permit himself to bestow praise directly Neither would he tolerate anything less than total devotion to duty, perhaps because he gave so much of himself to the cause. Even William Polk, the son of Bragg's greatest defamer, admitted that "in all matters touching his private duty to the cause of the South he was unselfishness itself. No man loved it better, no man gave it more devoted service, none laid his all upon the alter more ungrudgingly, and no one would have laid down his life for it more cheerfully."
Bragg never wavered in his attention to duty, even though chronic ill health was gradually but unmistakably breaking him. Years earlier, as a lieutenant chasing Seminoles in the miasmal swamps of Florida, Bragg had had to come to terms with his unusual susceptibility to disease. While nearly everyone in that campaign suffered from the sun, insects, and fevers, Bragg was unusually hard hit, especially for a young man of twenty-one. After eight months in Florida his health gave out completely, and he was sent home to recover. From then on he suffered from one ailment or another. Dyspepsia, dysentery, and chronic headaches all plagued him — often striking in concert, and always most pronounced when he was under stress or despondent, as he had been most of the time since taking command of the Army of Tennessee. His biographer has speculated that Bragg's ailments were partly psychosomatic. Whatever the cause, they had taken a dramatic toll. Although just forty-six, Bragg looked years older. He appears to us in contemporary photographs haggard and cadaverous, a prematurely gray beard and bushy black eyebrows the only distinguishing features of a severe, almost puritanical countenance.
More disturbing than his physical decline were the early signs of mental and emotional collapse. Major General Richard Taylor, son of former president Zachary Taylor and a keen observer, suggested that Bragg "furnished a striking illustration of the necessity of a healthy body for a sound intellect." Bragg had been in command just two months when Taylor saw him in the late summer of 1862. Six months later the strain of two humiliating defeats and an army of contentious subordinates had nearly wrecked him. He was having trouble concentrating, and his notorious temper was growing even shorter. Always suspicious, Bragg seemed now to relish clashes with his opponents.
What did all this mean in battle? Without a doubt, the certainty that Bragg would be hunting for scapegoats should the day be lost made his subordinates reluctant to take the initiative. And where oral orders from Lee often sufficed in the Army of Northern Virginia, Bragg's generals insisted on getting everything in writing, no matter how much time might be lost in the process.
To his credit, it must be said that Bragg had an excellent strategic mind. His campaigns were well conceived. It was in the execution that he faltered. Lieutenant Colonel Archer Anderson, who came west with Hill as his adjutant general and wrote in a spirit of fairness, summed up the problem best: "General Bragg seemed to know always what ought to be done, to possess the decision and the will to order it to be done, but, by some strange lack of gift, where so many gifts abounded, he could not do it himself and he could not make others do it."
So Bragg could plan well enough but could not inspire others to carry out his orders. And though his plans were sound, Bragg could not anticipate probable enemy courses of action or responses to his designs. As Major General Simon Buckner complained, "General Bragg as a military man ... is wanting in imagination. He cannot foresee what probably may occur. When he has formed his own opinions of what he proposes to do, no advice of all his officers put together can shake him; but when he meets the unexpected, it overwhelms him because he has not been able to foresee, and then he will lean upon the advice of a drummer boy."
On the field of battle, Bragg's greatest failing was his detachment from the fighting. With battlefield communications slow and uncertain during the Civil War, an army commander had to keep in touch with his lieutenants without exposing himself to undue personal risk. As D. H. Hill observed, "Whenever a great battle is to be fought, the commander must be on the field to see that his orders are executed and to take advantage of the ever-changing phases of the conflict." In this Bragg failed. He habitually remained too far to the rear, drifting into a strange mental withdrawal whenever the vagaries of combat compelled a change in plans.
William Gale, a nephew of Polk and a member of his staff, summed up Bragg as his opponents saw him, "Bragg was obstinate yet without firmness, ruthless without enterprise, crafty yet without stratagem, suspicious, envious, jealous, vain, a bantam in success and a dunghill in disaster."
In marked contrast to the caldron of ill will and suspicion that was the high command of the Army of Tennessee, the leadership of the Army of the Cumberland worked together with a harmony unusual in a day when armies were led by a mixture of professionals, volunteers, and political hacks. "If there was a characteristic of our army in which we felt a pride, it was in the fact that we never had any dissensions or crass purposes to distract the harmonious execution of the orders of our commanding officers," the army provost marshal, Colonel John Parkhurst, wrote proudly. Dr. Ferdinand Gross, medical director of the Fourteenth Corps, agreed, "It was the general sentiment and constant boast of the officers and men ... that the Army of the Cumberland was singularly united and free from dissensions."
Of course, the army's success certainly helped to blunt any potential discord, but credit must go primarily to its commander, Major General William Starke Rosecrans. Rosecrans was no less eccentric than Bragg; indeed, he was probably the most eccentric army commander the war produced. However, unlike Bragg, he was a very likeable man who inspired — and returned — the loyalty of his generals and troops. In fact, Rosecrans was loyal to a fault. His sense of obligation to his subordinates prevented him from removing corps commanders Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden, both hopelessly inept, because he "hated to injure two such good fellows."
Rosecrans had a countenance as pleasant as his disposition, with a kindly if rather plain face. The journalist and financier Henry Villard left an engaging description of the man, "General Rosecrans was of middle stature, with a broad upper body and rather short, bow legs (owing to which peculiarities he presented a far better appearance when mounted than on foot); a head not large, with short, thin light-brown hair; a narrow, long face with kindly blue eyes, strong nose and mouth, and scanty full grayish beard. His general expression was very genial." (Continues...)
Excerpted from This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens, Keith Rocco. Copyright © 1994 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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