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Civil War Series

The Battes for Chickamauga

   

HIGH COMMAND POLITICS

Entering the Chickamauga Campaign, the command structure of the Union forces superficially appeared more unified than that of their opponents. While not a personal confidant of President Abraham Lincoln, Major General William Rosecrans retained the confidence of the chief executive. Rosecrans's victory at Stones River, coming amid Federal disasters elsewhere, gave him considerable credibility with Lincoln. That trust and confidence, however, was not so apparent among Rosecrans, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and General in Chief Henry Halleck. Stanton disliked Rosecrans for a variety of reasons, mostly stemming from the clash of strong personalities. Halleck tried to ameliorate the friction, but he too became exasperated with Rosecrans's prickly personality, his willingness to find slights in the gentlest suggestions, and his seemingly interminable delay in beginning the campaign. Nor were Rosecrans's neighboring department commanders, Ulysses Grant and Ambrose Burnside, especially interested in furthering the interests of the Army of the Cumberland. Grant and Rosecrans had clashed over affairs at Iuka and Corinth, while Burnside pursued his own agenda in East Tennessee at Rosecrans's expense. Fully aware of his enemies elsewhere, Rosecrans was oblivious to disloyalty within his own official family. Chief of staff James Garfield, a protégeé of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, secretly showed more loyalty to his patron than to his commander by reporting negatively on Rosecrans's operations. Similarly, Charles Dana, an assistant secretary of war who joined Rosecrans in mid-campaign, was a clandestine conduit to Secretary Stanton for potentially damaging information. Coupled with the fact that corps commanders Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden were weak and ineffectual, these fissures within the Union command structure boded ill for Rosecrans if the coming campaign were to be less than successful.

MAJOR GENERAL SIMON BOLIVAR BUCKNER WAS ONE OF THE PRINCIPAL FIGURES IN THE CONFEDERATE FIASCO AT MCLEMORE'S COVE AND LED THE POST-CHICKAMAUGA ANTI-BRAGG MOVEMENT. (LC)

The task of molding such a disgruntled collection of subordinates into a cohesive fighting machine during an active campaign would ultimately prove to be beyond Braxton Bragg's capacity.

Across the lines, Braxton Bragg presided over an openly fractious command structure. His relations with President Jefferson Davis were excellent, the latter's respect for Bragg dating to the Mexican War. With Secretary of War James Seddon in Davis's shadow and with no Confederate counterpart to the Union's Halleck, Bragg was essentially responsible only to the Confederate president. His difficulties, instead, lay with his subordinates. The senior corps commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, was neither militarily proficient nor unequivocally loyal. Worse, he himself was a friend of President Davis and felt free to correspond directly with him on military matters, usually to Bragg's detriment. Seconding Polk was a disaffected contingent of Tennesseans led by Major General Benjamin Cheatham. Joining Bragg's opponents in mid-campaign was Major General Simon Buckner, whose antipathy stemmed from the ill-fated Kentucky Campaign and the fact that his department had been peremptorily subsumed into Bragg's. Nor was Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill a team player, his corrosive personality almost instantly clashing with the army commander's. Finally, the arrival of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who barely concealed a burning desire to supplant Bragg, contributed greatly to the turmoil swirling about the embattled army commander. The task of molding such a disgruntled collection of subordinates into a cohesive fighting machine during an active campaign would ultimately prove to be beyond Braxton Bragg's capacity.

While his army paused, Rosecrans evaluated his subordinates. He was pleased with chief-of-staff Garfield. Of the corps commanders, Major General George Thomas, 47, was Rosecrans's mainstay, a careful, solid performer. Thomas's Fourteenth Corps, 27,000 men in four divisions, was the largest in the army. Major General Alexander McCook, 32, had a more checkered reputation. Although a West Point graduate, his poor performance at Perryville and Stones River had raised serious questions about his maturity and judgment. Ohio political connections kept him in command, but Rosecrans would have to supervise him closely. McCook's Twentieth Corps contained almost 17,000 men in three divisions. Major General Thomas Crittenden, 44, was another weak performer. A Kentuckian, Crittenden lacked McCook's formal military training but was equally well-connected politically. His actions also would have to be closely monitored. Crittenden's Twenty-first Corps numbered 17,000 men in three divisions. Commanding the Reserve Corps was Major General Gordon Granger, 40, a gruff West Pointer lacking experience in large battles. Granger's command contained 20,000 men in three divisions. Finally, Major General David Stanley, 35, commanded the Cavalry Corps, 12,000 men in two divisions.

MAJOR GENERAL THOMAS LEONIDAS CRITTENDEN (BL)

MAJOR GENERAL GORDON GRANGER (LC)

During the long delay at the foot of the mountains Rosecrans perfected the remaining phases of his campaign plan. The army would move over the Cumberland Plateau into the valley of the Tennessee River, then, after a brief pause to accumulate supplies, cross the river itself. The width of the river precluded an opposed crossing, so a deception operation above Chattanooga would distract Bragg while the army crossed downstream. The plan's final phase consisted of an advance through the mountains on a wide front. Crittenden would threaten Chattanooga from the west, Thomas would strike southeast over Lookout Mountain twenty miles south of the city, while McCook and Stanley would plunge even further to the southeast toward Bragg's railroad to Atlanta. If Bragg did nothing, his supply line would be severed and he would be trapped in Chattanooga. If he evacuated Chattanooga without a fight, Rosecrans would again have achieved his objective. If Bragg chose to fight, Rosecrans was confident the Army of the Cumberland would gain the victory.

MEMBERS OF WILDER'S UNION BRIGADE OF MOUNTED INFANTRY RIDE PAST A STOCKADE ON THE NASHVILLE AND CHATTANOOGA RAILROAD. (SOLDIER IN OUR CIVIL WAR)

On August 16, 1863, Rosecrans ordered the Army of the Cumberland into motion. The roads that traversed the Cumberland Plateau were poor, making the army's passage extremely difficult. Nevertheless, with the assistance of infantrymen heaving on wheels and ropes, the army and its vehicles entered the Tennessee River valley within a week. Rosecrans's engineers had already placed the railroad in full working order and supplies were rapidly accumulating for the next phase of the plan. In the bottomlands along the river the corn was already beginning to ripen. Confident of success, Rosecrans negotiated contracts with civilian firms to reconstruct the railroad bridge at Bridgeport as well as a large span over Running Water Creek nearer Chattanooga. As the army settled into its temporary camps between the mountains and the river, engineers built platforms to protect the growing dumps around Stevenson and Bridgeport from the elements. Among the items that arrived by rail were pontoons for bridging the river and small disassembled steamboats to ferry supplies to Chattanooga once it was captured.

At the same time that the Army of the Cumberland reached the Tennessee River downstream from Chattanooga, Rosecrans implemented his deception plan north of the city. Under Crittenden's general direction, four brigades began to simulate preparations for a river crossing above Chattanooga. The main role in this effort went to Wilder's mounted infantry brigade. Out of sight of the Confederate pickets, Wilder's men pounded tubs and sawed boards to simulate the building of rafts and boats. The lumber was then cast into the river to float downstream into Confederate territory. In addition, Wilder on August 21 placed Captain Eli Lilly's Eighteenth Indiana Battery on Stringer's Ridge opposite Chattanooga itself and opened fire. Lasting for several days, Lilly's bombardment wrecked Bragg's pontoon train, sank two small steamers, damaged numerous buildings, and caused several civilian casualties. The shelling, coupled with the apparent activity upstream, convinced Bragg that the impending Federal crossing would be above the city.

PAINTING BY WILLIAM TRAVIS OF THE FEDERALS CROSSING THE TENNESSEE RIVER NEAR STEVENSON, ALABAMA. ROSECRANS IS SHOWN ON HORSEBACK, POINTING HIS SWORD. (COURTESY OF SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

A week after he initiated the deception plan, Rosecrans ordered the Army of the Cumberland across the Tennessee River in four places. The first crossing came at Caperton's Ferry, four miles from Stevenson, on August 29. There Colonel Hans Heg's brigade of the Twentieth Corps rowed across to secure the opposite shore while engineers of the Pioneer Brigade began constructing a pontoon bridge over the 1,250-foot-wide river. On the evening of August 30, twenty-one river miles upstream, Colonel Edward King's brigade of the Fourteenth Corps opened a second major crossing point at Shellmound, Tennessee. King was soon followed by most of Crittenden's Twenty-first Corps. Lacking a bridge, Crittenden's troops used captured small boats and a large raft built by engineers. The next crossing site was located at the mouth of Battle Creek, Tennessee, six miles below Shellmound. There Brigadier General John Brannan's division of the Fourteenth Corps constructed a makeshift flotilla of dugouts and rafts and sailed them across the stream, beginning on August 31.

Without bridges, neither the Shellmound nor Battle Creek sites could permanently support the army on the south bank of the Tennessee. That role was assumed by the bridge erected at Bridgeport by Sheridan's division. There the river split into two channels as it flowed around Long Island, a wide but relatively shallow channel north of the island and a narrow, deep channel to the south. Sheridan combined the talents of an engineer regiment and some of his own infantrymen to produce a bridge that spanned the 2,700-foot gap in three days. A simple A-frame trestle reached across the shallow channel to Long Island and the army's remaining pontoons extended the bridge across the narrow gap to the south bank. Although the trestle collapsed twice in its first day of operation, causing the loss of some supplies and one mule, it was quickly repaired. The spans at Bridgeport and Caperton's Ferry thus became the conduits for the massive wagon trains that would carry supplies to the advancing units from the supply dumps at Stevenson.

By September 4 virtually all of Rosecrans's army, except for Reserve Corps elements guarding the railroad, had safely crossed the Tennessee River. Confederate opposition had consisted of a few cavalry men who either fled or were captured. Ahead lay the looming bulk of Sand Mountain, 2,000 feet high. Beyond Sand Mountain the few available roads dropped abruptly into narrow Lookout Valley. Beyond this valley Lookout Mountain rose to 2,200 feet. A plateau like Sand Mountain, Lookout was much narrower than its neighbor. Three rough roads traversed the mountain in the campaign area. At its northern end a rocky road climbed over a spur and entered Chattanooga Valley just south of the city. Twenty miles to the south, an even more primitive track ascended the mountain at Johnson's Crook and descended into Chattanooga Valley at Stevens Gap. Another twenty miles south, a final road climbed Lookout Mountain at Winston's Gap and entered Chattanooga (Broomtown) Valley via Henderson's Gap. Rosecrans intended to use these three tracks to place the Army of the Cumberland behind Bragg's army and force it to react.

THE CONFEDERATES DESTROYED THE RAILROAD BRIDGE (BACKGROUND) OVER THE TENNESSEE RIVER AT BRIDGEPORT. ALABAMA, IN THEIR RETREAT FROM MIDDLE TENNESSEE. MAJOR GENERAL PHILIP H. SHERIDAN'S UNION DIVISION CONSTRUCTED THE TRESTLE AND PONTOON BRIDGE (FOREGROUND) IN LATE AUGUST 1863 AS PART OF ROSECRANS'S ADVANCE PRIOR TO CHICKAMAUGA. AN ENGINEERING WEAKNESS CAUSED THE TRESTLE STRUCTURE TO COLLAPSE TWICE DURING THE FEDERAL CROSSINGS. IN THIS PHOTO, THE TEMPORARY BRIDGE IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION FOR THE FIRST TIME. (MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

In Chattanooga Bragg remained mesmerized by Wilder's demonstrations and reports that Burnside was moving toward Knoxville. Believing that Rosecrans must remain within supporting distance of Burnside, he continued to anticipate a crossing upstream from Chattanooga. A call for reinforcements had netted two divisions of approximately 8,500 men which arrived from Mississippi at the end of August. Deciding that Buckner could not resist Burnside successfully, Bragg ordered the Kentuckian to bring his mobile force nearer Chattanooga. With the troops from Mississippi and Buckner's men Bragg felt reasonably secure behind his river and mountain barrier. That security was shattered on September 1 when a civilian reported a major Federal crossing in the Stevenson-Bridgeport area. During the next few days reports confirming the Federal advance gradually trickled into Bragg's headquarters. By September 6 he was finally ready to evacuate Chattanooga, but Polk and Hill persuaded him to postpone the movement pending more definite information.

THIS PHOTOGRAPH OF MAJOR GENERAL ALEXANDER MCDOWELL MCCOOK AND HIS STAFF WAS TAKEN IN THE SUMMER OF 1863. MCCOOK'S TROOPS WOULD MARCH THE GREATEST DISTANCE OF ANY UNION CORPS TO REACH THE CHICKAMAUGA BATTLEFIELD. (LC)

While Bragg hesitated, Rosecrans resumed his advance. Gathering his divisions at Shellmound, Crittenden pushed eastward through Running Water Canyon into Lookout Valley. There Brigadier General Thomas Wood's division began to probe toward the northern tip of Lookout Mountain. On Crittenden's right, Thomas crossed Sand Mountain, paused briefly near Trenton, Georgia, then headed south toward Johnson's Crook. Still further south, McCook's Twentieth Corps crossed Sand Mountain, then halted around Valley Head, Alabama, to allow Stanley's cavalrymen to pass in front. Climbing Lookout Mountain at Winston's Gap, McCook's leading elements descended to Alpine, Georgia, while the cavalry scouted in front of them. McCook was now twenty airline miles south of Thomas, forty airline miles south of Chattanooga, and little more than thirty airline miles from Bragg's lifeline, the Western and Atlantic Railroad. By road, however, McCook and Stanley were much farther from each of these points.

When he finally learned that Federal units were crossing Lookout Mountain, Bragg on September 7 ordered the evacuation of Chattanooga. On the next day Hill's and Polk's corps took the direct road south toward LaFayette, Georgia. Using a parallel road to the east was Buckner's command and a small Reserve Corps under Major General William Walker. Forrest's cavalrymen provided the army's rear guard, while Wheeler attempted to impede the Federal advance. That night Bragg ordered his army to concentrate around LaFayette. On September 9 Hill took position on Pigeon Mountain, a spur of Lookout, and Polk faced northward toward Chattanooga. Everyone else continued toward LaFayette. That evening, discovering that a Federal force had incautiously entered McLemore's Cove, a small valley bordered by Lookout and Pigeon mountains, Bragg saw a chance to strike a counterblow. At 11:45 P.M. he ordered Hill to attack westward from Pigeon Mountain while Major General Thomas Hindman's division of Polk's corps drove southward in the cove itself.

CRAWFISH SPRINGS WAS THE LAST SOURCE OF WATER FOR MANY UNION SOLDIERS PRIOR TO THE BATTLE OF CHICKAMAUGA. THE ENTIRE CAMPAIGN WAS MARKED BY A WATER SHORTAGE DUE TO A DROUGHT IN THE SUMMER OF 1863. (NA)

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES S. NEGLEY AND HIS STAFF AT COVE SPRING, ALABAMA, AUGUST 1863. (LC)

Probing over Lookout Mountain, Crittenden's leading elements discovered that Chattanooga had been evacuated. They raced into the city and were soon met by the deception force from across the river. Upon learning that Chattanooga had been taken, Rosecrans became ecstatic; the goal of his campaign had been attained without a fight. Still, with the Army of Tennessee in apparently panic-stricken retreat, a vigorous pursuit might destroy Bragg's army. Before ordering such a pursuit, Rosecrans called Thomas to headquarters to arrange the details of the movement. The cautious Thomas quietly but firmly argued that the Army of the Cumberland was too widely dispersed to begin a pursuit. In addition, the army's supply line remained fragile. Thomas therefore recommended that Rosecrans consolidate his position in Chattanooga before resuming the campaign. Influenced by the bloodless capture of Chattanooga, Rosecrans dismissed Thomas's counsel out of hand. The units of the Army of the Cumberland would immediately begin pursuit from wherever they happened to find themselves.

Rosecrans's decision meant that Thomas's leading division, Major General James Negley's, would advance toward LaFayette by way of Dug Gap in Pigeon Mountain. En route, Negley would have to traverse the floor of McLemore's Cove for nearly six miles. At 10:00 A.M. on September 10 he began his march with 4,600 men. Brushing aside Confederate skirmishers, he pressed forward to Davis Cross Roads in sight of Dug Gap. Told of a heavy enemy force approaching his left, Negley nevertheless occupied a position within the mouth of the gap by late afternoon. There he remained until 3:00 A.M. on September 11, when he withdrew to a hillside near Davis Cross Roads. At the same time Brigadier General Absalom Baird's division marched to Negley's assistance. Shortly after Baird's 3,400 troops arrived, Confederate skirmishers drove in Negley's pickets. Sensing danger, Negley ordered Baird to occupy the front line while his own men withdrew. Soon after Baird completed the relief, Confederate pressure forced him to withdraw also. The two divisions then leapfrogged their way back to safety at the foot of Stevens Gap.

THE WIDOW DAVIS HOUSE SAT AT AN IMPORTANT JUNCTION IN MCLEMORE'S COVE. THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN CIRCA 1957. (NPS)

At all times the Federals in the cove had been outnumbered at least three to one, but Hill, Hindman, and Buckner had proved unable to capitalize on their superiority. Disgusted at the lost opporutnity, Bragg ordered his forces out of the cove.

Bragg had originally expected Hill to control all offensive movements in the cove. Hill had received the order late and had then found other excuses for not moving. In turn, the normally aggressive Hindman had suddenly become overcautious and advanced too gingerly into the cove. Learning that Hill would not be moving, Bragg sent Buckner's two divisions to Hindman as reinforcements. Instead of stiffening Hindman's resolve, Buckner's presence caused further delay when Hindman convened a council of war. Fearing they were being trapped, the council members called for inaction until the situation was clarified. During the night of September 10-11 Bragg sent explicit orders to Hindman to attack at dawn, but Hindman's courier garbled the message. By the time Hindman finally decided to resume his advance, Negley and Baird had already begun their withdrawal. At all times the Federals in the cove had been outnumbered at least three to one, but Hill, Hindman, and Buckner had proved unable to capitalize on their superiority. Disgusted at the lost opportunity, Bragg ordered his forces out of the cove.

Even as Negley and Baird were escaping Bragg's trap, Rosecrans was issuing additional pursuit orders to his scattered commanders. Gradually, as more evidence of Bragg's aggressive intent reached him, Rosecrans became concerned about the position of his units around Alpine. In peremptory orders on September 12 he ordered McCook and the cavalry to meet Thomas at the foot of Stevens Gap. Only when those segments of the army were united could they move north to join Crittenden near Lee and Gordon's Mill. Rosecrans's order to McCook took a full day to reach Alpine. Ignorant of the road network on Lookout Mountain and informed that McLemore's Cove was not secure, McCook saw no alternative but to retrace his steps over Lookout Mountain. Once back at Valley Head, he could march north and cross Lookout again at Johnson's Crook and Stevens Gap. This route would require three days to negotiate; until then the Army of the Cumberland would remain in a dangerously dispersed condition.

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