Civil War Series

The Battes for Chickamauga



Of all of the armies that fought in the American Civil War, none struggled in more scenic or more rugged territory than did the Federal Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Second only in size to their counterparts in the eastern theater, these two armies contended for mastery of the vast area encompassing eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia and Alabama. Separated from their respective capitals by the Appalachian Mountains, the armies shared many characteristics. Both were almost exclusively composed of Americans from the trans-Appalachian region. Both quickly learned that the region's formidable rivers and mountain ranges tended to hinder rather than facilitate offensive movements. Both armies found logistical sustainment difficult in the sparsely settled region, and both depended upon fragile single-track railroads for their lifeblood. All of these difficulties were compounded by the inability of the armies' commanders to make their needs adequately understood in Washington and Richmond. Thus the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee labored in relative obscurity. Nevertheless, their struggle was critical to the outcome of the Civil War.

The arena in which the two armies maneuvered was diverse in topography yet rich in resources and strategic potential. Beginning in the rolling farmland around Nashville, Tennessee, the theater stretched east and south toward the foothills, then the main ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. Coursing southwestward through these mountains was the broad Tennessee River, which reached northeastern Alabama before breaching the mountain wall on its way to the Ohio. Nestled on the south bank of the river in the midst of the mountains was the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, home to some 2,500 people and a growing commercial center. The river brought some of this commerce to Chattanooga, but the city's primary link to the outside world was the railroad. Four major rail lines entered the city, connecting it with Memphis, Nashville, Richmond, and Atlanta. These railroads both enriched Chattanooga and made it a military objective.


Several factors made retention of the region a matter of the greatest importance to the Confederacy. First, the resources found within it were vital to the new nation's war-making potential. The fertile land southeast of Nashville provided great quantities of food and animals to sustain the basic needs of the Army of Tennessee. In the mountains themselves, numerous caves provided significant amounts of niter, a critical ingredient in gunpowder. Similarly, mines in the vicinity of Ducktown, Tennessee, produced 90 percent of the Confederacy's copper, raw material for percussion caps and artillery projectiles. Second, in strategic terms the region served as a shield protecting the Confederacy's industrial and agricultural heartland in Alabama and Georgia. Taken together, the multiple mountain ranges and the Tennessee River represented a series of physical obstacles that, if used intelligently, could deny enemy access to the Confederacy's vitals for years, if not forever.

For the Union, too, this theater of war was critical to national success. Because southeastern Tennessee provided food, fodder, and animals to sustain the Army of Tennessee, the Union needed to deny it to the Confederacy. Because the mineral resources of the southern mountains contributed mightily to the Confederate war effort, those resources had to be wrested from Richmond's grasp as soon as possible. If the heartland of the Confederacy was ever to be pierced, the combined barrier of Tennessee River and Appalachian Mountains had to be breached. Finally, and this reason loomed large in the thinking of Abraham Lincoln's government, thousands of citizens in eastern Tennessee northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama remained loyal to the Union and suffered persecution for that loyalty. Thus the North desired to regain control of the region to reduce the Confederacy's war-making capacity, to facilitate further conquests, and to free masses of people believed to be held against their will.


The Union's objectives for military operations in southeastern Tennessee were articulated as early as October 24, 1862, when Major General William Starke Rosecrans replaced Major General Don Carlos Buell as commander of the new Department of the Cumberland. Rosecrans's instructions from General in Chief Henry Halleck were: "First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga, Cleveland, or Athens, so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States." The Lincoln administration hoped that Rosecrans could make significant progress before the end of 1862, but it recognized that the road to Chattanooga would be long and difficult. In response to the government's directive, Rosecrans in late December began an offensive movement southeast of Nashville. That advance culminated in a bloody fight at Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. By the end of the battle on January 3, 1863, the Army of Tennessee was in retreat.

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By mid August, Rosecrans was ready to move from middle Tennessee. His plan called for one corps to feint north of Chattanooga while three others crossed the Tennessee River to the west and south, crossed the Sand and Lookout Mountain ranges, and threatened Bragg's railroad supply line southward. Rosecrans hoped this would trap Bragg or cause him to abandon Chattanooga and retreat into Georgia.

Rosecrans's army began crossing the Cumberland Plateau on August 16 and moved to the river. On August 29, Thomas's, McCook's, and Stanley's corps crossed the river near Stevenson, Bridgeport, and Shellmound. In early September, they moved over the mountains twenty and forty miles south of Chattanooga. Learning of the threat to his rear, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga on September 8. The next day, Federals occupied the city.

As Bragg retreated through LaFayette, he learned of the dispersion of Rosecrans's force and turned to attack in McLemore's Cove. Command dissension made the effort unsuccessful. Rosecrans then began to consolidate his army.


The victory at Stones River made Rosecrans famous. Born in Ohio in 1819, he was an 1842 graduate of the United States Military Academy, ranking fifth in a class of fifty-six. Finding promotion slow in the peacetime army and having no opportunity to gain laurels in the Mexican-American War, Rosecrans had resigned his commission in 1854. Life as a businessman/inventor provided little more satisfaction and nearly killed him when a failed experiment severely burned his face. When the Civil War offered Rosecrans an opportunity to return to the military profession, he seized it eagerly, rising to brigadier general by the summer of 1861. Success in western Virginia soon brought transfer to the West, where he gained a semi-independent command under Ulysses Grant. In northern Mississippi Rosecrans fought strongly at the battles of Iuka and Corinth, although he incurred Grant's enmity at the same time. Promoted to major general in September 1862, he lobbied successfully to have the commission backdated to March. Now he commanded one of the nation's three largest field armies.

Even Rosecran's enemies agreed he was intellectually brilliant, articulate in speech, firm in his convictions, and physically courageous. He was also a man of prodigious energy, who drove both himself and his subordinates unmercifully.

Even Rosecrans's enemies agreed he was intellectually brilliant, articulate in speech, firm in his convictions, and physically courageous. He was also a man of prodigious energy, who drove both himself and his subordinates unmercifully. A devout Roman Catholic, he retained a personal chaplain on his staff. Unfortunately, these favorable characteristics were balanced by others less beneficial. In temperament Rosecrans tended to be nervous and excitable. He was often impatient and critical of others, especially his superiors, being "short of temper and long of tongue." Neither introspective nor an astute judge of others, Rosecrans was remarkably simple of outlook. Once convinced of the correctness of his views, he was self-righteous in the extreme. Generally affable with his staff, he often immersed himself in details better left to subordinates. This tendency, coupled with his love of philosophical discussion, led him to remain active well past midnight. Unable to sleep late on campaign, but unwilling to modify his nocturnal habits, Rosecrans became increasingly nervous and irascible as the tempo of operations accelerated.

Immediately after his victory at Stones River Rosecrans began to rebuild his army. In that battle the army had lost more than 13,000 men and expended large quantities of supplies and equipment. Before any further advance, those losses had to be restored. In addition, casualties among senior leaders necessitated the integration of replacements into the command structure. Rosecrans's own chief of staff, Julius Garesche, had been killed at his side, a void that would be only partially filled by the arrival of Brigadier General James Garfield as Garesche's successor. In addition, the army's cavalry force required massive expansion. Further, if the army were to advance beyond the fertile fields of Middle Tennessee, enormous quantities of supplies had to be accumulated at Nashville and Murfreesboro. Finally, the army's movements must be coordinated with those of Major General Ambrose Burnside's Army of the Ohio to the northeast and Major General Ulysses Grant's Army of the Tennessee to the west. Despite a stream of complaints from the Lincoln administration, Rosecrans refused to be hurried.


Facing Rosecrans's army was its old nemesis from Perryville and Stones River, the Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Braxton Bragg. Born in North Carolina in 1817, Bragg too was a product of the United States Military Academy, graduating fifth in the class of 1837. Unlike Rosecrans his pre-Civil War years had been punctuated by combat in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars. In the latter struggle he had attained momentary fame as an artillery battery commander in the Battle of Buena Vista. Like Rosecrans he also tired of the army's peacetime routine and resigned his commission in 1856. Marrying into wealth, Bragg was a gentleman planter in Louisiana until the crisis of 1861 caused him to cast his lot with the Confederacy. Again like Rosecrans, his rise in rank was speedy, culminating in his promotion to full general in April 1862. Two months later he took command of the troops he would rename the Army of Tennessee. Following the abortive invasion of Kentucky, Bragg brought his army back to Murfreesboro. When Rosecrans advanced upon him in late December, Bragg responded with a vigorous attack; when Rosecrans held firm, Bragg retreated.

Although no commander of the Army of Tennessee concerned himself more with his soldiers' welfare, Bragg's men were generally unaware of his feelings and most hated him.

While Rosecrans was a hero in the North, Bragg had few admirers in the Confederacy. Like his opponent, Bragg was energetic, intellectually able, and a man of unflinching integrity. While Rosecrans's headquarters was noted for whiskey-fueled conviviality, Bragg's headquarters adopted a spartan tone. Bragg led a disciplined life in both public and private affairs, and his subordinates were expected to conform to his strict code of conduct. This emphasis upon discipline made Bragg appear rigid, brusque, and unsociable to all but a few close acquaintances. Trusting no one, Bragg relied little on his staff and immersed himself in administrative trivia. This self-inflicted burden resulted in frequent bouts of dyspepsia and migraine headaches. Although no commander of the Army of Tennessee concerned himself more with his soldiers' welfare, Bragg's men were generally unaware of his feelings and most hated him. Bragg's inability to relate to others and to understand their shortcomings caused him to have the worst command climate in either army. Only President Jefferson Davis, a man much like Bragg, retained confidence in him in the summer of 1863.


When Bragg's army retreated from the battlefield of Stones River, it withdrew no further than the vicinity of Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-five miles to the southeast. There it too prepared itself for another round of fighting. With Federal operations against Vicksburg approaching a climax, Bragg was ordered to send part of his army to Mississippi. Forced to adopt a defensive posture with the remainder, he positioned his two infantry corps forward of the Duck River to protect his railhead at Tullahoma. On the left Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk's corps occupied Shelbyville, while on the right Lieutenant General William Hardee centered his corps around the small village of Wartrace on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. Polk's left was screened by a cavalry division commanded by Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry corps performed a similar function on Hardee's right. On June 20 the Army of Tennessee contained an aggregate present of approximately 55,000 officers and men.

In addition to Bragg's army, serious terrain obstacles stood between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. The first hurdle was a range of hills fifteen miles southeast of Murfreesboro, behind which lay the camps of the Confederate army. Next came the Duck and Elk rivers. If these obstacles could be surmounted, the Federals would face the Cumberland Plateau, a mountain range rising to an altitude of 1,800 feet. Beyond the Cumberland Plateau flowed the Tennessee River, a barrier more than 1,200 feet wide. Beyond the Tennessee was a series of ridges, most notably Sand and Lookout mountains, the latter rising to 2,200 feet. In the mountains the roads were few and rough, and the army would find little to eat. Rosecrans therefore would have to rely upon the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad for sustenance. Even if the Confederates could be expelled from the region, the logistical challenge of supporting the Army of the Cumberland in such inhospitable terrain would tax the abilities of Rosecrans and his staff.


Without losing sight of Chattanooga, Rosecrans divided his campaign plan into segments. First, he would force Bragg and his army out of Middle Tennessee, into the mountains and possibly beyond the Tennessee River. Second, he would consolidate the ground won and stockpile supplies for the subsequent mountain operations. Third, he would force a crossing of the Tennessee River, a task in which neither the river nor Bragg could be expected to cooperate. Finally, he would advance through the mountains beyond the river, in hopes of either flanking the Army of Tennessee out of Chattanooga or precipitating a major battle. To implement this ambitious plan, the Army of the Cumberland had an aggregate strength of 97,000 officers and men, although garrison details reduced the field force considerably. The army was divided into four infantry corps: the Fourteenth, under Major General George Thomas; the Twentieth, under Major General Alexander McCook; the Twenty-first, under Major General Thomas Crittenden; and the Reserve Corps, under Major General Gordon Granger. Assisting the infantry was a Cavalry Corps, under Major General David Stanley.

Rosecrans's primary objective was to drive Bragg from Middle Tennessee through maneuver instead of battle.

Several practical factors influenced the design of Rosecrans's campaign plan. First, logistical considerations required him to operate generally along the line of the railroad, which would have to be repaired as he advanced. Second, even with the railroad, he would have to wait for the corn to ripen, so as to reduce the amount of forage carried for his thousands of animals. Further, Rosecrans wanted to move in conjunction with General Ambrose Burnside's expedition toward Knoxville, Tennessee. Finally, he believed that a premature advance might cause Bragg to withdraw out of reach and detach even more troops for the defense of Vicksburg. A survey of the Confederate dispositions indicated that a frontal assault on Bragg's army would prove far too costly, while an advance on Bragg's left in the open country around Shelbyville would not trap the Army of Tennessee. The final plan therefore called for feinting at Bragg's left while simultaneously turning his right in the more difficult country to the east. Rosecrans's primary objective was to drive Bragg from Middle Tennessee through maneuver instead of battle.

On June 23, 1863, elements of the Reserve Corps and the Cavalry Corps headed toward Shelbyville to attract Bragg's attention to his left. At the same time, the Twenty-first Corps began its long march around Bragg's right flank. The weather now turned sour. Torrential rains began on June 24 and continued virtually without intermission for the next seventeen days, ruining the roads. On that day the Twentieth Corps pushed into Liberty Gap, while the Fourteenth Corps attempted to force its way through Hoover's Gap. Although McCook's men gained most of their objective after stiff skirmishing, the greatest success came at Hoover's Gap. There Colonel John Wilder's mounted infantry brigade, armed with the seven-shot Spencer rifle, brushed aside Confederate pickets and seized the entire gap. When Confederate forces counterattacked, Wilder's men easily maintained their position. East of Thomas, Crittenden's corps slogged deeper into the hills over increasingly difficult roads. Rosecrans had expected to take two days to breach the gaps, giving Crittenden ample time to get around Bragg's flank, but Wilder's audacious move and the rain threatened to upset the Federal timetable.


On June 25 Thomas waited at Hoover's Gap while Crittenden continued his march. The next day Thomas resumed his advance toward the town of Manchester. Leaving one brigade at Liberty Gap, McCook started the remainder of his corps westward after Thomas. Eventually learning that his right had been turned, Bragg ordered a retreat. On June 27 Thomas captured Manchester, but neither McCook nor Crittenden was able to join him because of the poor condition of the roads. On Rosecrans's right Stanley's cavalry drove Wheeler's Confederates from Shelbyville. By that time both of Bragg's infantry corps were already moving southward toward Tullahoma. In an effort to discover Bragg's intent, Rosecrans on June 28 sent Thomas to threaten Tullahoma while McCook, Crittenden, and Stanley concentrated at Manchester. At the same time Wilder's brigade raided across the Elk River to strike the railroad in Bragg's rear at Decherd, Tennessee. As Bragg's army entered the fortifications of Tullahoma, Wilder's men reached the railroad and inflicted some damage before being driven away.

As the Army of the Cumberland approached Tullahoma, Bragg ordered his army to stand fast, but on June 30 he changed his mind. The incessant rain had begun to swell the Elk River in Bragg's rear, threatening his ability to retreat. That evening the Army of Tennessee quietly evacuated its base. On July 1 Federal scouts probing Tullahoma's defenses found them vacant. Learning that Bragg's army was in full retreat, Rosecrans ordered Thomas and McCook to fix the Confederates in position, while Crittenden and Stanley made another flank march to the east. Bragg's lead was too great, however, and by noon the Army of Tennessee was safely beyond the raging Elk River. Rosecrans now slowed the pursuit, preferring to let Bragg go rather than corner him. Only too willing to oblige, Bragg ordered his army to withdraw all the way to Chattanooga. As Bragg's soldiers struggled over the mountains, Rosecrans's men crossed the Elk River and occupied the towns of Decherd, Winchester, and Cowan at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau. At a cost of only 560 Federal casualties, Rosecrans had successfully concluded the first phase of his campaign for Chattanooga.


Amid a crescendo of criticism from soldiers and civilians alike, Bragg's dispirited army established defensive positions around Chattanooga in early July. The operations just ended had shown the Army of Tennessee to be a balky machine. Polk and Hardee seemed united only in their dislike for their chief. Wheeler's cavalry had furnished Bragg bad intelligence of Federal movements, then had almost been destroyed at Shelbyville. Quantities of supplies and some irreplaceable heavy ordnance had been abandoned. Nevertheless, the army had retreated in good order, if not in good spirits, and remained willing to contest the line of the Tennessee River. Bragg deployed Polk's corps in the vicinity of Chattanooga, with one brigade left on the Tennessee's north bank at Bridgeport, Alabama, to provide early warning of Federal intentions. Hardee's corps meanwhile was sent northwest of the city to guard against a Federal thrust across the river between Chattanooga and Knoxville. All told, Bragg's army contained approximately 52,000 officers and men by the end of July.

In a belated attempt to unify its efforts in East Tennessee, the Confederate government on July 25 merged Major General Simon Buckner's Department of East Tennessee into Bragg's Department of Tennessee. Buckner's force added 17,800 troops to Bragg's command, but it also expanded his area of concern northward to the Knoxville area. This administrative action further degraded the command climate within Bragg's department by bringing another enemy into the command structure. Polk and Hardee already had little or no respect for Bragg and were supported in their attitude by many of their principal subordinates. Buckner's animosity toward Bragg stemmed from the unsuccessful invasion of his native Kentucky in 1862, as well as the manner in which his department had been abolished. The increased friction represented by Buckner's arrival was momentarily mitigated by the departure on July 14 of Hardee, who was transferred to Mississippi at his own request. Hardee's replacement was Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill, a North Carolinian who had served with Bragg in Mexico.

In early August the War Department asked Bragg if he could take the offensive given significant reinforcements from Mississippi. Bragg responded that the geographical obstacles, his tenuous logistical situation, and his weakness precluded an advance into or beyond the mountains. If the Federals incautiously passed those barriers, however, he believed that the time would be right for a counterstroke. Bragg therefore contented himself with restoring discipline to his army, apprehending deserters, and conserving his own increasingly shaky health. Believing that the mountains and the Tennessee River were sufficient to shield his front, he withdrew the brigade from Bridgeport, leaving the territory beyond the river to Rosecrans. Keeping his two infantry corps concentrated around Chattanooga, he relied upon his cavalry to guard his flanks. Forrest's command covered the army's right, extending northwest until it met Buckner's pickets near Knoxville. Wheeler was responsible for the security of the army's left as far as northern Alabama. While Forrest patrolled actively, Wheeler permitted the bulk of his command to rest and refit far south of the Tennessee.


For six weeks after the Tullahoma operations ended, the Army of the Cumberland remained in its camps at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau. In order to establish a presence in the Tennessee River valley, Rosecrans sent Major General Philip Sheridan's division of McCook's corps to occupy Stevenson and Bridgeport, Alabama. Sheridan followed the line of the railroad, which pierced the mountains in a 2,200-foot tunnel near Cowan, Tennessee, then passed through Stevenson en route to its crossing of the river on a 2,700-foot span at Bridgeport. The bridge had been destroyed by the retreating Confederates, but the tunnel was virtually undamaged. Of more immediate concern to Rosecrans was the state of the railroad between Murfreesboro and Cowan. The large Elk River bridge and several smaller spans had been destroyed, preventing the rapid accumulation of supplies needed to sustain a further advance. Rosecrans thus drove his engineers to rebuild the track as fast as possible. Even with the railroad in full operation, the army could not feed its thousands of animals without relying upon local forage. Rosecrans therefore postponed further movement until the corn ripened in the river bottoms.

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