Local News

June 30, 2013

Civil War anniversary: The Road to Chattanooga

It was January 1863 and Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans was anxious to repair the damage to his reputation. As commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, Rosecrans had been embarrassed by his narrow escape at the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tenn., and was now intent on leaving nothing to chance in his upcoming campaign.

Thus it was that the Union army spent almost six months in and around Murfreesboro while reinforcements and supplies poured in from points north.

Despite the prodding from Washington that came with increasing regularity during April and May, Rosecrans would not budge until he was ready. By mid-June even President Lincoln had joined the chorus: “Is it your intention to make an immediate movement forward? A definite answer, yes or no, is required.”

By this time Rosecrans had amassed a force of almost 88,000 combat soldiers. Although he would be forced to leave about a quarter of that number behind to protect vital points along his supply line, he still had a striking force of just over 65,000 which gave him a significant numerical advantage, or so he thought. The Federal commander even managed to acquire 34,000 horses and mules for the upcoming offensive. According to author Shelby Foote, “Rosecrans did not consider this one beast too many.”

The target was Chattanooga, an important rail junction that lay along the Tennessee River. If taken, Chattanooga would open the way to the Deep South and its important manufacturing centers. Standing between the Army of the Cumberland and its objective was Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, then deployed along the north bank of the Duck River about 20 miles south of Murfreesboro.

Bragg had no intention of launching an offensive against the bluecoats. With a force of just over 46,000, the Confederate commander knew that he was outnumbered and resolved instead to await the Union columns. If all went well, he might catch a portion of the Federal army in motion and destroy it. Meanwhile, taking full advantage of the extra time provided by Rosecrans, Bragg drilled his soldiers relentlessly while scouring the Middle Tennessee countryside for additional manpower.

Unfortunately for the Confederate army, it was during the winter and spring of 1863 that bitter quarrels developed among Bragg and his senior commanders. Seeking scapegoats for his earlier strategic failures at Perryville and Stones River, Bragg had begun to lash out at corps commanders Leonidas Polk and William Hardee, as well as some of their subordinates. This culminated in a round of poison pen letters that circulated among the high command as well as in Richmond.

As the atmosphere grew increasingly venomous, morale suffered throughout the ranks. This infighting helps explain why Rosecrans’s campaign southward met with disorganized and ineffective resistance. To make matters worse, Bragg himself suffered “a general breakdown” at about the same time that apparently clouded his judgment and impaired his capabilities. Some within the army wondered if he was fit for command.

Amid this backdrop, Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland finally stepped off on June 23. Ever the careful planner, the Union commander had crafted a devious flanking plan that took full advantage of the rugged terrain through which he would be moving.

Dividing his units, Rosecrans sent one column east toward McMinnville and another west toward Shelbyville. The main column followed, headed toward Manchester. The presence of bluecoats over so broad a front thoroughly confused the Confederate leadership, and on June 27 Bragg ordered a retreat to his supply base at Tullahoma.

Only three days later, Bragg learned that Federal troops were now south of the Elk River, well below Tullahoma. There was nothing left to do but retreat once again, over the Cumberland Plateau and across the Tennessee River to Chattanooga. This second retreat was accomplished by July 6.

Rosecrans had in two weeks forced the Confederate army out of Middle Tennessee at a cost of 570 bluecoats, which included less than 100 killed. Even Confederate newspapers called the Union campaign “masterful.” Now Bragg’s army found itself back in Chattanooga just as news was arriving about the twin Confederate disasters at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

The Army of the Cumberland was within striking distance of its objective. Perhaps emboldened by President Lincoln’s declaration a year earlier that Federal occupation of Chattanooga was “fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond,” Rosecrans now pondered how best to deliver the final stroke.

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