October 4, 1863 (Sunday)
For some time now, the ire against Braxton Bragg had been simmering, even growing. Even the victory at Chickamauga could not quell the seething. Bragg did himself no favors by blaming two of his generals (Leonidas Polk and Thomas Hindman) for not following orders, thus marring the success with a strange pall of regret.
Now, nearly two weeks after the battle, William Rosecrans’ Federal Army of the Cumberland was holed up in the Tennessee River city of Chattanooga, with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee besieging them. Bragg admitted that there was no way he could successfully attack the city, and so it had devolved into a stalemate, with Rosecrans due to receive myriad reinforcements. Bragg had sent Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry across the Tennessee to play upon Union supply lines. That was working well enough, but to do it, he made himself yet another enemy in Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The chorus of officers demanding the removal of Bragg was indeed swelling to a boisterous crescendo. So loud were the cries that they were heard in Richmond, where President Jefferson Davis sent Col. James Chesnut to see just what was brewing. Davis rather liked Bragg and even at this early stage had probably made up his mind to support him. The only officers that Davis felt could replace him were P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnson, both of whom he abhorred.
On the 3rd, Chestnut talked with Polk and on this date, James Longstreet, who had left his Army of Northern Virginia before Chickamauga and had joined the chorus shortly thereafter. Longstreet’s conversation with Chesnut lasted only ten minutes, and while he neglected to inform him that they needed more troops, he made sure to impress upon him the army’s “distressed condition, and urged upon him to go on to Richmond with all speed and to urge upon the President relief for us.” Of course, the relief to which Longstreet was referring was the relief of Bragg from his duties.
After his brief meeting with Col. Chesnut, Longstreet met with several other like-minded officers. Among the attendees were Simon Buckner, D.H. Hill, and quite a few others (though probably not Forrest, and neither Polk nor Hindman, since they were sent to Atlanta). From this gathering came a petition that was signed by nearly all of the high ranking officers in Bragg’s Army. Not only did Longstreet, Hill and Buckner attach their names to it, but so did Patrick Cleburne, William Preston, William H. T. Walker, Randall Gibson, and John C. Brown (plus four others – twelve total).
The long petition addressed to Presdient Jefferson Davis outlined the reasons that Bragg should be removed.
“Whatever may have been accomplished heretofore,” it read, “it is certain that the fruits of the victory of the Chickamauga have now escaped our grasp. The Army of Tennessee, stricken with a complete paralysis, will in a few days’ time be thrown strictly on the defensive, and may deem itself fortunate if it escapes from its present position without disaster.”
The petition expressed all the reasons that Chattanooga must be wrenched from the enemy’s hands, but reasoned that without a proper commander, “this campaign is virtually closed.”
The Federals were receiving numerous reinforcements, which “must be met as nearly as possible by corresponding re-enforcements to this army.” And while reinforcements were needed, with them, even “the ablest general could not be expected to grapple successfully with the accumulating difficulties of the situation.”
Still, the signers were looking for the ablest general they could find, which brought them to the crux of their argument. They were requesting Jefferson Davis to “assign to the command of this army an officer who will inspire the army and the country with undivided confidence.” Here, they were careful not to list the many criticisms they had with Bragg, instead, urging that he be relieved because “the condition of his health totally unfits him for the command of an army in the field.”
Though twelve had signed the petition, it was clear that it was written shortly before the meeting. Just who authored the letter was a point of debate. Though all who signed it no doubt knew the identity, all were quiet and even deceitful when it came to spilling the truth.
General Longstreet, who many believed instigated the meeting, denied authorship and claimed that he had no idea who wrote it. He did, however, hold onto the petition at his headquarters until others who could not make the meeting were able to sign it. As he claims, it wasn’t until well after the war, when he learned that D.H. Hill held the original pen.
And yet, Hill completely denied it. Though he had signed it, he claimed to have little more to do with it. Polk, he asserted, prodded Simon Buckner to write it. Further, according to one of Hill’s staff officers, the petition was left not at Longstreet’s headquarters to await more signatures, but at Hill’s.
The Official Records stated that the petition was “supposed to have been written by Buckner,” and that could very well be the truth, as he was probably the first to sign it. Others, apart from Hill, believed Buckner to be the author, including Leonidas Polk’s son.
Even as early as the evening of this date, Bragg learned of the petition, and that Buckner had authored it. This sent him not into a rage, but into a gloom of “distress and mortification,” as his aid put it. Soon, however, Bragg shuffled it aside, all but ignoring the problem, hoping for it to simply vanish. This would prompt the same aid to write several days later that Bragg was “blind as a bat to the circumstances around him.”
Bragg may have been blind, but Davis was not. Col. Chesnut would, the following day, urge the President to drop whatever it was that he was doing and come quickly to the Army of Tennessee. He would arrive on the 9th.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p64-65; Part 4, p728; Vol. 52, Part 2, p538; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelley; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. [↩]