August 16, 1863 (Sunday)
The Sabbath morning dawned not bright with late summer sun, but with dark clouds looming over the Elk River Valley.
Gray rains doused the northern slopes of the Cumberland Mountains, and through them columns of Federal soldiers emerged from camps struck before first light. They were on their way to Chattanooga, sixty-five miles south.
For weeks, President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck begged William Rosecrans to move. They offered suggestions and insistences, orders and threats. Finally, three corps of men, nearly 50,000 all told, were slogging south towards Chattanooga.
The importance of this small city could hardly be overstated. Once pried from Southern hands, the Union Army could control the railroads in nearly every direction. They led east to Virginia, west into Alabama, and most importantly south to Atlanta. Establishing Chattanooga as a depot along the Tennessee River would give the Armies of the West the ability to drag the war into the deep South.
However, this was no direct march. Before them lay the rocky and jagged slopes of the Cumberland Mountains, early barring their passage. Though they would have been be scaled, they could also be used as a shield, hiding otherwise obvious movements from the Rebels under Braxton Bragg. With one corps, commanded by Thomas Crittenden (XXI Corps), Rosecrans would feint a direct assault upon the city via a crossing of the Tennessee River at Blythe’s Ferry, forth-five miles upstream. Meanwhile, the other two, under George Thomas and Alexander McCook (XIV and XX Corps), were to slide southwest, crossing the mountains and river well downstream of the city. On their flanks and to their front rode the cavalry.
This slide was to be the actual attack. With nearly 35,000 men, they would divide their forces, crossing at Bridgeport and Caperton’s Ferry. From there, Rosecrans hoped to maneuver Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of Chattanooga and claim the city for the North.
The weather and bad roads made travel difficult, but at least the troops were moving.
“All three corps are crossing the mountains. It will take till Wednesday night to reach their respective positions. I think we shall deceive the enemy as to our point of crossing. It is a stupendous undertaking. The Alps, with a broad river at the foot, and not fertile plains, but 70 miles of difficult and mostly sterile mountains beyond, before reaching a point of secondary importance to the enemy, in reference to his vital one, Atlanta.” – William Rosecrans, August 16, 1863. 9:35pm.
Far to the northeast, 15,000 men under Union General Ambros Burnside were preparing a move of their own. Though they would not actually step off in earnest for another four days, they too were to march for the Tennessee River. Kingston was their destination, and clearing East Tennessee while guarding Rosecrans’ left was their objective. Before everything was said and done, they would have a campaign to call their very own.