August 31, 1863 (Monday)
Braxton Bragg, Confederate commander at Chattanooga, had been beside himself. He had lost track of most of the Federal Army of the Cumberland, which had been poised to cross the Tennessee River above the city, and perhaps even below it. Because he was unsure of his enemy’s location or where the Federals were headed, he issued a surprising number of contradictory orders.
Bragg’s initial plan, if it could in truth be called a “plan,” was to allow the Federals to cross the river, and then jump on them. Soon after such boasting, he lamented that Chattanooga would surely fall. All the while, he was sending brigades here, and divisions there. Bragg even ordered Simon Buckner’s troops, retreating from Knoxville, to attack the enemy, before countermanding the idea, leaving them dangling somewhere off on his far right.
Even D.H. Hill, who commanded an entire corps, had been jostled around by Bragg’s slow confusion. First, he was to widely disperse his men, obviously to search out the Yankee crossings of the Tennessee. Then, he was to make sure he could concentrate at a moment’s notice. On this date, Bragg issued yet another set of orders for Hill.
Like before, he was to do with his men as he saw fit, “keeping in view a concentration at the earliest moment at such point the enemy may cross.” Bragg suggested keeping them near the railroad. The towns of Harrison and Charleston, both upriver from Chattanooga, were to be defended. Not only was Bragg concerned with his right, he was hoping that Hill might have a connection in the East. “If you have any influence in Richmond,” he wrote in closing, “beg for arms.”
While arms were certainly needed, additional troops were needed as well. Fortunately for him, these were already arriving. William Walker’s Division had arrived from Mississippi, but were in poor shape. Walker, too, received bizarre orders. First, Bragg wanted him to join up with Buckner’s retreating troops well up the river. Then, he wanted to move him left. Finally, he broke up the division, sending one brigade into Georgia and putting the rest in reserve.
The reason for such strange orders wasn’t because Bragg didn’t know where the Federal Army of the Cumberland was located, it was because he thought they would cross upriver from Chattanooga, even though various scouts had reported otherwise. This was all part of William Rosecrans’ deception. The Union commander divided his forces, sending a third of his troops slightly upriver from Chattanooga. Bragg took the bait and ignored any information to the contrary, believing that Rosecrans would try to link up with Ambrose Burnside, who had just forced Buckner out of Knoxville.
In truth, Rosecrans had begun crossing the river well downstream of the city on the 29th. By this date, though some units were still crossing, the advance was headed into the mountain passes. On the same day as the crossing, Bragg learned that at least an entire Federal Corps was at Bridgeport. Mostly, he ignored it, nestled in the belief that Rosecrans would never even dare such a move.
On the 30th (or perhaps upon this date), a civilian came into Bragg’s camp and told him that two corps of Yankees had crossed at Caperton’s Ferry, far downriver from Chattanooga. Unsure if he could take the word of a single civilian, Bragg was hesitant. Until on this date, further word came in from Joe Wheeler’s Cavalry, who were patrolling the area around Sand Mountain, near the Federal crossings. While it was true that Wheeler’s report only mentioned cavalry, it certainly added weight to what the civilian said.
His pickets along the river had been scattered, and “the enemy moved into the valley this evening with a very heavy force of cavalry.” By evening, they were thick upon Sand Mountain itself.
Even by this late date, it was not too late. Only two of the three crossings downriver of Chattanooga had been completed, and no single Federal corps was yet on the other side. It would take Rosecrans’ Federals several more days to get everyone on Bragg’s side of the river. In that time, Bragg would have to act.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, another Confederate General was moving to the same end. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been secure behind the Rapidan River for weeks now. The Federal Army of the Potomac held tight to the Rappahannock. Neither side made any major moves against the other. It was in light of this that James Longstreet, one of Lee’s corps commanders, thought it might be a good time to detach a chunk of his men to aid Bragg in Chattanooga.
It wasn’t the first time he had brought up such an idea. In the spring, before the Gettysburg Campaign, he had suggested it and Lee had quickly shot it down. Now he was doing the same again.
“I called General Lee’s attention to the condition of our affairs in the West,” remembered Longstreet after the war. “I suggested that he should adhere to his defensive tactics upon the Rapidan, and reinforce from his army the army lying in front of Rosecrans – so that it could crush that army, and then push on to the West.”
As before, Lee opposed such a risky move, and went to Richmond to plan for the fall campaign. By this date, he had in mind a new strike and was hammering out the details with President Davis. In writing to Longstreet, he didn’t say a thing about the West, but his proposal was fairly surprising: “I can see nothing better to be done than to endeavor to bring General Meade out and use our efforts to crush his army while in the present condition.”
Longstreet, of course, disagreed, but this time something might eventually come of it.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p137; Part 4 563-564, 574; Vol. 51, Part 2, p761; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. II by Judith Lee Hallock. [↩]