Bragg’s Almost Battle at Davis’ Crossroads

September 11, 1863 (Friday)

General Bragg
General Bragg

Braxton Bragg’s plans to fall upon an isolated Federal division were not going well at all. On the 9th, after abandoning Chattanooga, he discovered just how scattered William Rosecrans’ Federal army was, and stopped his withdrawal to La Fayette to take advantage of it.

It was James Negley’s Division that was separated from the rest of George Thomas’ XIV Corps, which was itself separated from Rosecrans’ two other corps. Negley had been sitting at Davis’ Crossroads in McLemore’s Cove, a valley that ran along Chickamauga Creek. Behind him was the creek, Steven’s Gap across Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. Before him was Dug Gap across Pigeon Mountain, and D.H. Hill’s Confederate Corps.

Bragg sent orders for Patrick Cleburne’s Division from Hill’s Corps to attack through Dug Gap. Meanwhile, Thomas Hindman’s Division from Leonidas Polk’s Corps would march southwest into McLemore’s Cove to cut off Negley’s line of retreat. If all went well, the Federal division would be destroyed.

But things did not go well at all. The orders were written on the night of the 9th. While Hindman stepped off that night, Hill received the message the next morning and had a laundry list of reasons why it wouldn’t work. Bragg wasn’t thrilled with this, but let Hill have his way and sent Simon Buckner’s troops, recently arrived from Knoxville, instead.

Hindman was supposed to be in position by the time Hill (or now Buckner) attacked. But Hindman never got into position at all, stopping four miles short to plan his own line of retreat. When Buckner arrived, he found himself outranked by Hindman, who ordered him to find a second line of retreat.

Around 5pm (on the 10th), Hill finally decided that General Cleburne wasn’t sick at all, and sent him forward into Dug Gap, where he was currently skirmishing with portions of Negley’s Federals. He sent messages urging Hindman to attack, but they went unheeded. Hindman apparently mistook them as suggestions and declined to entertain such an idea.

This map's getting a bit crowded...
This map’s getting a bit crowded…

Hindman had decided that Negley’s Division was but a ruse. The true Union advance was not through McLemore’s Cove, but on La Fayette itself from the south. By evening, even D.H. Hill had become convinced of this, and soon Bragg was on board as well. But he didn’t want to simply abandon his plans for destroying the division of Yankees in McLemore’s Cove, and sent urgings for Hindman to hurry along. These were not, however, direct orders, and Hindman mostly ignored them.

That night, he met with Buckner and several other officers, where he let loose the litany of his fears. He was convinced that there were many more Yankees hidden in Steven’s Gap just waiting for him to strike. There were even more, he believed, lurking behind him, waiting to cut off his line of retreat.

While all of this was going on, Hindman was sending off a number of messages to Bragg, telling him that he would attack the next morning, if all went well. He didn’t neglect to give a list of all the things he predicted would go horribly wrong.

Basically, General Hindman was over his head. In letters to Bragg and Hill, he said many contradictory things about the location and strength of the Federals before him. True, Hindman had little idea of the ground, and he was certainly doing his best. But then, that was the problem. Hindman’s best was far worse than Bragg could imagine.

Hindman: What?
Hindman: What?

In the early hours of this date, Bragg was in La Fayatte with Hill. There, his fears that two Federal corps (the XIV and XX Corps under George Thomas and Alexander McCook) were about to hit the town from the south were waylaid by a scout who insisted that Thomas and McCook were still miles apart and miles away. During this meeting, a messenger arrived from Hindman explaining with incredibly bad English (he was French and could not be well understood) that the attack in McLenore’s Cove had to be called off because the real threat was from the two Federal corps about to hit the town from the south.

Bragg was furious over this reason, especially since it was just proven wrong. Finally, he directly ordered Hindman to attack. The orders were sent via a courier, so there could be no mistake. But there was a mistake anyway, at least two, one made by each Bragg and Hindman. First, after the orders went out, Bragg ordered Patrick Cleburne to be ready to attack with his division as soon as he heard Hindman’s guns. Hindman, however, was never informed that he would be the signal.

Hindman’s mistake was much more bizarre. Somehow, he got it in his head that the verbal orders given to his French messenger were discretionary, and that they somehow superseded the written orders Bragg personally sent via his own courier.

Negley: Whew! Thanks for waiting!
Negley: Whew! Thanks for waiting!

Through this all, however, at the dawn of this date, Hindman ordered his own and Buckner’s men to advance toward Davis’ Crossroads and Negley’s Federal division. His own scouts assured him that the Union troops were between the crossroads and Dug Gap. His only mission, therefore, was to hold the crossroads and trap Negley’s Yankees between his own troops and D.H. Hill’s.

But Hindman’s advance was ridiculously slow. By the early afternoon, he had marched only two miles, though he had set off at dawn. By the four o’clock hour, Hindman had advanced little farther, and called another meeting. Throughout the day, he had been concerned about his own line of retreat. Hearing that the Federals before him were, perhaps, the strength of an entire corps, he decided to use this line and began to withdraw his men before he saw anything more than a few cavalry pickets.

An hour or so later, Hindman received information that the Yankees were actually in retreat, streaming past Davis’ Crossroads, across Chickamauga Creek, and up over Steven’s Gap to the safety of their comrades. At once, Hindman turned his men around and headed back to the crossroads. There, he met an incredibly unamused General Bragg. While Buckner sent troops towards Stephen’s Gap, Bragg screamed at Hindman over an array of things.

On the other end of the line, General Polk’s other Division and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry were pushed back as two Union divisions in Crittenden’s XXI Corps occupied Lee & Gordon’s Mill and Ringgold. There was, however, a silver lining. It seemed that the Union division streaming into Ringgold had streamed past Ringgold and was isolated from the rest of the Federal army. If he couldn’t get Negley, perhaps Bragg could get Crittenden’s.1

  1. Sources: Autuman of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. []
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3 thoughts on “Bragg’s Almost Battle at Davis’ Crossroads

  1. I just can’t wait for the siege of Chattanooga and Grant saving the army. Which ends up with him becoming Lieutenant General.(Though he is now considered a 4 star general of the army.)

    1. I’ve not gotten to Grant’s promotion in my writing yet (I’m about 4 months ahead). But the stuff between Chattanooga and that event – the winter of 63/64 – is incredibly fascinating.

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