August 23, 1863 (Sunday)
Things in Chattanooga were afoot. Confederate General Braxton Bragg seemed to have no knowledge at all that 60,000 Federals were advancing towards him and about to cross the Cumberland Mountains and Tennessee River. This all changed on the morning of August 21st, when Union artillery opened fire upon the city from across the Tennessee. A young colonel named John Wilder, commanding a brigade of mounted infantry – the vanguard of William Rosecrans’ advancing Army of the Cumberland – had scrambled across the hills and rained shot and shell upon them. They targeted two steamers, and destroyed them both. This sent the citizens scurrying and quick word to General Bragg, who was twenty miles away at a hospital in Georgia.
When Bragg returned that evening, the fact that the Northern troops might try to take Chattanooga seemed to have just dawned upon him. Not only was he met with Federal artillery (though only a partial battery), but also reports of Union movement up and down the Tennessee forty miles in either direction. From farther away in Knoxville, Tennessee, 100 miles northeast, Confederate General Simon Buckner sent word that another Federal Army, under Ambrose Burnside, was advancing from Kentucky. With his small force, there was no way he could hold East Tennessee.
In a flurry that night, he sent a message to General Joe Johnston in Mississippi, explaining that both Generals Rosecrans and Burnside were advancing upon him and he needed help. When Johnston received the message, he waited until morning before wiring Richmond to see if he had the authority to reinforce Bragg. After receiving incredibly clear instructions that he not only had the authority (which Johnston obviously knew), but needed to do, he sent a reply to Bragg, telling him that two divisions, about 9,000 men, would be on their way within twenty-four hours.
Bragg also called upon Richmond to see what they could do. They, of course, knew that Johnston was going to help and that Buckner in Knoxville would fall back upon Chattanooga. A general concentration would not only bolster the defenses, but would boost morale.
While Bragg saw to his own strategy, asking his lieutenants for a bit of advice, General Buckner quickly assessed the problem. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry had been on picket duty along the Tennessee, their extreme left at Kingston, forty miles east of Knoxville, and about seventy miles northeast of Chattanooga. Buckner had heard that Burnside’s force numbered near 50,000, but rightly believed it to be an exaggeration. But even if it were a quarter of that figure, they would still outnumber him two for every one.
“I am moving my infantry with a view to sustaining you at Kingston,” wrote Buckner to Forrest on the 22nd. “Burnside is certainly advancing, but his movement are not yet developed.” To one of his officers 100 miles even farther east, Buckner explained the move.
“The necessity of combining with General Bragg compels me to draw most of my troops to this end of the district,” he began. “The impossibility of opposing the enemy’s advance at all points leads me to concentrate against his right.” He instructed his easterly comrades to check the enemy’s “advance as far as possible.” If it wasn’t possible, he was to retreat toward North Carolina. “That you may understand fully,” he concluded, “I will say there is no purpose of evacuated East Tennessee, but on the contrary it is proposed to defend it to the last.” Buckner was hopeful, and predicted that the Federals would gain some ground, but only “for a short time.”
Whatever lip service that Buckner paid to holding East Tennessee to the last, dissipated on this date. To Bragg’s headquarters, he admitted, “Alone I can do little against him [Burnside]. By co-operating with you we may effect something against Rosecrans before junction of their armies. I will endeavor to hold my troops in a position to do this, and if facts develop as I now believe I will constitute the right of your army.”
While Ambrose Burnside’s 15,000-strong Army of the Ohio crossed into Tennessee, Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland was preparing quite another kind of surprise for Braxton Bragg. The artillery fire upon Chattanooga had been part of an elaborate ruse. Their appearance led Bragg and pretty much everyone else, to assume that the two Federal armies were about to combine and cross the Tennessee at or slightly north of Chattanooga. In actuality, however, Rosecrans’ plan was to cross the bulk of his force well south of the city, using Burnside’s force to cover his extreme left flank.
Braxton Bragg assumed that Rosecrans was moving in the space between Chattanooga and Knoxville. For the next several days, he would act on that mistake, actually pulling troops away from the main body of the Federal Army. He even started a division on the road northeast to reinforce Buckner. All he could now do was wait for Rosecrans to appear somewhere up the river even though that was exactly where Rosecrans was not going to be.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 3, p131; Part 4, p 529, 530, 531, 537, 540, 541; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Days of Glory by Larry Daniel; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]