‘Disaster Not As Great As I Anticipated’ – Lincoln Tries to Reinforce Roscrans from Everywhere

September 22, 1863 (Tuesday)

Burnside: Why didn't you say something? I'll be right over!
Burnside: Why didn’t you say something? I’ll be right over!

Following the defeat at Chickamauga, Federal commander William Rosecrans was, to put it mildly, distraught. President Lincoln had tried to lift his spirits some, and by the second day after the battle, Rosecrans was feeling better – though far from steady. While once he believed himself to be chasing a foe in full retreat, he now believed he was being stalked by Rebels far outnumbering him.

“We have fought a most sanguinary battle against vastly superior numbers,” he wrote in the morning of this date. “Longstreet is here, and probably Ewell, and a force is coming from Charleston.” Rosecrans was jumping at every rumor. It was certain that James Longstreet, who had quickly arrived from Virginia, was commanding at least a corps under Braxton Bragg, but there was no evidence that Richard Ewell, another of General Lee’s corps commanders, was present, just as there were no Confederate troops en route from Charleston.

Rosecrans admitted that his army was suffering, but held to the notion that his troops “have inflicted equal injury upon the enemy.” Here is where his mood turned lighter. “The mass of this army is intact and in good spirits,” he reported. “Disaster not as great as I anticipated. […] Our position is a strong one. Think we can hold out several days, and if re-enforcemetns come up soon everything will come out right.”

But that was the rub. Trying to get reinforcements to Chattanooga was proving rather difficult. The closest force was the Army of the Ohio, under Ambrose Burnside. But Burnside seemed more interested in tracking down bands of guerrillas than aiding Rosecrans. Even before the battle, all of Washington was calling for the two armies to unite at Chattanooga. Even by this day, it was a far off notion.

“I must again urge you to move immediately to Rosecrans’ relief,” wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. “I fear your delay has already permitted Bragg to prevent your junction. […] If the enemy should cross the Tennessee above Chattanooga, you will be hopelessly separated from Rosecrans, who may not be able to hold out on the south side.” Burnside would promise Lincoln himself that he would comply the following day.

Probably not trusting that Burnside could be counted upon, Washington had designed that Rosecrans also be reinforced by some of General Ulysses Grant’s troops from the Army of the Tennessee. The order was written on September 15th, but wasn’t received by Grant until this date.

I'll catch that bird for ye.
I’ll catch that bird for ye.

Since the fall of Vicksburg, Grant’s army had been parceled out here and there. Some had gone south to Nathaniel Banks, while others went into Arkansas with Frederick Steel. Most had been spread out across Mississippi. But when Grant received the message, which was sent by Henry Halleck, and came through Memphis, he rounded up his best. “Urge Sherman to act with all possible promptness,” wrote Halleck. And Grant took it to heart.

“Please order at once one division of your army corps to proceed to re-enforce Rosecrans,” wrote Grant to William Tecumseh Sherman, “moving form here [Vicksburg] by brigades as fast as transportation can be had.” General James McPhearson was also ordered to contribute a division. In the end, Sherman would end up commanding the reinforcements.

In Washington, other means of reinforcing Rosecrans were being discussed. General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had been called to Washington to discuss the coming campaign. Since Longstreet was clearly in Tennessee, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was weakened. Might not something be done to strike a blow towards Richmond?

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did not believe so. Before Meade arrived, Stanton had called a meeting with the President, Halleck, Secretary of State William Seward, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Stanton revealed that he wanted to send 20,000 troops from Meade’s army to Chattanooga. If Lee could send such a force via the rickety Southern railroads, there’s no reason why Washington couldn’t do the same upon the northern tracks.

This was a compelling challenge, but Lincoln and Halleck both thought that Chattanooga would fall before the reinforcements could arrive. Additionally, if Lee found out that Meade had been weakened, he might try another offensive.

Meade: You want my what?
Meade: You want my what?

But Stanton was prepared for such arguments, and brought in Col. D.C. McCallum as an expert witness. McCallum was the director of the Department of Military Railroads, and had been prepped for the meeting. When asked by Lincoln how long it would take to rush 20,000 troops from Virginia to Chattanooga, McCallum assured him that he could do it in a week, even pledging his life that his calculations were accurate.

This must have touched Lincoln, for he immediately approved of the plan. Meade would be ordered to release the XI Corps, commanded by Oliver Otis Howard, and the XII Corps under John Slocum. It would take some time to organize, and Stanton would sequester himself away for two full days to pound out the details.

With Burnside coming from the north, Sherman coming from the west, and Meade’s troops moving east, one way or another, Lincoln was determined to fortify Rosecrans and save Chattanooga.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 1, p160, 164-168; Part 3, p785, 809-810; Mountains Touched With Fire by Wiley Sword; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. []
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2 thoughts on “‘Disaster Not As Great As I Anticipated’ – Lincoln Tries to Reinforce Roscrans from Everywhere

  1. Interesting how the Union leadership unites and acts expeditiously in time of crisis: during the Gettysburg campaign and battle and as the siege of Chattanooga begins.

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