September 21, 1863 (Monday)
“Be of good cheer,” wrote President Lincoln to the defeated General William Rosecrans. “We have unabated confidence in you, and in your soldiers and officers.” The President had received news of the Federal retreat from Chickamauga Creek to Chattanooga the previous evening and was doing everything in his power to see a silver lining. While he left it up to the general to decide what was best, his advice was to “save your army by taking strong positions until Burnside joins you, when, I hope, you can turn the tide.”
Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Army of the Ohio, had taken Knoxville before dispersing his forces across Eastern Tennessee. Now, however, Lincoln was adamant – Burnside must go to Chattanooga. “Go to Rosecrans with your force without a moment’s delay,” he wired Burnside.
To Washington, Rosecrans sent a message explaining that if Burnside did not come soon, he would have to give up Chattanooga and retreat down the north bank of the Tennessee River. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck joined the chorus, and attempted to convince Burnside to hurry along. Helleck was concerned that with Rosecrans bottled up at Chattanooga, Confederate General Braxton Bragg might “throw a force immediately into East Tennessee” cutting off one Federal army from the other. “General Rosecrans will require all the assistance you can give him to hold Chattanooga.”
Burnside replied quickly, but had little to offer. He could only send several thousand troops at the present moment, but figured that more could be rounded up. The problem was the lack of a pontoon bridge. “When you remember the size of our forces,” wrote Burnside, “the amount of work which it has had to do, and the length of line occupied, you will not be surprised that I have not helped General Rosecrans.” He also reminded Halleck that Rosecrans had claimed the Rebels under Bragg to be in full retreat.
In conclusion, Burnside wished that he could get troops there in three to four days, but admitted that it simply wasn’t possible. “I sincerely hope that he will be able to at least check the enemy for seven or eight days,” he ended, “within which time I shall be able to make considerable diversion in his favor.” While even a considerable diversion wasn’t an actual reinforcement, it was probably all they were going to get from General Burnside.
Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland had fled the field of battle in two waves. The first had retreated all the way back to Chattanooga, while the second, under General George Thomas, had stopped short at Rossville, taking up a fine defensive position.
Through the night, Rosecrans remained in Chattanooga, sending his chief of staff, James A. Garfield, to see how Thomas was getting along. Garfield tried to coax Rosecrans to join Thomas, to bring his army, or even just himself to the scene. The storm was coming. Bragg wouldn’t let this opportunity slip by.
Though the President’s words did little to lift his spirits, Rosecrans seemed to put some kind of faith in the belief that Burnside would soon join him. Also, there was hope that William Tecumseh Sherman was marching on Chattanooga with 20,000. But hope was not enough to raise Rosecrans’ morale or even enough to convince him to let Thomas defend his position at Rossville.
Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had not yet made an appearance. True, there was some minor skirmishing, but there was no real test of Thomas’ lines. The Confederate victory was one of confusion. When Thomas’ troops left the field, it was after dark. Several commanders sent scouts to uncover the new location of the Federals, and several scouts returned with the knowledge that the enemy was either in Chattanooga or Rossville.
James Longstreet, who commanded half of Bragg’s army, was convinced that Thomas was still in his front, that the Federals may have fallen back, but were still in the immediate area. Leonidas Polk, commanding the other half of Bragg’s army, simply didn’t know what to think. Bragg himself seemed to latch onto Polk’s indecision.
Once it was sorted out that Rosecrans was in or very near to Chattanooga, things grew even less clear. Longstreet claimed that he wanted to sent a portion of the army toward East Tennessee, cutting Burnside off from Rosecrans, as Halleck had feared. Bragg claimed that Longstreet’s actual suggestion was to march on Nashville. Whichever (if either) was the truth, Bragg’s army was hardly in any condition to start a new offensive campaign.
Half of his number was made up of reinforcements hastily tossed together to win some sort of victory against Rosecrans. There was no transportation, ammunition was low, and food was even lower. But at least a pursuit to Chattanooga was in order – or so believed Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had taken part of his cavalry within a mile of Rossville to scout the enemy position.
The scene he beheld was one of confusion and disarray. “Every hour is worth a thousand men,” he wrote to Bragg, hoping to convince him that now was the time to attack. Union prisoners claimed that Rosecrans had thrown two pontoon bridges across the Tennessee River to aid in the retreat, as it was his plan to abandon Chattanooga. Forrest apparently rode back to Bragg’s headquarters to see for himself why the infantry wasn’t following. Bragg responded, citing that lack of supplies as the reason no pursuit could be given.
“General Bragg,” Forrest supposedly replied, “we can get all the supplies our army needs in Chattanooga.” But Bragg would still not move.
Through the day, things had calmed down along General Thomas’ line at Rossville. Stragglers had come in that morning and afternoon, returning to their units following a harrowing night. The position was good, but Thomas was worried about his flanks. When Forrest’s men probed farther, he became more and more convinced that his line could not hold. By late afternoon, he was strongly suggesting to Rosecrans that he withdraw into the city. Rosecrans agreed, and at 9pm, Thomas abandoned Rossville and joined the rest of the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. Soon, they and the city would be under siege.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 1, p254-255; Vol. 3, p769-770; Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2 edited by John Hay and John Nicolay; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn; Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword. [↩]