November 21, 1863 (Saturday)
Washington was growing worried. No word had come from Knoxville, where Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio was penned in by James Longstreet’s Confederates. Over the past couple of days, General Orlando Willcox, whose brigade was holding Cumberland Gap, had tried to make contact, but had failed due to the Rebel host. All through the night previous and on this day, firing could be heard in the direction of Knoxville, but just what was transpiring, no one could say.
General Grant, commanding at Chattanooga, wished for Willcox to try and break the siege, but the brigadier was leery of such an undertaking. “I will try it,” he responded, “and endeavor to subsist on the country. It would be a desperate attempt, as the roads are bad and the country pretty much fed out along the route.”
There were, however, rumors, which Willcox believed. Once Knoxville fell, Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler was to speed north into Kentucky. Willcox rathered that he stay in Cumberland Gap to keep in communication with Kentucky in case of such an event. But he was sullen, and believed Knoxville already lost. “Cumberland River is up,” he told Grant, “and if we have more rain there is no danger of Wheeler getting into Kentucky.” But of course, Knoxville had not yet fallen.
As Willcox sent the dispatches to Grant, he also sent them to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington. In turn, Halleck communicated with Grant of the rumors that Burnside was surrounded. “The President feels very anxious that some immediate movement should be made for his relief,” wrote Halleck, allowing that Longstreet’s corps to be “larger than was supposed.”
Grant replied, discussing the quickly-declining situation and his planned attack, which was already a day behind schedule. “Our attack on the enemy’s right has not yet commenced,” wrote Grant. “Troops have been moving night and day ever since Sherman appeared at Bridgeport, but narrow and bad roads have made an earlier attack impossible.” This wasn’t entirely true. Sherman had made some missteps of his own, but Grant thought it best to leave that part out. “Owing to heavy rain last night, it will be impossible to attack Bragg before Monday [the 23rd].”
In an additional wire to Halleck, Grant further excused his friend. “Sherman has used almost superhuman effort to get up even at this time, and his force is really the only one that I can move.”
The problem seemed to be artillery. Two weeks prior, General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, declared that it was impossible to move his guns. Now he was saying that he would have to borrow horses and mules from Sherman, and that he could take only one gun from each battery. “I have never felt such restlessness before as I have at the fixed and immovable condition of the Army of the Cumberland.”
While Thomas’ men sat mostly still, Sherman’s were on the move, continuing as they had the previous day, marching through the Lookout Valley, across the Tennessee River via a pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry, and then into the hills north of Chattanooga. As they marched, they passed the troops under Joseph Hooker’s command – two corps once from the Army of the Potomac.
And it was these troops that Thomas wished to utilize. Grant’s orders held that one of Hooker’s Corps would accompany Sherman to the hills north of Chattanooga, from where they would then descend upon the northern slope of Missionary Ridge, beyond the Confederate right flank. Thomas, however, had always been in favor of an attack upon the Confederate left flank at Lookout Mountain. He once more lobbied Grant to change his mind.
Grant’s objective was to cut Longstreet off from Bragg. A successful attack by Sherman would, no doubt, secure this. But Thomas argued that a successful attack anywhere along the line would render the same results. This logic was hard to argue, but Grant’s mind was unchanged. Thomas also worried that Sherman’s long tarry in the Lookout Valley would lead Bragg to divining Sherman’s attack upon Missionary Ridge.
But no such stuff was in the mind of Braxton Bragg. By the 20th, he had indeed taken notice of the Federal reinforcements, but misread their intentions. “Sherman’s force has arrived,” he reported, “and a movement on our left is indicated.” But he also began to suspect a movement toward his right, though he was still on this date working it out. This would soon change.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol 31, Part 2, p39, 667; Part 3, p214-216; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Shipwreck of their Hopes by Peter Cozzens; Mountains Touched With Fire by Wiley Sword; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. [↩]