It Was Decided That An Attack Was Impracticable – Bragg’s Last Chance

October 31, 1863 – Halloween (Saturday)

Bragg: Soon he will be gone!
Bragg: Soon he will be gone!

Confederate President Jefferson Davis was worried most about two things – recovering East Tennessee, which was now held by 20,000 or so Federals under the command of Ambrose Burnside, and getting James Longstreet and his corps back to General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Of course, until he knew better, he figured that things were going fairly well for Braxton Bragg, who had been besieging the Union Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga.

On the 29th, Davis put forth the idea that if Bragg could maintain the siege, Longstreet might be detached to expel Burnside, “and thus place him in position, according to circumstances, to hasten or delay his return to the army of General Lee.” Lee, according to Davis, had gained “some recent successes over the enemy; but Meade’s great and increasing numbers renders it very desirable to General Lee’s troops should be returned to him at the earliest practicable day.”

David handed Bragg myriad ideas in his letter of the 29th. Mostly, however, he seemed to be trying to reassure Bragg that even if he lost Longstreet’s two divisions, all was not lost. For one, General William Hardee had recently arrived, adding two brigades. Bragg’s biggest problem, of course, was the fact that he got along with basically nobody. Through several occurrences, his subordinate officers had tried to remove him, and in retaliation, Bragg did his best to see that they were removed. To this, Davis often complied, but now he was running out of officers.

“My recollections of my military life do not enable me to regard as necessary that there should be kind personal relations between officers to secure their effective co-operation in all which is official,” wrote Davis, “and the present surely much more than any circumstances within my experience should lift men above all personal considerations and devote them wholly to their country’s cause.” For the time being, Davis was putting a halt to “the consideration of any further removal of general officers from their commands.”

Approximate map of the goings on (for the 31st also).
Approximate map of the goings on (for the 31st also).

All of this was written on the 29th, before the debacle at Brown’s Ferry and Wauhatchie was known to him. Following those events, Bragg was even more insistent that his officer corps be scoured, and requested Davis to return to his army’s camps near Chattanooga. This Davis could not do. He had just been there a week prior. Since then, he had traveled to Mobile, Alabama, and was now en route to Charleston.

Bragg acquiesced, understanding perhaps that his inability to get along with anyone wasn’t the center of the universe. Still, he was forwarding any and all dispatches from Longstreet that he deemed “of a more disrespectful and insubordinate character.” Davis would find himself disheartened by Longstreet’s performance at Wauhatchie, and, through Bragg, hoped for some explanation, which Longstreet would never satisfactorily give. Rather than come himself, Davis decided to send Col. James Chesnut instead.

Bragg knew he was in trouble. The siege was effectively broken, and Federal reinforcements were streaming toward Chattanooga. Joe Hooker’s two corps had successfully arrived, with all blame cast upon Longstreet. But also, an even greater number of troops under William Tecumseh Sherman was marching steadily to join General Grant. No longer was he dealing with William Rosecrans’ dodgy little army. He was about to face off against elements of the armies that captured Vicksburg and defeated Lee at Gettysburg.

Longstreet: Soon I will be gone!
Longstreet: Soon I will be gone!

Despite all differences, Bragg and his officers met on this day to decide what to do. From atop Lookout Mountain, Longstreet, Hardee and John Breckinridge – Bragg’s three corps commanders – peered down upon Hooker’s troops below them in the Valley. Bragg wished to first attack there, and wanted to know if it was feasible. If Hooker’s troops and their lodging at Brown’s Ferry were crushed, the so-named “Cracker Line” would be closed.

“It was decided that an attack was impracticable,” wrote Longstreet shortly thereafter, “that the only route by which our troops could reach the field was a difficult mountain road, only practicable for infantry and entirely exposed to the enemy’s batteries on the other side of the river. His positions were connected by a short an easy route, while ours would have been separated by a mountain, impassible to artillery except by a detour of some 50 miles, and hardly practicable for infantry.”

Bragg probably knew this, as he had another plan in mind. Paying heed to Davis’ words in his letter of the 29th, he now wished to send Longstreet to East Tennessee. This was a risky plan, to be sure. Detaching two full divisions when the enemy had recently been reinforced by two corps (with two more soon to come) was perhaps not the wises of strategies, but Bragg hoped that setting Longstreet free would not only rid him of Longstreet, but would force Grant to send quite a number of troops to chase him down. If not, his 36,000-strong army would be up against what he believed to be 80,000 Yankees (it was actually closer to 70,000, even when Sherman was counted).

Here's a map showing the Union positions near Brown's Ferry. This is what Longstreet, etc would have seen when looking down from Lookout Mountain.
Here’s a map showing the Union positions near Brown’s Ferry. This is what Longstreet, etc would have seen when looking down from Lookout Mountain.

Additionally, even if Longstreet was successful and Burnside was ousted from East Tennessee, there was no guarantee that it would effect Grant at all. When William Rosecrans was losing the battle of Chickamauga, he desperately called for reinforcements from Burnside. But now that the Cracker Line was open and supplies were coming in from Nashville, there was little military need to save East Tennessee. Besides, what could Bragg do there if his entire army was in retreat toward Atlanta?

Maybe Bragg believed Davis’ plan so crazy it just might work. But the plan was conditional. It required the Cracker Line to never have been opened. Now that the siege was lifted, the situation was changed. Bragg’s mind, however, was not. Clearly, the decision was personal. Bragg wanted to be rid of Longstreet, and this was the way to do it.

In a few short days, another council of war would be called, and the plan would be fleshed out and dissected.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 2, p554-555, 557, 558, 559; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock. []
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It Was Decided That An Attack Was Impracticable – Bragg’s Last Chance by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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