September 29, 1863 (Tuesday)
Another day had passed and still General Lee was no closer to figuring out just what the Union Army of the Potomac was about. There had been rumors that two corps had been detached to reinforce the Federals under General William Rosecrans at Chattanooga, but, as far as Lee was concerned, these were merely rumors. For days now, he had tried to piece it all together, but on this date he found himself no nearer the truth than before.
“The report has been repeated from the [Shenandoah] valley without giving the circumstances on which it was based,” wrote Lee to President Jefferson Davis. He was referencing the report that had come from Major Harry Gilmore, commanding cavalry at Newtown, Virginia. There was no background and nothing more to go on. Though it specifically mentioned Henry Slocum’s and Oliver Otis Howards corps, and that Joseph Hooker was in overall command, it provided no clues at all as to how Major Gilmore had come across this valuable information.
This wasn’t the only bit of intelligence that Lee had to decipher. Other scouts north of the Rappahannock River were reporting that General Meade wasn’t losing troops at all, but rather gaining them. “Those on the Potomac report a large steamer laden with troops as having passed up the river on the 21st, one on the 22d, one on the 23d, and two on the 25th,” continued Lee, allowing that they “may have been conscripts.”
Still, he held out some hope, and it was clear that he was beginning to sense an opportunity. “If it is true that re-enforcements are being sent from General Meade to General Rosecrans,” suggested Lee, “it shows that the enemy is not as strong as he asserts.”
Leaving that notion aside, Lee was also concerned with Braxton Bragg’s position outside of Chattanooga, opposite Rosecrans. The worry throughout the short Chickamauga Campaign was that Union General Ambrose Burnside would join forces with Rosecrans and outnumber Bragg. Burnside had, of course, been ordered to do just that, but had tarried too long at Knoxville. Now, however, it appeared that he was beginning to move.
Lee had received reports “that Burnside has carried nearly all his troops to re-enforce Rosecrans, leaving only a brigade or two of mounted men between him and Knoxville.” In addition to Burnside, and quite possibly Hooker, Bragg might also have to face General Grant. The Confederates learned through Union prisoners that forces from Grant’s army in Mississippi were en route. This was true, and Lee believed it “probable.” And if true, “General Johnston should be moving either to Bragg or General Rosecrans’ lines,” Lee suggested to the President, referring to Joe Johnston, who was still hovering in Mississippi with his so-called Army of Relief.
In the meantime, Lee had his own army to look after. Though hindered by the loss of James Longstreet, he desperately wanted to launch another offensive. If Meade had been weakened, then the time was now.
Cavalry commander John Imboden’s latest report must have given Lee a clue as to the validity of Major Gilmore’s claim that the Federal XI and XII Corps were headed west. “General Imboden reports that 400 of his cavalry returned yesterday from an expedition north of Winchester,” Lee informed Davis. “They report the railroad too strongly guarded to attack. He reports every bridge in Hampshire with a stronger guard than he can attack successfully.”
On the surface, this was bad news. Imboden’s cavalry could not break up the tracks or destroy bridges. But it might possibly hint as something larger. If reinforcements were being rushed west along the B&O tracks, then a heavy guard would be expected.
With that, Lee would be left to ponder another day, seeking answers that would come quicker than he suspected.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p756; Vol. 52, Part 2, p533. [↩]