October 1, 1863 (Thursday)
General Robert E. Lee was now certain. For several days, he had pondered the rumors that two Federals corps had been detached from the Army of the Potomac and sent west to reinforce William Rosecrans at Chattanooga. He had batted around a handful of possibilities, including the idea that General George Meade had himself been reinforced. There was even speculation that a column of troops had been dispatched to the Peninsula as a sort of diversion for whatever it was that Washington was planning.
Even as late as the previous day (the 29th), Lee had doubts. The scout who brought him the news, he did not fully trust. “None of the [other] scouts have yet seen the troops in motion,” Lee wrote to President Davis, “nor can any material change be observed in their camps at our front.”
After Lee had sent the letter to Davis, he heard further reports, and by the morning of this date, he was convinced. “I consider it certain that two corps have been withdrawn from General Meade’s army to re-enforce General Rosecrans,” he wrote. One of the scouts (whom Lee apparently trusted), “saw General Howard take the cars at Catlett’s Station, where his headquarters had been established, and saw other troops marching toward Manassas, which he believes to have been the Twelfth Corps.” This was overall the truth, though the troops marching toward Manassas were actually the XI Corps.
Rather than immediately focusing upon the obvious opportunity that presented itself with the knowledge that his enemy was now short 20,000 men, Lee instead gave advice to Davis on what to do with the Confederate troops opposite the reinforced Rosecrans. “Everything that can be done to strengthen Bragg ought now to be done,” Lee cautioned, “and if he cannot draw Rosecrans out in any other way, it might be accomplished by operating against his re-enforcements on the line of travel.” Lee hoped that if the XI and XII Corps, now under General Joe Hooker, could not make it to Rosecrans, Rosecrans might be compelled to go to them.
This was not to say that Lee had no designs of his own. He most certainly did – what he lacked, however, was a plan. He noted that the Army of the Potomac occupied “the ridge north of Culpeper Court-House, extending some miles east and west.” It was a strong line, but a curious one. “His position answers as well for defense as attack,” Lee concluded.
But General Meade in fact had no plans to launch an offensive. That was the very reason that President Lincoln had agreed to send the XI and XII Corps west. Whatever plans Meade had been mulling over, were canceled, and he seemed more or less content to wait for winter. Though Lee did not see it, Meade had slightly shifted his line to make up for the departed corps. The XII Corps had occupied the front, and had been replaced by the I Corps. The XI had watched the railroad at Catlett’s and Bristoe Station. Now, a division from the VI Corps was removed from the front to make up the difference.
In the West, things were developing at a quicker pace than General Lee had assumed. The XI and XII Corps were ordered to reinforce Rosecrans on the 24th. By this date, only a week later, President Lincoln received some fairly pleasant news. From Nashville, Tennessee came a wire telling that “Genl Hooker left [Nashville] at eight this morning. Genl Howard at four thirty (4 30) PM. Eleventh Corps all gone, and part of Twelfth.” By the end of the following day, all of the XII Corps would have passed through Nashville.
The two corps under Hooker would be helpful to Rosecrans, but it was not clear just how long Rosecrans might be around. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had sent his assistant secretary, Charles Dana, to keep an eye on things around Rosecrans’ headquarters. Thus far, following the battle of Chickamauga, Stanton had seen to it that two corps commanders, Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden, were relieved of duty. Now his attention was turned to Rosecrans.
“If Hooker’s command get safely through, all that the Army of the Cumberland can need will be a competent commander,” wrote Stanton to Dana. “The merit of General Thomas and the debt of gratitude the nation owes to his valor and skill are fully appreciated here, and I wish you to tell him so. It was not my fault that he was not in chief command months ago.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p758, 766; Vol. 30, Part 3, p946; Vol. 30, Part 4, p49; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 6. [↩]