September 2, 1863 (Wednesday)
Nobody in Richmond doubted that Braxton Bragg, attempting to defend Chattanooga, Tennessee from the Federal Army of the Cumberland under William Rosecrans, was in a world of trouble. The Yankees had been crossing the Tennessee River for days upon days, placing two corps on Bragg’s far left. Meanwhile, another of Rosecrans’ corps was hovering on the right, as Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio had descended from Kentucky upon Eastern Tennessee. Bragg was receiving some reinforcements, but against two Union Armies, would it be enough?
These were tough problems with difficult solutions that probably had to be devised weeks ago. So dire was the outlook and so far reaching the consequences that seemingly everyone in the South would be effected. Everyone, it seems, apart from General Robert E. Lee.
Lee’s lieutenant, James Longstreet, commanding a corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, understood that if the railroad hub of Chattanooga fell, it would open the gates to Atlanta. Already the South was cut in two with the loss of the Mississippi. If Atlanta fell, the South would be all but doomed. Even if Chattanooga was taken, the rail connection between Tennessee and Virginia would be cut, making it much more difficult to send reinforcements from the east.
It’s not that General Lee couldn’t grasp this. He had been called to Richmond to discuss the entire military situation. Still, Lee was understandably more concerned with his own army. Since falling back to the Rapidan after the summer campaign, Lee had regrouped and was actually planning an autumn offensive against George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. On the last day of August, Lee had written Longstreet, telling him and his other two corps commanders to ready their men. Before long, they would recross the Rapidan and Rappahannock, draw Meade out and “crush his army while in the present condition.”
When Longstreet received Lee’s letter, he wasn’t really surprised. This was what he came to expect from his commanding officer. However, as tempting as such a move might be, the West really was in a fix and sure could use a bit of help.
In his reply, Longstreet was blunt: “I do not know that we can reasonably hope to accomplish much here by offensive operations, unless you are strong enough to cross the Potomac.” Longstreet was obviously not suggesting to Lee that their army make a third invasion of the North, but short from that, he believed any move would be pointless.
“If we advance to meet the enemy on this side [of the Potomac],” Longstreet continued, “he will, in all probability, go into one of his many fortified positions; these we cannot afford to attack.” Typically, Longstreet would now have suggested going on the defensive. But in this case, he brought up another idea, but not one that was new to either he or Lee.
“I know but little of the condition of our affairs in the west, but am inclined to the opinion that our best opportunity for great results is in Tennessee,” he wrote, referring to the Confederate forces dispersed throughout the South. “If we could hold the defensive here with two corps, and send the other to operate in Tennessee with that army [Bragg’s Army of Tennessee], I think that we could accomplish more than by an advance from here.”
Again, Longstreet was speaking for the whole of the Confederacy when he said “we,” not merely the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee was loathe to send any of his own troops anywhere outside of his own command, but Longstreet argued persuasively that one corps should be immediately sent to Tennessee to “destroy Rosecrans’ army.” He believed it was fully “practicable, and reiterated that greater advantage will be gained that by any operations from here.”
As convincing an argument as Longstreet no doubt gave, General Burnside’s argument was better. It was on this day that his Army of the Ohio entered Knoxville, which had previously been commanded by Confederates now en route to Bragg in Chattanooga. Once President Davis received word that Knoxville had fallen, their choice would be easy and Lee would willingly submit.
Though Burnside entered Knoxville on this date, Bragg, wiring Richmond, was still under the impression that he was sixty miles away. But even by now, all could see where this was headed. Bragg needed reinforcements from the east. Typically, those reinforcements would come through Knoxville. With the city in Burnside’s hands, the troops would have to move far south, then west, and then north from Atlanta just when they were needed most.
At this point, however, Richmond believed that Knoxville was still for the South and any movement of troops would be relatively swift.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p693-694, 699; Vol. 30, Part 4, p584-585; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse; Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]