September 4, 1863 (Friday)
Lookout Mountain was over them; not so much towering as looming. Its sharp slopes may as well have been walls which William Rosecrans’ Federal Army of the Cumberland had to scale. By the morning of this date, nearly all of his force had crossed the Tennessee River. They had clawed and scrambled their way along too-narrow paths, up and over Sand Mountain, which seemed equal parts sand and boulders. It was toil and hellish labor to reach the top, and though it was more or less level, the ground turned almost purely to deep sand. Before their descent, the troops took in the beautiful sight of Lookout Mountain, but knew they must conquer it as well. Only then could they fall upon the left flank of Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Though most of Rosecrans’ Army had crossed the river, they were not all massed in one column. Several days past and forty miles up the Tennessee, Thomas Crittenden’s XXI Corps had feigned a crossing on Bragg’s right. This ruse drew attention away from the actual crossing, far downriver from Chattanooga, and allowed the remaining two corps of Rosecrans’ force to cross without much resistance or notice. Now, however, it was time for Crittenden to break off the charade and join the rest of the army.
When Crittenden arrived at the crossings, he found both to be in use by the two previous corps’ supply wagons. Rosecrans’ Army had fallen woefully behind schedule, and was strung from Lookout Mountain to beyond the Tennessee River. Even within the corps and divisions themselves, the troops fell behind. For example, Philip Sheridan’s Division of Alexander McCook’s XX Corps was held up by the wagons of James Negly’s Division from George Thomas’ XIV Corps.
But even if there hadn’t been delays along the poor roads and clogged crossings, Rosecrans’ schedule would likely not have been met. The commanding general had massed most of his cavalry on the extreme right flank of his shifting army. This covered General McCook’s Corps, but left Thomas’ men to grope about blindly on their own. That is, if they had been pushed forward through the gaps of Lookout Mountain.
As it now stood, General Thomas wasn’t so keen on this idea. Though James Negley’s Division was the only one of his to keep up with the schedule, he was loathe to continue on with Crittenden’s Corps still on the other side of the Tennessee. Having no cavalry at his disposal, he had little idea what might be before him and wanted not to get caught in a bind without support.
While the Federals fought time and the mountains in an attempt to get to Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga, the Confederate commander had grown more and more unsure of his current position. Most of his higher officers agreed that at least two Federal corps had crossed the Tennessee downriver, though nobody seemed to want to attack them. The problem was that Bragg thought he discovered Rosecrans’ deceptive plan – and he had, though it was now out of date.
Bragg surmised that Rosecrans had split his army, sent two corps downriver and one upriver. This was, of course, true. Rosecrans had done exactly that. What Bragg failed to realize was that no longer was there an entire Federal corps upriver. Only a division or so had been left as a small sort of sub-diversion, just in case. And in this case, it worked. Bragg and his corps commander, D.H. Hill, both thought that if they attacked Rosecrans’ two corps somewhere downriver, the remaining corps supposedly upriver would swoop down and hit them from behind.
To further add to Bragg’s confusion was the Army of the Ohio under Ambrose Burnside, which had taken Knoxville, Tennessee far on the Federal left. Rumor had it that Crittenden’s mysterious corps had joined forces with Burnside. This was no where near accurate, but a fairly frightening prospect, nonetheless.
Also, Bragg was becoming convinced that since two Federal Corps had crossed so far downriver from Chattanooga, their objective must certainly be Rome or even Atlanta. This was wrong, but when looking at a map, it didn’t seem too crazy a conclusion.
Through his foggy confusion, General Bragg wrote D.H. Hill on this date, laying it all out. “There is no doubt of the enemy’s position now,” he began, stating that one corps was opposite Hill, upriver from Chattanooga, while the other two had crossed downriver. “Wheeler is gone to develop them,” he said of his cavalry, “and Walker goes to railroad to Rome to head them off from our communications.” Gen. W.H.T. Walker’s Division had arrived the previous week, sent as reinforcements from Joe Johnston in Mississippi.
“If you can cross the river,” he continued to Hill, “now is our time to crush the corps opposite. What say you?” Of course, if Hill were to cross, he would have found far less than a corps to crush. “The crushing of this corps would give us a great victory and redeem Tennessee.” This made quite a bit of sense. If the bulk of Rosecrans’ Army was bypassing Chattanooga, he had some time to destroy it in detail, starting with Crittenden’s Corps.
But the problem wasn’t just with the complete absence of the Federal corps opposite D.H. Hill, it was with Braxton Bragg himself. For so many days, he had been in complete darkness over Rosecrans’ whereabouts. It had driven him to near breaking. He was now erratic and manic, having little idea what he should do.
Soon after telling D.H. Hill to seriously consider an attack across the river, he wrote a message to President Davis in Richmond, revealing his fears over doing just that. After explaining why he regretfully withdrew his troops from Knoxville, he delved into his mind.
“With our present dispositions we are prepared to meet the enemy at any point he may assail,” wrote Bragg, “either with a portion or with the whole of his forces, and should he present us an opportunity we shall not fail to strike him.” So far, it sounded as if Bragg was hedging his bets. He was going on the defensive while keeping one eye open for a possible opportunity. But then he continued.
“My position is to some extent embarrassing in regard to offensive movements,” he admitted. “In a country so utterly destitute we cannot for a moment abandon our line of communications, and unable to detach a sufficient force to guard it, we must necessarily maneuver between the enemy and our supplies. The approach of his right column (the heaviest, it will be observed) is directly on our left flank and seriously threatens our railroad. No effort will be spared to bring him to an engagement whenever the chances shall favor us.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p21; Part 4, p594, 596; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Days of Glory by Larry Daniel; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock. [↩]