September 26, 1863 (Saturday)
Following the battle of Chickamauga, the Union Army of the Cumberland, helmed by William Rosecrans, retreated back to Chattanooga, ducking behind the trenches and waiting for the Rebels to attack. General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, very slowly followed, while starting small wars with officers under his command.
To reinforce Rosecrans’ Army, Washington had undertaken a massive movement of troops. From the west, William Tecumseh Sherman was headed towards Chickamauga with 20,000. General Ambrose Burnside was supposed to be moving south from Knoxville with about that number, though he was tarrying far too long for anyone’s liking but his own. The most important and surprising movement, however, was that of the XI and XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac.
This required the rails to carry what would amount to 23,000 men (though there were only 15,000 at first) from Virginia, through Alexandria, to Harpers Ferry, through West Virginia, across Ohio, down Kentucky, to Nashville, where they would make their way to Chattanooga. This move was of utmost secrecy. While there were no major Confederate forces opposing either Sherman or Burnside, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was faced off across the Rapidan River against the Army of the Potomac. It was feared that if Lee found out, he would take full advantage.
Here, Noah Brooks continues the story. Brooks was a reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union (though mostly, he was a close friend to Lincoln and a Washington socialite).
In spite of a rigorous censorship of the wires, military matters did sometimes get out of Washington in the most inexplicable manner, eluding the stern authority in the telegraph office. When it was decided to reinforce Rosecrans, in 1863, with the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, an officer of the War Department went to every newspaper correspondent in the city, and requested them, at the special desire of the President and the Secretary of War, not to make any mention of the proposed movement. The correspondents all agreed to this, and telegraphed or wrote to their newspapers not to refer to the matter, should it come to their knowledge in any way.
But one night (September 26) everybody was astonished by news from New York that the “Evening Post,” an unconditional supporter of the Administration, had published full particulars of the reinforcement of Rosecrans by the Eleventh and Twelfth Army Corps under Hooker. The Washington Sunday morning papers copied the intelligence, and a Philadelphia paper, saying that the news was “contraband,” suggested that the editors of the New York “Evening Post” should breakfast in Fort Lafayette.
It is a curious illustration of the muddled condition of things at that time, that the Monday morning papers in Washington discreetly held their peace, and printed not a word of news or comment concerning the whole affair. The “Evening Post “explained its position by saying that its Washington correspondent was not responsible for the “rumors” which had appeared in its Saturday edition, and that the paper had been imposed upon by others. When this comical imbroglio began, the Washington correspondents were in despair. Stanton raged like a lion, and Lincoln, I am bound to say, was exceedingly angry.
Lincoln had every reason to be angry. For the most part, the troops had not yet left the station. The XI Corps was in Alexandria, while the XII was still near the Rappahannock River.
To the south, General Lee had already caught rumors of the troop movements, but mistook them for reinforcements coming to the Army of the Potomac. Over the next few days, he held to that belief. It wouldn’t be until the 28th that he began to doubt it. On the 30th, as we shall see, he became partially convinced due to information he received “under the date of the 26th of September,” that detailed the move.
The New York Evening Post article was only one of several pieces of information that would eventually inform Lee that the Army of the Potomac was diminished in number. Incredibly accurate reports from September 25th and 27th would make their way to Richmond by the 30th.
“Recent information shows that two of Meade’s army corps are on the move,” reported a spy from Washington on the 25th, “large numbers of troops are at the cars, now loaded with cannon. There is no doubt as to the destination of these troops – part for Rosecrans, and perhaps for Burnside.”
It would not be until October 1st that Lee would claim to know for certain that the reports were true. Shortly after, he would make his next move.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p758, 759, 768; Lincoln and the Press by Robert S. Harper; Washington in Lincoln’s Time by Noah Brooks. [↩]