Rebel Deserters Help Out General Rosecrans in Tennessee

August 25, 1863 (Tuesday)

Though this day was hardly one for relaxation and reflection, according to Union commander William Rosecrans, there was “no change in position today.” His three corps, which had scaled the Cumberland Mountains and wound up both above and below the Confederate-held city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, were in position. Their artillery had lobbed shells into the wharf, but most of the time was spent scouting the enemy.

Rosecrans knows a secret (sort of)!
Rosecrans knows a secret (sort of)!

The Federals had suspected the Confederate Army of Tennessee, helmed by General Braxton Bragg, contained three corps of infantry under D.H. Hill, Leonidas Polk, and William Hardee. The problem was, however, nobody knew for sure where they were.

From several Rebel deserters, Rosecrans learned that only two brigades, about 3,500 Confederate soldiers, occupied Chattanooga itself. A bit downstream, two more brigades occupied Bridgeport, while a bit upstream, a division or two held the fords. This took care of General D.H. Hill’s Corps, but as for General Leonidas Polk’s Corps they had not a clue, but the other corps, under General Hardee, had left the area two weeks since. It was through yet another deserter that he learned the location of Polk’s Corps – it was “lying in the rear of Chattanooga and along the base of Lookout Mountains.” This more or less correctly outlined the Confederate position.

This was important, but wanting to retain an element of surprise was essential to Rosecrans’ machinations. He was hoping that Bragg knew only of his corps just upriver from Chattanooga (Crittenden’s XXI Corps). This was but a third of his army. The other two corps (Thomas’ XIV Corps and McCook’s XX Corps) were well downriver in hopeful concealment.

When asked why they left the Army of Tennessee, they responded that they “deserted because they became satisfied that Bragg was making preparations to retreat.” Their commander, believed the deserters, wasn’t even in Chattanooga – he was reported to be at Atlanta.

While this wasn’t true at all, Rosecrans learned that his ruse was working. “We have made them believe that our force is at least 10,000 strong,” reported Col. John Wilder, commanding a brigade of mounted infantry across the river from Chattanooga. He led a much smaller number, of course. “They [the Confederates] evidently believe we will try to cross the river in the vicinity of Harrison’s Landing [just upriver from Chattanooga]. I think they will try to defend the line of the river above here, making Lookout Mountain their line on the left, being at the same time prepared to run if outflanked.”

Is it curious that this approximate map is nearly identical to the last.
Is it curious that this approximate map is nearly identical to the last.

This was some big news for Rosecrans. From the looks of things, Bragg was out-numbered, out-flanked, out-generaled, and about to retreat anyway. Unfortunately for the Federal command, it was a mix of truth, optimism, and old news. Bragg was indeed out-numbered, but not by nearly as many troops as the deserters figured. Not only that, the Confederates at Chattanooga were about to receive reinforcements from Mississippi and East Tennessee.

Joe Johnston was, of course, stingy about letting 9,000 of his men go to Bragg’s aid, even telling him “this is a loan to be promptly returned.” He seemed to forget the fact that half of the men he was sending were from John Breckinridge’s division, which were on loan from Bragg since mid-June. Another 9,000 or so troops under Simon Bolivar Buckner were on their way south from Knoxville, Tennessee. This would bring Bragg’s total to near that of Rosecrans’.

One thing that really bothered Bragg, however, was the reason he was about to get reinforcements from Knoxville. Another Federal column of 20,000 troops, commanded by Ambrose Burnside, was descending from Kentucky to take East Tennessee. Buckner, knowing he couldn’t stop them, decided to fall back towards Bragg’s command at Chattanooga.

On this day, yet another thing was bothering Bragg. Rosecrans’ ruse had worked, though the Confederate commander was just beginning to figure it out. The problem was that he was only just beginning before he found himself completely stumped. Basically, Bragg knew about General Crittenden’s Corps just upriver from Chattanooga as it was in plain sight. He also knew that the two other corps were near, but had no idea where.

Confederate deserters reported that Bragg had a brigade or two at Bridgeport, downriver. The truth was, Bragg had recalled the brigade to the city. Had he left it there, it’s quite probable that they would have spotted Rosecrans’ two remaining corps somewhat hiding across the river. Bragg had effectively lost Rosecrans. In this way, he was most certainly out-generaled. Still, with more troops on their way, he might be fine, especially if Rosecrans didn’t attack any time soon.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 3, p162-164; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens; Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth. []
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Rebel Deserters Help Out General Rosecrans in Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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  1. Also worth noting on this date: General Thomas Ewing, the Union district commander in Missouri, issued his shameful General Order No. 11, which expelled all of the rural population of four counties of Missouri. (The idea was that the Confederate Guerrillas could not hide among the civilian population if there were no civilian population.) The image on the left sidebar (labeled “The Massacre of Lawrence, Kansas”) is a painting done by George Caleb Bingham, who was pro-Union but strongly protested the order. (If you find a color version, note the red leggings worn by the soldiers in the foreground.)

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