September 17, 1863 (Thursday)
Braxton Bragg, Confederate commander of the Army of Tennessee had a plan. Originally, it had been a good plan, with roads and river crossings selected. He knew what he wanted, knew how to accomplish it, and in all likelihood could have pulled it off. But he didn’t. The plan was reduced to orders which looked very little like the plan as originally conceived. Still, it was something. Some troops would be moving, some objectives detailed, and though no crossings would be crossed, they would be guarded and held.
But even this didn’t happen. Before the sun peered from the east, Bragg countermanded the orders and his entire army remained in place. Shortly after abandoning Chattanooga, Bragg’s troops marched roughly thirty miles south and now held a scattered front stretching from La Fayette on the left to Ringgold on the right (though the concentration was closer to the former than the latter).
Bragg was opposed by William Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland, which held the mountain passes opposite his position. Their left was anchored along Chickamauga Creek at Lee & Gordon’s Mill. The Federal right had been even farther south than Bragg’s flank at La Fayette, but was slowly making its way north in an attempt at concentration.
Bragg’s plan had been to slide the Rebel army between the Union left and their supply base at Chattanooga. The original plan accomplished this, while the orders did not. The countermanding accomplished nothing, except allowing time for Rosecrans to gather together his entire army. But not even Rosecrans was ready for a fight and seemed to have only the vaguest of notions that one might soon be upon him (though with the way Bragg was generaling, perhaps not).
Confederate reinforcements were now arriving and they were not going unnoticed by the Federal cavalry. Two divisions of James Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia had taken trains from their namesake and were now arriving at Catoosa Station, near Ringgold. For a day, Col. Robert Minty, Union cavalry commander, had been convinced that the Rebels were massing on the Federal left. While this wasn’t quite true, it was surprisingly advantageous, predicting Bragg’s original plan. On the morning of this date, Col. Minty reported to Thomas Crittenden, commander of the XXI Corps holding the Union left, that Confederate reinforcements were arriving.
General Crittenden flat out ignored the reports. When Minty insisted that they weren’t just any Rebels, but Longstreet’s entire corps, Crittenden actually laughed at him. “Longstreet is in Virginia,” he scoffed. But General Rosecrans wasn’t so quick to brush this new information away. Word had come from Washington that something along those lines was happening, and now it was all adding up. By the end of the day, three of Longstreet’s brigades (under Jerome Robertson, Henry Benning, and John Gregg) would be at Catoosa. The rest of Longstreet’s Corps, as well as the General himself, were two days out, though this was unknown to Minty.
Sometime in the afternoon, Braxton Bragg came back to his senses and uncountermanded his previously countermanded orders. “Division commanders will resume the march which was suspended this morning,” came the new old orders. But even this was scaled back. There was to be a general concentration near Rock Spring, but not even the crossings were to be held. On the right, Leonidas Polk’s Corps remained in position nearest to the Federal left. At the other end of the line, D.H. Hill’s Corps remained near La Fayette. It was only Simon Buckner’s and W.H.T. Walker’s Corps that moved at all, and it was only a slide to the right to reinforce Polk.
Finally, before the day was out, Rosecrans was certain that Bragg was heavy on his left. There was even a small brush up in the streets of Ringgold between the Federal Cavalry and Robertson’s Brigade from Hood’s Division. The sides were coming together and bullets, like sparks, were flying.
While Rosecrans braced his army, Bragg worked long through evening and darkness to come up with a new plan. He decided that the following morning was the time to attack. But like his other plans and orders, this new new plan was halfhearted. It completely left out both Polk’s and Hill’s Corps (as well as any of Longstreet’s men), instead, it sent Buckner and Walker splashing across Chickamauga Creek with little instruction on what to do when they got to the other side. Of course, come dawn, Bragg would probably again change his mind, so these troubles hardly mattered.
Through the night, more and more Confederate reinforcements arrived, their trains chuffing and blowing into Catoosa Station. Col. Minty, helming the Federal Cavalry, knew exactly what was going on, but all his warnings and reports were met by General Crittenden, holding the Union left, as mere annoyances. “The Rebel army is retreating,” he somehow said with a straight face, “and are trying to get away some of their abandoned stores; they have nothing but dismounted cavalry in your front.” Come dawn, even with Bragg’s ever-changing machinations, Crittenden might be proved wildly wrong.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 3, p701, 703; Part 4, p660, 661; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens. [↩]