August 5, 1863 (Wednesday)
Confederate General Braxton Bragg had a great idea. Since there were, essentially, two major Southern armies in the West, why not combine them and with the might of 80,000 Rebels, destroy the smaller Federal Army under William Rosecrans in Tennessee? With that accomplished, they could turn on General Grant’s Army and retake Vicksburg. True, General Joe Johnston had suggested a strikingly similar plan prior to the need of retaking Vicksburg, but this time Jefferson Davis was behind it (making one thing that Davis’ loathing of Johnston played a roll in striking down the original suggestion).
Bragg figured that with Johnston’s 23,000 strong and able men, who had seen little of battle as of late, this new super-army would indeed be something with which to reckon. When asked by Richmond if it could be done, Bragg replied that with “success if a fight can be had on equal terms.” Though the difficult terrain that must be crossed to give battle to Rosecrans had to be considered, he would meet with General Johnston to discuss how best to accomplish it. Deep down, Bragg longed for a flank movement.
Johnston agreed to meet with Bragg in Montgomery, Alabama, “at the time you may designate.” This, no doubt, thrilled Bragg. The thought of launching a surprise attack upon Rosecrans’ flank was the stuff of legends. With Johnston’s 23,000 warriors, the task would be all the easier.
But then Bragg learned the truth strength of Johnston’s little army. There were not 23,000 healthy men arrayed for battle, but 18,000 rather skraggy fellows. Suddenly disheartened, he wrote to Johnston calling off the meeting.
Johnston’s forces was “entirely inadequate to enable me to see the enemy beyond the mountains.” This may have been true, but really, it was only 5,000 less than Bragg originally believed Johnston to have. To Richmond, he told a slightly different tale.
After explaining, as he did to Johnston, that the actual figure made it “unsafe to seek the enemy,” Bragg described his predicament.
After stripping off the troops needed to guard depots and supply lines, he could bring only 40,000 troops, and perhaps 10,000 cavalry to the field. His adversary, General Rosecrans, could assemble 60,000. Not only that, but General Burnside, said Bragg, could field 30,000 or more, reinforcing Rosecrans. This would give the Federals an easy two to one advantage over his poor Army of the Tennessee.
In closing, he struck a point that would be true no matter how many men he could muster. “It would be rashness to place ourselves on the farther side of a country rugged and sterile, with a few mountain roads only by which to reach a river difficult of passage. Thus situated, the enemy need only avoid battle for a short time to starve us out.”
Bragg, it seemed, was losing a bit of spite, and hoped that Rosecrans would instead attack him. If such a thing happened, if Rosecrans and Burnside presented themselves “on this side of the mountains, the problem will be changed.”
Though Bragg had a fairly good idea of Rosecrans’ numbers (and a fairly inflated figure for Burnside’s), he had no idea that General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington had been prodding, poking and urging his two generals to attack Bragg at Chattanooga before he could unite with Johnston.
In fact, General Halleck had, the previous day, ordered Rosecrans forward, and on this date, commanded the same of Burnside.
“You will immediately move with a column of 12,000 men by the most practicable roads on East Tennessee, making Knoxville or its vicinity your objective point,” wrote Halleck. Contrary to Bragg’s fear, it wasn’t 30,000, and neither were they headed to join Rosecrans. East Tennessee was held by 5,000 or so rather unsteady Rebels commanded by General Samuel Buckner.
Burnside had been waiting only for the IX Corps to return from Vicksburg before he had to think of yet another excuse not to move. To preempt thing, Halleck told Burnside that when the IX Corps finally showed up, they could act as a reserve for this 12,000.
After telling Burnside that he must report every move he made en route to East Tennessee, Halleck ordered him to “connect with the forces of General Rosecrans, who has peremptory orders to move forward.” Furthermore, Bunside was now ordered to take personal command in the field.
In a bit of dramatic tizzy, Burnside replied, defending his honor. He explained that he had been determined to start for East Tennessee, and he had taken the field, but then his IX Corps was sent to Grant and John Hunt Morgan’s Raid happened, and what could he do?
“I have never willfully disobeyed and order,” he pleaded, “but have given the Government an honest and unselfish support.” He had the “uniform refusal of my requests” go completely unchallended, but Burnside was unwilling “to let the imputation that I have disobeyed orders go unnoticed.”
Whether Halleck noticed it or even cared was never recorded. His communication with Burnside was, for the time being, at an end.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 2, p593, 948, 950, 952-953; Vol. 52, Part 2, p514; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]