These Orders Are Very Plain – Two Full Weeks of Burnside’s Excuses

September 27, 1863 (Sunday)

The first major use of railroads to ship troops from the eastern theater to western was undertaken by the Confederates just prior to the battle of Chickamauga. The second was being undertaken by the Federals just after. Though the Federal shift was faster, the Rebels’ attempt was much more timely, even though they had to deal with the rickety Southern rail system.

But you didn't say Simon Says...
But you didn’t say Simon Says…

By this date, most of the Federal reinforcements being sent from George Meade’s Army of the Potomac to William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga were on their way. The whole scheme was dreamed up only three days prior. And yet, it was moving like clockwork. This was in stark contrast to Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio near Knoxville, Tennessee.

Though barely over 100 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Burnside had done little to heed Washington’s call to reinforce Rosecrans, which had been tapped across the telegraph wire for two weeks now. On September 13th, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck urged Burnside to “move down your infantry as rapidly as possible toward Chattanooga to connect with Rosecrans.” The following day, without hearing a reply, Halleck reiterated: “It is believed that the enemy will concentrate to give him [Rosecrans] battle. You must be there to help him.” This was, of course, well before Braxton Bragg concentrated and gave Rosecrans battle, which happened on the 19th and 20th.

To the two orders from Halleck, Burnside replied on the 17th, the first day he was near enough to a telegraph office to do so. He tried to assure Halleck that his orders “will be obeyed as soon as possible.” However, he seemed much more interested in chasing down a large band of guerrillas than fighting a battle with Rosecrans. The following day (the 18th), Halleck again restated: “You must give him all the aid in your power.”

By the 20th, Halleck seemed to believe that Burnside’s advance really was in direct communication with Rosecrans’ far left, telling the latter: “Your armies are therefore in communication, and should be able to co-operate in any movement against the enemy.” But Rosecrans had not heard from Burnside since the 17th. Besides, by this time, Rosecrans was rather heavily engaged against the Rebels along the Chickamauga.

The following day (the 21st), Burnside finally admitted that due to sending so many of his troops on a chase to track down Confederate guerrillas, there was really no way he could lend much help. “When you remember the size of our forces, the amount of work which it has had to do, and the length of line occupied,” insisted Burnside to Halleck, “you will not be surprised that I have not helped General Rosecrans.” In fact, Halleck wasn’t really surprised, but not for the reasons Burnside detailed.

Which part of 'Go to Rosecrans with your force, without a moment delay.' did you not understand?
Which part of ‘Go to Rosecrans with your force, without a moment delay.’ did you not understand?

The same day, both Halleck and President Lincoln sent wires to Burnside that crossed his along the way. Halleck repeated Rosecrans’ plea for reinforcements, telling Burnside “that if your troops do not join him immediately, they [Rosecrans’ troops] will be compelled to move down the north side of the Tennessee River” in a retreat.

Lincoln cut to the chase: “Go to Rosecrans with your force, without a moment delay.”

On the 22nd, the day after, Halleck again urged Burnside “to move immediately to Rosecrans’ relief.” Telling him that he feared “your delay has already permitted Bragg to prevent your junction.” Burnside decided to direct his reply to Lincoln’s, promising that “every available man shall be concentrated at the point your direct, and with as little delay as possible.”

To this, on the 25th, President Lincoln wrote a harsh reply: “Yours of the 23rd. is just received, and it makes me doubt whether I am awake or dreaming. I have been struggling for ten days, first through Gen. Halleck, and then directly, to get you to go to assist Gen. Rosecrans in an extremity, and you have repeatedly declared you would do it, and yet you steadily move the contrary way.” The letter was hastily written and probably unfinished, though it chastised Burnside for “still saying you will assist him, but giving no account of any progress made towards assisting him.” Fortunately for Burnside, Lincoln never sent it.

Nothing was heard again from General Burnside until the evening of this date (the 27th), when he gave a reply to Lincoln’s short order another go. Here, Burnside asked for clarification to orders sent on the 21st. Why it took nearly a week for him to do so, he never addressed. In fact, he said nothing certain at all, and was merely asking for clarification. “You in your telegraph speak of my delay,” wrote Burnside to Halleck. “I have made no delay. I was ordered to move into East Tennessee, making this the objective point.” He tried his best to explain why he hadn’t complied with anyone’s order or requests to move to Rosecrans’ aid. He argued that the suggestion to move down the north side of the Tennessee River would ensure that East Tennessee would be retaken by the Rebels. Moving down the south side, however, would somehow prevent it. He went on to imply that Halleck had not looked at maps and thus did not understand “the difficulties under which we have been laboring.”

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck is casually flipping off Burnside from under the cover of his breast pocket.
General-in-Chief Henry Halleck is casually flipping off Burnside from under the cover of his breast pocket.

To this, Lincoln replied first. His mood had not changed. “My order to you meant simply that you should save Rosecrans from being crushed out,” he began his short missive, “believing if he lost his position you could not hold East Tennessee in any event; and that if he held his position, East Tennessee was substantially safe in any event.”

An hour and a half later, Lincoln sent another reply, backing off a bit. “Hold your present positions, and send Rosecrans what you can spare in the quickest and safest way,” he suggested, allowing Burnside to pick whichever damn side of the river he wanted. However, in closing, he countered that “East Tennessee can be no more than temporarily lost so long as Chattanooga is firmly held.”

Shortly after, Halleck made his reply. While the President seemed to back off, the General-in-Chief did not. “Telegram after telegram has been sent to you to go to his assistance with all your available force,” he railed. The troops to be selected, as well as the route, Halleck asserted, were always left up to Burnside. In summation, Halleck closed: “These orders are very plain, and you cannot mistake their purport. It only remains for you to execute them. General Rosecrans is holding Chattanooga and waiting for re-enforcements from you.”

But General Burnside wasn’t the only officer drawing ire from Washington. General Rosecrans was also being observed. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana had been sent by Secretary Edwin Stanton to keep an eye on the general, and to report back regularly. This Dana did, but it wasn’t until this date that he discussed Rosecrans’ removal.

After Dana suggested that both Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden – two of Rosecrans’ four corps commanders – be relieved, he moved to a post-Rosecrans Army. “If it be decided to change the chief commander also, I would take the liberty of suggesting that some Western general of high rank and great prestige, like Grant, for instance, would be preferable as his successor to any one who has hitherto commanded in East alone.”

It was a little mention in a much longer letter, but the seed was planted. ((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 1, p201-203; Part 3, p617, 638, 717-718, 731, 750, 769-770, 808-809, 904, 906, 907; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 6.

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These Orders Are Very Plain – Two Full Weeks of Burnside’s Excuses by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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