September 12, 1863 (Saturday)
Convinced that Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was retreating in despair to Rome, Georgia, William Rosecrans had wanted to cut it off and trap them before they could get to La Fayette, thirty miles south of Chattanooga. Rosecrans had ordered his Army of the Cumberland to concentrate on La Fayette, but things hadn’t gone as planned.
On Rosecrans’ right, Alexander McCook’s XX Corps held the town of Alpine. It wasn’t quite on the road from La Fayette to Rome, but it was close enough for the time being. His left was under the XXI Corps, headed by Thomas Crittenden, who had captured Chattanooga. From there, he followed Bragg’s retreating Confederates, but had thus far tangled only with cavalry.
More than anything, it was the center that was keeping Rosecrans up at night. General George Thomas commanded the 23,000 men of the XIV Corps. He was an incredibly well respected senior commander whom almost everyone, including Rosecrans, admired. This was probably why it was so difficult for Rosecrans to wrap his head around just why it was taking Thomas so long to get to La Fayette.
On the 10th, Thomas had pushed forward James Negley’s Division, through Stephen’s Gap and McLemore’s Cove, past Davis’ Crossroads and up towards Dug Gap before they ran into Confederates under D.H. Hill. In fact, it was Hill’s entire corps. On Negley’s left was two other divisions led by Thomas Hindman. Negley took it upon himself, after discovering that multitudes of Rebels could very easy close in on him, to withdraw his troops to Thomas’ main body.
On the evening of the 11th, Negley barely escaped without too much of a fight. The next morning (on this date), after Thomas was brought up to speed on what was before him, he sent Rosecrans an almost optimistic message. He explained that he was moving forward nearly his entire corps to come to Negley’s side. Convinced that a large chunk of Bragg’s army was at Dug Gap and La Fayette, he also gave some advice: “If a force could be thrown in from Chattanooga in his (the enemy’s) rear, it would be difficult for him to escape.”
To Rosecrans, Thomas was almost optimistic. He explained that he was moving forward nearly his entire corps to come to Negley’s side. Convinced that a large chunk of Bragg’s army was at Dug Gapa and La Fayette, he also gave some advice: “If a force could be thrown in from Chattanooga in his (the enemy’s) rear, it would be difficult for him to escape.”
To his own staff, however, Thomas expressed quite a different opinion. “Nothing but stupendous blunders on the part of Bragg can save our army from total defeat. I have ordered Negley to fall back from McLemore’s Cove, and I believe we may be able to save this corps. But Bragg is also in position to strike McCook and Crittenden before they have a chance to extricate themselves.”
Though General Rosecrans was finally convinced that Bragg had made it to La Fayette, he believed Negley had retreated “more through prudence than compulsion.” However, Rosecrans was also certain that the Confederates were already evacuating the town and about to make haste for Rome, Georgia. In this he was mistaken.
Thomas was mostly correct in his assertion that while his own corps was saved by holding a fine defensive position at Stephen’s Gap, both McCook on his right and Crittenden on his left were in a bit of trouble. He tried to take care of McCook’s Corps by suggesting that he close in on Thomas’. This was a lovely notion, but with the Rebels holding La Fayette (and not merely using it as a road of escape), the move would be exceedingly difficult and would require a day or two of backtracking. General Philip Sheridan, commanding a division in McCook’s Corps put it best. “This is all wrong,” he told one of his officers. “We have no business here, we ought to be in Chattanooga.” Still, by staying put, McCook was safer than not, and that’s basically what he did.
Crittenden’s XXI Corps, however, was dangling. He had moved two divisions to Lee & Gordon’s Mill, but a third, under John Palmer had caught the eye of Braxton Bragg.
Before the dawn, Bragg had ordered corps commander Leonidas Polk to send a division under Benjamin Cheatham north toward Rock Spring where Palmer’s Federal Division was isolated. A little while later, Bragg sent two other divisions. One was Thomas Hindman’s, fresh from the nonbattle of the previous day, and the other was from W.H.T. Walker’s Reserve Corps. Bragg was excited about the prospects, but realized that time was slipping away. The troops had to march eight miles to get into position, and if Hindman’s speed the day before was any indication, things would need to be hastened.
The previous day was, of course, still on Bragg’s mind. He had neglected to give Hindman specific orders until it was too late (and those were ignored anyway). He would not make the same mistake again. To General Polk, he directly ordered him to attack the errant Federal division with everything he had the next morning.
Direct orders or not, things again went sour. Hindman tarried, though in his defense, Bragg once more issued him vague and discretionary orders, allowing him to march when his men were “refreshed” (though he never specified what it was they did that made them less than fresh). They would not show up until 4:30am the next day (the 13th). Walker’s troops, however, arrived at 8pm (on this date).
General Polk did not like what he saw. Scouts had reported that Palmer’s isolated Union division wasn’t quite as isolated as first suspected. He believed that Crittenden’s entire corps was within two or three miles of his point of attack, and wrote Bragg for reinforcements.
Bragg didn’t exactly acquiesce, but allowed Polk to turn his new position into a defensive one if he were attacked earlier than he launched his strike. He vowed to send more troops the next day, though he doubted very much that Crittenden’s entire corps had come up from Chattanooga so soon.
Palmer’s Union division had indeed been isolated and General Crittenden took notice. He ordered the troops west to join the rest of the corps at Lee & Gordon’s Mills. When Polk would finally send his scouts forward in the late morning of the 13th, he would find the former enemy position barren.
This was more luck than anything on Crittenden’s part. He gave no credence whatsoever to the idea that Bragg might actually attack him. “It has always been the plan of the enemy to make stubborn defenses on a retreat,” he wrote to James Garfield, Rosecrans’ Chief of Staff, “I do not yet believe that there is a strong force of infantry in the vicinity of La Fayette.”
Though he was farther away from La Fayette than any of the other corps commanders, and though he had been warned by Rosecrans that not only was Bragg in La Fayette, but that “there is far more probability of his attacking you than that he is running,” Crittenden completely refused to believe it.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 30, Part 3, p564-565, 566, 577-578; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; General George H. Thomas by Robert P. Broadwater; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens. [↩]