The American Civil War Overview

CHAPTER XI
THE WESTERN THEATER: CHICKAMAUGA AND
CHATTANOOGA

       Bragg's Army of Tennessee had received reinforcements from Buckner's Knoxville command and two divisions of Longstreet's corps sent by rail from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would be arriving to bolster Confederate troop strength to about 65,000 men. Rosecrans had approximately the same number under his command. Thus Chickamauga would be one of the few large battles of the war fought with approximately equal numbers on both sides.
       The heavily-wooded battlefield left little room for maneuvering and the two-day battle seemed as if it would degenerate into a simple slugging match. On September 20, confusion in orders left a gaping hole in Rosecrans' right flank which Longstreet exploited with an assault by four divisions. Almost half of the Federal army was routed and hastily retreated towards Chattanooga along with Rosecrans and most of his staff. A total Union disaster was averted by the stand of Thomas' corps on Snodgrass Hill which held the left wing together long enough to organize an orderly retreat. This earned Thomas the nickname of "The Rock of Chickamauga".
       It was a great Confederate victory, but a very costly one. Although Federal losses had exceeded 16,000, the Southern army had lost more than 18,000 casualties. Bragg felt his troops were in no condition to implement a rapid pursuit of the retreating Federals, who were allowed to fall back into defensive positions in Chattanooga. Occupying the heights overlooking the city, Bragg confidently waited for the Federals to either leave or starve.
       The situation did look bad for the Union forces. Since the Confederate Army of Tennessee controlled the heights of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, the only Federal supply line was a very tenuous wagon route through the mountains, totally inadequate to supply a large army.
       Bragg was not without his own problems however. His own supply situation, while not threatened by Federal troops, was still a difficult one. It might be debated as to whether the Southern troops or Northern troops were more hungry. Additionally, Bragg was engaged in an on-going fight with his own subordinates. Especially since Chickamauga, many of his generals were openly expressing displeasure with his conduct of the battle and the way he was running things now. Bragg found a scapegoat in Lieutenant General Polk, and relieved him of command. Another corps commander who came from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, D.H. Hill, was also removed by President Davis because of disagreements with Bragg. Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose dismounted cavalry had served so well on Bragg's right flank at Chickamauga was so disgusted with Bragg and his treatment that he threatened to kill him if he ever again crossed his path. Davis gave Forrest an independent command and removed him from Bragg's authority. Bragg, apparently still having Davis' confidence, conducted a major reorganization of his army; trying to break up concentrations of "anti-Bragg" elements by placing "pro-Bragg" supporters in command where possible.
       The Federals were also looking for their own "sacrificial lambs" for the Chickamauga disaster. McCook and Crittenden, two of Rosecrans' corps commanders, were relieved of command for fleeing the field (although Rosecrans had, by some accounts, beaten them both back to Chattanooga). Lincoln realized however, that despite the loss at Chickamauga, the Federals still controlled Chattanooga and must continue to hold it. Major General Hooker and 20,000 men would be detached from the Army of the Potomac to Chattanooga and Sherman would bring another five divisions from the west as reinforcements. Soon, the besieged Federal army inside Chattanooga would outnumber Bragg's besieging forces.
       For a month after Chickamauga, Rosecrans would remain in command. However, this was only a temporary arrangement. Lincoln had to ascertain the best way to put Major General George Thomas, the only Federal corps commander to escape any blame for Chickamauga and Grant who was now relatively idle following Vicksburg, to best use. The solution to this problem lay in the creation of the Military Division of the Mississippi, consisting of the Departments of the Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee, and placing Grant in charge. Thomas was given Rosecrans' former command, the Army of the Cumberland.
       When Grant arrived in Chattanooga on October 23, he found the Federal army on the verge of starvation. The men were surviving on quarter rations and most of the animals were already dead. However Thomas and his chief engineer, "Baldy" Smith had been devising a plan to reopen their supply line. A small fleet of flat assault boats had been constructed. Their purpose was to float downstream to Brown's Ferry and take control of that point by surprise. The boats would then be converted into a pontoon bridge and additional troops would cross, take Raccoon Mountain to the west, and secure a new Federal supply line.
       On October 27, during the early morning hours, 1500 men floated silently downstream on the sixty wooden boats and captured the unaware Confederate pickets. Hooker arrived from Bridgeport with another two divisions to secure the bridgehead, and the famous "Cracker Line" was opened. 40,000 rations were delivered to the Federal troops on October 30 -- one week after Grant's arrival. As the Union army was resupplied, it became clear that Bragg's strategy of starving out the Federals had failed and his options were quickly running out.
       By the end of November, Bragg had detached Longstreet (another corps commander he could not get along with), to try and retake Knoxville from Burnside. That was when Grant decided to take action. He now had Hooker's and Sherman's troops available, as well as Thomas' Army of the Cumberland. He would attack Bragg's position on Missionary Ridge. Sherman would move around to hit Bragg's right flank and Hooker would attack his left. It was intended that Thomas would simply demonstrate against the center of Bragg's line to prevent reinforcements from being sent to either of the flanks. Sherman's three divisions however, were brought to a standstill by Cleburne's division. Hooker had made progress on the left, but it was Thomas' soldiers, despite orders to the contrary, that attacked directly up the front of the ridge and split Bragg's army in half. In an attack against what should have been an impregnable position, Bragg's demoralized troops were sent streaming south into Georgia.
       Longstreet was faring no better at Knoxville. The Federals had prepared extremely strong entrenched positions and the Confederates had been unsuccessful in detecting any weaknesses. However on November 27, after learning of Bragg's defeat at Chattanooga, Longstreet decided that he must launch an assault for the dual purpose of helping draw troops away from Bragg and to help make his own withdrawal easier when that necessity came.
       On the morning of November 29, the assault went forward. However, poor reconnaissance and planning resulted in the Confederates being trapped in a nine-foot ditch (which staff officers had reported as being only five-feet deep), with no scaling ladders. The attempt to press forward was hopeless. Some attempted to climb up on others' shoulders to fight their way out but the men were raked with artillery and were helpless targets for the Northern defenders. When Longstreet called off the attack, he had lost 813 casualties to a total of only 13 for the Federals.
       Learning a few days later that Sherman was headed his way with six divisions, Longstreet decided to call it quits and took his command back to Virginia to rejoin Lee. Davis meanwhile, had no choice but to relieve the discredited Bragg and placed the Army of Tennessee temporarily in the command of Lieutenant General Hardee in its winter camp at Dalton, Georgia.

This Page last updated 11/13/01

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CHAPTER XII, The Trans-Mississippi: The Red River Campaign