Part Two in a Series
On the morning of June 24, 1863, the Army of the Cumberland set out from their winter encampments. Their target was Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. For Phil Sheridan, it had been over three months since he had taken the field. To this diminutive, feisty and restless division commander, it must have seemed like an eternity.
A graduate of West Point, Sheridan had spent the ante-bellum years serving with the 4th U.S. Infantry out West. When war broke out between North and South, Sheridan’s first assignment was as quartermaster of the Army of Southwest Missouri. In the spring of 1862, he was appointed Colonel of the 2d Michigan Cavalry. This assignment did not last long. That September, he was promoted to Brigadier General and took command of a division in Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Sheridan saw his first action as a division commander at Perryville in October.
The battle forced Braxton Bragg’s invading Confederates to withdraw back to Tennessee. Unfortunately, the victorious Buell was slow to follow and by the end of the month Major General William S. Rosecrans was in command. Rosecrans re-christened his new command the Army of the Cumberland and pursued Bragg into Tennessee. Rosecrans advanced via Nashville while Bragg took up a position around Murfreesboro.
Prodded to move against Bragg from his Washington superiors, Rosecrans set out the day after Christmas. On New Year’s Eve, Bragg’s army struck at Stones River, focusing their assault on the Union right. Sheridan’s division was one of the Federal divisions in this sector. For four hours, Sheridan stood against the enemy onslaught. During the fighting, his men held three different defensive positions and sustained nearly twenty percent casualties. His stand allowed Rosecrans to form a new line. When the killing stopped, Sheridan returned to the scene that had been so hardly contested by his division.
“I went over the battlefield to collect such of my wounded as had not been carried off to the South and bury my dead. In the cedars and on the ground where I had been so fiercely assaulted when the battle opened on the morning of the 31st, evidences of the bloody struggle appeared on every hand in the form of broken fire-arms, fragments of accoutrements, and splintered trees. The dead had nearly all been left unburied…the bodies had mostly been collected in piles at different points and inclosed by rail fences”.
Fought at the end of the year and the beginning of the new, the Union victory at Stones River ushered in winter in Middle Tennessee. Sheridan remembered “On the 6th of January 1863, my division settled quietly down in its camp south of Murfreesboro. Its exhausted condition after the terrible experiences of the preceding week required attention. It needed recuperation, reinforcement and reorganization and I set about these matters without delay in anticipation of active operations early in the spring. No forward movement was made for nearly six months, however, and throughout this period drills, parades, reconnaissances and foraging expeditions filled in the time profitably”.
Early in March, Sheridan’s division broke camp and set out in an expedition to bring Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate cavalry to bay. Van Dorn was encamped near Spring Hill. It was not long before the hunter became the hunted. The operation was set awry when a cooperating force under Colonel John Coburn was overwhelmed by Van Dorn and forced to surrender near Thompson’s Crossroads. After neutralizing Coburn, Van Dorn eluded Sheridan and withdrew to the safety of the south bank of the Duck River.
The sting of this debacle was soothed the following month when Sheridan received his promotion to the rank of Major General. To acknowledge his performance at Stones River, the commission was dated to December 31, 1862.
As spring turned to summer, Rosecrans planned his next offensive. His ultimate target was Chattanooga. Situated in the mountains of East Tennessee, the small town was a strategic rail junction. From the west, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad joined the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. Just as its name implied, the latter railroad ran east. Running south from Chattanooga was the Western Atlantic Railroad. These lines were critical to Confederate logistics. Chattanooga was not only the key to East Tennessee was the front door to the Deep South. To get there, the Army of the Cumberland had navigate the Highland Rim, a series of hills below Murfreesboro and the Cumberland Plateau. For his part, Bragg had decided to defend the Highland Rim.
On the twenty fourth day of June, Rosecrans set out. Sheridan wrote of the Union march “In spite of many difficulties…on account of the heavy rains that had fallen almost incessantly since we left Murfreesboro, its [Army of the Cumberland's] movements had been slow and somewhat inaccurate, yet the precision with which it took up a line of battle for an attack on Tullahoma showed that forethought and study had been given every detail. The enemy had determined to fall back from Tullahoma at the beginning of the campaign, however, and as we advanced, his evacuation had so far progressed that when, on July 1, we reached the earthworks thrown up early in the year for the defense of the place, he had almost wholly disappeared, carrying off all his stores and munitions of war except some little subsistence and eleven pieces of artillery”.
In a series of brilliant flanking manuevers, Rosecrans forced Bragg to give up his hold on Middle Tennessee. Rather than give battle, Bragg began a withdrawal to Chattanooga, reaching the city on Independence Day. Rosecrans decided not to attack the city head on, but to force Bragg out once again by way of manuever. To help accomplish this task, at the end of July, Sheridan was dispatched to Bridgeport, Tennessee southwest of the city. There, he was to secure and protect a crossing of the Tennessee River that was critical to Rosecrans’ plans.
On August 16, Rosecrans began his movement to force Bragg out of the city. When the Confederates destroyed their side of the crucial bridge that Sheridan was guarding, the resourceful division commander had his men build a new one. On September 2, they crossed the river. Incredibly, Rosecrans’ manuevers were just as successful as they had been in June and July. On September 8, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga and withdrew into Georgia. The following day, the Army of the Cumberland occupied the city. In a span of nine months, Rosecrans had taken control of Middle and now East Tennessee. Any sense of euphoria would be short lived. Little did Phil Sheridan and his comrades know that they were on the eve of the largest battle ever to be fought in the Western Theater.