(Fear not, dear reader: Our extended blog-essay is winding down; part nine will cover actual operations in East Tennessee, and part ten will conclude things with a summary of James Longstreet’s troubled interlude beyond Virginia. Thank you for your forbearance.)
On November 3, Bragg, Longstreet, Hardee and the Army of Tennessee’s other senior officers gathered at Bragg’s headquarters to discuss their next move. In what by now should come as no surprise to any student of the Army of Tennessee, accounts vary as to the exact details of this conference.
Longstreet opened with a plan that was well in line with his current worries: He proposed to cross the Tennessee River near Bridgeport, and by means of threatening or destroying the Army of the Cumberland’s forward supply base, compel a retreat from Chattanooga. While in theory this was the soundest strategy, the idea foundered on the by-now obvious logistical difficulties. It probably received no more than a cursory discussion; Longstreet didn’t even mention it in his official report. Only a letter from William Hardee to Longstreet, written in April 1864, provides us with the details.
Tabling the Bridgeport plan moved everyone to the meat of the matter: East Tennessee. Here Longstreet made a more daring proposal. Instead of merely swapping Stevenson for Longstreet, and maintaining the existing perimeter around Chattanooga, the Army of Tennessee should fall back. Not far, Longstreet cautioned, but at least behind the “Chickamauga River.” Such a retreat would have two benefits: Tightening Bragg’s defensive lines and also greatly shortening his supply path beyond his existing railheads. By giving up any idea of defending Lookout Mountain, such a move would free up enough troops and – equally importantly, wheeled transport – to make a realistic strike at Knoxville.
Lookout, as we have seen, was more of a liability than an asset. It wasn’t even a good artillery platform, for it was too high – 2,100 feet – for effective artillery fire. Longstreet’s favored artillerist, Porter Alexander, noted as much. While Rebel guns atop Lookout could lob random shells at Brown’s Ferry, Moccasin Bend, or even Chattanooga; they could not deliver an effective sustained fire capable of disrupting enemy activity. The range and elevation were simply too great.
In a letter to Simon B. Buckner, two days after this meeting, Longstreet explained his thinking. With “our army in a strong (concentrated) position,” Longstreet noted, the Confederates could “make a detachment of 20,000 to move rapidly against Burnside and destroy him, and by continued rapid movements continue the threaten the enemy’s rear . . . to draw him out from his present position.”
According to Longstreet, Hardee, at least, thought it an idea worth considering. Any Confederate strike against Burnside needed to be done quickly, and in force enough sufficient to overwhelm any Federal defenders. The Federals were concentrating great strength at Chattanooga, and if given enough time, would grow too strong to resist. The whole idea of using interior lines was to deal a damaging or mortal blow to one enemy, then turn, re-unite, and face the next.
Longstreet certainly understood this. There were already 11,000 Confederates halfway to Knoxville, in the form of Carter Stevenson’s two divisions. If Longstreet united his two divisions to Stevenson’s force, this would raise his strength to 23,000, further augmented by Wheeler’s cavalry; and while his troops were hastening up the railroad (which was operating as far as Cleveland, to the Hiwassie River) Stevenson could be gathering supplies to support the move.
The Confederates estimated Burnside’s strength at 15,000 infantry and artillery, plus perhaps 8,000 cavalry, for a total of 23,000 effectives. In fact, these estimates were a bit on the low side, but not by much; on October 31 Burnside reported 26,060 troops present for duty, equipped, out of 30,300 aggregate present. Of course, not all of these men were deployed to face Stevenson (or Longstreet, when he arrived.) roughly one third of the force was northeast of Knoxville, watching the Confederates in Southwest Virginia, commanded by Major General Samuel Jones. Burnside would always be facing the prospect of a two-front war, and could never deploy his whole force against a single threat unless he simply abandoned virtually all of east Tennessee by retreating within the defenses of Knoxville proper.
This was all to the Confederates’ advantage. Burnside might have to face Longstreet’s assumed 20,000 infantry and artillery with a force of no more than half that size.
How well did Longstreet articulate this argument? We don’t know. In that same November 5th letter to Buckner, Longstreet thought that few of those present paid much attention. “The only notice my plan received was a remark that General Hardee was pleased to make: ‘I don’t think that this is a bad idea of Longstreet’s.’” (In a letter Hardee sent to Longstreet the following April, even Hardee did not recall this proposal, so how forcefully Longstreet articulated his point remains open to question.) As the conference concluded, Bragg issued verbal orders instructing Longstreet to begin his movement, with written orders to follow the next day.
When those written orders arrived, they were silent on the question of Stevenson’s force, and contained an inherent contradiction. Bragg asserted that “every preparation is ordered to advance you as fast as possible, and the success of the plan depends on rapid movement and sudden blows.” Food and forage, asserted Bragg, there would be aplenty; so much so that there would be “a large surplus of breadstuffs.” Your object should be to drive Burnside out of East Tennessee first, or better, to capture or destroy him.”
All well enough so far. However those same instructions closed with a troubling injunction: “You will please keep open . . . telegraphic communications with us here and see to the repair and regular use of [the] railroad to Loudon [where the East Tennessee Railroad normally bridged the Tennessee River, about two thirds of the way to Knoxville.] The latter is of the first importance, as it may become necessary in an emergency to recall you temporarily. I hope to year from you fully and frequently, general, and sincerely wish you the same success which has ever marked your brilliant career.”
Bragg’s emphasis on the railroad was significant, because the railroad was not in good shape. The tracks from Chickamauga Station to the downed bridge over the Hiwassee ran for 42 miles. Beyond that, Sweetwater was another 20 miles, and Loudon a full 44 miles, before another desteroyed bridge would halt traffic again.
Longstreet was understandably confused. A series of written notes followed. Longstreet asked after Stevenson’s men; would they be part of his command or not? “It was never my intention,” returned Bragg, “for Stevenson’s division to remain on your expedition . . .” Only a single brigade would be left to hold Cleveland and guard the Hiwassee bridge, once repaired. Curiously, Bragg also asserted that “your force will without Stevenson [still] still exceed considerably the highest estimate placed on the enemy . . .” Suddenly, Bragg was using a different math than that presented at the command conference, where Longstreet’s 12,000 might expect parity or only a slight edge over the Federal 10,000; and that if Burnside remained cautious about his rear, facing Virginia.
As for maintaining close communications with Bragg, wrote Longstreet, “if I am to move along the line of the railroad repairing and building bridges, &c., it is not at all probable that I shall even overtake the enemy. . . . If I am to attempt to overtake the enemy, with a view to destroy him, I must of necessity break the railroad communications with Chattanooga.
Longstreet also made one more plea for Stevenson’s men, arguing that while Bragg would indeed be taking a greater risk by augmenting the East Tennessee force; in the short term the Federals did not in fact outnumber the Rebels (true as far as it went, but reinforcements were approaching) and in fact the greater risk would be NOT to reinforce Longstreet – “If I am feeble [in strength] my movements must be slow and cautious. This would give the enemy warning and time to strike. . . .”
Finally, Longstreet pointed out other deficiencies in his command: poorly conditioned, broken-down horses; incomplete and worn-out harnesses; and above all, more and better wagons. He needed good maps of the country ahead, guides who knew the terrain, and commissary & quartermaster officers to maintain the flow of supplies to his expeditionary force.
In the end, none of these things were forthcoming. Bragg ignored the contradiction inherent in both “destroying” Burnside and repairing the rails in case Longstreet had to be recalled quickly. He assured Longstreet that all other needs would be met, but they in fact never were. Longstreet’s detractors have largely ridiculed the big Georgian for itemizing his needs; with Bragg biographer Judith Lee Hallock going so far as to suggest that Longstreet had lost his nerve when confronted with an independent command and was merely setting up pre-positioned excuses for his anticipated failure.
Privately, Longstreet was certainly disillusioned. In that same November 5th letter to Buckner, he confided “that this was to be the fate of our army – to wait till all good opportunities had passed, and then, in desperation, to seize upon the least favorable one.” As things stood, “we thus expose both [forces] to failure and really take no chance to ourselves of great results.”
Nevertheless, Longstreet’s requests were hardly unreasonable. In reality, he would have been culpable of gross negligence if he failed to address the shortcomings.
Far from executing “rapid movements and sudden blows,” It took Longstreet’s command a week to move the forty-two railroad miles just to their departure point on the Hiwassee. On November 11th, now at Sweetwater, in East Tennessee (some 20 miles past Cleveland) Longstreet dispatched Bragg an angry message: “I regret to report the entire failure of the preparations ordered by you to advance and facilitate our operations. Our railroad affairs have been so badly managed that my troops could have marched up in half the time . . . our artillery horses were sent through by road, leaving the guns, &c., to be transported by rail.” It got worse. “The supply train has not joined us, and General Stevenson tells me that he was ordered not to have rations on hand here. Instead of being prepared to make a campaign, I find myself not more than half prepared to subsist. “
That same day, in a separate message to Col. George Brent, Bragg’s chief of staff, Longstreet complained that “the quartermaster and commissary [officers] . . . for this department, whom the commanding general promised to order here, have not yet reported.”
In fact, not only had Stevenson been ordered not to stockpile rations for Longstreet’s move, he had actually been ordered to evacuate supplies from Cleveland, destined either for Bragg’s army, or, even more incredibly, for Virginia – technically, East Tennessee foodstuffs were still reserved for Lee’s army.
Bragg responded by blaming Longstreet. Bragg claimed that Longstreet had been given authority over the railroad, and should have straightened out any mess; a claim which Longstreet knew nothing about, and which, on the face of it makes no sense. Longstreet was a corps commander, his command detached to reinforce the Army of Tennessee; his headquarters staff were not capable of or prepared to assume control over the logistics of Bragg’s supply line – and the continued absence of the promised additional officers only highlighted the absurdity of Bragg’s reasoning.
So what happened? Mostly, more internal army politics. While Longstreet was orchestrating this move, Simon B. Buckner (who had previously commanded the Confederate Department of East Tennessee until he moved to reinforce Bragg back in early September, whereupon Bragg assumed authority for the combined departments) and Bragg were busy sending their own angry telegrams to Richmond, squabbling about whether or not Buckner’s department still existed, or had been fully subsumed into Bragg’s sphere of authority. Buckner and his staff knew the terrain and logistics of East Tennessee, far better than did an outsider like Longstreet. Had Buckner’s headquarters been placed in charge of the rails and Longstreet’s supply depot, might things have been accomplished much more quickly?
History cannot answer that question. What we do know is that Bragg never made any effort to do so, or any realistic effort to support the East Tennessee movement properly.
In the end, it might be that all Bragg really wanted to accomplish was what he confided to Confederate Brigadier General St. John Liddell at this time: “to get rid of [Longstreet] and see what he could accomplish on his own resources.”