Missed Opportunity? The Confederates’ Lost Chance at Chattanooga

ECW welcomes back guest author Patrick Kelly-Fischer

A prewar image of Braxton Bragg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In September 1863, the Confederates executed one of the largest troop maneuvers of the entire war, setting themselves up to potentially destroy a major Union field army. They shifted Lieutenant General James Longstreet and approximately 15,000 troops of his First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia by railroad to northern Georgia.

Once there, Longstreet joined forces with Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. The gamble was enough to achieve parity in numbers, if not an outright advantage, as Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland was advancing into the mountains of northern Georgia. 

The resulting Battle of Chickamauga, the second bloodiest battle of the entire war, ended in a major Union defeat. The Army of the Cumberland might have been effectively destroyed on that field, as Confederates broke through and had the opportunity to cut off their retreat. But thanks to Major General George Thomas holding on until dark (earning him the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga”), the inability of Bragg to fully grasp the opportunity, and the chaos of a 19th-century battlefield, the Army of the Cumberland survived to fight another day. Beaten but not destroyed, they staggered back to Chattanooga, where they were quickly besieged.

One of the things that makes the Civil War so compelling is the number of distinct moments that one could easily imagine having altered the course of the war. But was Chattanooga really an opportunity for the South to have changed the outcome?

For starters, Chattanooga was perhaps the only time in the war when a major Union field army was besieged and seemingly at serious risk of being completely destroyed (not to diminish the capture of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry in 1862). Longstreet was of the view that the Army of the Cumberland was primed to continue retreating, where the South could have finished the job they started at Chickamauga. Writing after the war, he wrote, “General Rosecrans prepared, no doubt, to continue his retreat, anticipating our march towards his rear, but finding that we preferred to lay our lines in front of him, concluded that it would be more comfortable to rest at Chattanooga, reinforce, repair damages, and come to meet us when ready for a new trial.”[1]

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, recently promoted to command of Union armies across the West and dispatched to salvage the situation in Chattanooga, agreed, writing in his memoirs:

In the course of the evening Mr. Stanton received a dispatch from Mr. C. A. Dana, then in Chattanooga, informing him that unless prevented Rosecrans would retreat, and advising peremptory orders against his doing so…

A retreat at that time would have been a terrible disaster. It would not only have been the loss of a most important strategic position to us, but it would have been attended with the loss of all the artillery still left with the Army of the Cumberland and the annihilation of that army itself, either by capture or demoralization.[2]

Union Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Union Army of the Tennessee, painted a similarly grim, if terser, picture of the situation when he arrived in November. “Bragg had completely driven Rosecrans’s army into Chattanooga; the latter was in actual danger of starvation, and the railroad to his rear seemed inadequate to his supply.”[3]

Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Backing the Army of the Cumberland into a corner was one thing. The question now was how the Confederates could capture or destroy it. Storming the fortified city would have been incredibly costly, and not all a sure thing. Starving the army out was safer, and the route that Bragg largely opted for — but it took too long in the face of stiffening Union resolve and significant reinforcements being brought in from across the North.

For his part, Longstreet was never one to argue for a direct assault on fortified lines. In this instance, he advocated for crossing the Tennessee to get between Rosecrans and his remaining supplies, forcing him to retreat or fight out in the open — a proposal reminiscent of what he wanted to try at Gettysburg.[4]

This was the exact scenario that Grant feared, writing: “If a retreat had occurred at this time it is not probable that any of the army would have reached the railroad as an organized body, if followed by the enemy.”[5]

Like any memoir, we should take Grant, Sherman and Longstreet’s writings with a grain of salt, recognizing they served (at a minimum) an implicit political agenda. The worse Rosecrans’ situation was, the greater Grant and Sherman’s heroism was in rescuing him. And Longstreet maneuvered to replace Bragg during the siege, which could only be justified if Bragg was fumbling an opportunity that Longstreet would take better advantage of.

In his history of the Army of Tennessee, historian Larry J. Daniel dismisses Longstreet’s proposal to cross the river and threaten Nashville. He argues that there was no pontoon bridge available to make the crossing, and that the Confederates didn’t have the supplies, transportation or logistical resources for such a maneuver.[6]

Instead, in the early days of the siege, the Confederate army was hamstrung by political infighting. Bragg sought to leverage his victory at Chickamauga into a purge of his political opponents in the army. Others, including Longstreet, sought to oust Bragg for failing to take advantage of the situation. The situation devolved to the point that it was necessary for Jefferson Davis to travel from Richmond to mediate the latest feud among the Army of Tennessee’s high command, but ultimately he left Bragg in command. 

Even as the Union’s position improved daily, the Confederacy could barely support its own army conducting the siege. Food was scarce, and morale cratered. “Daily starving soldiers crave of us permission to pick out of the dirt around the horses the soiled and trodden grains of corn that remained after feed time,” wrote Adolphe Chalaron of the Washington Artillery.[7]

Ultimately, as the Confederate high command burned valuable time feuding with each other and their soldiers starved, the Union situation was improving daily. Rosecrans was relieved of command of the Army of the Cumberland, replaced by Thomas, who resolved to “hold the town till we starve.”[8] Grant was given overall Union command in the West, and reinforcements were rushed in from Virginia and Mississippi. They reopened supply lines, and badly defeated Bragg in November, driving him back into Georgia and opening the door to the Atlanta Campaign.

Like any counterfactual, we’ll never know for sure how history might have played out differently. But even if the Army of the Cumberland could have been bagged early in the siege — either by capturing Chattanooga directly, or by inducing Rosecrans to retreat and attacking him on the road — it’s hard to imagine Bragg suddenly rampaging to the Ohio River with his half-starved, badly bloodied army. 

It’s possible, though, that he might have forced Burnside back from Knoxville, and moved the front lines of the war back to Nashville. The command team of Grant, Sherman and Thomas would have been able to concentrate reinforcements, safely supplied by the Navy, and almost certainly resumed the offensive within months — but this course of events might have been enough of a setback to change the public’s perception of the war by the 1864 elections. 

Interestingly, the Army of the Cumberland may not have been the most valuable prize the Confederates let slip out of their grasp. Grant recounted how he met a Southern soldier wearing a blue (probably captured) uniform:

“I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked whose corps he belonged to. He was very polite, and, touching his hat to me, said he belonged to General Longstreet’s corps. I asked him a few questions—but not with a view of gaining any particular information—all of which he answered, and I rode off.”[9]

The Union could replace field armies, but could they have replaced Grant?

Patrick Kelly-Fischer lives in Colorado with his wife, dog and cat, where he works for a nonprofit. A lifelong student of the Civil War, when he isn’t reading or working, you can find him hiking or rooting for the Steelers.


 

  1. Longstreet, James. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Da Capo Press, 1992, 462-463.
  2. Grant, Ulysses. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Gutenberg Project.
  3. Sherman, William. Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman. Pantianos Classics, 2021, 144.
  4. Longstreet, James. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Da Capo Press, 1992,461-466.
  5. Grant, Ulysses. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Gutenberg Project.
  6. Daniel, Larry J. Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed. The University of North Carolina Press, 2019,191-192.
  7. Hughes Jr., Nathaniel Chears, The Pride of the Confederate Artillery: The Washington Artillery in the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana State University Press, 1997, 152.
  8. Grant, Ulysses. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Gutenberg Project.

9. Grant, Ulysses. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Gutenberg Project.

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9 Responses to Missed Opportunity? The Confederates’ Lost Chance at Chattanooga

  1. darylmcdonald0208 says:

    Excellent article. We can thank Jefferson Davis for us still having a Union. Leaving Bragg in command was another of Davis’ strategic mistakes. Bragg sent his “political enemy” Longstreet to Knoxville of all places, making it easier for Grant and Thomas to break out. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign did indeed save the 1864 election for Lincoln, who thought he would lose that Summer.

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    From what I’ve read, Rosecrans had no intention of retreating from Chattanooga. He meant to hold it. Longstreet or Bragg would not have maneuvered him of out of the city, since Rosecrans recognized he could hold the place and eventually be re-supplied.

    • 64ovi says:

      I share your belief that Rosy wasn’t inclined to retreat from Chattanooga. Bragg’s best chance to force Rosy out was as the battle of Chickamauga was ending but the Army of Tenn was in pretty bad shape. I doubt whether it could’ve been done.

  3. waynegettysgrg says:

    Outstanding article, Patrick. As more of an Eastern theater enthusiast, I gained much insight on the late 1863 campaigns in the West from your interesting discussion. (Also, as a longtime season ticket holder for our beloved Steelers, a hearty “Here we go!”)

  4. John B. Sinclair says:

    Having just visited the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields last year, I enjoyed the article. I think Rosecrans was an underrated general for a number of reasons – especially given his excellent Tullahoma campaign. And he had a plan to relieve the army’s supply problems at Chatanooga, which Grant agreed with and put into place after Grant took command. Living in Baltimore, I am hoping my Ravens give your Steelers a warm welcome this Sunday (weather looks very iffy) for what may be Big Ben’s last game. A tough competitor who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

  5. Ed Lowe says:

    Enjoyed the article very much! A fascinating and informative read. I’m reminded of what Grant said about Davis, that Davis always came to the assistance of Union forces through his superior military intellect, or words to that affect. Like Grant said when he met Rosecrans after taking command, he was amazed that Rosecrans had not implemented some of the very suggestions he offered up. And why we study military history. Thanks again. Ed

  6. Chris Kolakowski says:

    It is worth pointing out that at least once after Tullahoma the Confederate War Department asked if Bragg could repeat the Kentucky expedition. But the situation was different in 1863 – Rosecrans’ army was more concentrated and active than Buell’s, and Kentucky had a larger garrison (the Army of the Ohio) than the previous year, so the proposal went nowhere.

    You are correct that infighting in the Army of Tennessee’s high command corroded its performance. In battle after battle under Bragg the rank and file fought very well, but erratic senior leadership threw away much of the results of their efforts. Chattanooga was the very bitter fruit of seeds planted back in Kentucky in the fall of 1862.

  7. Henry Flemming says:

    Off the main topic but Bragg’s strategy was detailed to me by a kindly National Park Service Officer at Chickamauga Battlefield. He explained Bragg wanted more than getting between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. The NPS officer showed me a topo map and patiently explained that Bragg wanted to turn Rosecrans and force him south from Chickamauga into the dead end canyon demarked today by Hog Jowl Road and W. Clove Road where Rosecrans army could have been cut off and taken out of the war for months, a strategy which stepped up my opinion of Bragg. But, as explained in William Lee White’s book, “Let Us Die Like Men,” Bragg was a problem that Jefferson Davis went west three times to try to fix.

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