Politics & Policy

Confederate Shipwreck

Braxton Bragg (Library of Congress)
Chattanooga was the key to the South.

One of the great misconceptions of the Civil War arising from the century-long dominance of the Lost Cause School is the idea that Confederate generalship was superior to that of the North, especially during the early years of the war. According to the Lost Cause narrative, Confederate generals performed better than their Union counterparts until the emergence of leaders such as Ulysses S. Grant, who understood that he could employ Northern superiority in manpower and material to crush the South.

In fact, there was only one successful Confederate army: the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee. The main Confederate army in the West, the Army of Tennessee, stumbled from defeat to defeat, ceding great swaths of Southern territory to the Union. Its one great victory — at Chickamauga in September of 1863 — was rendered strategically sterile by the loss of Chattanooga two months later, which allowed the Union to penetrate the Appalachian barrier, opening the way to Atlanta.

 

Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee

The problems of the Army of Tennessee began at the top. Its soldiers were as brave and committed as any in the Army of Northern Virginia, but they were undone by their leadership. The army was wracked by dissension almost from the moment that Braxton Bragg assumed command after Shiloh. Bragg was not a bad tactician or strategist — Grant described him as “remarkably intelligent and well informed” — but he was a mean-spirited, argumentative martinet whose leadership style alienated his subordinates. Indeed, it seemed during most of his tenure that his subordinates were on the verge of mutiny. They despised Bragg and he returned the sentiment.

The common soldiers of the Army of Tennessee resented Bragg’s severe discipline. Of course, Stonewall Jackson was also noted for his stern disciplinary methods, but his soldiers forgave him because he led them to victory. Bragg on the contrary was seen as having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at Perryville and Murfreesboro. His soldiers joked that Bragg retreated whether he won or lost, indeed that he would never get to heaven because the moment he was invited to enter he would fall back.

There are two anecdotes — perhaps apocryphal — that illustrate Bragg’s character, and accordingly the source of his shortcomings as a commander. Grant, in his memoirs, recounts a story about Bragg during the Mexican War, in which he was both a battery commander and the regimental supply officer. The story goes that as battery commander, Bragg submitted a requisition for supplies. As supply officer, he rejected the requisition. As battery commander, he protested the decision. As supply officer, he denied the protest. All of this led his regimental commander to exclaim, “Captain Bragg, you have fought with everyone else in the army and now you are fighting with yourself.”

Several years ago, the late Grady McWhiney, one of the great historians of the South and southern culture, set out to write a Civil War biography of Bragg, titled “Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat.” According to the second story, McWhiney became so disgusted with his subject that he abandoned the project after completing the first volume. One of his graduate students then completed the second volume. The principals have denied the account, but the story persists.

Dissension in the Army of Tennessee generated a lack of cohesion. In the Army of Northern Virginia, mutual trust and respect created an army characterized by outstanding regimental-level leadership and morale, which translated into very high volumes of fire in the attack. By the summer of 1863, Lee’s army was in a class by itself when it came to the assault. Major General Joseph Hooker, who had experienced the offensive prowess of the Army of Northern Virginia as both a corps commander and an army commander, remarked that Lee’s army did not merely attack but struck with “blows.” “The shock,” he observed, “seemed to make the earth tremble on which we stood.” As a result, Lee’s army possessed a remarkable offensive striking power that the Army of Tennessee lacked.

Confederate president Jefferson Davis recognized the poisonous effect of the dissension generated by Bragg. “He who sows the seeds of discontent and distrust prepares for the harvest of slaughter and defeat,” he said in addressing the Army of Tennessee. “To zeal you have added gallantry; to gallantry energy; to energy fortitude. Crown these with harmony, due subordination, and cheerful support of lawful authority, that the measure of your duty may be full.”

But although Davis knew that Bragg was despised by his subordinates and that dissension threatened to wreck the Army of Tennessee, Davis refused to relieve his friend. Out of blind loyalty, he failed to take the necessary action. The result was the loss of central Tennessee, and eventually Atlanta, for the Confederacy.

 

Tullahoma

Until recently, Civil War historians have tended to conflate battles and campaigns, for instance speaking of the Second Manassas “Campaign” or the Chancellorsville “Campaign,” when in fact both were battles that took place in the context of a broader campaign. A battle is a tactical engagement that may or may not have an impact beyond itself. A campaign is a series of related operations, including movements, battles, and support operations, designed to achieve a strategic objective within a theater of operations. The war in central Tennessee can be seen as a campaign that begins in early 1863 and culminates with the Union victory at Chattanooga in November of that year.

After being turned back from Kentucky in the fall of 1862, Bragg took up a position straddling rail and coach lines northwest of Murfreesboro, Tenn., some 25 miles southeast of Nashville. Meanwhile, the general who had repelled Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, the overcautious Don Carlos Buell, was replaced by Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans as commanding general of the Union Army of the Cumberland.

The Union and Confederate armies clashed at Stones River (Murfreesboro) over a three-day period from December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863. The battle was a tactical draw, but Bragg’s subordinates, lacking confidence in his leadership, counseled retreat, and the Army of Tennessee withdrew south toward Tullahoma, taking up a defensive position along the Duck River. Bragg’s withdrawal enabled Rosecrans to claim victory, helping to offset the Union debacle at Fredericksburg. Lincoln thanked Rosecrans for his victory, acknowledging that the country could not have survived a defeat there.

In June 1863, Rosecrans initiated a series of brilliant feints and maneuvers that turned Bragg’s right, forcing him to abandon his Duck River line and fall back to Chattanooga. Rosecrans turned his flank again, and Bragg abandoned Chattanooga, withdrawing into northern Georgia. Rosecrans’s masterful Tullahoma campaign almost bloodlessly secured the important and very productive region of Central Tennessee.

But instead of halting to consolidate his scattered forces, Rosecrans overplayed his hand, pressing forward in the hopes of destroying what he believed to be a defeated and demoralized Confederate army in Georgia. But the Army of Tennessee was far from beaten. In fact, Bragg had sowed the area with false “deserters” whose job was to deceive Rosecrans. The result was a disjointed advance in which Rosecrans’s corps were unable to provide mutual support.

 

Chickamauga

Bragg saw an opportunity to destroy the widely scattered Union corps piecemeal. On two separate occasions (McLemore’s Cove at Dug Gap on September 11 and Lee and Gordon’s Mill two days later), Bragg came close to achieving his goal. Having two of his dispersed corps nearly trapped and destroyed alerted Rosecrans to the perilous state of his army and he immediately ordered the army to concentrate just south of Chattanooga. Bragg was now in a position to place his army between that of Rosecrans and Chattanooga.

Bragg intended to strike what he thought was the exposed Union left at Lee and Gordon’s Mill and drive the federals southward, away from Chattanooga. But the arrival of a corps under Brigadier General George Thomas extended the Union line, derailing this option.

The battle of Chickamauga opened on September 19. After a meeting engagement, both armies fed troops into the melee raging in the tangled thickets and dense growth west of Chickamauga Creek until darkness made further action impossible.

Unbeknownst to Rosecrans — and, for that matter, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, or General-in-Chief Henry Halleck — Lee had detached Longstreet’s corps (minus Pickett’s division, shattered two months earlier at Gettysburg), which, after a circuitous eleven-day trip by rail, reached Bragg after the end of the fighting on September 19.

Bragg now divided the reinforced Army of Tennessee into two wings, the right commanded by General Leonidas Polk and the left by Longstreet, and ordered an attack at daybreak of September 20 designed to roll up the Union left. But Polk delayed and the attack did not get under way until mid-morning. After some initial success the main attack stalled, but a mistaken shift of units toward the Union left created a gap in the Union center. Longstreet, as he had at Second Manassas and on the second day of Gettysburg, exploited the gap, causing the Union right to collapse.

Confederate troops poured into the breach, threatening the Army of the Cumberland with annihilation. But Thomas, a Virginian who had remained loyal to the Union, held his position at Snodgrass Hill, breaking the momentum of the Confederate onslaught and saving the Union army from disaster. For his steadiness at Snodgrass Hill, Thomas earned the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.”

Chickamauga is a Cherokee word for “river of death.” On two days in September 1863, the little creek in northwest Georgia lived up to its name. The Army of the Cumberland suffered 16,170 casualties, while the Army of Tennessee suffered over 18,000 (it should be noted that Chickamauga was the only major engagement of the war in which Confederate forces outnumbered Union forces).

 

Chattanooga

Rosecrans fell back on Chattanooga. Bragg’s army was too exhausted to pursue with alacrity, but eventually seized the high ground south and east of the city — Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge — forcing Rosecrans to establish a defensive perimeter on the valley floor with its flanks anchored on the Tennessee River. Concluding that Rosecrans was “stunned and confused, like a duck hit on the head,” Lincoln relieved him of command of the Army of the Cumberland, and replaced him with Thomas.

Meanwhile, following his victory at Vicksburg, Grant was elevated to overall command of Union armies in the West, relinquishing command of the Army of the Tennessee to William Tecumseh Sherman. (Note: The Union tended to name armies, like battles, after bodies of water. Thus the Union armies took the names of the Tennessee River [the Army of the Tennessee], the Cumberland River, the Ohio River, and the Potomac River. In contrast, the Confederates preferred place names. Accordingly, the main Rebel armies were the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia.) 

Lincoln also ordered the War Department to transfer two corps of the Army of the Potomac to Grant. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps and Joseph Hooker’s XII Corps traveled some 1,200 miles by rail from Culpeper, Va., to Chattanooga, arriving in mid October. Grant was now in essence an army group commander, with the Armies of the Tennessee and Cumberland, as well as two corps from the Army of the Potomac, at his disposal.

Despite Grant’s arrival, the Union forces in Chattanooga were in dire straits. By occupying the high ground around Chattanooga, the Confederates had made it impossible for the Union to resupply the Army of the Cumberland from its base at Stevenson, Ala., via the Tennessee River. The only alternative was a long, roundabout wagon route of about 60 miles through the mountains from Stevenson. When the rains began in mid October, the wagon trains were taking eight days over this route and draft animals were breaking down. Within a month, the Federals were in danger of being starved out of the city.

The chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland, “Baldy” Smith, developed a plan to open a shorter line of supply that would permit riverboats to deliver supplies to a point due west of Chattanooga. To do this it was necessary to drive the Confederates from the high ground of Raccoon Mountain, which lay to the west of Moccasin Point — a sharp bend in the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga – and commanded the river approaches from Stevenson.

Grant approved Smith’s plan and put him in charge of its execution. On the night of October 26, Howard’s XI Corps advanced along the railroad line toward Wauhatchie, and another Union force seized Brown’s Ferry. Longstreet’s counterattack on the night of October 28-29 at Wauhatchie failed to dislodge the Federals. The “Cracker Line” was now open and the Yankees in Chattanooga were able to return to full rations.

His supply lines now secure, Grant turned his attention to dislodging the Rebels from the high ground east and south of the city. Bragg’s position on Missionary Ridge was a strong one, but his strength had been diminished by the departure of Longstreet.

Bragg had already forced the departure of two of his subordinates, D. H. Hill and Leonidas Polk, after Chickamauga. As was his wont, he now blamed a subordinate — in this case. Longstreet – for failing to prevent the opening of the Cracker Line at the battle of Wauhatchie. Longstreet had had enough of Bragg and vice versa, so when the former requested permission to undertake an independent operation against Knoxville in East Tennessee, Bragg permitted him to do so. The attempt to take Knoxville failed and Longstreet wintered in Tennessee before beginning the arduous journey to rejoin Lee in Virginia. He arrived just in time to save Lee’s army from near disaster during the battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864.

Reduced in strength by Longstreet’s departure, the Confederates lost Lookout Mountain to Hooker on November 24 in the fabled “Battle above the Clouds,” of which Grant is reputed to have said: “The battle of Lookout Mountain [the ‘Battle above the Clouds’] is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle, and no action worthy to be called a battle, on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.” Poetry or not, it was a harbinger of what was to transpire on Missionary Ridge.

Grant planned to envelop the Confederate position on Missionary Ridge. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, flush with victory at Vicksburg, would make the main attack against the Confederate right. Hooker would attack the Rebel left near Rossville. If necessary, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, disgraced at Chickamauga, would conduct a demonstration against the Confederate center to fix the Rebels and prevent them from reinforcing the flanks.

Longstreet’s departure left Bragg with two corps to defend Missionary Ridge. Major General William Hardee with 14 brigades held the right, or “strategic,” flank. Major General John Breckinridge — vice president of the United States during the Buchanan administration (the youngest vice president in U.S. history), presidential candidate in 1860, and U.S. senator from Kentucky until being expelled by a resolution in December 1861 for supporting the Confederacy — had to cover a two-and-a-half-mile front with nine brigades. The Rebels had established and partially completed three parallel lines of entrenchments, the first at the base of the ridge, the second about halfway up the slope, and the third along the crest.

Grant established his headquarters on Orchard Knob on November 24, and at about midnight ordered Sherman to attack Tunnel Hill at dawn and directed Hooker to advance from Lookout Mountain to Rossville Gap. But Hooker’s attack was delayed for five hours and Sherman ran into a hornets’ nest at Tunnel Hill. Sherman had the misfortune to confront the division of Major General Pat Cleburne, the Army of Tennessee’s finest general, who was known as the “Stonewall of the West.”

With Sherman stymied and Hooker delayed, Grant resisted the temptation to shift troops from the center before the flank attacks had achieved some decisive results. But Sherman’s situation was critical, and at about 10 a.m.on September 25, Grant made Howard’s XI Corps available to reinforce Sherman’s left. Sherman gained some ground, but was driven back by Cleburne’s counterattack. Meanwhile Hooker began his attack against the Confederate left.

Grant realized that although Sherman’s envelopment had failed, he must make a final effort before dark. Around 3:00 p.m., Grant ordered the Army of the Cumberland to begin an assault against the Confederate center in the hopes of relieving the pressure on Sherman — but the intended demonstration turned into a decisive rush to the crest of Missionary Ridge. Grant had intended that the troops halt after taking the first line, then reorganize to continue against the second defensive line. But much to Grant’s consternation, the Army of the Cumberland pressed forward immediately after capturing the first line. Grant is reported to have asked Thomas: “Who ordered those men up the hill?” He continued, “Someone will suffer for it, if it turns out badly.”

In fact, some commanders attempted to stop the advance. But at this point it had become a “soldiers’ battle,” as the attacking troops realized that if they lingered at the base of the ridge, they would be subject to murderous fire. As good soldiers often do, they took matters into their own hands. They also wished to redeem their failure at Chickamauga.

One of the heroes of the day was 19-year-old Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin. Shouting “On Wisconsin,” MacArthur grabbed the regimental colors from the fallen color bearer and led his unit forward. For his action that day, he would receive the Medal of Honor and be brevetted to colonel of volunteers. Celebrated nationally as the “Boy Colonel,” MacArthur went on to a long and distinguished Army career, and would be the father of Douglas MacArthur.

As brilliant as the Army of the Cumberland’s assault was, its success was aided by serious mistakes by the Confederates in their defensive dispositions. Bragg had split his forces, putting half at the bottom of the hill with secret orders to fire a volley when the enemy got to within 200 yards, and then to withdraw to the second defensive line. But many of the Rebel soldiers had not gotten the word and defended the first line even when others had pulled back. Then, as they retreated, they masked the fires of the second defensive position. Unable to fire for fear of hitting their comrades, many of the defenders in the second line panicked and abandoned their positions.

But much of the blame must fall on the Confederate engineer responsible for the final defensive line, who had taken his instructions literally when told to put the final line on the highest ground. Thus he chose the geographic or topographic crest instead of the military crest, which lies on the forward slope of a hill or ridge and enables the defenders to deliver constant grazing against the attackers. As a result of this mal-deployment the attackers were able to find “dead space” through which they could advance without being subject to the defenders’ fire. The Army of the Cumberland came forward over about six separate lines of approach, establishing footholds at various places, enabling them to deliver enfilade fire against any Confederate strong points that had been able to resist the frontal assault.

The result was a complete Confederate rout. One division of the Army of the Cumberland, that of Phil Sheridan, was able to pursue the defeated Rebels, capturing a large number of guns and prisoners and nearly capturing Bragg, Breckinridge, and other high-ranking officers. The final assault had lasted about an hour, resulting in 37 guns and 2,000 prisoners taken.

 Meanwhile Hooker was rolling up the left. Despite the rout, Grant was unable to pursue effectively. The Confederates rallied on a ridge about 500 yards east of Missionary Ridge. Cleburne continued to hold Sherman in check, and Bragg, covered by Hardee’s corps, withdrew that night toward Dalton.

 

Aftermath

Casualties for Chattanooga were relatively low, especially when compared with the two-day bloodletting at Chickamauga. Union losses totaled 5,815 while the Confederates lost 6,667. Grant pursued Bragg into northern Georgia, but soon returned to Chattanooga for the winter. Operations on both sides halted until the spring.

After his victory at Chattanooga, Grant was elevated to command of all Union armies. On the Confederate side, Bragg mercifully offered his resignation as commanding general of the Army of Tennessee, and Davis accepted it. Davis was forced to turn to Joseph Johnston, with whom he had feuded since the beginning of the war. In 1864, Johnston would reprise his performance on the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862, retreating toward Atlanta until that city was finally lost.

A much better choice for command would have been Cleburne, by far the finest officer in that unfortunate organization. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, this was not likely. First of all, Cleburne, a division commander, was junior to both Hardee and Breckinridge. But an even greater mark against him in the eyes of the Confederate hierarchy was his heretical view on slavery.

In 1864, Cleburne, an Irish immigrant to Arkansas, proposed granting freedom to slaves who enlisted in the Confederate army. He argued that such a move would cancel the impact of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and improve the chances of foreign recognition of the Confederacy. He asked, quite bluntly: Are we more interested in independence or the institution of slavery? The Confederacy gave its answer. His proposal caused scandal, both among his fellow general officers in the Army of Tennessee and among politicians in Richmond when they got wind of it. As Howell Cobb of Georgia remarked, “​The day you make soldiers of [Negroes] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

Cleburne’s proposal effectively killed his prospects for further promotion. Nonetheless he continued to serve loyally and effectively until he was essentially murdered by John Bell Hood in his blind frontal assault at Franklin, Tenn., in November of 1864, the penultimate act in the final destruction of the unfortunate Army of Tennessee.

In his Reminiscences of the Civil War, Confederate general John B. Gordon called the Confederate losses of Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga a triune disaster to the Confederate cause.” But a case can be made that the most important of these was Chattanooga. For even though 1863 appears in retrospect to be the decisive year of the war, war weariness in the North was becoming widespread, even with Union successes in the field. Dissent in the North was a major concern for Lincoln; indeed, he did not expect to win the election of 1864.

It was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September 1864 that changed the electoral equation. Had Atlanta not fallen when it did, it is very possible that Democrat George McClellan would have been elected president, with the Copperhead congressman George H. Pendleton of Ohio as his vice president. A negotiated peace may well have followed.

But before Atlanta could fall, Union forces had to penetrate the Appalachian barrier at Chattanooga, opening the road to Atlanta. Had Bragg prevailed at Chattanooga, or even delayed its loss to the Union, the outcome of the war may have been far different than it was. The title of Peter Cozzens’s book on Chattanooga says it all: The loss of the city to the Confederates was indeed “the shipwreck of their hopes.”

— Mackubin Thomas Owens teaches in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this article, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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