In September 1863, Federals moved closer toward securing Arkansas for the Union. In Tennessee, the Federal Army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans advanced on the important railroad city of Chattanooga. With the situation growing desperate for the Confederates, General Braxton Bragg launched a savage attack in northern Georgia that sent the Federals in full retreat.
The Fall of Little Rock
Federal forces moved closer toward conquering Arkansas. They captured Fort Smith on the state’s western border and they continued moving against the state capital of Little Rock. On September 10, Confederate forces abandoned Little Rock in the face of a larger, stronger Federal army. This severely threatened the entire Confederate Trans-Mississippi District.
General Edmund Kirby Smith, Confederate district commander, tried arousing the citizenry to oppose the Federal advance by issuing a proclamation: “Your homes are in peril. Vigorous efforts on your part can alone save portions of your State from invasion. You should contest the advance of the enemy, thicket, gully, and stream; harass his rear and cut off his supplies.”
The Fall of Chattanooga
Rosecrans’s Federals crossed the Tennessee River to face Bragg’s Army of Tennessee guarding Chattanooga. With the Confederates threatened to the south and east, their position became endangered. Meanwhile Confederate President Jefferson Davis scrambled to gather reinforcements for Chattanooga’s defense.
Finally realizing that the Federals were positioning themselves behind him, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga and the Federals entered the city without a fight. After securing this vital gateway to the Deep South, Rosecrans ordered an immediate pursuit of Bragg’s Confederates, neglecting the fact that the Federals were vulnerable in hostile, mountainous territory.
The Battle of Chickamauga
As Bragg retreated into northern Georgia, he received vital reinforcements led by General Robert E. Lee’s most trusted lieutenant, James Longstreet. When Longstreet and his troops arrived, Bragg launched a counteroffensive in an effort to retake Chattanooga. Meanwhile Rosecrans concentrated his Federals near Lee and Gordon’s Mills on Chickamauga Creek, about 12 miles south of Chattanooga.
The fight began on September 19 as Federals probing for enemy positions ran into dismounted Confederate cavalry. The fighting intensified as more units joined in, and soon both armies were completely engaged along a disjointed three mile line. While casualties were heavy, Bragg was unable to penetrate the Federal line blocking his path to Chattanooga. Both sides fell back at nightfall and reorganized their forces to fight again the next day.
As fighting resumed on September 20, Longstreet discovered a gap in the Federal line, caused by miscommunication among the Federal generals. Longstreet’s Confederates swiftly drove through the gap, splitting the enemy’s line and sending many Federals fleeing in confusion.
However Federal General George Thomas determined to make a stand. He formed a defense line on Snodgrass Hill and held firm all afternoon, allowing the rest of the Federal army to make an orderly withdrawal from the battlefield. This earned Thomas the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.” While Thomas prevented a severe rout, the battle was nonetheless a resounding Confederate victory.
This was the worst battle in the Western Theater in terms of casualties. The Confederates lost over 18,000 killed, wounded or missing and the Federals lost over 16,000. President Abraham Lincoln ordered reinforcements sent to Rosecrans, who fell back to Chattanooga in defeat.
The Siege of Chattanooga
As Rosecrans licked his wounds, Bragg advanced his Confederates and lay siege to Chattanooga in an effort to starve out the Federals. Confederate cavalry conducted raids on Federal communications and supply lines.
In Washington, Lincoln met with his cabinet and military officers, and it was decided to send additional troops to assist Rosecrans. These were two army corps from Virginia, led by General Joseph Hooker. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton worked frantically to establish railroad lines and cut bureaucratic red tape, enabling Hooker’s men to arrive at Chattanooga in only seven days, a spectacular feat of transportation.
However the siege was still intact. Federal planners continued discussing how they could save the Army of the Cumberland as Rosecrans’s situation within Chattanooga grew desperate. His campaign had begun promising, but now he was in danger of losing his entire army.
In October 1863, the Confederacy had halted Federal drives in the West after winning the terrible Battle of Chickamauga. The Eastern Theater was relatively quiet, and troops in Virginia were being sent to aid the besieged Federal army at Chattanooga.
The Siege of Chattanooga
Early this month, two corps from the Federal Army of the Potomac arrived in Chattanooga to assist General William Rosecrans’s besieged troops. However additional troops neither addressed the food shortage in the city, nor the fact that Confederates controlled all but one supply route. President Abraham Lincoln pressed Rosecrans to attack the Confederates and break out of Chattanooga, but Rosecrans did not believe his force was strong enough.
Within the Confederate army, many southern generals expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of their commander, Braxton Bragg. Besides laying siege to Chattanooga, Bragg did little to destroy Rosecrans’s force; instead Bragg allowed reinforcements to join the Federals. After hearing pleas from the generals to remove Bragg, President Jefferson Davis decided to leave Richmond and visit the army in the field.
Jefferson Davis Tours the South
Davis’s trip south included visiting Charleston, South Carolina, which was being bombarded by Federal naval forces. From there, Davis proceeded to northern Georgia to visit Bragg and “to be serviceable in harmonizing some of the difficulties” taking place among Bragg and his subordinates. Along the way, Davis delivered several speeches and was warmly received.
After meeting with General Bragg, Davis decided to retain him as the army commander. He also authorized Bragg to relieve his two fiercest critics from command. Moreover, Davis allowed General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the Confederacy’s top cavalry commanders, to detach his troops from Bragg’s army and operate independently throughout the South. Forrest had been at such odds with Bragg that he had threatened to kill the army commander.
The Bristoe Campaign
The Virginia front had been relatively inactive since the Battle of Gettysburg in July. However this month, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attempted a move toward Washington. Lee, aware that the Federal Army of the Potomac had been weakened by sending troops to Chattanooga, hoped to take advantage of the troop reduction.
Federal General George Meade had anticipated Lee’s move. As Lee moved to Meade’s right, Meade skillfully fell back to the Rappahannock River while looking for an opportunity to counter. On October 14, advancing Confederates attacked the Federal rear guard near Bristoe Station. The Federals held off the attack, giving Meade time to establish strong defenses around Centreville.
Lee realized that Meade’s position was too strong to attack. Meade concluded that there was no opening for a counterattack, despite Lincoln’s urgings that Meade take the offensive. Eventually Lee withdrew south across the Rappahannock as both armies began settling into winter quarters.
Grant at Chattanooga
As the situation in Chattanooga grew more serious, the Lincoln administration merged the three military departments in the Western Theater into one and placed General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command. Grant was summoned north from Vicksburg, Mississippi to receive instructions from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Grant’s first order was to relieve Rosecrans from command, replacing him with George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Rosecrans had been criticized for the costly defeat at Chickamauga and for his fecklessness at Chattanooga. When Thomas assumed command, Grant ordered him to hold Chattanooga at all hazards. Thomas replied, “We will hold the town till we starve.” Grant then headed south to take personal command.
After inspecting the Federal forces in Chattanooga, Grant worked to open a new supply line on the Tennessee River. The Federals from the Army of the Potomac established positions at the foot of Lookout Mountain, which relieved the city. Within days, the “cracker line” (nicknamed for its purpose to deliver food to Federal troops) was in full operation. Soon Grant began planning for a counteroffensive that would break the siege and destroy Confederate forces in the West.
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