This Hallowed Ground

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Both Grant and Halleck had long been urging Rosecrans to move, but he had found reasons for delay. He argued that by staying where he was he was keeping Bragg and Bragg’s Confederate army up in central Tennessee, too far from Mississippi to send help to Joe Johnston; if he moved forward, he said, Bragg would retreat, and every mile of retreat would make it easier for him to interfere with Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. Besides, said Rosecrans, it would be bad strategy for him to fight while Grant was fighting; it was a military axiom that no nation should fight two great battles at the same time. With this point Grant took issue. He was not familiar with the axiom, he said, but now that it was stated he did not think much of it. It would be bad, he admitted, to lose two great battles at one time, but it would not be at all bad to win two.

In any event, the final week in June made it clear that Grant would presently have Vicksburg, and on the twenty-third of the month Rosecrans pulled his army out of camp and started south, heading toward Bragg and the 45,000 Confederates who were between him and Chattanooga.

Rosecrans began his campaign with a good deal of skill. He had approximately 60,000 men with him, and he had no intention of driving them against Bragg’s defensive system. Instead, feinting as if he meant to make such an attack, he shifted his main strength to the east, sliding clear around the Confederate right flank and threatening to cut the railroad in Bragg’s rear. Taken by surprise, Bragg retreated; by July 4 he had abandoned central Tennessee entirely, and a gloomy cabinet in Richmond learned that he had retreated all the way to Chattanooga.

All of this Rosecrans had done expertly and—except for a few minor skirmishes—without fighting. But it had not been easy. During nine days of continuous marching, what Rosecrans described as “one of the most extraordinary rains ever known to Tennessee at that period of the year” came down to turn the soil into a spongy quagmire and to make unpaved roads nearly impassable. The rain kept on, hour after hour and day after day, with no letup: “No Presbyterian rain, either, but a genuine Baptist downpour,” an Illinois soldier called it. Men in the 6th Indiana remembered making a night march on a mountain road beside which flowed a little stream, swollen now to a torrent that covered the roadway so that the men marched sometimes in water thigh-deep, everything dark as the pit, rain pelting down mercilessly, men tripping over submerged boulders or stepping into invisible potholes. When Bragg finally retreated, and the Federals settled down in his old camping ground at Tullahoma, the men were able to get their boots off for the first time since they had left Murfreesboro, and one soldier confessed that “it would be hard to find a worse set of used-up boys.”

The army waited in Tullahoma for nearly two weeks, while Rosecrans carried on another longdistance argument with Washington. He was well aware that Bragg would be reinforced, as he retreated, and he reasoned that since the Federal army which had just captured Vicksburg had nothing in particular to do it might as well move east and cover his own right flank when he resumed the advance. (Grant was arguing in much the same vein; if he should march on Mobile, he believed, Bragg could not conceivably stay around Chattanooga to fight Rosecrans, and all of the Deep South could be overrun before autumn.) But Halleck had other ideas, and Rosecrans was ordered to keep going. Only one concession was made and it did not prove very valuable: General Ambrose E. Burnside was getting together an army of 15,000 men with which he would move down through eastern Tennessee and attack Knoxville, where the Confederates had troops under the same General Simon Bolivar Buckner who had surrendered to Grant at Fort Donelson.

On August 16 Rosecrans put his men on the road again. The rains had stopped and the roads were passable, there was an abundance of blackberries and ripe peaches which marching men could get without much trouble, and there seemed to be plenty of good spring water. Some of the men looked back on the hike down to the Tennessee River as actually almost enjoyable.

Bragg evacuated Chattanooga and withdrew into northern Georgia, waiting for the reinforcements which an aroused government at Richmond was at last ordering to him. On September 9 Rosecrans sent Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps into Chattanooga and ordered the other two to fan out far to the south, to get across the mountains as quickly as possible and cut off Bragg’s retreat. Men in the marching columns whooped and yelled when they learned that Chattanooga had been taken. Bragg was in full retreat, perhaps in a panic; all that mattered now was to push on after him, destroy his army, and win the war.

In the four years of its life the Southern Confederacy strove heroically to overtake a will-o’-the-wisp, and this phantom took many forms. Sometimes it was the dream of European intervention, and at other times it was the dream of a sympathetic revolt in the North; and always it seemed that if the evasive unreality could just be caught it would confer enduring life on an archaic society trying to become valid in a modern world. Of all of these dreams, none was more constantly and deceptively alluring than the belief that one hard blow might finally knock the North out of the war and bring victory.