American Civil War: Bragg’s Problems and the Siege of Chattanooga


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In 1863, Union General William S. Rosecrans’s army had retreated into Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. It was an ideal time for the Confederates under Braxton Bragg to strike. But they were busy in internal squabbles. Were they finally able to make a move?

A painting of the battle between Union and Confederate armies at Chickamauga.
After suffering losses in the Battle of Chickamauga, William S. Rosecrans retreated with his troops to Chattanooga. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Union General Williams S. Rosecrans took his troops into Chattanooga, Tennessee, into the defenses of the city after Chickamauga, and began to prepare for a major Confederate strike. However, Rosecrans was unaware of the fact that the high command of the Confederate Army was, meanwhile, wracked with dissension, bickering, and arguing.

Jefferson Davis to the Rescue

A portrait of Confederate General Braxton Bragg.
Post Chickamauga, Braxton Bragg’s subordinates criticized his lack of action against the Union Army. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

After Chickamauga, Bragg’s principal subordinates said that he should have pressed the retreating Army of the Cumberland harder. They questioned Bragg’s decision to give up that kind of opportunity. Bragg, on the other hand, blamed his subordinates.

It got so acrimonious that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states, had to visit and straighten out the mess. Davis spoke to a group of major subordinates and asked them whether Bragg be retained in command or not. And, all of them said Bragg was the problem and that they needed a new leadership.

Davis then listened to Bragg’s response, and in the end decided to stick with Bragg. His decision may have two reasons—One, there was no one immediately available to do a better job. Second, Bragg had been loyal to him in the past, and he wanted to return the favor.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Lee and Bragg: Two Commanders with Very Different Styles

It isn’t enough to be a good strategist or a good tactician to command an army effectively. You should also be able to administer the army well and work with difficult personnel. As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate General Robert Lee also had difficult lieutenant, but he managed to handle them without ever having squabbles get into the newspapers.

Well, that stands in great contrast to what happened in the Army of Tennessee after almost every battle. Part of the problem, of course, was that their chief, Braxton Bragg kept losing battles. But a good deal of it was the the skill of managing his subordinates—of which Bragg had none, and Lee had in abundance.

Learn more about the War in Virginia, Winter and Spring 1862-63.

Forrest Vs. Bragg

Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a cavalryman who had led the only real Confederate pursuit of fleeing Federals after Chickamauga. He had urged Bragg that they must take immediate advance against the Federals as Rosecrans’s army was completely demoralized, but Bragg refused.

A week after the battle, Bragg and Forrest had a major confrontation. Bragg had ordered Forrest to turn his command over to another cavalryman and Forrest confronted his commanding general face to face and said (according to an eyewitness), “You have played the part of a damn scoundrel and are a coward. If you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws… If you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path, it will be at the peril of your life.”

Well, this is pretty flagrant insubordination, but it went unpunished. Forrest was the kind of personality that Bragg did not want to cross. So he kept his mouth shut, and Forrest went away. And, Bragg lost an excellent cavalry officer.

Nathan Forrest and Ku Klux Klan

Despite his many flaws, Nathan Forrest was a very good cavalryman. (Image: Brady-Handy Collection/Library of Congress/Public domain)

Forrest had a fierce reputation. He’d become a slave trader in the years before the war, had amassed a fortune—land and slaves. After the war he was the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He was accused of massacring black soldiers and white Unionist soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864, one of the many notorious incidents that clustered around him.

However, Forrest was a very good cavalryman. He’s often quoted as saying that the key to winning battles was to get there “firstest with the mostest” men. Even today, he is considered by some as the greatest genius—military untutored genius—of the war.

Bragg Reaches Chattanooga

While all of this squabbling was taking place in the Confederate high command, Bragg finally moved toward Chattanooga, where he set up a line, pinning Rosecrans’s army in the city. Bragg occupied two key pieces of high ground at Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge, a 400-foot-high ridge that ran mostly east of the city. He also placed artillery and troops on Lookout Mountain, an impressive piece of high ground that loomed over Chattanooga and the Tennessee River. From here, the artillery commanded approaches from the south and west.

Learn more about the significance of Gettysburg.

Union Loses Control of Chattanooga?

Meanwhile, Union reinforcements were ordered to Chattanooga to bolster Rosecrans’s force. From Mississippi, William Tecumseh Sherman came with 17,000 men; and Joseph Hooker was brought back into active command and sent out with 25,000 men from the Army of the Potomac, the 11th and 12th Corps.

Inside Chattanooga, supplies were depleting fast for Rosecrans because Bragg’s army controlled the rail and water communications into the city. And the Federals found themselves depending on one very tenuous outlet along which they could bring materials into the city.

By mid-October, thousands of horses had died and the men were on quarter rations inside the city. It was a situation that was setting itself up to become a true disaster. It was time for the Federal high command to make some decisions, which would ultimately set the stage for a successful lifting of the siege during the Battle of Chattanooga.

Common Questions about Braxton Bragg and the Siege of Chattanooga

Q: Where did Braxton Bragg set up his army in Chattanooga?

At Chattanooga, Braxton Bragg occupied two key pieces of high ground: Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.

Q: What were the points of conflict between Nathan Forrest and Braxton Bragg?

There were two main points of conflict between Nathan Forrest and Braxton Bragg. First, post Chickamauga, Forrest wanted Bragg to attack the retreating Army of the Cumberland. But Bragg refused to do so. Second, a week after the battle, Bragg ordered Forrest to turn his command over to another cavalryman, which Forrest refused outright and left.

Q: Why did Jefferson Davis visit the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee?

There were constant squabbles between Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his commanders. The atmosphere got so acrimonious that Jefferson Davis was forced to visit the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee to sort out the matters.

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