President Abraham Lincoln praised it.
“The flanking of Bragg at Shelbyville, Tullahoma and Chattanooga is the most splendid piece of strategy I know of,” Lincoln said of the late June 1863 operation.
“If any student of the military art desires to make a study of a model campaign, let him take his maps and General Rosecrans’s orders for the daily movements of his campaign. No better example of successful strategy was carried out during the war than in the Tullahoma campaign,” wrote Union Cavalry Corps commander David Stanley.
Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and the Union Army of the Cumberland drove the Confederate Army of the Tennessee out of the fertile farmlands of Middle Tennessee with minor losses. Union casualties were reported as 570 ¬– 83 killed, 473 wounded and 13 captured or missing.
Officially Rebel Gen. Braxton Bragg made no casualty report, describing his losses as “trifling.”
But the Union army captured 1,634 Confederates, primarily from Hardee’s Corps, and nearly captured Bragg’s chief of cavalry, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler.
Secretly Bragg confided to his friend, Bishop Charles Quintard, the chaplain of the 1st Tennessee, that he was “utterly broken down” and that the campaign was “a great disaster.”
Personally, it was a disaster for Bragg, who had been in ill-health including a bad case of the boils, which made it impossible for him to ride a horse. Even worse was the constant bickering of his general staff with Gens. William J. Hardee, Leonidas Polk and others constantly backstabbing him. Even during the Federal advance, Hardee simply didn’t communicate with Bragg, calling him an “idiot.”
In fact, Hardee acted on his own by ordering Maj. Gen Alexander P. Stewart to withdraw from Hoover's Gap and retreat to Wartrace. This opened a major gap for Union Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ Corps.
In the forefront of Thomas’ movement, Col. John Wilder's Brigade reached Manchester at 8 a.m. on June 27 and quickly occupied the town. Rousseau and Brannon pushed their divisions toward Wartrace as Stewart pulled back.
This enabled Wilder to get behind Bragg’s lines and damage the all-important Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad at Decherd and to destroy a spur line at Sewanee, which Leonidas Polk had selected as the site of the University of the South.
Hardee and Polk did listen when Bragg ordered them to withdraw to Tullahoma on June 27, 1863. The communication gap cost the Army of Tennessee dearly, but all was not lost.
Rosecrans’ intentions were veiled, but it did seem obvious that a direct attack on the Confederate fortifications at Tullahoma was likely. In fact, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were pushing for him to crush the Army of Tennessee.
“Give the finishing blow to the rebellion,” Stanton wired him.
At Tullahoma, Polk began to recommend retreat. Hardee, not wanting to help the “idiot,” made no recommendation to Bragg, who ordered his army to withdraw across the Elk River by night on June 30.
Mother Nature and Rosecrans’ reluctance to fight unless his army was in optimum condition helped save Bragg’s Rebel army to fight again. An extended rainy period of at least eight days had turned the roads into a quagmire that literally bogged down the Army of the Cumberland, which was traveling fully equipped with its massive wagon trains.
Why were the wagon trains needed?
An army truly travels on its stomach ... both men and the animals that transported them and their equipment. The bigger the army, the more mules, horses and wagons it required.
Each horse needed 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain (oats, corn, or barley) every day. Mules needed 14 pounds of hay and 9 pounds of grain per day. A typical soldier got by on only three pounds of food per day. It took 500 tons of food and fodder to support 70,000 men and 20,000 animals for one day.
Here’s an indication of how much fodder was required by the Army of the Cumberland. When the Union forces entered Nashville in February 1862, the quartermasters found 550,000 pounds of corn, 500,000 pounds of oats and 600,000 pounds of hay abandoned by retreating Confederates. This huge stockpile only met the needs of the Army of the Ohio for a few days.
And there was the problem of ammunition.
A normal army supply wagon could haul 2,500 pounds, meaning that it could transport up to 25 crates of ammunition containing some 25,000 rounds. Soldiers carried 40 rounds in cartridge boxes and 20 rounds in their knapsacks on the march. Brigade and division wagons tried to carry the equivalent of another 40 rounds per man and the corps trains another 100 per man.
The new Spencer repeating rifles, used by some Army of the Cumberland units, added to the problem since troops using them could fire more rounds at a faster rate.
Wagons were also needed for the medical corps, headquarters’ supplies and other necessities.
With each wagon and team occupying 12 yards of road space, a typical column of 800 wagons would stretch for 6 to 8 miles on the march. Imagine that on a muddy dirt road following in the wake of thousands of men and horses.
Pulling this all together with only 570 wagons was a master stroke, but one soon forgotten by official in Washington who were distracted by two key Union victories on July 3 at Gettysburg and July 4 at Vicksburg.
Secretary Of War Stanton telegraphed Rosecrans, “Lee's Army overthrown; Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have a chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?”
Angered, Rosecrans wired back: “Just received your cheering telegram announcing the fall of Vicksburg and confirming the defeat of Lee. You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from middle Tennessee. ... I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.”
Typically, Rosecrans did squander his chance to finish the war by stopping and studying possible avenues of pursuit of the seriously outnumbered Army of Tennessee. This gave Richmond time to re-enforce Bragg with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston sending a division from Mississippi under Maj. Gen. Hiram T. Walker and General Robert E. Lee dispatched a corps under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet from Virginia.
Now it was time for the Army of the Cumberland to be seriously outnumbered and for Rosecrans to lose his command.