The Tullahoma Campaign: Not Written in Letters of Blood

Tullahoma_Campaign

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.

Major General William Rosecrans to Secretary of War Stanton after the completion of the Tullahoma Campaign.

Mention Gettysburg and almost all Americans will recall that it was a battle fought during the Civil War.  Mention the Tullahoma campaign, and almost all Americans will give a blank stare.  A pity, because the almost bloodless campaign demonstrates one of the finest pieces of generalship to be found in the War.

After the battle of Murfreesboro in December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863, the two opposing armies seemed to go into suspended animation for a period of half a year.  Bragg withdrew his Army of Tennessee to 30 miles south of Murfreesboro at Tullahoma, Tennessee and contented himself with observing Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland and awaiting events.  Rosecrans seemed content to stay in Murfreesboro indefinitely, reinforcing and resupplying his army.  Calls to remove Rosecrans became frequent, along with frequent entreaties for Rosecrans to attack Bragg.  Rosecrans refused to move until he was ready.  On June 23, 1863 he was ready.

Here is the account of the campaign written by Union Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert C. Kniffin in 1887 for The Century Magazine and which later appeared in Battles and Leaders.  I admire both its conciseness and its accuracy:

The brief campaign which resulted in forcing the Confederate army to evacuate their works at Tullahoma and Shelbyville, Tenn., and retire behind the Tennessee River, began on the 23d of June, was prosecuted in the midst of drenching rains, and terminated July 4th, 1863. Both armies had occupied the time since the battle of Stone’s River in recruiting their strength and in fortifying their respective positions. Murfreesboro’ was Rosecrans’s secondary base of supplies, while Tullahoma was Bragg’s barrier against Rosecrans’s farther advance toward Chattanooga, the strategic importance of which, as controlling Confederate railroad communication between the East and West, had rendered it the objective point of all the campaigns of the armies of the Ohio and the Cumberland.

As the contending armies stood facing each other on the 20th of June, 1863, General Bragg estimated the effective strength of his army at 30,449 infantry, 13,962 cavalry, and 2254 artillery. Polk and Hardee commanded his two corps of infantry, and Wheeler and Forrest the cavalry.

Deducting the garrisons of Nashville and points north, and the Reserve Corps, 12,575, to be used in emergency, Rosecrans had at the same date “present for duty, equipped,” 40,746 infantry, 6806 cavalry, and 3065 artillery, for an offensive campaign. Having received full and accurate descriptions of the fortifications at Tullahoma, where a part of Polk’s corps was intrenched behind formidable breastworks, protected by an abatis of fallen trees six hundred yards in width, and at Shelbyville, where Hardee had fortified his position with equal engineering skill, General Rosecrans determined to force the Confederate army out of its works, and if possible engage it in the open field. A glance at the map will show Shelbyville directly south of Murfreesboro’, and Tullahoma, on the line of the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad, eighteen miles south-east. The high state of cultivation of the country west of Shelbyville, and the connection of the towns by broad turnpike roads, would naturally suggest the route of march for the Union army; moreover, the region to the east of the railroad consisted of sterile uplands through which winding country roads offered continuous obstacles to the rapid advance of an army. Precisely for this reason Rosecrans chose the latter route for one of his corps, while the other two corps were directed against the center of the line at Tullahoma. Sending his supply trains out on the Shelbyville road, the cavalry under Stanley was ordered to Eagleville, twenty miles west, and a little south of Murfreesboro’, with orders to advance on Shelbyville on the 24th of June in bold array, and at night to fill the country to their rear with camp-fires extending from Hardee’s left to the Shelbyville road and beyond, indicating the presence of a heavy infantry force in his sup, port. This ruse had the desired effect, and held Hardee at Shelbyville, while the real movement was against his right.

This advance was made by Hoover’s Gap* in front of Tullahoma, and to this end Colonel J. G. Wilder, in command of his splendid brigade of mounted infantry, was ordered to “trot through the gap,” pushing the Confederate pickets before him, while Thomas was directed to follow as closely in his rear as possible. Wilder obeyed his orders literally, paying no attention to the frequent stands made by the retiring pickets, but driving them back upon their reserves, who in turn fell back upon Stewart’s division, posted on the Garrison Fork of Elk River [actually the Duck River], which is about four miles south [actually northeast] of Tullahoma. General Stewart sent Bushrod Johnson’s brigade forward, and a brisk fight ensued. The head of Thomas’s column was six miles in the rear, but Wilder’s plucky regiments used their Spencer rifles to such good purpose as to hold their ground until Reynolds’s division secured possession of the bridge, when Stewart, finding that the movement was really an advance in force, that the Gap he was posted to guard was lost, and that a heavy infantry column was crossing the bridge, fell back upon the main line.

Thomas was followed closely by McCook with the Twentieth Corps, Granger with the Reserve Corps holding the ground in front of Murfreesboro’. Meantime, Crittenden with the Twenty-first Corps, who had seventeen miles to march, over a road that seemingly had no bottom, was toiling through the mud between Woodbury and Manchester on his way to his position before Bragg’s right flank and rear. Colonel John F. Miller with his brigade of Negley’s division attacked Liberty Gap, and fell in a fierce fight there, badly wounded; but the 

Gap was held by the brigade until relieved by the Twentieth Corps, which then passed Thomas and took the lead on the Manchester road, both corps camping within two miles of Tullahoma. In front of Stanley, Guy’s Gap, held by a battery supported by cavalry, was charged, driving the Confederates toward Shelbyville, near which town they made a stand ; but Colonel Minty attacked them on the left with the 4th Regular Cavalry of his brigade, sabering the gunners and pursuing the remainder through the town.

Bragg had ordered Hardee to the support of Polk’s threatened left flank, leaving Shelbyville with its elaborately planned fortifications to fall before a cavalry charge after a brief struggle by the rear-guard.

The unforeseen inclemency of the weather retarded Crittenden’s advance to such an extent that, notwithstanding the continued exertions of both officers and men, he was four days in marching seventeen miles. Horses and mules, floundering in the mud, were unhitched, and artillery and ammunition wagons dragged through deep morasses by the infantry. In some places mules perished in the mud, unable to extricate themselves. But for the heavy rains Crittenden would have joined McCook and Thomas two days earlier, and the campaign might have had a different ending.

When he came up, line of battle was formed fronting the works at Tullahoma, to mask a flank movement through the woods to Elk River Bridge, four miles in rear of  Bragg’s position. Between the lines the treacherous soil was filled with quicksand, which only needed the soaking of the week’s rain to render it impassable. To advance against the Confederate works over this ground, through a dense abatis of tangled tree-tops, in the face of a storm of grape-shot and minie-balls, would have been to doom one-half the army to destruction. Finding, when too late, that the advance against Hardee was only a feint to cover the real movement upon his left and rear, and alive to the paramount importance of protecting Chattanooga, General Bragg again faced his army southward, and crossed the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, the mouth of Battle Creek, and at Kelley’s Ferry. The advance of the column against Elk River Bridge arrived in time to witness the crossing of the rear of Bragg’s army, and on the afternoon of the 3d of July Sheridan’s division occupied Tullahoma.

The dilemma which this campaign posed for Bragg was illustrated by Bragg himself in this report which he wrote on July 3, 1863:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF TENNESSEE, July 3, 1863.

GENERAL: My last advices to the department represented the enemy advancing upon us in heavy force. We were immediately ready to receive him, and offered him battle, but he declined, and while holding a strong position, which we could not successfully attack, threw a force to our right and rear by which he successfully assailed our communications. No adequate force could be placed at these several points along the line without too much reducing our main body. I accordingly withdrew to Tullahoma, and reached there just in time to prevent an attack upon its feeble garrison. The enemy established himself again in strong position on the defensive, and moved another heavy column against our bridges over Elk River, now swollen by heavy rains. By making a rapid march and using the railroad successfully, we saved all our supplies, and crossed the Elk just before a heavy column appeared at the upper bridge. We were now back against the mountains, in a country affording us nothing, with a long line of railroad to protect, and half a dozen passes on the right and left by which our rear could be gained. In this position it was perfectly practicable for the enemy to destroy our means of crossing the Tennessee, and thus secure our ultimate destruction without a battle. Having failed to bring him to that issue, so much desired by myself and troops, I reluctantly yielded to the necessity imposed by my position and inferior strength, and put the army in motion for the Tennessee River.

Should we succeed in crossing it successfully (and I hear of no formidable pursuit up to this morning), the Tennessee will be taken as our line.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,  

BRAXTON BRAGG, General, Commanding.

 General JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON, Commanding, &c., Jackson, Miss.

Rosecrans’ bloodless victorious campaign was immediately, and forever, overshadowed by Vicksburg and Gettysburg.  However one observer indicated later that he had noted the high generalship involved.”The flanking of Bragg at Shelbyville, Tullahoma and Chattanooga is the most splendid piece of strategy I know of.”, so wrote Abraham Lincoln.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.