Crucial gains in Tennessee are eclipsed by Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863.
Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans was entrenched—literally—in Murfreesboro. The nominal Union victory at Stones River in January 1863 secured a foothold in Middle Tennessee, and Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland spent the next six months constructing a 200-acre fortress (named for its commander) to protect the rail line north to Nashville and stockpile supplies for the summer campaign. Thirty miles away, General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee bided its time in Tullahoma, where Bragg had retreated after Stones River.
Washington worried that the long stalemate jeopardized its offensive on the Mississippi River, where Ulysses S. Grant was closing in on Vicksburg. Desperate to keep Bragg from reinforcing the Rebels there, General in Chief Henry Halleck demanded action. “Is it your intention to make an immediate move forward?” he asked Rosecrans on June 16. “A definite answer, yes or no, is required.” Rosecrans would not be rushed. “If immediate means to-night or to-morrow, no,” he replied. “If it means as soon as all things are ready, say five days, yes.”
It took eight days, but on June 24, Rosecrans’ well-rested army was on the move toward Tullahoma and the steep hills and narrow passes of Tennessee’s Highland Rim. Bragg, like Rosecrans, had spent the months since Stones River fortifying the area. Unlike Rosecrans, however, Bragg had to spread his smaller army across a wide front and defend four mountain passes: Guy’s Gap, Bell Buckle Gap, Liberty Gap and Hoover’s Gap.
Bragg’s reading of the terrain convinced him that Rosecrans had two likely approaches: He could come through Guy’s Gap and Bell Buckle Gap to Shelbyville, or take a longer, less arduous route west of the passes. With Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s Corps dug in at Shelbyville and Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s Corps along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad at Wartrace, Guy’s, Bell Buckle and Liberty gaps were covered. Hoover’s Gap, Bragg thought, was too long and narrow; Rosecrans wouldn’t risk bottling up his army. Whichever way Rosecrans moved, Bragg counted on his cavalry screen—Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Division on the far left and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Corps on the right—to keep him apprised.
Rosecrans decided to keep Bragg guessing. Sending his cavalry west and south toward Shelbyville, Rosecrans then set Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s XX Corps on Guy’s and Liberty gaps. A third wing, Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden’s XXI Corps, headed southeast toward Bradyville. If Shelbyville appeared to be the Yankees’ objective and Bradyville was merely a feint, Bragg would keep his forces massed on his left. Wheeler had already repositioned most of his troopers around Shelbyville, leaving a single cavalry division to patrol Bragg’s entire right flank.
Bragg took the bait, never suspecting Rosecrans’ real target was Hoover’s Gap and the road that ran through it to the rail town of Manchester. Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ XIV Corps bore down on the lightly defended pass, spearheaded by Colonel John Wilder’s 1,500 mounted infantrymen and their new seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles. Wilder’s men raced through the gap, scattering the 1st Kentucky Cavalry “in every direction, every fellow for himself, and all making the best time they could,” reported Major John Connolly of the 123rd Illinois. The rapid-firing Spencer repeaters quickly proved their worth. “Our men adore them as the heathens do their idols,” Connolly noted.
When Bragg finally learned, on June 26, of the breakthrough at Hoover’s Gap, he realized he’d been outfoxed and ordered a full retreat to Tullahoma. Four days later, as Thomas, McCook and Crittenden marshaled in Manchester, Bragg retreated again. By July 2, his army was on its way to Chattanooga, abandoning Middle Tennessee to the Union.
On July 4, 1863, Ulysses Grant captured Vicksburg, Robert E. Lee began the long retreat from Gettysburg and William Rosecrans counted his blessings. His Tullahoma Campaign was successful and the casualty count low. But a communiqué from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton intruded on any reverie: “Lee’s army overthrown; Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?”
“You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from Middle Tennessee,” Rosecrans replied angrily. “I beg on behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.”
Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.