Chapter XXIV. The Rescue of Two Armies
The defeats and disappointments of the various campaigns in Virginia had gradually convinced the authorities at Washington that too many people were trying to direct the Union forces. With Lee there was practically no interference; but the commanders who opposed him were subject to the orders of the General-in-Chief at Washington, who was, to some extent, controlled by the Secretary of War, whose superior was the President, and after almost every engagement a Congressional Committee, known as the "committee on the conduct of the war," held a solemn investigation in which praise and blame were distributed with the best intentions and worst possible results. All these offices and officials were accordingly more or less responsible for everything that occurred, but not one of them was ever wholly to blame. This mistake, however, was at last fully realized and a careful search began for some one man to whom the supreme command could be entrusted. But for a long time no one apparently thought that the Western army contained any very promising material. Nevertheless, Grant, Sheridan, Sherman and Rosecrans were then in that army and, of these four; Rosecrans was regarded by many as the only real possibility.
Indeed, at the moment when Grant was closing in upon Vicksburg, and Lee and Meade were struggling at Gettysburg, Rosecrans, who had been entrusted with the important duty of conducting a campaign to drive the Confederates out of Tennessee, was fully justifying the high opinions of his admirers. Between June 24, 1863, and September 9th of that year he certainly outmaneuvered his opponents, occupying the all-important position of Chattanooga, and forcing the able Confederate General Bragg to fall back with more speed than order.
During all this time the North had been insisting that the army should be placed in charge of some commander who could master Lee, and this demand had found expression in a popular poem bearing the refrain "Abraham Lincoln! Give us a Man!" To the minds of many people Rosecrans had clearly demonstrated that he was "the Man," and it is possible that his subsequent acts were prompted by over-eagerness to end his already successful campaign with a startlingly brilliant feat of arms. At all events, he determined not to rest satisfied with having driven the Confederates from the field, but to capture or destroy their entire force.
With this idea he divided his army and rushed it by different routes over the mountains in hot pursuit of the foe. But the trouble with this program was that Bragg had not really retreated at all, having merely moved his army aside waiting for an opportunity to strike. Indeed, Rosecrans had barely plunged his troops into the various mountain passes on their fruitless errand before the whole Confederate force loomed up, threatening to destroy his widely-separated, pursuing columns, one by one, before they could be united.
This unexpected turn of affairs utterly unnerved the Union General, and although he did manage by desperate exertions to collect his scattered army, he completely lost his head when Bragg attacked him at Chickamauga, Georgia, on the 19th of September, 1863, and before the savage battle of that name had ended he retired from the field, believing that his army had been totally destroyed.
Such, undoubtedly, would have been its fate had not General Thomas and his brave troops covered the retreat, by holding the whole Confederate army in check for hours and even forcing it to yield portions of the bloody field. From that day forward Thomas was known as "The Rock of Chickamauga," but the heroic stand of his gallant men barely sufficed to save the Union army, which reached the intrenchments of Chattanooga only just in time, with the Confederates hot upon its trail.
Had Bragg overtaken his flying opponent, he would doubtless have made an end of him then and there, but it was not altogether with regret that he saw him enter Chattanooga, for with the roads properly blocked he knew the place would prove a perfect trap. He, accordingly, began a close siege which instantly cut off all Rosecrans' communication with the outside world, except by one road which was in such a wretched condition as to be impossible for a retreating army. Indeed, the heavy autumn rains soon rendered it impracticable even for provision wagons, and as no supplies could reach the army by any other route, it was not long before starvation began to stare the besieged garrison in the face.
Meanwhile, Rosecrans, almost wild with anxiety and mortification, sent dispatch after dispatch to Washington describing his condition and imploring aid, but though he still had an effective army under his command and plenty of ammunition, he made no attempt whatever to save himself from his impending doom. Day by day the situation grew more and more perilous; thousands upon thousands of horses and mules died for lack of food and the men were so nearly reduced to starvation that they greedily devoured the dry corn intended for the animals.
All this time the authorities in Washington were straining every nerve to rescue the beleaguered army. Sixteen thousand men under General Hooker were rushed to its relief, provisions were forwarded within a day's march of the town, awaiting the opening of new roads, and finally, when the stream of frantic telegrams from the front showed that the army had practically no leadership, hurried orders were forwarded to Grant, authorizing him to remove Rosecrans, place Thomas temporarily in control and take the field himself at the earliest possible moment.