150 Years Ago This Week: Major changes in Union command

October 1863

The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank for a second time in Charleston Harbor, S.C. in the middle of October; her inventor and namesake, Horace Lawson Hunley, and seven crew members perished in a practice dive. Hunley would be raised by Confederates yet again to fight another day.

On Oct. 16, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant was appointed to command the new Military Division of the Mississippi. The new organization was created from the Department of the Ohio, the Department of the Cumberland and the Department of the Tennessee. Gen. Grant was ordered to Cairo, Ill. from Vicksburg, Miss., and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was on his way west to meet with the general.

At Tampa Bay, Fla., two Union vessels bombarded Fort Brooke as a diversion while a landing party under Acting Master T.R. Harris disembarked from a transport at Ballast Point, marched 14 miles to the Hillsborough River and captured several river steamers. Master Harris and his men surprised and captured the Confederate blockade-runners Scottish Chief and Kate Dale. To prevent its capture, Confederates destroyed the steamer A.B. Noyes. On their way back to their ship, Harris and his men were surprised and attacked by Confederates, sustaining several casualties.

Regarding the Bristoe campaign in Virginia, President Lincoln wrote to his army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck: “If Gen. Meade can now attack [Gen. Robert E. Lee] on a field no worse than equal for us, and he will do so with all the skill and courage, which he, his officers and men possess, the honor will be his if he succeeds, and the blame may be mine if he fails.” Maj. Gen. George Meade, when shown Mr. Lincoln’s message, said that he would attack the Confederates if he could find the proper opportunity. He did not find it in the Bristoe campaign.

In the west, Gen. Grant was ordered to Louisville, Ky., to meet with Secretary Stanton; by coincidence, the two met at Indianapolis, and Stanton gave Gen. Grant his orders for his new command. Gen. Grant was given two choices: He could leave his department commanders as they were (Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans in command of the Department of the Cumberland; Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside in command of the Department of the Ohio) or he could reorganize his Military Division of the Mississippi. He chose the latter.

Gen. Rosecrans, his Army of the Cumberland now besieged in the city of Chattanooga, was relieved of command; he had been defeated at Chickamauga, had been criticized for being slow to react and now he was surrounded in Chattanooga.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was assigned to command the Department of the Tennessee, and Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” was assigned to command Gen. Rosecrans’ army in Chattanooga. In days to come, Gen. Thomas told Gen. Grant of Chattanooga: “We will hold the town till we starve.” In Washington, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more volunteers.

On Oct. 19, Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart attacked and routed Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Custer and Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick at a small village called Buckland Mills, on Broad Run at the Fauquier County line. After sharp fights at Gainesville and New Baltimore, the Confederate cavalry chased the Union horsemen five miles to the south, to Chestnut Ridge, just north of Warrenton, in a running fight which became known as the “Buckland Races.” This marked the end of any significant fighting of the Bristoe campaign, in which Confederate casualties were reported to be 205 killed, 1,176 wounded. Union casualties numbered 136 killed, 733 wounded, 1423 missing.

At Stevenson, Ala., Gen. Grant conferred with the displaced Gen. Rosecrans, and then went on to Bridgeport, Tenn. He faced almost impassable, muddy, washed-out mountain roads and was further handicapped by getting about on crutches, since he had been thrown from his horse in New Orleans during the beginning of September.

From Meridian, Miss., during his tour of the western theatre of the war, President Davis relieved Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk from corps command in the Confederate Army of Tennessee and assigned him to organizational work in Mississippi, replacing Lt. Gen. William Hardee. Gen. Polk had been one of Gen. Bragg’s quarreling subordinates. At nightfall on Oct. 23, Gen. Grant arrived at the Chattanooga headquarters of Gen. Thomas to assess the situation with the besieged Army of the Cumberland.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.