The Army of Tennessee was the Confederacy's primary fighting force in the Western Theater of the American Civil War between 1862 and 1865.
Although not officially designated the Army of Tennessee until 1862, the roots of the Confederacy’s primary fighting force in the West trace back to 1861. Prior to Tennessee’s secession from the Union on June 8, 1861, the state legislature authorized Governor Isham Harris to enter a military league with the Confederate States of America. Soon after a large majority of Tennesseans ratified an ordinance of secession, the legislature enacted a measure to raise an army of 55,000 men. Harris initially appointed Gideon Pillow to command the state’s forces and sent him to Memphis to begin preparations for assuming control of the Mississippi River. On July 13, 1861, Governor Harris authorized the Tennessee Provisional Army to serve under Confederate General Leonidas Polk, even though the state’s forces would not join the Provisional Confederate Army until July 31.
On September 10, 1861, the Confederate War Department issued Special Orders, No. 149, appointing General Albert Sidney Johnston to the command of the Western Military Department, which encompassed most of the Confederacy west of the Appalachian Mountains. Upon assuming his command, Johnston went to work organizing the Confederate forces in the West. Johnston’s most pressing challenge was trying to defend a three-hundred-mile front stretching from the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. Hindered by a and a lack of armaments, and only about 40,000 raw troops at his disposal, the task was not possible. Thus, Johnston spent the next six months giving ground following Confederate defeats at the Battle of Mill Springs (January 19, 1862), the Battle of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862), the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 12-16, 1862), and Operations at New Madrid and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River (February 28, 1862–April 8, 1862).
By March 22, 1862, Johnston had gradually withdrawn his forces from Kentucky and Tennessee to the important railroad junction at Corinth in northern Mississippi, where he refused to give any more ground. With the help of General P. G. T. Beauregard, Johnston began reorganizing the forces at hand for an offensive. Besides the troops from Johnston’s department, Major General Braxton Bragg had arrived earlier in the month from Pensacola with 10,000 well-trained soldiers, and Brigadier-General Daniel Ruggles brought 5,000 reinforcements from New Orleans. Johnston now had over 40,000 men under his command.
On March 29, Johnston issued General Orders, No. 1-8 (Headquarters of Forces at Corinth, Mississippi), announcing the reorganization of the troops in the Western Military Department as the Army of the Mississippi. Johnston and Beauregard set about developing a plan to regain Tennessee by striking Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and turning on Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio before the two forces could unite.
Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862)
On the morning of April 6, 1862, the Army of the Mississippi surprised Grant’s army of nearly 50,000 men encamped along the western side of the Tennessee River near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The attack nearly routed Grant’s forces, but a valiant stand by the Federals that afternoon bought valuable time for Grant to reorganize his soldiers and to establish a defensive line. In their attempt to dislodge the Federals, the Rebels suffered a serious loss when General Johnston received a mortal wound during the fighting.
Beauregard succeeded Johnston as commander of the Army of the Mississippi and went to bed that night expecting to drive Grant’s army across the Tennessee River on the next day. Grant, however, had established a strong position, and reinforcements from Buell’s army were arriving on the scene.
On the morning of April 7, to Beauregard’s surprise, Grant and Buell launched a counterattack. Outnumbered and running low on ammunition, the Rebels began to fall back, losing ground that they had captured the previous day. Quickly, Beauregard knew that victory had evaded him and he began an orderly retreat to Corinth.
Siege of Corinth
After reaching Corinth, Beauregard maintained command of the Western Department but placed Braxton Bragg in charge of the Army of the Mississippi on May 6, 1862 (General Orders, No. 37, Headquarters of the Forces). Meanwhile, the combined Union forces of Grant and Buell, now commanded by Major General Henry Halleck, advanced upon Corinth and settled into a siege of the city in late May. Inside the city, typhoid and dysentery caused by bad water wracked many of Beauregard’s soldiers. Facing the prospect of being enveloped by the massive Federal force of nearly 125,000 soldiers, Beauregard saved the Army of the Mississippi with a brilliantly executed evacuation on May 29, 1862.
Beauregard established new headquarters at Tupelo, Mississippi early in June. On June 15, without receiving prior authorization from President Jefferson Davis, Beauregard went on sick leave and transferred command of the Army of the Mississippi to Braxton Bragg temporarily. When Davis learned of Beauregard’s departure, he relieved Beauregard of his command of the Western Department and named Bragg as his permanent replacement. Soon after his appointment, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 22, temporarily handing off command of the Army of the Mississippi to Major General William J. Hardee on July 5, 1862.
Confederate Heartland Offensive
On August 15, 1862, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 116 (Department No. 2), resuming his command of the Army of the Mississippi. Two weeks later, on August 28, he launched his Confederate Heartland Offensive, a plan devised to shift the focus of the war in the Western Theater to Kentucky. The offensive began on a promising note when Rebel forces captured an important rail station at Munfordville, Kentucky, along with 4,000 Union soldiers, at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14-17, 1862). By October 4, events were so promising that Bragg took part in the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate Governor of Kentucky.
On October 8, Bragg won a tactical victory over Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio at the Battle of Perryville. However, Bragg’s army was running short of supplies and ammunition at the same time that Buell’s army was being reinforced. Faced with the prospect of squaring off with Buell’s growing army on the following day, Bragg withdrew during the night.
After the Battle of Perryville, Bragg lost his enthusiasm for the campaign. Kentucky recruits that he expected never materialized, and he believed that his supply lines were too vulnerable and insufficient for his army to remain in the state. Over the objections of his junior officers, Bragg called off the campaign and evacuated Kentucky, leaving the state in Union control for the rest of the war.
The Army of the Mississippi Becomes the Army of Tennessee
Following the failed Heartland Campaign, President Davis summoned Bragg to Richmond to answer criticisms lodged by his subordinate officers. During Bragg’s absence, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk commanded the Army of the Mississippi from September 28, 1862, through November 7, 1862. Satisfied with Bragg’s rebuttal, Davis ignored requests to relieve the general of his command. Understandably, Bragg’s relationships with his subordinate officers were strained when he rejoined his forces.
On November 7, 1862, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 143, reorganizing the Army of the Mississippi into two corps commanded by Polk and William J. Hardee. Two weeks later, on November 20, 1862, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 151, again shaking up the command structure. Bragg created a third army corps, commanded by Edmund Kirby Smith, from troops from the Department of East Tennessee. The general designated his newly structured command as the Army of Tennessee. To inspire confidence and boost morale, Bragg implored his soldiers to make a name for the newly formed Army of Tennessee “as enviable as those enjoyed by the armies of Kentucky and the Mississippi.”
On December 2, 1862, Bragg established the headquarters for the new army at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, Confederate officials disbanded the 3rd Corps. They sent one division to Mississippi and attached the other division to Hardee’s Corps. Three weeks later. Kirby Smith returned to command the Department of East Tennessee, effective December 23.
Battle of Stones River
In December 1862, Bragg deployed his army of nearly 38,000 soldiers in a defensive line along the west fork of Stones River. He was intent on preventing an advance on Chattanooga, Tennessee by Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, numbering approximately 44,000 men. Rosecrans found Bragg’s army on December 29, and his men moved into line the next day. Each general planned to engage the other’s right flank on December 31, but Bragg struck first. The Battle of Stones River began with a massive assault by Hardee’s Corps at 6 a.m. Hardee’s attack drove the Federals back initially, but the Union lines eventually held, when Rosecrans sent reinforcements from his left flank. For the rest of the day, the two sides engaged in a bloody stalemate. That night, Rosecrans called a council of war and ordered his generals to “Go to your commands and prepare to fight and die here.” On January 3, Rosecrans received reinforcements and new supplies of ammunition, convincing Bragg that further assaults would be fruitless. Thus, he abandoned his headquarters at Murfreesboro and withdrew to Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-six miles to the south.
Following the Confederate defeat at Stones River, Bragg’s subordinates, once again, lobbied for his dismissal. President Jefferson Davis responded by sending General Joseph E. Johnson to Tennessee to assess the situation and to take command of the Army of Tennessee if necessary. Upon completing his review, Johnston recommended not to replace Bragg.
In November 1862, Bragg positioned his army in a defensive line that was nearly seventy miles long along the Duck River, north of Tullahoma. Still resolved to prevent Rosecrans from capturing Chattanooga, Bragg used small groups of pickets to protect four gaps in the mountains leading to his headquarters in Tullahoma (Liberty, Hoover, Guy and Bellbuckle Gaps), and he deployed his cavalry to secure his flanks.
Despite his victory at Stones River, Rosecrans chose not to press Bragg. Instead, he established winter quarters at Murfreesboro, where his army remained relatively inactive for the next five and one-half months. During that time, Rosecrans resisted pressure from Washington officials who feared that Rosecrans’s inactivity would enable Confederate leaders to detach soldiers from the Army of Tennessee to relieve Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s operations against Vicksburg. Finally, under threat of being relieved of his command, Rosecrans moved into action as summer began.
On June 23, Rosecrans feigned an attack against the western end of Bragg’s line before making his main thrust against the gaps in the mountains. The next day, Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade,” armed with newly introduced Spencer Repeating Rifles, attacked Hoover’s Gap and easily dislodged the Rebel defenders. Wilder resisted several Confederate counterattacks, and by June 26, Bragg’s troops were withdrawing toward his headquarters at Tullahoma. With the threat of Wilder’s regiment at his rear and Rosecrans’s main force bearing down on him, Bragg made successive retreats to Decherd and Cowan over the next several days, before withdrawing over the mountains to Chattanooga on July 3. Although Bragg evacuated the Army of Tennessee, Rosecrans drove the Confederacy out of Middle Tennessee with very few losses.
Battle of Chickamauga
As the Army of Tennessee retreated, Rosecrans followed. In mid-August, Rosecrans prepared to assault Chattanooga, but a series of maneuvers on his part convinced Bragg that the city was indefensible. On September 9, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga and led the Army of Tennessee through the mountains into northern Georgia. Although Rosecrans had achieved his aim of capturing Chattanooga, he continued to pursue Bragg’s army into Georgia. Stung by criticism that he received for abandoning Chattanooga, Bragg resolved to win the city back.
On September 19, the Army of Tennessee attacked the Union’s Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863). Bragg’s army drove the Federals back toward Chattanooga, forcing them to occupy the defensive works previously constructed by the Rebels. Bragg seized the high ground overlooking Chattanooga (Lookout Mountain, Seminary Ridge, and Raccoon Mountain) and laid siege to the city.
Despite the Confederate victory, Bragg’s subordinates continued to snipe at him. The dissidents secretly prepared a petition to President Jefferson Davis to have Bragg relieved of command. Davis, once again, left Bragg in command, denouncing the petitioners. Nevertheless, Bragg’s days in command were numbered.
Union leaders responded to Bragg’s investment of Chattanooga by sending reinforcements, commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant, to Chattanooga with orders to break the siege. After establishing a new supply line into the city, Grant ordered a breakout offensive in late November. Union assaults on Lookout Mountain (November 24, 1863) and Missionary Ridge (November 25, 1863) drove the Confederates back into northern Georgia.
Grant ordered his men to pursue the fleeing Confederates. On November 27, Federal soldiers, commanded by General Joseph Hooker, caught up with the Confederate rearguard, commanded by Major General Patrick Cleburne, at a mountain pass named Ringgold Gap. Cleburne’s men turned, surprising the pursuing Yankees. Although the Union force numbered nearly 12,000 men, the Southerners, totaling just 4,100 soldiers, delayed the Federal advance for nearly nine hours, allowing the Army of Tennessee to escape. After the Battle of Ringgold Gap, Grant ended the pursuit, bringing the Chattanooga Campaign to an end.
As the Army of Tennessee withdrew into northern Georgia, Bragg’s subordinates, once again, lobbied for his removal as commander of the Army of Tennessee. This time they succeeded. On November 29, 1863, Bragg asked President Jefferson Davis to relieve him of his command. On the next day, Davis granted Bragg’s request and named William J. Hardee as the new commander of the army.
Hardee assumed command of the Army of Tennessee on December 2, 1863, but he let Davis know that he had no aspirations to hold the job permanently. On December 16, Davis ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “proceed to Dalton and assume command of the Army of Tennessee.” Johnston took command of the army on December 27, 1863, and Hardee returned to his previous post.
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order appointing Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant moved his headquarters to Washington, DC, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of Federal operations in the Western Theater. Soon after arriving in Washington, Grant developed a plan to attack and to defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the East, and Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in the West. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign against Lee in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman launched his Atlanta Campaign in the West.
Using a series of flanking maneuvers, Sherman persistently drove the Army of Tennessee south toward Atlanta during the spring and fall of 1864. As Johnston continued to give ground to Sherman’s forces, President Jefferson Davis became disenchanted with the Confederate general’s leadership. On July 17, 1864, Davis wrote to Johnston, informing him that, “You are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.”
John Bell Hood proved more willing to fight than Johnston, but the results were the same. The pugnacious Kentuckian tried to halt Sherman’s advance by taking the offensive, but Confederate defeats at the Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20), the Battle of Atlanta (July 22), the Battle of Utoy Creek (August 5-7), and the Battle of Jonesboro (August 31-September 1) resulted in major Confederate casualties. By July, Sherman had Hood’s army bottled up in Atlanta. On July 20, Sherman ordered his artillery to begin bombarding Hood’s lines, and the city which still harbored approximately 3,000 civilians. The shelling lasted for five weeks, but Hood continued to hold on as long as he was receiving supplies. Toward the end of August, Sherman stopped the flow of supplies into Atlanta. With his main supply line severed, Hood evacuated Atlanta on the night of September 1, burning all military stores and installations. Sherman’s forces occupied the city on September 2, ending the Atlanta Campaign.
After evacuating Atlanta, Hood met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and devised a plan to recapture Tennessee. As Hood moved north, he kept Sherman occupied by conducting a series of raids along the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Sherman’s main supply line from Chattanooga to Atlanta. By late October, Sherman convinced Ulysses S. Grant that could make better use of his time by making Georgia howl on his March to the Sea than by chasing Hood around the South. Consequently, Sherman turned the pursuit of Hood over to Major General George H. Thomas and approximately 60,000 soldiers. 30,000 of Thomas’s men were in the Nashville area. The rest, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield, were moving north to join Thomas.
In November, the Army of Tennessee moved into northern Alabama and joined forces with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. Hood left Alabama on November 21, 1864 intent on defeating Thomas before the two Northern armies could unite. Hood’s immediate target was Columbia, Tennessee, about midway between Thomas and Schofield.
Anticipating Hood’s intentions, Schofield raced to Columbia, arriving just hours ahead of the Confederates on November 24. There, the Federals blocked Hood’s advance for five days before withdrawing north toward Franklin.
On November 29, the Army of Tennessee attacked Schofield’s forces at Spring Hill, ten miles north of Columbia, as the Northerners withdrew. After a series of command blunders, Hood ended the attack after dark. During the night, Schofield moved his entire army and supply train along the main turnpike past the sleeping Rebels. By the morning of November 30, Schofield had escaped Hood’s grasp.
Enraged that the Federals had slipped past him at Spring Hill, Hood berated his subordinate officers and then ordered the Army of Tennessee to resume its pursuit. After a strenuous march, Hood’s fatigued soldiers caught up with the Yankees outside of Franklin at approximately 1:00 p.m. on November 30, 1864. Once in position, Hood ordered an all-out attack that began at 4:00 p.m. Repulsed on all fronts, Hood called off the assault after darkness descended. By 11:00 p.m., Schofield’s army began crossing the Harpeth River and was on its way to Nashville.
The Battle of Franklin was a devastating loss for the Confederacy. The Army of Tennessee suffered over 6,000 casualties, including 1,750 killed. In addition, Hood lost fourteen generals (six killed, seven wounded and one captured), plus fifty-five regimental commanders. More importantly, Schofield had once more escaped and was on his way to uniting his forces with Thomas’s army in Nashville.
Although the Battle of Franklin decimated the Army of Tennessee, Hood continued his offensive. On December 15, 1864, Thomas left his fortifications in Nashville and became the aggressor. Enjoying a numerical advantage in manpower of nearly two-to-one and facing a demoralized army bereft of senior commanders, Thomas’s forces easily defeated the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864).
After the victory, Thomas pursued the retreating Southerners for ten days, driving the Confederate army out of Tennessee. The retreat ended at Tupelo, Mississippi, where Hood resigned his command on January 23, 1865. On the same date, General P. G. T. Beauregard issued an unnumbered special field order announcing that Lieutenant General Richard R. Taylor would command the Army of Tennessee.
When Taylor took command, Confederate officials ordered the Army of Tennessee to travel east by rail to shore up defenses in the Carolinas. The prospect of William T. Sherman marching his armies north from Savannah and punishing the Carolinas as he had Georgia, prompted many Southerners to question President Jefferson Davis’ competency as commander-in-chief of Confederate forces. Opposition to Davis’ leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. The same bill contained a resolution stating “That if the President will assign Gen. JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON to the command of the Army of Tennessee, it will, in the opinion of the Congress of the Confederate States, be hailed with joy by the army and receive the approval of the country.”
With no recourse available, in late January 1865 Davis nominated Lee for the position of General-in-Chief. On February 1, Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA) informed Lee that the Confederate Senate had confirmed his appointment. On February 6, Cooper, issued General Orders, No. 3 announcing that Lee was officially General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies.
Meanwhile, Sherman had departed from Savannah with nearly 60,000 battle-hardened veterans on February 1, 1865, headed north toward Columbia, South Carolina. Inclement weather and flooded tidewater swamps hindered Sherman’s progress more than the few Rebel troops in the area. In just two weeks, Union soldiers reached the outskirts of South Carolina’s capital, and the garrison stationed there began evacuating. On February 17, Sherman occupied the city. On the same day, faced with the prospect of being isolated, the Confederate garrison at Charleston evacuated that city. That night, much of Columbia went up in flames.
While Sherman’s army ravaged South Carolina, Federal forces in North Carolina were in the final stages of completing the Union blockade of the Confederacy’s Atlantic seacoast. On February 12, 1865, troops commanded by Major General John Schofield began operations against Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last open port on the Atlantic. Attempts by Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s 6,600 defenders to halt Schofield’s 12,000 soldiers proved fruitless. On the night of February 21-22, Bragg ordered the destruction of Wilmington’s stores, and his troops evacuated the city.
As Sherman moved north nearly unabated, alarmed Southerners called for Lee to stop the Union marauders. Lee redeployed the remnants of the Army of Tennessee to bolster the Confederate forces in the Carolinas. On February 22, 1865, the General-in-Chief ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.” Lee ordered Johnston to “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” On the same day, Johnston advised Lee that “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman. The remnant of the Army of Tennessee is much divided.” Johnston’s assessment was correct. On March 6, 1865, Confederate officials added the Department of Southern Virginia to Johnston’s command. The general designated the 20,000 to 25,000 men serving under him in North Carolina as the Army of the South. In reality, Johnston’s army was a paper tiger, as he commanded few fit soldiers.
Johnston began gathering his forces near Smithfield, North Carolina in early March 1865. On March 16, 1865, Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia, which comprised Sherman’s left-wing, attacked Johnston’s entrenched Rebels north of nearby Averasboro, North Carolina, forcing them to fall back to Bentonville. Often characterized as a defensive general because of his performance during the Peninsula Campaign (1862) and the Atlanta Campaign (1864), Johnston became the aggressor, but the right-wing of Sherman’s army soundly defeated him near Bentonville.
After the loss at the Battle of Bentonville on March 19, 1865, Johnston withdrew and streamlined his command between April 8 and April 10. He assembled his depleted regiments, brigades, and divisions to form three corps commanded by William J. Hardee, Alexander P. Stewart, and Stephen D. Lee. Johnston also relieved Braxton Bragg, Lafayette McLaws, and William B. Taliaferro of their commands. The reorganized force resumed using the name Army of Tennessee.
As Sherman continued his conquest of the Carolinas, Johnston received word that Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 12. With Lee’s army defeated and the Confederate government in exile, Johnston realized the hopelessness of his situation. Isolated and outnumbered three-to-one, Johnston contacted Sherman on April 16 to discuss capitulation. The generals met the next day at a farmhouse known as Bennett Place, near Durham, North Carolina. On April 26, 1865, Johnston surrendered the 89,270 troops under his command throughout the South, including the vestige of the once-proud Army of Tennessee.