150 Years Ago: “Can’t you make him move?”

When General William Rosecrans took command of the Department of the Cumberland, his orders were to press the Confederates under General Braxton Bragg back into Tennessee. While the Army of the Cumberland had advanced, the pace was not commensurate with expectations in Washington. On December 4, 1862, General Henry Halleck related the impatience from Washington:

The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville. The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over. You give Bragg time to supply himself by plundering the very country your army should cave occupied. From all information received here, It is believed that he is carrying large quantities of stores into Alabama, and preparing to fall back partly on Chattanooga and partly on Columbus, Miss. Twice have I been asked to designate some one else to command your army. If you remain one more week at Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal. As I wrote you when you took the command, the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.

Rosecrans was not the type to let that sit on the table. He responded that evening:

… I have lost no time. Everything I have done was necessary, absolutely so; and has been done as rapidly as possible. Any attempt to advance sooner would have increased our difficulty both in front and rear. In front, because of greater obstacles, enemies in greater force, and fighting with better chances of escaping pursuit, if overthrown in battle. In rear, because of insufficiency and uncertainty of supplies, both of subsistence and ammunition, and no security of any kind to fall back upon in case of disaster. We should most probably have had a flying enemy to pursue, with a command daily fritted away by the large detachments required to guard forage and provision trains, and after all have been obliged to halt somewhere, to await the indispensable supplies, for which we have been waiting. Many of our soldiers are to this day barefoot, without blankets, without tents, without good arms, and cavalry without horses. Our true objective now is the enemy’s force, for if they come near, we save wear, tear, risk, and strength; subject them to what we escape, and gain all the chances to be expected from a rise in the river. If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to–that is, my whole duty. If my superiors have lost confidence in me, they had better at once put some one in my place and let the future test the propriety of the change. I have but one word to add, which is, that I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.

For all his faults, Halleck was at least good at talking a subordinate down from the ledge. He responded to Rosecrans the next day:

Your telegram of last evening, in explanation of your delay at Nashville, is just received. My telegram was not a threat, but merely a statement of facts. The President is greatly dissatisfied with your delay, and has sent for me several times to account for it. He has repeated to me time and again that there were imperative reasons why the enemy should be driven across the Tennessee River at the earliest possible moment. He has never told me what those reasons were, but I imagine them to be diplomatic, and of the most serious character. You can hardly conceive his great anxiety about it. I will tell you what I guess it is, although it is only a guess on my part. It has been feared that on the meeting of the British Parliament, in January next, the political pressure of the starving operatives may force the Government to join France in an intervention. If the enemy be left in possession of Middle Tennessee, which we held last July, it will be said that they have gained on us. … The whole Cabinet are anxious, inquiring almost daily. “Why don’t he move? “Can’t you make him move?” “There must be no delay.” “Delay there will be more fatal to us than anywhere else.” …. It was hoped and believed when you took the command that you would recover all lost ground by, at furthest, the middle of December, so that it would be known in London soon after the meeting of Parliament. It is not surprising that our Government should be impatient and dissatisfied under the circumstances of the case. A victory or the retreat of the enemy before the 10th of this month would have been of more value to us than ten times that success at a later date.

No one doubted that General Buell would eventually have succeeded, but he was too slow to be in time. It was believed that you would move more rapidly. Hence the change.

Halleck has no worries about logistical support. Indeed, in Halleck’s mind the President’s anxieties were a stronger force than any the Confederacy might array. While I read these messages, I can’t help but see hands sweeping across a large scale map.

And those hand sweeps were attached to the intent and desire of political leadership to best set the situation. So back to the question about the guns of December, was all this activity due, as Halleck suggests, a need to impress foreign parties observing the war? Or was there something more?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 20, Part II, pages 117-118 and 123.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “150 Years Ago: “Can’t you make him move?”

  1. The missives from Washington exhibit a lack of understanding – or perhaps a willful ignorance, on Halleck’s part, considering the aftermath of Shiloh – of logistical necessities. As is often repeated, “Amateurs study strategy and tactics. Professionals study logisitcs.” AL was and always would be a military amateur by this definition.

    1. That is a good point. In my draft of this post, I found myself wandering down that path a bit too. I figured to save that for another post at some point looking at the realities of logistics and the perceptions thereof. But looking at both sides of THIS discussion, can we also say that Rosecrans was hitting all the standard excuses offered for lack of movement? i.e. logistics, protection of supply lines, greater enemy force, and such?

      And in my mind the bigger question is why the army was moving at all going into winter? Aren’t they supposed to be staying warm and comfortable in winter quarters?

    2. Remember Carrol O’Connor’s character in Kelly’s Heroes – “Flanks, forget about your flanks!” and “We got logistics coming out of our ears!”

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