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[92]

An important Dispatch.


From Lieutenant General N. B. Forrest. Did it determine the fate of the Confederacy.

A dispatch, says the Washington Star of Jan. 15, 1897, written by the Confederate General Forrest, dated September 21, 1863, during the movements of troops about Chattanooga, has recently been brought to light. Much importance has been attached to this document, because of the opinion attributed to General Longstreet that it contained the instructions which determined the fate of the Confederacy. The dispatch is a brief one, dictated by General Forrest under most exciting conditions, signed by him, and addressed to General Polk, who was asked to forward it to General Bragg. At the time the message was written, General Forrest, it is said, was making observations high up in a tree on Missionary Ridge. He had been sweeping the great battle-field of Chickamauga with his glasses; he believed he saw evidences of an attempt on the part of General Rosencranz and his army to escape from the trap in which the Confederates supposed they had snared him, and in which they expected to capture him and his whole army. He, then, calling down from the tree, dictated the dispatch in question to his adjutant, who wrote it upon a sheet of dingy, blue paper, with a lead pencil, using an upturned saddle stirrup as a writing desk. This dispatch announced to General Polk, General Forrest's belief that the enemy were evacuating Chattanooga, and his opinion that the Confederate army ought to press forward as rapidly as possible.


What became of the document.

According to ‘Holland,’ the New York correspondent of the Philadelphia Press, the subsequent history of the dispatch was as follows:

As soon as the dispatch was written, it was sent to General Polk, who, as requested, sent the information to General Bragg, who was the commanding officer. After this was done, General Polk put the dispatch in his dispatch box, and years after it was found by his son, Dr. Mechlenburg Polk, who is now a practicing physician in New York city. Knowing that Dr. John A. Wyeth was collecting [93] material for a life of General Forrest, in whose command Dr. Wyeth served when a mere lad, Dr. Polk loaned to Dr. Wyeth this dispatch.

In some way the War department heard that Dr. Wyeth was in possession of this hitherto unsuspected document, and most urgently requested that it be committed to its care, as it was a dispatch of the utmost importance, and should therefore be kept in a place of permanent safety. Drs. Wyeth and Polk were of the opinion that the request should be granted, and sent the dispatch to the War Department, after having caused a fac-simile of it to be photographed.

Recently Dr. Wyeth sent to General Longstreet a fac-simile of this dispatch, and it was this which brought from Longstreet a day or two ago, a letter of acknowledgment, in which he says: “That dispatch fixed the fate of the Confederacy.” And he also added that with that as a guide, he should write a magazine article explaining why, in his view, this was the document which thus determined the Confederate cause.


Effect of the Dispatch.

Concerning the effect of the dispatch, ‘Holland’ says:

It suggested to Bragg an opportunity to gratify a certain vanity and love of display, which was a conspicuous trait of his character. He saw that it gave him a chance, as he supposed, to march into and through Chattanooga, with all the pomp and ceremony of a conqueror. He, therefore, abandoned his plan, and undertook to pursue and destroy, instead of to head off and surround Rosencranz. General Longstreet says that the delay caused by this change of plan gave Rosencranz an opportunity to rally, swiftly to throw up entrenchments, and by reason of the firmness with which Thomas held his position—which caused that superb warrior to be called, “The Rock of Chickamauga” —to maintain himself until relieved. Longstreet wondered why Bragg had abandoned his plan. Forrest and Polk could not understand the sudden change in Rosencranz's movements. They did not realise that the delay had given Rosencranz an opportunity such as he prayed he might secure, and of which he was quick to take advantage, and such advantage as in the opinion of the Confederates, saved his army. Longstreet could not have known of this dispatch of General Forrest's, or, if he did know of it, could have had no clear understanding of what was [94] in it, since the copy which was sent to him recently seems to have been the first that he ever saw. His friends have known that he has felt that the great moment for the Confederacy, its supreme hour, when its destiny was decided, was that moment when General Bragg abandoned his plan of attempting to cut off the retreat of Rosencranz. It may be that Longstreet knew that Bragg came to that determination because of information which he had received from Forrest. At all events, thirty-three years after this battle, General Longstreet, the survivor of all the able generals of the Confederate army, expresses the deliberate opinion that, “this dispatch fixed the fate of the Confederacy.” In that opinion he does not agree with some of the other military leaders. Whether the military historians will agree with him or not, the fact remains that the discovery of this dispatch and Longstreet's opinion, that it contained the destiny of the Confederate States will be accepted as a most valuable contribution to the military history of the Civil War.


General Boynton's comments.

A Star reporter brought he views attributed to General Longstreet, concerning the Forrest dispatch, to the attention of General H. V. Boynton, who, as a soldier, took conspicuous part in the Chattanooga campaign, and who is recognized as, perhaps, the best living authority on matters relating to the Army of the Cumberland.

General Boynton said:

The dispatch of General Forrest, to which you call my attention, which has recently been produced by his biographers as one that fixed the fate of the Confederacy, through General Bragg's disregarding it, and which is, therefore, declared to be the crucial dispatch of the war, is of no significance whatever, beyond showing the misapprehensions which existed in the Confederate army during the forenoon of September 21st, which was the day after the close of the battle of Chickamauga, concerning the position and movements of the Union army. This dispatch is as follows:

On the Road, September 21, 1863.
General: We are in a mile of Rossville—have been on the point of Missionary Ridge. Can see Chattanooga and everything around. The enemy's trains are leaving, going around the point of Lookout Mountain. The prisoners captured, report two pontoons thrown across for the purpose of retreating. I think they are evacuating [95] as hard as they can go. They are cutting timber down to obstruct our passage. I think we ought to press forward as rapidly as possible.

Respectfully, etc.,

N. B. Forrest. Brigadier-General. To Lieutenant-General L. Polk.
(Please forward to General Bragg.)

At the time this dispatch was written the Union army was not at Chattanooga, but was in line, fully prepared for battle in Rossville Gap, and upon Missionary Ridge to the right and left of this gap, with one of its three corps extending across the valley, nearly to Lookout Mountain. It was, therefore, directly in General Forrest's front, and only a mile distant. The position it occupied could not have been carried by direct assault. The army trains were not passing around the point of Lookout Mountain, but were going into Chattanooga under direct orders from General Rosencranz. No pontoon was being thrown across the river for the purpose of retreating, and, by General Rosencranz's order, the one already in position was heavily guarded to prevent any soldier leaving the city. The timber being cut, was in Rossville Gap, to strengthen that position. General Forrest himself, did “press forward,” with the result thus set forth in his official report:

On mission Ridge.

On taking possession of Mission Ridge, one mile or thereabouts from Rossville, we found the enemy fortifying the gap. Dismounted Colonel Dibbrell's regiment, under command of Captain McGinnis, and attacked them, but found the force too large to dislodge them. On the arrival of my artillery, opened on, and fought them for several hours, but could not move them.


General Forrest had two divisions, which habitually fought dismounted. While the Union army was in line at Rossville, five miles southeast of Chattanooga, General Rosencranz was in the city, sending out ammunition and provisions, and preparing to bring the army into Chattanooga, which was the objective of the campaign, and to hold it.

Hon. Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, then at Rosencranz's headquarters in the city, under the same date as this dispatch of General Forrest—namely, September 21st—thus telegraphed Secretary Stanton: [96]

Chattanooga, September 21st.
Rosencranz has issued orders for all our troops to be concentrated here to-night. Thomas will get in about eleven P. M., unless prevented by the enemy, who have been fighting him this afternoon,

* * * There is no time to wait for reinforcements, and Rosencranz is determined not to abandon Chattanooga and Bridgeport without another effort. * * *

(Signed.)



What Bragg would have met.

Since General Bragg is so severely criticised for not pushing on it is interesting to inquire what he would have met had he followed General Forrest's advice.

Rossville Gap, in Missionary Ridge, is a deep defile, a mile in length, through its highest crests, which, with its flanks on the ridge and in the valley fully protected, formed one of the strongest defensive military positions held by either army anywhere, throughout the war.

During the closing hours of the battle of Chattanooga--that is during the afternoon of Sunday, September 20th-Rossville Gap was occupied in force by General Negley, with at least a division of those Union troops which had been forced from the Union right and centre, had passed to the rear through Missionary Ridge, and turning to the right, had taken possession of Rossville Gap, and so stood once more across the Lafayette road, which was Bragg's line of advance to Chattanooga. Not only this, but Sheridan's Division entire, had moved through the gap, and marching out three miles on the Lafayette road toward Bragg, and stood across the road, in close contact with General Bragg's left, at the time the battle ended. These troops had all recovered from the confusion, into which a portion of them had been thrown by the break at noon at Chickamauga.

On the morning of September 21st, when Forrest moved up within a mile of the gap, to reconnoitre, and when he supposed that the Union army had reached Chattanooga, and was, “evacuating as hard as they can go,” it was, as already stated, in position, formed, and ready for battle on such impregnable ground as above indicated.

General Thomas's report tells how his army was here disposed for battle, at the very time General Forrest, in close proximity to these lines, concealed by the forests, was writing his dispatch to General Polk. After initiating and superintending the movement [97] by which he withdrew his forces from the Kelley field line, to be followed with those from Snodgrass Hill, for the purpose of passsing them through McFarlan's Gap, in Missionary Ridge, around Bragg's right, and placing them in Rossville Gap, between Bragg and Chattanooga, General Thomas says:

I then proceeded to Rossville, accompanied by Generals Garfield and Gordon Granger, and immediately prepared to place the troops in position at that point. One brigade of Negley's Division was posted in the gap on the Ringgold road, and two brigades on the top of the ridge to the right of the road, adjoining the brigade in the road; Reynold's Division on the right of Negley's, and reaching to the Dry Valley road; Brannon's Division in the rear of Reynolds's right, as a reserve; McCook's Corps on the right of the Dry Valley road, and stretching toward the west, his right reaching nearly to Chattanooga creek; Crittenden's entire corps was posted on the heights to the left of Ringgold road, with Steadman's Division of Granger's Corps in reserve behind his left; Baird's Division in reserve and in supporting distance of the brigade in the gap; McCook's Brigade of Granger's Corps, was posted as a reserve to the brigade of Negley's on the top of the ridge, to the right of the road; Minty's cavalry was on the Ringgold road, about a mile and a half in advance of the gap.


No chance for Bragg.

With practically the entire Army of the Cumberland rested, and thus skilfully posted in a strong position, with sufficient rations and ammunition, and with its right guarded on front and flank by Wilder's mounted infantry, and three brigades of cavalry, with Speer's Infantry Brigade as a support to these, and all, as General Thomas telegraphed, “in high spirits,” it is not difficult to see what would have happened if Bragg, even with his seasoned and magnificent veterans, had followed Forrest's advice, to “press forward as rapidly as possible.”

That General Bragg was better informed than General Forrest, is sufficiently shown by the fact that at the very time Forrest was sending the dispatch quoted, General Bragg was telegraphing Adjutant-General Cooper, at Richmond, as follows:

Chickamauga river, September 21, 1863.
General S. Cooper:
After two days hard fighting we have driven the enemy, after a [98] desperate resistance, from several positions, but he still confronts us. * * *

(Signed)


Of course, this advanced position at Rossville was not one for occupation, and during the night of the 21st, Thomas moved his army to Chattanooga — the objective of Rosencranz's most remarkable campaign.

What is here said is intended to apply solely to the question of accuracy in General Forrest's dispatch, and not to the question between General Longstreet and General Bragg, to which it is scarcely applicable. The dispatch of General Forrest, which relates to that controversy, is one of a later date.

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