White: Missed opportunity at McLemore Cove

White: Missed opportunity at McLemore Cove

September 8th, 2013 by By Lee White in Opinion Columns

What happened - or more correctly, did not happen - at McLemore Cove is viewed as one of the Civil War's great lost opportunities.

In the opening moves of the Chickamauga Campaign, Union Gen. William Rosecrans moved his army to the rear of Gen. Braxton Bragg's Confederates at Chattanooga, forcing Bragg to abandon the city on Sept. 8, 1863, in order to protect his supply line to Atlanta.

However, Rosecrans' army spread out in three columns and presented Bragg an opportunity to strike back. That opportunity came when one of those columns, Gen. George Thomas', approached LaFayette, Ga., from the west, entering McLemore Cove: a box-shaped canyon formed by Lookout Mountain and Pigeon Mountain.

On Sept. 9, Bragg called Gen. Thomas Hindman, known as the "Lion of the South," to his headquarters and laid out a plan to trap and destroy part of Thomas' corps in the cove.

Bragg told Hindman, "Move with your division immediately to Davis's Cross-Road. ... At this point you will put yourself in communication with the column of Gen. Hill, ordered to move to the same point, and take command of the joint forces. ...You will move upon the enemy, reported to be about 4,000, encamped at the foot of Lookout Mountain at Stevens' Gap." Hindman would move south and close the mouth of McLemore Cove, while Gen. Patrick Cleburne's division of Hill's Corps moved to seal the passes in Pigeon Mountain and be prepared to assault the front of the Federals.

Hindman acted quickly. His men were on the road southward from their camps at 2 a.m. and soon found themselves marching through choking dust. Lt. Joshua Calloway commented, "I got dust enough in my nose and lungs to make a brick. You can hardly tell one man from another. Everybody's hair, whiskers, skin and clothes are the same color."

The column moved past the northern tip of Pigeon Mountain through Worthen's Gap. From there, the landscape changed dramatically - gone were the rolling hills to be replaced by a relatively flat plain that stretched on to the west and the foot of Lookout Mountain. The division moved into McLemore Cove and continued west until it reached the road leading south to Davis' Crossroads. There Hindman halted to give his men a rest. A sense of doubt clouded Hindman's mind. He heard nothing from Hill's column, which was to have started communications with him as he advanced. He also received word that there was a Federal division at Davis' Crossroads and another at Stevens' Gap.

Hindman continued but ended up advancing only about a mile before halting again, convinced that the Federal force ahead of him was too large to attack alone. Hindman deployed his division with Gen. Patton Anderson's Mississippians and Gen. Zachariah Deas' Alabamians in front, and Gen. Arthur Manigault's South Carolinians and Alabamians in reserve. Hindman's doubts were unknown to his soldiers, and morale soared in the ranks. One officer remembered that his men "were eager for the fight," but Hindman grew more reluctant with each passing moment.

When he finally heard from Hill, he conveyed not that he was on his way to help, but rather presented a list of reasons why he could not support Hindman, including a list of reasons why the attack should not be made at all. Bragg, upon learning this and seeing the opportunity to do some real damage to Rosecrans quickly slipping through his fingers, sent orders for Gen. Simon Buckner's corps to move to join Hindman and attack the Federals. Buckner arrived at noon, and Hindman decided Buckner would start the attack. More time was wasted as Buckner moved forward. It was late afternoon before all preparations were complete. With confidence lost, Hindman and Buckner called a meeting of their generals and shockingly decided to retreat, the "Lion" suddenly becoming a "kitten."

However, word came that the Federals were themselves retreating, prompting a few of the frontline commanders to rush their men forward to get in a few shots.

But it was too late. "The whole affair proved a miserable failure," Manigault lamented, "although had there been a proper man to manage for us, I have little doubt but that a most brilliant success would have been achieved. ... Gen. Bragg never forgave Hindman for this, and I am by no means surprised at it."

Bragg lost a great opportunity and would have to fight all of Rosecrans' army in the days to come.

Lee White is a park guide at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.