Varney v. Burnside, a brief for the defense

As discussed earlier this month, I recently read General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Frank Varney.  Though it is marketed as a book about the impact of Ulysses Grant’s memoirs on the writing of history,  I found that it is mostly about reframing the Civil War career of General William Rosecrans. In doing so, Varney takes aim at much more than just Grant. For example, while trying to defend how Rosecrans handled the battle of Chickamauga, Varney takes shots at General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside is an easy target for Civil War writers — he is most famous for failures like Fredericksburg and The Crater — but many of Varney’s statements about Burnside are wrong. So, while I normally don’t have much interest in Burnside, today I am writing in defense of what he was up to at the time of the battle of Chickamauga.

Varney writes that “Burnside … did not move in conjunction with Rosecrans” (this is in the middle of a paragraph where Varney makes allegations about the role of Burnside and Grant in the September campaign for Chattanooga; the paragraph is footnoted but, in a phenomenon I noted before, the reference points to a totally unrelated page in the Official Records). The truth is the opposite — Burnside did move in conjunction with Rosecrans.  At the start of August, 1863, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had ordered Burnside to “immediately move with a column of 12,000 men by the most practicable roads on East Tennessee, making Knoxville or its vicinity your objective point. … As soon as you reach East Tennessee, you will endeavor to connect with the forces of General Rosecrans, who has peremptory orders to move forward.”1 Burnside complied with this order by advancing toward Knoxville at the same time Rosecrans moved toward Chattanooga. There was a good deal of correspondence back and forth between the two generals to coordinate their moves.2 Burnside reached Knoxville on September 3rd and captured the Confederate garrison at  Cumberland gap on September 9th, the same day that Rosecrans captured Chattanooga.3  In the meantime Burnside’s cavalry did make contact with Rosecrans’ cavalry.4 So Varney’s allegations against Burnside regarding this part of the campaign are false.

Varney claims that “Buckner had been facing Burnside’s 43,000 in east Tennessee, but Burnside’s inertness had freed him to move to the assistance of Bragg”.  This is doubly wrong.  Burnside did not have 43,000 men in East Tennessee — Burnside advanced into East Tennessee with around 18,000 5.  And it was Burnside’s activity, not his inertness, that led Buckner to join Bragg.  In his report of the campaign, Bragg wrote:

“The advance of Burnside with a heavy force from Kentucky upon East Tennessee at the same time that Rosecrans moved upon Bridgeport induced General Buckner to draw his forces (except those at Cumberland Gap) to Loudon. At that time it was utterly impossible for me to assist him from here. Before the arrival of the reinforcements from Mississippi (not all up yet) he was threatened in front, while a move was made to cut his connections in this direction. Unable to sustain him with a sufficient force, I ordered his command to fall back to the Hiwassee, where it is in supporting distance.” 6

Varney also calls Burnside lethargic. The truth is that much of the reason there would be issues later was due to Burnside being too energetic. After he had captured Knoxville and Cumberland Gap and made contact with Rosecrans, he received messages from Halleck and General Thomas Crittenden that led him to move most of his men further away from Rosecrans. 7 These messages conveyed an optimistic assessment of Rosecrans’ situation; he was informed that Rosecrans was advancing into Georgia and would close off access from the south.  Burnside was not directed to reinforce Rosecrans; just to move some cavalry down to connect with him.  Since Burnside has sent the cavalry brigade under Colonel Robert Byrd south toward Rosecrans, he had already satisfied that portion of his orders. The instructions from Halleck also told him to establish a defensive line, such as the Holston River, that would allow him to prevent access from Virginia. At that time Confederate General Sam Jones, commanding the Department of Western Virginia, was advancing into Tennessee to confront Burnside.  Thus Burnside chose to direct the bulk of his command to securing the upper end of the valley against Jones. Rather than being lethargic, the activity of his command was such that a few days after receiving the new orders from Halleck his command was spread over a great distance, simultaneously skirmishing with Braggs’ cavalry near the Georgia border and with Jones’ cavalry near the Virginia border.

It was at this point, late on September 16th, that Burnside received new instructions from Halleck: “Move down your infantry as rapidly as possible toward Chattanooga, to connect with Rosecrans.”  And the next day he received additional orders which said “There are several reasons why you should re-enforce Rosecrans with all possible dispatch. It is believed the enemy will concentrate to give him battle; you must be there to help him.”8  Though dated September 13 and 14, it took 3 days for them to reach Burnside because of the incomplete telegraph connection to Knoxville. These were the first messages indicating that Rosecrans needed help and that Burnside needed to reinforce Rosecrans; these messages also didn’t relieve him of the objectives given in previous orders.

Varney claims that in response to these orders Burnside did nothing. This is false. Burnside immediately began turning around his forces and directing them south.  The infantry division of General Julius White and the cavalry Brigade of Colonel Wolford had passed through Knoxville earlier heading north.  They were halted and turned south right away.  Wolford joined Byrd near Athens on the 21st. White’s infantry was back in Knoxville on the 20th, moved on to Loudon, and was near Athens by the 24th. Burnside’s difficulty was that some of his forces had moved so far north and were not in direction communication with him.  So on the 17th, the morning after he got Halleck’s new orders, he began hurrying north in person, covering 100 miles in 5 days, reaching his advance late on the 21st. After driving off Jones’ cavalry, he got the balance of his command moving south back toward Knoxville.  A few days earlier Burnside had also directed the 9th Corps, recently returned to Kentucky from aiding Grant in Mississippi, to join him at Knoxville, which would bring him four more brigades of infantry. But it had 150+ miles to cover so it would not reach Knoxville until the end of the month.9

So it is rubbish when Varney writes that by September 19th “the initial orders directing Burnside to close on Rosecrans were nearly one month old, yet for some reason he still did not seem to understand what he was required to do.” Varney doesn’t point to any specific orders from August directing Burnside to close on Rosecrans and the orders I am aware of from August did not call for him to close on Rosecrans.  The orders Burnside had received the week before the 19th called for him to only connect with Rosecrans using some cavalry; it was only three days before the 19th that he had received orders to do more.  Burnside seemed to fully understand what was required as he was in the process of redirecting all his forces. So when Varney then writes that Burnside “had not moved at all” he is incorrect.

There was certainly frustration from Rosecrans, Halleck and Lincoln when Burnside didn’t get his men to Rosecrans. But this frustration had more to do with communication challenges. Telegraph lines were incomplete and couriers sometimes were delayed or went astray.  Thus there were gaps in what Rosecrans knew of Burnside and what Burnside knew of Rosecrans. For example, on the 28th Burnside requested information about Rosecrans position; Varney writes that “he had been repeatedly informed that Rosecrans was besieged in Chattanooga”.  The sentence is footnoted, but the reference (again) leads to totally unrelated correspondence.  It would be nice if Varney provided references to these alleged messages that repeatedly informed Burnside about Rosecrans situation. I have looked, and can’t find any.  What Halleck’s message to Burnside on the 21st says is that Rosecrans is “near Chattanooga”.10 Halleck’s message to Burnside on the 22nd doesn’t specify where Rosecrans is though it is implied he is at Chattanooga, but it doesn’t say anything about being besieged.11 Varney also has trouble with the sequence of messages. For example, he quotes from messages on the 27th from Halleck and Burnside, claiming that Burnside’s message was a reply to Halleck.  But if you look in the Official Records the one from Halleck is time stamped as 8:30 pm whereas the one from Burnside is marked as received at 6pm, thus it looks like Halleck was replying to Burnside.12  Varney also points out that Rosecrans sent three messages to Burnside between September 30 and October 2 but he doesn’t point out when Burnside received them. It is difficult to judge what Burnside knew unless it is clear when he received messages.

Anyway, a key point I want to drive home is this:

  • Burnside first received orders to send infantry to Rosecrans late on the 16th, less than 3 days before the battle of Chickamauga;
  • On the 16th, none of his infantry was any closer to Rosecrans than Knoxville, and much of it was farther north;
  • Knoxville is 100 miles from Chickamauga;
  • The rail line through East Tennessee had been broken in several places and the bridge over the Tennessee at Loudon had been destroyed, so any movement south would be by foot.

Under these circumstances there was no possible way for Burnside’s infantry to get to Rosecrans by the time of the battle of Chickamauga. Thus for Varney to write that because of Burnside’s alleged inactivity “the Army of the Cumberland paid in blood” is ridiculous. Blaming Burnside for the defeat of Rosecrans is absurd and suggests a lack of understanding of the geography, orders, and movements involved.



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Volume 23, Part II, page 593
  2. for examples see Volume 30, Part III, pages 16, 72, 107, 126-127, 242
  3. Volume 30, Part III, page 501
  4. Volume 30, Part III, page 433
  5. Volume 30, Part III, page 107
  6. Volume 30, Part I, page 21
  7. See Crittenden to Burnside, Volume 30, Part III, page 523 and Halleck to Burnside, page 555
  8. Volume 30 Part I, page 35 and 36
  9. See Itineraries of the 9th Corps and 23rd Corps, Volume 30, part II, pages 575-579
  10. Volume 30, Part III page 769
  11. Volume 30, Part III, page 785
  12. Volume 30, Part III, page 906


2 responses to “Varney v. Burnside, a brief for the defense”

  1. Tony Avatar

    But … but … Roseacrans was so AWESOME! Except for that one time where he almost lost an army outside Chattanooga. And of course that one time where he botched his own plan at Iuka and then had his chief of staff smear Grant in the press. Other than that he was AWESOME! 🙂

  2. James F. Epperson Avatar

    Another good piece of work, Ned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *