The decision to evacuate Chattanooga was a very difficult one for General Braxton Bragg – it signaled defeat, and he knew it, however much he might try to put a good face on things. Just before he left, however, he had an interesting encounter. I wish I had been in the room that day…
This is a description of that meeting, taken from Chapter Four of “A Mad Irregular Battle”
“Bragg left the city on September 8, but not without one last confrontation. Back in July, when he first arrived in the city, Bragg established his headquarters at the Brabson House, a two storey brick mansion on East Fifth Street. On September 7th, the widow Brabson held a farewell tea for the departing general, whom she knew well; Bragg had headquartered there in 1862 as well. That party must have been a gloomy affair, and sparsely attended. Civilians had been leaving for days, with all the trains south to Atlanta crowded with refugees and their valuables.
One man who hadn’t yet left town was Henry Watterson, the brash young editor of the Chattanooga Daily Rebel. Bragg had been much critiqued by southern newspapers since Perryville, none more vociferously hostile than Watterson’s Rebel. Worse yet, Watterson often published important details of troop strengths, movements, and intentions, all of which Bragg was sure Rosecrans was reading with great interest. For a time that summer, Bragg banned the paper from being sold in military camps. This was a financial disaster for Watterson, who was selling 10,000 copies a day with the army in town, and he appealed the decision. Watterson claimed to have been a Confederate soldier, serving under Leonidas Polk and Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the war he would boast of being a staff officer under Polk, of service with Forrest in 1862, and of being Joseph Johnston’s ‘Chief of Scouts’ in 1864. In fact, he was probably an imposter, since no Confederate records show him as serving. Physically he was poorly suited for army life, weighing in at a slight eighty pounds and troubled with poor eyesight.
He was also an unusual sort of fire-breathing Rebel. Son of a Tennessee Congressman, he spent much of his life in the north; was schooled in Washington, D.C., lived in New York City, and stood on the inaugural platform with Abe Lincoln in 1861. He initially “believed that secession was treason'” when he returned to Tennessee in 1861. He would eventually adopt the southern side of the conflict as his own.
He was a gifted writer and journalist, who, by the age of 22, had worked for major eastern papers. He made contacts easily, which provided him with sources inside the army. That inside information, presented with verbal flair and acid wit in the columns of the Daily Rebel made the paper immensely popular with the troops. Faced with Bragg’s ban, Watterson approached Colonel Alexander McKinstry, who was positively disposed towards Watterson because of his claimed service with Forrest, and who was now heading up Bragg’s Bureau of Intelligence. They struck a deal. Watterson agreed to let McKinstry approve what he printed, and further allowed McKinstry to use the paper to plant whatever false rumors Bragg wanted, in exchange for permission to keep printing. This arrangement apparently satisfied the irascible army commander, for the Rebel remained in circulation.
That afternoon, Watterson appeared at the Widow Brabson’s, brash as ever. The latest retreat and the panic infecting Chattanooga were fuel for the young incendiary. He commented loudly on “Bragg’s almost supernatural ineptitude.” Bragg, of course, was in the room. Watterson, never having met him personally, didn’t recognize the general. They met now. Bragg confronted Watterson, and the two exchanged “pointed words.” Abashed, Watterson soon made himself scarce. Shortly thereafter Bragg left for La Fayette.”
Watterson and the Daily Rebel would set up shop again in Atlanta.