Siege Of Corinth Summary
April 29 – May 30, 1862
Generals / Commanders
Union: Henry W. Halleck
Confederate: P.G.T. Beauregard
Union Army: 120,000
Those who saw Henry W. Halleck for the first time during the Corinth campaign in April and May 1862 were not sure what to make of him. One newsman said he was’straight, active and well formed’ and had ‘a brisk, energetic gait significant of his firm and decisive character.’ An Ohio volunteer was not nearly as impressed when he watched the general on horseback ‘jogging along the lines with a tall army hat on.’ The soldier decided that ‘if he had only had a pair of saddle bags, [he] would have been the beau ideal of a country doctor.’
Yet physical appearance was not the only way the Army measured a general. He had a vast reputation because he was the author of the most important American book on military theory, and because knowledge of his skill as a land lawyer and businessman in prewar California had preceded him. In 1861 he had been Winfield Scott’s choice to become commanding general, and some people believed that the only reason George B. McClellan had received the post instead was because of the long time it took Halleck to reach Washington from the Pacific coast.
Soldiers and civilians knew that he was the only general in the Federal Army who had consistently brought victory to Union arms. Under his command in St. Louis, his subordinates in the field had won important battles. Ulysses S. Grant had captured Forts Henry and Donelson (with naval support), John Pope had taken Island No. 10 and Samuel R. Curtis had defeated Confederates at Pea Ridge, Ark. Armies under Halleck’s command had not only driven Confederates out of Missouri but also broken Albert Sidney Johnston’s long defensive line between the Cumberland Gap in the East and the Mississippi River in the West. While preparing his army to launch an attack on the Confederates in their new defensive line at Corinth, Miss., Grant had suffered a one-day setback at Shiloh, but on the following day he had sent them limping back to their Corinth base.
Still, it was not easy for Halleck’s soldiers to feel optimistic after the bloody Shiloh victory. It had been a wet spring, and the constant rains had turned the Pittsburg Landing battlefield into a muddy quagmire of horror. The wounded, sick and dead lay mingled in the mud; the sights, smells and sounds were sickening. Burial parties were everywhere; wagons and open pits were full of corpses. ‘War is hell broke loose,’ one soldier said in the days immediately after Shiloh.
|For Halleck, the movement against Corinth would be his only campaign in the field during the entire war. (Library of Congress)
Halleck’s arrival at Pittsburg Landing signaled a new beginning. A soldier remembered seeing him, confidently dressed in impeccable civilian clothes, pacing in front of a mud-spattered and embarrassed Grant. Halleck was scolding Grant in what the soldier said was ‘a loud and haughty manner.’ Grant might have won the recent victory at Shiloh, but Halleck was clearly lambasting him for the surprise of the first day and the awful condition of his army at that juncture.
Halleck saw his task as similar to the situation in Missouri after he had taken over from John C. Frémont: cleaning up a mess. This time, however, it was Grant’s mess. He evaluated Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which had joined Grant’s Army of the Tennessee on the second day at Shiloh, as being in ‘good condition,’ but he castigated Grant’s force as ‘without discipline and order.’ ‘Immediate and active measures must be taken to put your command in condition to resist another attack by the enemy,’ he berated Grant. He also ordered Pope, the victor at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, to bring his Army of the Mississippi immediately to Shiloh.
Something amazing was happening at Pittsburg Landing. Halleck, whose military department was geographically the largest under Federal jurisdiction, was now organizing what would become the young war’s largest military force. He took three armies and merged them into a single unit of more than 100,000 men. The collection of officer talent that led these troops was similarly impressive: In addition to Halleck, Grant, Buell and Pope, there were George H. Thomas, William T. Sherman, William Rosecrans, Phil Sheridan, James B. McPherson, John McClernand, John A. Logan, James A. Garfield, William ‘Bull’ Nelson, Jefferson C. Davis and Lew Wallace.
On April 30, Halleck established three wings of his new army: the Right Wing, under Thomas, consisting of four divisions from the Army of the Tennessee and one division from the Army of the Ohio; the Center Wing, under Buell, consisting of four divisions from the Army of the Ohio; and the Left Wing, under Pope, made up of four divisions from the Army of the Mississippi. The reserve, under McClernand, consisted of two Army of the Tennessee divisions and one from the Army of the Ohio.
Grant became second in overall command. Halleck always insisted that he made this assignment because Grant’s rank required it, but in fact he did not trust Grant and wanted to keep a close eye on him. ‘I never saw a man more deficient in the business of organization,’ Halleck said of Grant. ‘Brave & able in the field, he has no idea of how to regulate & organize his forces before a battle or to conduct the operations of a campaign.’
Facing this massive Union army was P.G.T. Beauregard’s still-recovering Army of Mississippi. After the loss at Shiloh on April 7, it had staggered back to Corinth, leaving scattered along the roads everything from blankets to tent poles, muskets to broken wagons. The original commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, had died in battle, and Beauregard, who had replaced him, had not inspired immediate confidence by ordering an end to the first day’s attack. During that evening Buell had arrived and Grant had reorganized, and the revitalized Union army had swept the Confederates off the field on the second day.
Beauregard recognized how shattered his troops were and called for reinforcements. When the long-awaited Earl Van Dorn with his Army of the West arrived from across the Mississippi River in mid-April, his command consisted of only about 14,000 men. Beauregard added those soldiers to his own 30,000 and scraped together others from all over the Confederacy to create a respectable force of 70,000 with which to face Halleck’s 100,000. Unfortunately for him, nearly 20,000 Confederates were suffering from wounds or disease. Beauregard did, however, have many well-known generals in his officer corps, including Van Dorn, Leonidas Polk, William Hardee, Braxton Bragg, John C. Breckinridge, Mansfield Lovell and Sterling Price.
Corinth, where the Confederate army was entrenched, was not a large city. Incorporated in 1856, it was originally named Cross City because the east-west Memphis & Charleston Railroad and the north-south Mobile & Ohio Railroad were slated to intersect there in the near future. When the Civil War began, Corinth was still a small village with a population of only 1,000. Once the fighting started, the city became a rallying point for troops and supplies. When Albert Sidney Johnston and his army arrived there after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, the city gained more than 40,000 new military residents, numbers of whom were already ill or became ill and died. Corinth resembled a huge hospital and morgue. Entrenchments protecting the city, begun under Bragg’s direction prior to Shiloh, now stretched into 10 miles of mounded clay and lumber. They reinforced the natural defenses of the swamps and the flooded streams. They ran out of coffins because of the huge number of deaths, but there was always plenty of clay to dig and pile up.
The terrain that separated the Union army at Pittsburg Landing and the Confederate army some 22 miles away in Corinth was rolling, wooded and, in places, swampy and traversed by streams and roads. These bodies of water were hardly imposing enough to stop an advancing army, but they were robust enough, particularly because of the wet spring, to make land approaches swampy and water crossings difficult.
There were several roads leading into the city. A direct road ran from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth, first passing through Monterey 10 miles out and then continuing for another nine miles into the former Cross City. This was the route that the Right Wing followed. The Center Wing followed the Purdy-Farmington Road, while the Left Wing traveled along the Hamburg-Corinth Road, which passed through Farmington.
Rain was a major problem, resulting in a flood that carried away bridges, and creating mud that slowed road traffic to an exhausting crawl. Pope said that he almost lost his boots in slogging through the mud to get to Halleck’s tent. Future president Garfield bemoaned the’succession of heavy rains…[which] made camp life in these woods very uncomfortable.’ Soldiers had to clear numerous trees the Confederates had dropped in the army’s path, and they also corduroyed roads through the swamps. It was a difficult existence. Inexorably, however, Union troops were bearing down on the Mississippi-Tennessee border in a line almost 12 miles wide. They expected a major battle soon, a repeat of the horror of Shiloh.
Rumors of Confederate activity filled the air, influencing the generals and the lowliest privates alike. Still, by May 3, Pope’s wing was only a mile and a half from Farmington, which was a scant four miles from Corinth. Slowing its progress, however, was a swollen creek to the front and what was described as ‘an impregnable jungle and swamp’ to the left. Pope also worried that Buell, on his right, was not keeping up. Meanwhile, Thomas’ Right Wing had advanced beyond Monterey until rain stopped its movement. Sherman, who commanded a division in the Right Wing, described the situation in a circular to his soldiers: ‘Our situation from the rain and road has become difficult, and it becomes the duty of every officer and man to anticipate our danger and labor. Every ounce of food and forage must be regarded as precious as diamonds….General Halleck and our superior officers will do all they can, but their power is limited by nature.’
The heavy rains, the washed-out bridges and muddy roads that made supply difficult, the fact that Halleck found the region ‘almost a wilderness and very difficult to operate in’ and the rumors of Beauregard’s being reinforced and feeling confident at being able to repulse any Union attack frustrated Halleck. Some of his soldiers, however, had more basic concerns. They were hungry and cursed the quartermaster. ‘The cry of `crackers,’ `crackers’ resounds from one end of the camp to the other,’ a soldier said. Yet, despite it all, Halleck was pleased to be able to tell Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on May 6 that ‘our advance guards are within six (6) miles of Corinth.’
The weather turned briefly hot and dry, and the army began a siege of Corinth — what one soldier termed the ‘First Epistle to the Corinthians.’ Soldiers on both sides had predicted a quick fight. Union troops had believed they would be marching into Corinth by May 2, but this had not happened.
Certainly the horrible weather and subsequent widespread illness had played a role in this slow movement, but Halleck was the primary reason. He was the authority on military theory, and his book called for massing troops and winning victories through maneuver and numerical superiority. He had also been Dennis Hart Mahan’s star pupil at West Point and, like Mahan, he was a great admirer of the French doctrine that emphasized the necessity of field fortifications, particularly for amateur soldiers like the ones that comprised his massive army. So he dug in every chance he had. The memory of the recent surprise Confederate attack at Shiloh only made his orders regarding entrenchments more insistent. He massed, he inched forward, he worried and he entrenched.
Although second in command, Grant found himself with little to do. He complained to Halleck, ‘I believe it is generally understood through this army that my position differs but little from that of one in arrest.’ Although he was nominally vice commander, he did not have any real authority. ‘I respectfully ask either to be relieved from duty entirely or to have my position so defined that there can be no mistaking it,’ he concluded.
Halleck feigned shock at Grant’s letter, writing, ‘I am very much surprised, general, that you should find any cause of complaint in the recent assignment of commands.’ Grant, Halleck must have thought, had received what his rank required. Besides, Halleck continued, he had always steadfastly sided with Grant no matter the criticism. ‘If you believe me your friend,’ Halleck concluded, ‘you will not require explanations; if not, explanations on my part would be of little avail.’
Halleck’s answer only added to Grant’s depression, and rumors spread of his departure, although it was unclear if this meant taking a leave or resigning from the army altogether. Sherman had become a friend earlier in the war, and he now rushed to Grant’s camp. He found Grant’s trunks in a pile ready for shipment, and the general himself was still in his tent, packing. Grant poured out his discontent and his determination to go back to St. Louis. Sherman, who had overcome his own dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, convinced Grant to stay where he was.
Newspaper correspondents also felt frustration with Halleck. By early May, there were more than 30 newsmen traveling with the Union army, including some of the most famous correspondents of the Civil War years: Henry Villard, Whitelaw Reid, Tom Knox, Franc B. Wilkie, George Smalley, Albert D. Richardson and Richard T. Colburn. The army’s attitude toward these reporters was hardly positive, thanks to earlier press reports criticizing Union generalship for the surprise at Shiloh. Now reporters were writing critical accounts of Halleck’s slow movement toward Corinth.
In late April, Halleck had issued an order stopping all mail, even to and from soldiers, and he required all reporters to renew their press passes. This was no problem, but on May 13 Field Order No. 54 expelling ‘unauthorized hangers on’ proved troublesome. Halleck included newsmen in this definition, and a correspondent was soon ejected from his headquarters. Reporters immediately composed a written protest. Halleck insisted that he had to eject all civilians because of the many spies following his army, but he promised to work with reporters. At a subsequent meeting, however, he rejected every compromise, promising instead that his headquarters would provide correspondents with the latest news. Reporters quickly learned that this meant access to a bulletin board at Pittsburg Landing, 20 miles to the rear. All but three reporters left in disgust. Richardson cuttingly wrote, `As false as a bulletin’ has passed into a proverb.’
The rain, the mud, the uncertain food supply, insects such as wood ticks, gnats and mosquitoes, the irritated newsmen, the usual arguments between officers capped by Grant’s frustration and rumors of a Confederate attack followed by rumors of an evacuation of Corinth only made the slow movement and the constant digging in the Mississippi soil increasingly upsetting to correspondents and soldiers alike.
Even Halleck grappled with frustrating times. Pittsburg Landing was the depot for supplies deposited from Tennessee River steamboats and pulled in mule-driven wagons to the army on the move. Soldiers without a pass were supposed to stay away. One day a guard stopped a general and his aide and demanded a pass, refusing to allow the officer to continue without one. ‘What are your orders?’ the general thundered. ‘My orders are not to let anyone pass without a pass signed by General Halleck, General Grant or the Provost Marshal,’ he said. ‘I am General Halleck,’ the officer snapped, thinking that would get him through. The soldier stood his ground, however. Halleck demanded to see this man’s superior and worked his way up to the regimental colonel but with no better luck. A lowly private had turned back the commanding general of the largest army on the continent.
On the battlefield, however, Halleck’s army continued moving forward. He kept his forces massed, constantly worried about Beauregard’s Confederates flanking him on his right or finding a gap between two wings. He knew that he had to keep watch on Pope and his Left Wing in particular, as Pope displayed an aggressiveness that concerned Halleck. On May 3, Pope moved one of his divisions forward toward Farmington, only four miles from Corinth. Instead of ordering the Center and Right wings to align with Pope’s advanced Left Wing, Halleck ordered Pope back to his original place.
On May 7, Pope wanted to send forward a reconnaissance force to investigate the recurring rumor that the Confederates were evacuating Corinth. Halleck agreed and offered support from Buell’s Center Wing. The next day, however, he told Pope to ‘avoid any general engagement’ because he was not sure that Buell had received his order. It was too late, however; the Confederates had launched their own attack and were driving his pickets in, Pope said. Then he changed his mind and said he was not sure what was going on. The Confederate resistance had proved to be ‘feeble.’ They were either evacuating Corinth or they were trying ‘to draw us in on this road.’ In fact, the Confederates had botched a planned attack and had withdrawn into their entrenchments.
The minor engagement demonstrated this campaign’s lack of sustained combat, the confusion on both sides and Halleck’s refusal to take any risks. He remained content with inching his completely protected three wings forward, as heavy rain kept the roads a quagmire and illness depleted his ranks. Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott and Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton told the president that Halleck needed more men to accomplish his task. Abraham Lincoln, who was constantly being badgered by McClellan, wrote directly to Halleck, gently reminding him that every general ‘from Richmond to Corinth’ believed he was ‘confronted by numbers superior to his own.’ He added, ‘I believe you and the brave officers and men with you can and will get the victory at Corinth.’ In short, Halleck could expect no more men.
By the middle of May, Halleck’s army was located within two to three miles of Corinth. Beauregard was still planning an attack, his botched Farmington movement against Pope not having deterred him. He implemented a new plan, this time to have his entire army go on the offensive. Once again, the strike never materialized because Van Dorn, who was supposed to lead it off on May 22, failed to move on time.
If Pope displayed an unwavering propensity for moving forward, Grant had an even more daring idea. Thinking long and hard, he finally got up the nerve to suggest to Halleck that he order Pope to pull his Left Wing out of line, march it behind the Center and Right wings, and attack the Confederate left along a ridge there. A stream and swamps already protected Pope’s position, thus it only needed pickets to defend it, Grant insisted.
As had happened earlier in the war when Grant had suggested an offensive thrust against Forts Henry and Donelson, Halleck greeted his suggestion with utter disdain. ‘I was silenced so quickly that I felt that possibly I had suggested an unmilitary movement,’ Grant later recalled. Halleck would not allow his army to undertake any great turning movement. He would have it continue moving forward together slowly and carefully, keeping its flanks covered and its front protected every day by new log and dirt entrenchments, 4 feet high and 4 to 10 feet wide from top to bottom.
In Corinth the Confederates had their own permanent breastworks, which were even more formidable than those the Union army was constructing daily. The Confederates regularly heard rumors of a Union attack, some whispering to each other that Halleck had troops to their rear, at Tupelo. While Halleck repeatedly expressed concerns about a Confederate attack on his right and experienced minor combat on his left, Beauregard was worried about flanking movements like the one Grant had suggested. He also realized that Halleck was drawing ever closer to the Confederate defensive lines with his siege tactics. If he breached the entrenchments, he could capture not only the city and the railroads going through it but also Beauregard’s army. The Louisiana general had to do something.
On May 25, Beauregard called in his corps commanders. He was running out of water for his soldiers and draft animals, and the unhealthy conditions were resulting in burgeoning levels of ill health. He still wanted to attack the Union army, but he could not see how to breach Halleck’s entrenchments without incurring major casualties. He hated to admit to himself and his officers that the only viable option that remained was to abandon Corinth and save the army to fight another day.
For most of the campaign, the Union army had heard railroad trains entering and leaving the city on a regular basis. One officer said Union soldiers ‘could hear the cars moving and departing from Corinth just as distinctly as if we had been there.’ For several days in late May, some of Logan’s men put their ears to the rails and could tell there was increased railroad activity. Beauregard was up to something, but Halleck did not know what. Sherman offered to send troops forward to find out, but after Halleck gave him permission he wavered, saying: ‘If not too late, hold your position. If, however, you consider the risk too great, fall back.’
Of all the Union generals, the aggressive Pope was particularly nervous about Confederate intentions. He had, after all, already been the target of several attacks, so he wanted to make sure he knew what was going on to his front. On May 27, he told Halleck that a woman who lived within sight of one of the railroads was sure that Beauregard’s army was planning a withdrawal toward Memphis, Tenn. Then Pope changed his mind and insisted that Beauregard’s men were massing to his front, and he expected an all-out attack. The noise coming out of Corinth was increasingly disconcerting to him. ‘The enemy is re-enforcing heavily, by trains, in my front and on my left,’ Pope wrote. ‘The cars are running constantly, and the cheering is immense every time they unload in front of me. I have no doubt, from all appearances, that I shall be attacked in heavy force at daylight.’
Halleck reacted immediately. He told Buell, in the center, to be ready to support Pope when he came under attack. Then Pope noticed ‘a succession of loud explosions, followed by dense black smoke in clouds’ and was sure that Beauregard was evacuating Corinth. Halleck did not know what to believe. ‘Reports from Corinth respecting enemy’s movement are so conflicting, it is very difficult to fix definitely now our plans,’ he said. Not surprisingly, however, he decided that an enemy attack was imminent.
Just the opposite was happening. On May 30, rather than massing to attack Halleck’s army, Beauregard’s force was abandoning Corinth. He used the trains to evacuate his incapacitated men and his supplies, but he made it seem as though reinforcements were actually pouring in. Every time an empty train rumbled into the city to evacuate wounded and sick soldiers and much-needed supplies, Beauregard had healthy soldiers cheer as though the train had just brought in new troops. A regimental band played festive music, fake deserters were sent to Union lines to tell false tales, and wooden, or Quaker, guns replaced real ones in the entrenchments. Beauregard used every trick he could think of to fool Halleck. The Confederates evacuated Corinth before the Federals knew what had happened. The Union troops eventually marched into abandoned fortifications with no Confederate soldiers in sight and the Quaker guns standing as a silent rebuke to Union timidity.
Even though Beauregard’s army had escaped, Halleck had taken Corinth. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, not one of Halleck’s fans, called the city’s capture a ‘brilliant and successful achievement.’ Halleck himself was thrilled with what he considered his great accomplishment. His book on military theory emphasized the importance of gaining control of strategic places; capturing armies was not important. So to him his capture of Corinth, with its strategic north-south and east-west railroads, was a major victory — no matter that Beauregard had escaped. And he had done it all, he told his wife, ‘with very little loss of life….I have won the victory without the battle!’ Even more inspiring, his men had given him a nickname in honor of his achievement. They began calling him ‘Old Brains,’ a name he carried from that time on.
Halleck’s officers, including Grant, were similarly pleased with the victory and extolled him as a military genius. Sherman said that Corinth was ‘a victory as brilliant and important as any recorded in history.’ Halleck had said on May 25 that ‘Richmond and Corinth are now the great strategical points of war,’ and he had now captured one of them. At the same time, McClellan’s attempt to take Richmond remained bogged down on the peninsula. Newspapers might criticize Halleck, and some soldiers might grumble, but Old Brains had done what he had set out to do. It apparently did not matter that he did not follow up the victory and instead broke up his vast army.
Within two months, in July 1862, Abraham Lincoln called Halleck to Washington to work his magic for all Union armies. The nation applauded and looked for further successes in the future. Halleck, it seemed, was the man to win the war. Corinth had clearly demonstrated this fact. Because of its capture, Halleck became the commanding general.
Corinth, however, would prove to be Old Brains’ one and only experience of command in the field, and from his desk in Washington he strove ever after to avoid responsibility for any offensive movements. Henry Halleck had taken his last city.
This article was written by John F. Marszalek and originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!