Monday, April 29, 2013

The Siege of CorinthApril 29 - May 30, 1862

The Siege of Corinth (also known as the First Battle of Corinth) was a battle fought from April 29 to May 30, 1862, in Corinth, Mississippi.  

Henry Halleck
Following the Union Army victory at the Battle of Shiloh, the Union armies under General Henry Halleck  advanced on the vital rail center of Corinth, Mississippi.  Almost 125,000 Union soldiers set out from Pittsburg and Hamburg landings towards Corinth.  A Confederate force of about half that size, under the command of General  P.G.T. Beauregard, waited for them, behind five miles of newly-constructed earthworks. 

P.G.T. Beauregard
After the loss at Shiloh on April 7, Confederate troops had staggered back to Corinth, leaving scattered along the roads everything from blankets to tent poles, muskets to broken wagons. Their 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 General Don Carlos Buell had arrived with reinforcements, and General Ulysses Grant had reorganized, and the revitalized Union army had swept the Confederates off the field on the second day.

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.

Both commanders knew the importance of the coming battle. Halleck claimed that the railroad centers in Richmond, Virginia, and Corinth were "the greatest strategic points of the war, and our success at these points should be insured at all hazards."

Made cautious by the staggering losses at Shiloh, Halleck embarked on a tedious campaign of offensive entrenchment, fortifying after each advance.  

James Garfield
Rain was a major problem, resulting in a flood that carried away bridges, and creating mud that slowed road traffic to an exhausting crawl. Union General John Pope said that he almost lost his boots in slogging through the mud to get to Halleck's tent. Future president James 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.
John Pope
Although second in command, Ulysses Grant found himself with little to do. He complained in a letter 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, '" am very much surprised, general, that you should find any cause of complaint in the recent assignment of commands. . . . If you believe me your friend," Halleck concluded, "you will not require explanations; if not, explanations on my part would be of little avail."

Ulysses Grant
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. William Sherman had become a friend of Grant's, 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.

William Sherman
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.

Of Halleck's wing commanders, Pope proved to be the most aggressive during the campaign. Pope led the army's Left Wing and was furthest away from Halleck's headquarters.  On May 3, Pope moved forward and captured the town of Farmington only a few miles from Corinth. 

Instead of moving the Center Wing under Buell forward, Halleck ordered Pope to withdraw and realign with Buell. 

An Ohio volunteer was not impressed when he watched General Hallack 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."

By May 4, the Union army was within 10 miles of Corinth and the railroads. The Confederates began a series of small scale attacks, keeping up a nearly constant harassment. As the Union troops moved up to a new position, they worked day and night digging trenches.  As each line of earthworks was finished, the men advanced about a mile and then started digging a new line of trenches. Eventually there were seven progressive lines and about 40 miles of trenches.

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.  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."  Lincoln 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.

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.'

Confederate General Joseph Hogg,
one of many who died of dysentery
By May 25, 1862, after moving five miles in three weeks, Halleck was in position to lay siege to the town of Corinth.  Confederate morale was low and Beauregard was outnumbered two to one. The water was bad. Typhoid and dysentery had felled thousands of his men. At a council of war, the Confederate officers concluded that they could not hold the railroad crossover. Sickness had claimed the lives of almost as many men as the Confederacy had lost at Shiloh.

General Beauregard  saved his army by a hoax. Some of the men were given three days' rations and ordered to prepare for an attack. As expected, one or two went over to the Union with that news. The preliminary bombardment began, and Union forces maneuvered for position. 

During the night of May 29, the Confederate army moved out. They used the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to carry the sick and wounded, the heavy artillery, and tons of supplies. When a train arrived, the troops cheered as though reinforcements were arriving. They set up dummy Quaker Guns along the defensive earthworks.  Camp fires were kept burning, and buglers and drummers played. 

Quaker Gun
The rest of the men slipped away undetected, withdrawing to Tueplo, Mississippi.  Union patrols entered Corinth on the morning of May 30, they found the Confederate troops gone.

Corinth, Mississippi
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.

Some historians believe that the Union seizure of the strategic railroad crossover at Corinth led directly to the fall of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi, the loss of much of Middle and West Tennessee, the surrender of Memphis, and the opening of the lower Mississippi River to Federal gunboats as far south as Vicksburg. 

A Confederate army led by  General Earl Van Dorn attempted to retake the city in October 1862, but was defeated in the Second Battle of Corinth by a Union army under the command of  General William Rosencrans.

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