Prelude to Battle in Tennessee

March 25, 1862 – Federals advanced deep into western Tennessee this month as Confederates gathered in northern Mississippi to counterattack.

By this month, the Confederate defensive line across Kentucky had been shattered by the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, along with Nashville. Confederates on the eastern part of the line, primarily at Bowling Green, Kentucky, fell back to Murfreesboro in middle Tennessee. Those at Columbus, Kentucky, to the west withdrew to New Madrid and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi, along with other points in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit:
Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit:

General P.G.T. Beauregard commanded the Confederate Army of the Mississippi in the western sector. When Federal forces captured New Madrid, Beauregard began concentrating his remaining forces at Corinth, Mississippi, where the Mobile & Ohio and Memphis & Charleston railroads intersected. At Beauregard’s request, General Braxton Bragg led 10,000 Confederates from Pensacola and Mobile to join the force gathering at Corinth. Also joining was 5,000 men under General Daniel Ruggles from New Orleans, leaving that important city nearly defenseless.

As Beauregard tried collecting manpower, he faced three armies advancing on three sides: Major General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi in Missouri (left), Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in western Tennessee (front), and Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio at Nashville (right).

Grant’s advance was preceded by two Federal timber-clad gunboats, U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler, reconnoitering up the Tennessee River all the way to the Tennessee-Mississippi line. The vessels exchanged fire with Confederate batteries at Pittsburg Landing, and then sailors (with sharpshooter support) came ashore to drive the Confederates off. Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, commanding the Federal squadron, praised the commanders for securing the area and then added:

“But I must give a general order that no commander will land men to make an attack on shore. Our gunboats are to be used as forts, and as they have no more men than necessary to man the guns, and as the Army must do the shore work, and as the enemy want nothing better than to entice our men on shore and overpower them with superior numbers, the commanders must not operate on shore, but confine themselves to their vessels.”

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote | Image Credit:
Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote | Image Credit:

The Federals also captured the C.S.S. Eastport, a gunboat under construction that was larger and faster than any in Foote’s squadron. Foote wrote:

“I have applied to the Secretary of the Navy to have the rebel gunboat, Eastport, lately captured in the Tennessee River, fitted up as a gunboat… She can be fitted out for about $20,000, and in three weeks. We want such a fast and powerful boat. Do telegraph about her, as we now have carpenters and cargo ahead on her and she is just what we want. I should run about in her and save time and do good service. Our other ironclad boats are too slow. The Eastport was a steamer on the river, and she, being a good boat, would please the West. No reply yet from the Secretary and time is precious.”

Advance elements of Grant’s army, temporarily commanded by General Charles F. Smith, reached Savannah, Tennessee, on March 5. The rest of what became known as the Army of the Tennessee arrived nine days later, ferried by 80 transports and a gunboat escort. Smith directed recently arrived Brigadier General William T. Sherman to continue up the Tennessee to reconnoiter the area of Eastport, Mississippi.

Along the way, Sherman secured Pittsburg Landing as a staging area for an advance on Corinth and received permission from Smith to land his division there. The rest of the army soon followed. Sherman’s Federals reconnoitered from Pittsburg Landing to Monterey, Tennessee, about halfway to Corinth.

During this time, Major General Henry W. Halleck was promoted to command not only the forces under Pope and Grant, but Buell as well. Halleck ordered Buell to move from Nashville to Savannah and join forces with the Federal troops assembling there. Buell opted to advance overland rather than by water to protect the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and cover the Federal forces sent to occupy northern Alabama.

General A.S. Johnston | Image Credit:
General A.S. Johnston | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Confederate Department No. 2 (the Western Theater), was stationed with the former Army of Central Kentucky at Murfreesboro. At Beauregard’s urging, Johnston began moving west to join forces with those gathering at Corinth.

Passing through Columbia just before Buell’s Federals arrived, Johnston’s Confederates burned the bridges spanning the Duck River. Rather than build temporary pontoon bridges to hurry his men across, Buell directed engineers to build new permanent ones. Buell notified Halleck on the 18th that the work would take three or four days. At that time, Buell’s army was about 85 miles away from the Federals at Savannah and Pittsburg Landing.

The delay gave Johnston more time to consolidate. To bolster his manpower, he peremptorily ordered Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Army of the West in Arkansas, to move east by “the best and most expeditious route” to Corinth.

Van Dorn, who had recently lost the Battle of Pea Ridge, had been moving north when he received this directive. Beauregard tried sending transports from New Orleans to take Van Dorn’s men east, but Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore would not release the boats for army use due to a political dispute he was having with President Jefferson Davis.

Johnston entered Corinth with his rear guard on the 24th, where he assimilated the Army of Central Kentucky into the new Army of Mississippi (referred to by Beauregard as the Army of the Mississippi). Johnston was overall commander, with Beauregard second-in-command. Beauregard declined Johnston’s offer to head the army while Johnston maintained administrative command. President Davis wrote his close friend Johnston:

“My confidence in you has never wavered, and I hope the public will soon give me credit for judgment, rather than continue to arraign me for obstinacy… You have done wonderfully well… If you can meet the division of the enemy moving from the Tennessee before it can make a junction with that advancing from Nashville, the future will be brighter…”

When Grant resumed command over Smith, he set up headquarters at a Savannah mansion. His army consisted of two divisions on the east bank of the Tennessee at Savannah, two division nine miles upriver (or south) on the west bank at Pittsburg Landing, and one on the west bank at Crump’s Landing, between Savannah and Pittsburg. His army totaled 27,000 men, with reinforcements arriving from St. Louis that Grant formed into another division.

Grant knew about the Confederates gathering at Corinth, but Sherman reported that they could number no more than 20,000. Grant sent two messengers to try finding Buell, whose 37,000 men were expected to join him at some point, though there seemed to be no hurry. Buell’s insistence on building proper bridges delayed him over two weeks. Added to the problem was the Duck River being swollen due to rain and melting snow.

When Buell finally relented and allowed his army to cross on pontoon bridges, the Duck had receded enough to allow a crossing without any bridges at all. Buell’s lead division under Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson crossed first and headed for Savannah on the 28th. The rest of Buell’s army followed the next day.

By that time, Johnston had reorganized the new Army of Mississippi. The 1st Grand Division under Leonidas Polk was re-designated the I Corps. The new army also included the II Corps under Braxton Bragg, the III Corps under William J. Hardee (really just three brigades), and the Reserve Corps under George B. Crittenden.

Bragg served double-duty as corps commander and army chief of staff. Crittenden, already under fire for his embarrassing defeat at Mill Springs, was soon relieved for alleged drunkenness on duty. Despite Crittenden’s shortcomings, his removal deprived the army of an experienced military leader. He was replaced by former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge.

Most of Johnston’s officers and men had never experienced combat before, and many were equipped with obsolete or non-functioning weapons. Nevertheless, the 40,000 Confederates assembling at Corinth were being organized to destroy Grant’s army concentrating around Pittsburg Landing, about 22 miles north, before Buell’s army crossing the Duck River could come to its aid.

Grant remained stationary and awaited Buell’s arrival. Unconcerned about the Confederates, he did not order the men to build any defensive works.



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