May 21, 1862 – Major General Henry W. Halleck’s “Grand Army” inched its way toward Confederates under General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth, forcing Beauregard to decide whether to fight or flee.
By this time, Halleck’s army of over 120,000 men had taken nearly three weeks to advance less than 25 miles from Pittsburg Landing in southwestern Tennessee to the vital railroad town of Corinth in northern Mississippi. Halleck was being very careful to avoid another near-disaster like Shiloh. Every time the Federals halted their advance for the day, they were required to build entrenchments and earthworks in case of a Confederate attack. Bad weather and heavily wooded country also slowed the advance.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, who had been “promoted” to Halleck’s second in command, officially headed Halleck’s right wing and reserve. But Halleck maintained his headquarters with the right wing, so he had direct control over its movements and did not consult Grant on military matters. Brigadier General William T. Sherman, Grant’s close friend, wrote after the war:
“General Grant was substantially left out, and was named ‘second-in-command’ according to some French notion, with no clear, well-defined command or authority… he felt deeply the indignity, if not insult, heaped upon him.”
Halleck’s advance, if not already slow enough, was slowed even more by northern politicians worried about the dangerous Confederate army awaiting the Federals. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton inspected troops from his state and then wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“The enemy are in great force at Corinth, and have recently received reinforcements. They evidently intend to make a desperate struggle at that point, and from all I can learn their leaders have utmost confidence in the result… It is fearful to contemplate the consequences of a defeat at Corinth.”
Halleck responded by dispatching even more scouting parties to reconnoiter the areas around nearby Iuka and Burnsville.
Meanwhile, Beauregard notified his superiors in Richmond that he intended to hold Corinth as long as possible. But if retreat became necessary, he would fall back to the southeast, closer to Richmond and farther from vital points on the Mississippi River such as Memphis and Vicksburg. Beauregard wrote that it was “essential to hold Corinth to the last extremity, if the odds are not too great against us, even at the risk of a defeat.”
That “last extremity” came on May 25 when Beauregard called his top commanders (Generals Braxton Bragg, Earl Van Dorn, Leonidas Polk, William J. Hardee, John C. Breckinridge, and Sterling Price) to a council of war. Beauregard explained that Halleck would not attack frontally, which the Confederates could repel, but would rather put Corinth under siege, thus trapping and starving the army into surrender. The number of effective soldiers was rapidly dropping due to illness and a lack of drinking water. The only viable options were either to preëmptively attack or abandon the town.
When Beauregard asked for advice, Hardee opined that attacking the huge Federal army “would probably inflict on us and the Confederacy a fatal blow.” The officers agreed that it was best to evacuate Corinth, fall back along the Memphis & Ohio Railroad, and live to fight another day.
Beauregard directed his commanders to begin preparations but keep the plan secret so he could fool Halleck into thinking that the Confederates intended to fight. The next day, Beauregard issued orders for evacuating Corinth. He began by sending supplies and the sick troops to Baldwin and Tupelo.
A few miles away, Halleck continued assembling his heavy guns to place Corinth under siege. The end of the Federal right wing was within four miles of the Confederate defenses outside the town. By the morning of the 28th, Halleck’s three wings under Generals George H. Thomas, Don Carlos Buell, and John Pope (right to left) were all finally within gun range of Confederate defenses outside Corinth. Halleck initiated an artillery bombardment from dawn to dusk, pausing intermittently for the infantry to probe for weaknesses in the defenses.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13227, 13251; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 375-77, 383; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 155, 157; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 196-97; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 416; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 157