May 29, 1862 – As Major General Henry W. Halleck finally prepared to attack the vital railroad town of Corinth, Mississippi, the Confederates pulled out to fight another day.
Halleck positioned heavy guns on his right, planning to begin bombarding the Confederate defenders at Corinth the next day. In the center, Major General Don Carlos Buell reported increased enemy activity and requested to attack. On the left, Major General John Pope posted field artillery and began shelling the town; he also planned to attack on the 30th.
Halleck had originally believed that General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates in Corinth, was simply waiting for the Federals to attack his strong defenses. But now Halleck agreed with Pope that Beauregard was preparing to attack the Federal left. In reality, Beauregard was doing neither; he was preparing to abandon Corinth.
Beauregard had just 53,000 men against over 120,000. The Confederates could not attack, and if Halleck put Corinth under siege, they would be starved into submission. Moreover, a lack of adequate drinking water plagued the Confederates, as did rampant illness. Nearly a third of the army was on the sick list, with dysentery so prevalent that soldiers called it “the evacuation of Corinth.” Thus, Beauregard opted to withdraw and keep his army intact.
Orders were issued to fall back to Tupelo, Mississippi. Major General Braxton Bragg directed the trains, which made off with the Confederates’ ammunition, supplies, and infirmed troops who could not travel on their own. Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates protected the trains as they headed south. Major General William Hardee’s troops led the withdrawal, marching 20 miles south to Booneville by day’s end.
Throughout the night, Beauregard had a train of empty cars move back and forth as close to Pope’s lines as possible, with whistles blowing and soldiers cheering every time it stopped near the Federals. This not only covered the Confederate withdrawal, but it fooled Pope into thinking that Beauregard was being reinforced. He wired Halleck at 1 a.m. on the 30th:
“The enemy is re-enforcing heavily, by trains, in my front and on my left. The cars are running 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.”
Federal soldiers who had previously worked on railroads could tell by putting their ears to the rails that empty trains were coming into Corinth while full trains were moving out. But their commanders would not take heed.
By dawn on May 30, both Halleck and Pope were certain that the Confederates would attack Pope’s (left) sector of the Federal line. However, Federals heard “a succession of loud explosions” from inside the town and realized that the enemy was retreating. He deployed skirmishers at 6 a.m., and they took control of the abandoned Confederate defenses by 7:30.
Entering Corinth, the Federals settled into an empty town. Halleck ordered no pursuit (except for Pope’s tentative scouting) because he believed the Confederates would soon return to try taking the town back. He directed part of the army to build defense works south of town, while other Federals took over the abandoned Confederate trenches.
Illness played a role not only in Beauregard’s withdrawal, but also in Halleck’s decision not to pursue. About a third of Halleck’s army was also sick, with Halleck and Pope afflicted with diarrhea and Brigadier General William T. Sherman suffering from malaria. Nearly 30 other generals in the army also reported sick.
Beauregard’s men crossed the Tuscumbia River, six miles south of Corinth, and halted. When no Federal attack came, they burned the bridge and continued falling back along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line toward Baldwyn, 30 miles south. The lone setback in Beauregard’s otherwise seamless withdrawal came when Federal cavalry rode ahead to Booneville, destroying large amounts of supplies and equipment, and taking 500 prisoners.
Beauregard got away with almost all his men, supplies, equipment, and provisions intact. He only left behind some “Quaker” guns, or logs painted black to resemble cannon. For this, Beauregard declared that the withdrawal was “equivalent to a brilliant victory.”
But President Jefferson Davis saw it differently; he was very upset about losing such an important town as Corinth. To Davis and many top Confederate military leaders, the loss of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad broke the “vertebrae of the Confederacy.”
With victories at Pea Ridge, New Madrid, Island No. 10, Shiloh, and now at Corinth, the Federals controlled the entire Mississippi River Valley from Missouri to northern Mississippi. From this point, Halleck now had several options. He could pursue Beauregard, threaten Memphis to the northwest, threaten Vicksburg to the southwest, threaten northern Alabama to the east, threaten Chattanooga to the northeast, or set up an occupation force to deal with supply transport, trading, contrabands, and guerrillas. Halleck chose the last two options.
Although capturing Corinth was a great Federal achievement, the Lincoln administration noted that it took Halleck over a month to get there, and Beauregard’s army remained fully intact.
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