Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri from St. Louis, had ordered an expedition southward up the Tennessee River to raid various towns in western Tennessee and destroy railroad bridges and track, while avoiding any general engagements with the Confederates. Major General Ulysses S. Grant had been assigned to lead this expedition, but due to miscommunication, Halleck had replaced Grant with Brigadier General Charles F. Smith.
While Grant remained at Fort Henry, Smith would load the Federals onto naval transports and move up the Tennessee to reconnoiter around southern Tennessee and into northern Mississippi. Smith was to ultimately join forces with Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio coming south from Nashville, and together they would advance on the vital railroad center at Corinth, Mississippi.
The expedition began on March 10, with a newly formed division under Brigadier General William T. Sherman leading the way. The Federals would advance as far as Savannah, 34 miles from Corinth, and wait for Buell. The weather was pleasant and the men were in good spirits. An officer of the 3rd Iowa wrote:
“We will live long without seeing such a sight again. A grand army, equipped in splendor and exulting in success, moving far into the enemy’s country with the speed of steam… It was a glorious sight, and we could not tire of gazing. From it every soldier seemed to catch a sense of the great moment of the enterprise, and of his own dignity as an agent in it.”
The first steamers reached Savannah on the 11th. Smith arrived the next day and conferred with one of his division commanders, Brigadier General Lew Wallace, on his plan to break the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line at Purdy. When Smith returned to the small boat he had used to come ashore, he slipped as he climbed in and, according to Wallace, “raking the sharp edge of a seat, and skinning one of his shins from the ankle to the knee–a frightful hurt.” Smith refused to have a doctor look at the scrape, citing “too much business.” It soon became infected.
By the 13th, four Federal divisions were at Savannah, at the Great Bend on the Tennessee’s west bank. Smith directed Sherman to continue up the river and wreck the Memphis & Charleston Railroad near Burnsville, Mississippi, the site of several railroad repair shops. The troops would advance on 19 steamers, escorted by the gunboats Lexington and Tyler. Sherman suggested that Smith post a division at Pittsburg Landing, a few miles upriver from Savannah, to keep Sherman from getting cut off from the rest of the Federal army.
Sherman steamed down to Eastport but had to cancel his operation due to heavy rain and flooding streams. He brought his men back to Pittsburg Landing, where Smith directed that he post his division along with the division of Brigadier General Stephen A. Hurlbut. Sherman reconnoitered from Pittsburg Landing to Monterey, about half the way to Corinth. He learned from local residents that large numbers of Confederate troops were arriving at Corinth by rail.
Meanwhile, Halleck’s department was expanded to absorb Buell’s, so he ordered Buell to move his Army of the Ohio from Nashville to link with Smith at Savannah. Buell opted to get to Savannah by marching overland, and he began moving out on the 15th. But he would be delayed due to the lack of bridges over the Duck River. By mid-March, Grant was still back at Fort Henry while Smith’s main army was at Savannah. Buell was on his way to join Smith, and two Federal divisions held forward positions at Pittsburg Landing.
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