By this month, the Confederate defensive line across Kentucky had been shattered by the losses of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the fall of 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 Number 10 on the Mississippi River, as well as other points in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
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, Major 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 Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles from New Orleans, leaving that important city nearly defenseless.
As Beauregard tried to collect 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, the 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.”
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.”
In early March, advance elements of Grant’s army, temporarily commanded by Major General Charles F. Smith, reached Savannah, Tennessee, nine miles downriver (or north) of Pittsburg Landing. Soon the rest of what became known as the Federal Army of the Tennessee would arrive, and Smith directed Brigadier General William T. Sherman to reconnoiter the area between Savannah and Eastport, Mississippi. Along the way, Sherman secured Pittsburg Landing as a staging area for an advance on Corinth.
Meanwhile, General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Confederate Department Number 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 his superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, on March 18 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 to send 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…”
The Federal army closest to the Confederate base at Corinth was Grant’s. It consisted of two divisions on the east bank of the Tennessee at Savannah, two divisions on the west bank at Pittsburg Landing, and one on the west bank at Crump’s Landing, between Savannah and Pittsburg. The army totaled 27,000 men, with reinforcements arriving from St. Louis. Grant gave Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss “command of the unattached troops at Pittsburg, Tenn… as fast as troops arrive they will be brigaded and brigades formed into a division, which will be known as the Sixth Division, and commanded by General Prentiss.”
Grant knew about the Confederates gathering at Corinth, but Sherman reported that they could number no more than 20,000. Halleck informed Grant of a report that the Confederates were abandoning Corinth and moving north. If true, then Grant should advance southwest and “destroy railroad connection at Corinth.” Grant looked into this and replied, “Corinth cannot be taken without a general engagement, which from your instructions is to be avoided.” Halleck replied, “By all means keep your forces together until you connect with General Buell. Don’t let the enemy draw you into an engagement now. Wait till you are properly fortified and receive orders.”
Grant informed Halleck that the Confederates intended to fight to hold onto Corinth, but, “The temper of the Rebel troops is such that there is little doubt but that Corinth will fall much more easily than Donelson did when we do move. All accounts agree in saying that the great mass of the rank and file are heartily tired.” Grant wrote to C.F. Smith, “I am clearly of the opinion that the enemy are gathering strength at Corinth quite as rapidly as we are here, and the sooner we attack the easier will be the task of taking the place.”
How soon Grant would attack depended on Buell. Grant sent two messengers to try to find him, as his 37,000 men were expected to link with Grant’s army at some point. But 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 Major General Leonidas Polk was re-designated the First Corps.
- The Second Corps was commanded by Braxton Bragg.
- The Third Corps was commanded by Major General William J. Hardee (really just three brigades).
- The Reserve Corps was commanded by Major General 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 being assembled at Corinth would be expected to destroy Grant’s army stationed 22 miles north before Buell’s army could come to its aid. Grant remained stationary as he awaited Buell’s arrival. Grant, believing Confederate morale to be low, did not expect much resistance and therefore did not order his men to build any defensive works.
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