It Is Better to Retreat Than Fight

Major General Henry W. Halleck combined three Federal armies in southwestern Tennessee to begin a methodical advance on the vital railroad town of Corinth, Mississippi. Following the horrifying Battle of Shiloh, Halleck, commanding all Federals between Kansas and Knoxville, left his St. Louis headquarters to personally take command at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Stationed there, 22 miles from Corinth, were Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

Halleck wrote to Grant two days after the battle, “I leave here to join you with considerable reinforcements. Avoid another battle if you can ‘till all arrive, we shall then be able to beat them without fail.” Halleck arrived on the 11th and sent for Major General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, fresh off victories at New Madrid and Island Number 10, to join the other two armies in giving Halleck a unified force to march on Corinth. The momentum that Pope had been building in seizing key points on the Mississippi was immediately stopped.

After a few days of assessing the situation, Halleck pressed “the necessity of greater discipline and order,” and wrote to Grant, “Your army is not now in condition to resist an attack. It must be made so without delay.” Halleck then had one of his staffers explain how communications would be conducted going forward: “The Major General Commanding desires that you will again call the attention of your officers to the necessity of forwarding official communication through the proper military channel. Letters should relate to one matter only, and be properly folded.”

Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit:

Halleck was making it very clear that Grant was no longer in charge. Grant remained the administrative head of the District of West Tennessee, but Halleck replaced him as commander of the Army of the Tennessee with Major General George H. Thomas, who was formerly a division commander in Buell’s army. Grant was “promoted” to Halleck’s second-in-command, but the position carried no real responsibility because Halleck rarely sought Grant’s advice.

Grant saw this as Halleck’s way of demoting him, especially since Halleck did not allow him to review any reports from Buell’s army on Shiloh (even though Grant had been the overall Federal commander during that battle). In addition, articles in northern newspapers began blaming Grant’s lack of preparedness for the high casualties at Shiloh; some reporters accused him and his officers of drunkenness or even cowardice. Frustrated, Grant decided to resign from the army but was talked into staying on by his friend, Brigadier General William T. Sherman.

At Corinth, General P.G.T. Beauregard regrouped his battered Confederate Army of Mississippi. Beauregard continued to insist that he won at Shiloh, but the enormous losses he sustained while failing to prevent Grant and Buell from joining forces indicated otherwise. Major General Earl Van Dorn, whose Confederate Army of the West did not arrive from Arkansas in time to participate at Shiloh, joined the Confederates at Corinth on the 19th, thus giving Beauregard a total of about 50,000 men.

Federals intercepted a dispatch from Beauregard reporting that he had just 35,000 effectives, which left him badly outnumbered against the looming Federal threat. Even so, he planned to defend Corinth because of its great importance as a transportation center. Beauregard wrote, “If defeated here, we lose the whole Mississippi Valley and probably our cause.” This report was published in the New York Herald, but Halleck seemed to lend no credence to it or else he would have moved faster to press his overwhelming advantage.

Pope’s army arrived to reinforce the other two at Pittsburg Landing, thereby giving Halleck 15 divisions totaling 120,172 men and over 200 cannon. This was the largest force ever assembled in North America up to that time, and it included the most impressive collection of Federal commanders of the entire war, including current or future army commanders Halleck, Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Buell, Pope, Philip Sheridan, and John B. McPherson. Special Field Orders Number 31 divided the new “Grand Army” into four sections:

  • The right wing under Thomas consisted of Grant’s former army (except for the divisions of Generals John A. McClernand and Lew Wallace) and Thomas’s division
  • The center consisted of Buell’s army (less Thomas’s division)
  • The left consisted of Pope’s army
  • The reserve under McClernand consisted of his and Wallace’s divisions, as well as another division from Buell

Grant would head the right wing and reserve, which meant little since those commanders often bypassed him and reported directly to Halleck. Grant indicated his frustration by writing his wife Julia that he was “no longer boss. Gen. Halleck is here and I am truly glad of it. I hope the papers will let me alone in the future.” Grant felt that the new Federal army was more than ready to take on the battered Confederates, but Halleck seemed to take no stock in Grant’s opinion.

Buell protested the reorganization because it left him with just 18,000 men in three divisions after Thomas brought his own to his new command and McClernand took one for the reserve. Buell wrote to Halleck, “You must excuse me for saying that, as it seems to me, you have saved the feelings of others very much to my injury.”

Halleck’s Special Field Orders also included precise instructions on how to maintain discipline, distribute ammunition, and limit each regiment to just 13 wagons. Addressing the growing problem of sickness from contaminated food, Halleck directed company officers to inspect all food before distribution.

As Halleck reorganized his forces, Federal scouts reconnoitered the area west of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and the road to Corinth as far as Monterey, 12 miles from Pittsburg Landing. During that time, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reminded Halleck that he still had not submitted an official report on the Battle of Shiloh. McClernand, an Illinois politician, had notified President Abraham Lincoln that there had been “slaughter” on the battlefield, which caused concern in Washington. Stanton wrote, “The President desires to know why you have made no official report to this department respecting the late battles at Pittsburg landing. And whether any neglect or misconduct of General Grant or any other officer contributed to the sad casualties….”

Grant had waited to submit his report to Halleck because he wanted Halleck to let him see the reports from Buell and his army first. But now Halleck told Grant that he was being pressed by Washington and had no time to share Buell’s reports with him. So Grant relented and turned over his report.

Finally, after nearly three weeks of preparation, Halleck was ready to start his drive on Corinth. He estimated that Beauregard had about 70,000 Confederates defending that town, or twice as many as Beauregard had reported having. The Federal move began on the 29th when advance units occupied Purdy, Tennessee. The next day, Halleck reported to Washington, “On the 30th April the grand army commenced its advance from Shiloh upon Corinth.”

The mobilization continued into May, with each commander receiving direct orders “not to bring on an engagement… It is better to retreat than fight.” Although Corinth was just a two days’ march away, it would take Halleck nearly a month to get there.


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