As May opened, Major General Henry W. Halleck was finally ready to lead his Federal “Grand Army” against the vital railroad center of Corinth, Mississippi. Commanding what had formerly been three independent armies, Halleck had taken nearly a month to carefully prepare his move from Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The 120,000-man force was formed into three wings:
- Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee formed the left wing
- Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio formed the center
- Major General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi formed the right wing
Grant was “promoted” to second in command behind Halleck, with Major General George H. Thomas taking command of Grant’s army. Halleck rarely consulted with Grant on any decisions or plans, making Grant’s position virtually unnecessary. Grant deeply resented the new command structure, and for a time he believed that Thomas had somehow been behind the change. A newspaper reporter wrote that it “was felt by him (Grant) to be an insult put upon him at the instigation of General Thomas.” But the decision had been Halleck’s alone.
Halleck planned to advance 25 miles to confront the Confederate Army of Mississippi (also known as the Army of the Mississippi) under General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth. Halleck telegraphed his superiors at Washington on May 1: “The evidences are that Beauregard will fight at Corinth.”
Beauregard received word of the impending Federal advance and issued a proclamation to his men:
“We are about to meet once more in the shock of battle the invaders of our soil, the despoilers of our homes, the disturbers of our family ties. Face to face, hand to hand, we are to decide whether we are to be freemen or the vile slaves of those who are free only in name, and who but yesterday were vanquished, although in largely superior numbers, in their own encampments on the ever-memorable field of Shiloh. Let the impending battle decide our fate, and add one more illustrious page to the history of our Revolution, one to which our children will point with noble pride, saying, ‘Our fathers were at the battle of Corinth.’”
By this time, Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of the West had arrived from Arkansas to make up Beauregard’s reserve. Beauregard also asked Major General Mansfield Lovell, who had recently abandoned New Orleans, to leave a regiment at Vicksburg and bring the rest of his force to Corinth. But Lovell resisted Beauregard’s request, asserting that Vicksburg needed all the help it could get to guard against the Federal naval fleet heading up the Mississippi River.
At Pittsburg Landing, Halleck notified his superiors on the 3rd: “I leave here tomorrow morning, and our army will be before Corinth tomorrow night.” By this time, advance elements of Halleck’s left wing under Pope were approaching Farmington, just four miles from Corinth. The Federals took Farmington after heavy skirmishing, but instead of moving his center and right wings up beside Pope, Halleck ordered Pope to fall back beside the center and right, which were 12 miles from Corinth near Monterey, Tennessee.
Halleck ordered a halt to the overall advance on the 4th so the troops could dig entrenchments. He was determined to always be ready for an attack so as not to duplicate the carnage at Shiloh. Building defenses at each stop in forward progress turned the advance into a crawl. This despite having a numerical superiority over Beauregard that was even greater than Major General George B. McClellan had over General Joseph E. Johnston on the Virginia Peninsula.
Still at Monterey on the 6th, Halleck explained to his superiors that heavy rain had slowed the march, and the surrounding “country was almost like a wilderness and very difficult to operate in.” Rumors that Confederates were reinforcing Corinth made Halleck even more reluctant to advance. These rumors contradicted intelligence that Pope, whose wing of the army was closest to Corinth, had received stating that Beauregard was preparing to evacuate. Halleck opted not to act on Pope’s information.
At Corinth, Beauregard expected an attack at any moment. He devised signals to notify the army where the impending assault would come from, the Confederate right (signaled by three artillery rounds fired), center (two rounds), or left (one round). Scouts informed Beauregard on the 6th that advance Federal elements were approaching the Tennessee-Mississippi border.
Over the next two days, the Federals made very little forward progress as Halleck deployed several scouting missions. Pope advanced again to Farmington, moving two divisions near the Confederate lines. However, Halleck again ordered Pope to withdraw his men to rejoin the rest of the army. To Washington, Halleck’s “advance” was looking more like a siege, much like George B. McClellan’s disappointingly slow advance against Yorktown in the East.
In fact, Halleck’s advance on Corinth was even slower than McClellan’s advance up the Peninsula. But while McClellan was being heavily criticized for his slowness in Washington, Halleck’s slowness was largely overlooked. This was partly due to the fact that McClellan was much closer to the capital and therefore under closer scrutiny. It was also because Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and his allies were big supporters of Halleck. Even so, President Abraham Lincoln began to suspect that Halleck was taking longer than he should to accomplish this mission.
Skirmishing continued through the next week around Farmington and other points in northeastern Mississippi. By the 17th, the Federals were slowly inching their way toward Corinth, but they were halted by a fierce fight at Russell’s House. Halleck spent the next few days bringing up his heavy artillery, which required the construction of corduroy roads. Meanwhile, the Federals built extensive earthworks and trenches to guard against attacks that never came. The Federals were closing in on Corinth, but very slowly.
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- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.