Holding Corinth to the Last Extremity

Major General Henry W. Halleck’s “Grand Army” inched its way toward Confederates under General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth, forcing Beauregard to decide whether to fight or flee. By this time, it had taken Halleck nearly three weeks to advance his army of over 120,000 men less than 25 miles from Pittsburg Landing in southwestern Tennessee to the vital railroad town of Corinth in northern Mississippi. To avoid another near-disaster like Shiloh, Halleck required his men to build entrenchments and earthworks at the end of every day. Bad weather and heavily wooded country also slowed the advance.

Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, who had been “promoted” to Halleck’s second in command, officially headed Halleck’s right wing and reserve. But Halleck maintained his headquarters with the right wing, so he had direct control over its movements and did not consult Grant on military matters. Brigadier General William T. Sherman, Grant’s close friend, wrote after the war, “General Grant was substantially left out, and was named ‘second-in-command’ according to some French notion, with no clear, well-defined command or authority… he felt deeply the indignity, if not insult, heaped upon him.”

Halleck’s advance, if not already slow enough, was slowed even more by northern politicians worried about the dangerous Confederate army awaiting the Federals. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton inspected troops from his state and then wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “The enemy are in great force at Corinth, and have recently received reinforcements. They evidently intend to make a desperate struggle at that point, and from all I can learn their leaders have utmost confidence in the result… It is fearful to contemplate the consequences of a defeat at Corinth.” As the Federals approached Corinth, both the skirmishing and the northern fears increased. Halleck responded by dispatching even more scouting parties to reconnoiter the areas around nearby Iuka and Burnsville.

Meanwhile, Beauregard notified his superiors in Richmond that he intended to hold Corinth as long as possible. But if retreat became necessary, he would fall back to the southeast, closer to Richmond and farther from vital points on the Mississippi River such as Memphis and Vicksburg. Beauregard wrote that it was “essential to hold Corinth to the last extremity, if the odds are not too great against us, even at the risk of a defeat.”

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

That “last extremity” came on May 25 when Beauregard called his top commanders (Generals Braxton Bragg, Earl Van Dorn, Leonidas Polk, William J. Hardee, John C. Breckinridge, and Sterling Price) to a council of war. Beauregard explained that the Confederates could repel a frontal assault, but Halleck would most likely try to surround and besiege the town in an effort to starve the army into surrender. This the Confederates could not resist, especially with the number of effective soldiers dropping rapidly due to illness and a lack of drinking water. The only viable options were either to attack preemptively or abandon the town.

When Beauregard asked for advice, Hardee stated that attacking the huge Federal army “would probably inflict on us and the Confederacy a fatal blow.” The officers agreed that it was best to evacuate Corinth, fall back along the Memphis & Ohio Railroad, and live to fight another day.

Beauregard directed his commanders to begin preparations but keep the plan secret so he could fool Halleck into thinking that the Confederates intended to fight. The next day, Beauregard issued orders for evacuating Corinth. He began by sending supplies and the sick troops to Baldwin and Tupelo.

A few miles away, Halleck continued assembling his heavy guns to place Corinth under siege. The end of the Federal right wing was within four miles of the Confederate defenses outside the town. By the morning of the 28th, Halleck’s three wings under Generals George H. Thomas, Don Carlos Buell, and John Pope (right to left) were all finally within gun range of Confederate defenses outside Corinth. Halleck initiated an artillery bombardment from dawn to dusk, pausing intermittently for the infantry to probe for weaknesses in the defenses.


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