Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the massive 120,000-man Federal army in northern Mississippi, prepared to attack the Confederates defending the vital railroad town of Corinth. It had taken nearly a month for Halleck to move just 22 miles, but now as May was drawing to a close, he was finally ready to fight.
Halleck directed Brigadier General William T. Sherman’s division to make a demonstration on the right, which enabled him to position his heavy guns in that sector to start bombarding the town on May 30. In the center, Major General Don Carlos Buell reported increased enemy activity and requested to attack. On the left, Major General John Pope posted field artillery and began shelling the town; he also planned to attack on the 30th.
Halleck had originally believed that General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates in Corinth, was simply waiting for the Federals to attack his strong defenses. But now Halleck agreed with Pope that Beauregard was preparing to attack the Federal left. In reality, Beauregard was doing neither; he was preparing to abandon Corinth.
Beauregard had just 53,000 men, which was too few to attack. And if Halleck put Corinth under siege, they would be starved into submission. Moreover, a lack of adequate drinking water plagued the Confederates, as did rampant illness. Nearly a third of the army was on the sick list, with dysentery so prevalent that soldiers nicknamed it “the evacuation of Corinth.” Thus, Beauregard opted to withdraw and keep his army intact.
Orders were issued to fall back to Tupelo, Mississippi. Major General Braxton Bragg directed the trains, which made off with the Confederates’ ammunition, supplies, and infirmed troops who could not travel on their own. Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates protected the trains as they headed south. Major General William Hardee’s troops led the withdrawal, marching 20 miles south to Booneville by day’s end.
Throughout the night, Beauregard had a train of empty cars move back and forth as close to Pope’s lines as possible, with whistles blowing and soldiers cheering every time it stopped near the Federal lines. This not only covered the Confederate withdrawal, but it fooled Pope into thinking that Beauregard was being reinforced. He wired Halleck at 1 a.m. on the 30th, “The enemy is re-enforcing heavily, by trains, in my front and on my left. The cars are running and the cheering is immense every time they unload in front of me. I have no doubt, from all appearances, that I shall be attacked in heavy force at daylight.”
Federal soldiers who had railroad experience could tell by putting their ears to the rails that empty trains were coming into Corinth while full trains were moving out. But their commanders would not take heed.
By dawn on May 30, both Halleck and Pope were certain that the Confederates would attack Pope’s (left) sector of the Federal line. However, Federals heard “unusual noises” and “a succession of loud explosions” from inside the town and realized that the enemy had fooled them. Skirmishers were deployed at 6 a.m., and they took control of the abandoned Confederate defenses by 7:30.
The Federals found Corinth to be an empty town. Almost anything of value had been evacuated or destroyed. The Confederate army was gone, as were most of the townspeople. Brigadier General Lew Wallace, commanding a division in Halleck’s army, wrote, “Corinth was not captured; it was abandoned to us. At dawn of May 30th we marched into its deserted works, getting nothing–nothing–not a sick prisoner, not a rusty bayonet, not a bite of bacon–nothing but an empty town and some Quaker guns.”
Enormous clouds of smoke from burning storehouses hung in the air. Pope entered Corinth and notified Halleck at 9:30 a.m. that the enemy “evacuated yesterday and last night. They marched down the Mobile railroad.” The U.S. flag was raised over the courthouse as Federals celebrated what many believed to be a hollow victory. An Iowa officer wrote of “an undescribable feeling of mortification that the enemy with all his stores and ordnance had escaped.” Northerners “were prepared to hear of many slain in the effort to take Corinth, but not to hear that the enemy had fled and was out of reach.”
Halleck ordered no pursuit, except for a tentative scouting expedition by Pope. Halleck had no intention of confronting Beauregard’s army; his sole objective in this campaign was to capture Corinth, with or without a fight. Halleck wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton announcing a great victory and declaring, “the result is all I could possibly desire.”
Pope had reported 10,000 Confederate stragglers on the road away from town, which Halleck twisted into reporting that Pope had taken 10,000 prisoners. Halleck refused to correct his report, which infuriated Pope because it gave him a reputation as a liar and braggart. With typical caution, Halleck quickly directed part of the army to build defensive works south of town, while other Federals took over the abandoned Confederate trenches.
Illness played a role not only in Beauregard’s withdrawal, but also in Halleck’s decision not to pursue. About a third of Halleck’s army was sick, with Halleck and Pope afflicted with diarrhea, and Sherman suffering from malaria. Nearly 30 other generals in the army also reported to be ill.
Beauregard’s men crossed the Tuscumbia River, six miles south of Corinth, and halted. When no Federal attack came, they burned the bridge and continued falling back along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line toward Baldwyn, 30 miles south. The lone setback in Beauregard’s otherwise seamless withdrawal came when Federal cavalry rode ahead to Booneville, destroyed large amounts of supplies and equipment, and took 500 prisoners.
Beauregard got away with almost all his men, supplies, equipment, and provisions intact. He only left behind some “Quaker” guns, or logs painted black to resemble cannon. For this, Beauregard declared that the withdrawal was “equivalent to a brilliant victory.”
But President Jefferson Davis saw it differently; he was very upset about losing such an important town as Corinth. To Davis and many top Confederate military leaders, the loss of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad (which intersected the Mobile & Ohio at Corinth) broke the “vertebrae of the Confederacy.”
With victories at Pea Ridge, New Madrid, Island Number 10, Shiloh, and now at Corinth, the Federals controlled the entire Mississippi River Valley from Missouri to northern Mississippi. From this point, Halleck now had several options. He could pursue Beauregard, threaten Memphis to the northwest, threaten Vicksburg to the southwest, threaten northern Alabama to the east, threaten Chattanooga to the northeast, or set up an occupation force to deal with supply transport, trading, contrabands, and guerrillas. Halleck chose the last two options.
Although capturing Corinth gave the Federals an excellent supply base deep in the southern heartland, the Lincoln administration noted that it took Halleck over a month to get there, and it ended with Beauregard’s army remaining fully intact.
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