The Western Army Separation

After capturing Corinth in northern Mississippi, most of Major General Henry W. Halleck’s Federal “Grand Army” occupied the town and the vital junction between the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio railroads. Halleck then went about supervising the construction of massive earthworks to protect his men from a Confederate attack he was sure would come. While the Confederates desperately wanted to take Corinth back, they were not going to make any suicidal charges against 100,000 Federals stationed within nearly impregnable defenses.

Halleck then began sending out patrols to guard his supply lines and probe southward in search of Confederate resistance. These patrols mostly belonged to the armies of Major Generals John Pope and Don Carlos Buell. In his usually cautious manner, Halleck told them, “The major object now is to get the enemy far enough south to relieve our railroads from danger of an immediate attack. There is no object in bringing on a battle if this can be obtained without one. I think by showing a bold front, the enemy will continue to retreat, which is all I desire.”

In early June, some skirmishing took place around Rienzi, Mississippi. As the probes gradually moved farther south, farmers on the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers began burning enormous amounts of cotton to keep it out of Federal hands.

Meanwhile, General P.G.T. Beauregard continued to withdraw his Confederate army from northern Mississippi. They fell back through Baldwin and eventually stopped to make a defensive stand at Tupelo, 52 miles south of Corinth. Beauregard could not hope to match the size of the Federal army and therefore planned to wait for Halleck to divide his forces and then counterattack where he was most vulnerable.

H.W. Halleck and P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Beauregard considered the evacuation of Corinth a success because he got away with his entire army intact. President Jefferson Davis disagreed and was deeply resentful that the town was lost without a fight. He sent a military aide to interrogate Beauregard regarding the loss. He also wrote to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus, “My efforts to provide for the military wants of your section have been sadly frustrated.”

Back at Corinth, Halleck had several options as to what he could next. He could have sent a force southward to attack the vital river town of Vicksburg; he could have gone east to capture Chattanooga; or he could have moved directly against the Confederate army at Tupelo. Since the Lincoln administration had been clamoring for protecting the many Unionists in eastern Tennessee, Halleck decided to focus his main efforts on Chattanooga. This vital city linked Virginia to Georgia by rail, and it was within striking distance of both Knoxville and Atlanta.

On June 9, Halleck announced that he would return his “Grand Army” to its three original armies:

  • Don Carlos Buell would resume command of the Army of the Ohio and lead the Chattanooga expedition. “With all possible energy,” Buell would link with the Federals currently operating in northern Alabama and move aggressively on the town. But aggressiveness was not Buell’s strong suit.
  • John Pope would resume command of the Army of the Mississippi, which would occupy Corinth and vicinity.
  • Ulysses S. Grant would resume command of the Army of the Tennessee. Two of his divisions under William T. Sherman would occupy Memphis, and two divisions under John A. McClernand would occupy Jackson, Tennessee. Sherman and McClernand were to secure the railroad and assure “all country people that they will be permitted to take their cotton freely to market and that the ordinary channels of trade will be immediately reopened.”

Halleck would remain in Corinth and coordinate the movements of the three armies. Although Grant was the senior commander among Halleck’s subordinates, the only offensive movement that Halleck approved was Buell’s to capture Chattanooga.

Preliminary movements toward Chattanooga had begun earlier in June when Buell’s detached division under Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel advanced from Huntsville, Alabama. On the 7th, a 6,000-man force from Mitchel’s command under Brigadier General James S. Negley approached Chattanooga from the northwest and began shelling the city from across the Tennessee River.

The Confederates defending Chattanooga, led by Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, had been assigned to guard all of eastern Tennessee from Chattanooga up to Cumberland Gap. They repelled the Federal attack, but this indicated to Smith that he needed a lot more men to defend the region. He called on both Beauregard’s Army of Mississippi and Richmond for reinforcements, arguing that his men were exhausted from marching the 180 miles back and forth between the two points.

On the 12th, Halleck reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that Buell would arrive at Decatur, Alabama, the next day. Halleck wrote, “If the enemy should have evacuated East Tennessee and Cumberland Gap, as reported, Buell will probably move on to Atlanta.” But Buell’s advance stalled at Decatur; he partly blamed this on Mitchel for destroying railroad tracks and bridges that Buell’s men needed to advance.

By June 23, two weeks after the expedition began, Buell’s Federals had advanced just 50 miles to Tuscumbia, Alabama. Chattanooga was still 170 miles away. Buell next advanced to Athens, Alabama. Bureaucratic errors prevented supplies from reaching the troops there, causing more delays.

While in northern Alabama, Buell learned about the Federal pillage of Athens in May and court-martialed Colonel John B. Turchin for waging war on non-combatants in violation of the rules of war. Turchin was dismissed from the army, but President Abraham Lincoln later reinstated him and promoted him to brigadier general.

The campaign against Chattanooga slowly continued into July, but it would be abruptly halted when the Confederates took the offensive.


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