Composed primarily of Midwesterners, the Union Army of the Tennessee participated in nearly all of the major campaigns in the Western Theater during the American Civil War from 1861 through 1865.
The informal origins of the Army of the Tennessee spring from the troops commanded by Ulysses S. Grant when he commanded the District of Southeast Missouri beginning in September 1861. During the autumn of that year, Grant and his soldiers skirmished with Confederate forces for control of western Kentucky near the Ohio River.
On December 20, 1861, Major General Henry W. Halleck issued Special Orders, No. 78 (Department of the Missouri) placing Grant in command of the reconfigured District of Cairo. Two months later, Grant opened the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to Union navigation with his victories at the Battle of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 12–16, 1862) in northern Tennessee.
Battle of Shiloh
During the Battle of Fort Donelson, Halleck issued General Orders, No. 37 (Department of the Missouri) on February 14, 1862, assigning Grant to command of the newly created District of West Tennessee. By early April, Grant’s force of nearly 50,000 men encamped along the western side of the Tennessee River, near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. By then, he was referring to his command at various times as the Army of West Tennessee and the Army of the Tennessee.
On the morning of April 6, 1862, Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on the Union soldiers encamped at Pittsburg Landing, while Grant was approximately ten miles downriver at Savannah, Tennessee, nursing a swollen ankle that had him on crutches. In the ensuing confusion, many of the Federal troops fled in panic. Others re-formed battle lines and mounted some resistance, but the Rebels gradually drove the Union soldiers back to a defensive position behind Shiloh Church.
As the Confederates pressed their advance, the Federals made a stand at a position, since popularized as the “Hornet’s Nest,” near a road now known as the “Sunken Road.” Although the Rebels killed or captured many of the Yankees, the seven-hour stand bought valuable time for Grant to rejoin his troops, reorganize his soldiers, and establish a stable defensive line. On the next day, reinforced by Major General Don Carlos Buell and his Army of the Ohio, Grant launched a counterattack that drove the Rebels from the field.
Change in Command
Although the Army of the Tennessee prevailed at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), the Northern press condemned Grant for being surprised by Johnston’s attack. Rumors circulated that Grant was drunk as Rebels bayoneted Union soldiers in their tents as they slept. After two weeks of criticism, Halleck reacted. On April 28, 1862, he issued Special Orders, No. 31 (Department of the Mississippi). The dispatch merged the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Ohio, and the Army of the Mississippi to form one large army comprising three corps commanded by Halleck. Two days later, Halleck issued Special Field Orders, No. 35, which transferred Major General George H. Thomas from the Army of the Ohio to command the Army of the Tennessee. Although Grant lost his field command, he retained command of the District of West Tennessee. To ease the sting, Halleck nominally “promoted” Grant to his second-in-command.
Siege of Corinth
On April 29, 1862, Halleck dispatched his army from Pittsburg and Hamberg Landings in three wings toward Corinth. The right-wing, commanded by Major General George H. Thomas, comprised four divisions from the Army of the Tennessee and one division from the Army of the Ohio; the center wing, led by Major General Don Carlos Buell, comprised four divisions from the Army of the Ohio; and the left wing, under Major General John Pope, comprised four divisions from the Army of the Mississippi. Halleck held in reserve two Army of the Tennessee divisions and one division of the Army of the Ohio, led by Major General John McClernand.
It took Halleck’s army one month to traverse the twenty-two miles to Corinth. Poor weather, rough terrain, and a series of small-scale Rebel attacks, which began on May 4, delayed the Union advance. Cautious by nature and still smarting from the Rebel surprise attack at Shiloh, Halleck insisted that his soldiers dig new defensive trenches each time that they moved to a new position. By May 25, after traveling only five miles in three weeks, Halleck was close enough to Corinth to shell the Confederate defenses and to lay siege to the town.
Inside of the town, Earl Van Dorn’s 14,000-man Army of the West reinforced the Rebels, but Halleck’s juggernaut outnumbered P. G. T. Beauregard’s 65,000 defenders nearly two to one. In addition, the Confederates were running out of water, and nearly 20,000 of them suffered from wounds, dysentery, and typhoid. On the same day that Halleck began shelling the Rebel defenses, Beauregard decided to withdraw and save his army.
Starting on May 29, Beauregard increased train traffic into Corinth to evacuate his sick and wounded soldiers, as well as his supplies. As each train arrived, healthy Rebel troops cheered loudly, as though reinforcements had arrived. Beauregard also sent bogus deserters into the Union lines to spread false rumors of an imminent Confederate attack. As the number of Rebel troops in the town dwindled, the Confederate commander replaced real guns with fake, or Quaker, guns, and he ordered his remaining troops to keep campfires burning along the lines. On the morning of May 30, when Union patrols approached the Confederate fortifications, they found them undefended, and the town abandoned.
Although it took Halleck over one month to capture Corinth, he did so with very little bloodshed. That fact was not lost upon Halleck’s men, many of whom had taken part in the bloodbath at Shiloh and who expected the same at Corinth.
Grant Back in Charge
Ten days after his triumph at Corinth, Halleck dismantled the large army he had created. On June 10, 1862, he issued Special Field Orders, No. 90, (Department of the Mississippi) revoking Special Field Orders, No. 31. The directive stated that “The order dividing the army near Corinth into right wing, center, left wing, and reserve is hereby revoked. Major-Generals Grant, Buell, and Pope will resume the command of their separate army corps,+ except the division of Major-General Thomas, which, till further orders, will be stationed in Corinth as a part of the Army of the Tennessee.”
Although Beauregard’s army escaped to fight another day, the Northern press and the Lincoln administration celebrated the Union victory. On July 11, President Lincoln summoned Halleck to Washington and placed him in charge of all federal armies, hoping he might duplicate his success on a larger stage. Before departing, Halleck issued Special Orders, No. 161 (Department of the Mississippi), which expanded Grant’s responsibilities as commander of the District of West Tennessee, to “include the Districts of Cairo and Mississippi; that part of the State of Mississippi occupied by our troops, and that part of Alabama which may be occupied by the troops of his particular command, including the forces heretofore known as the Army of the Mississippi.” For the next few months, Grant deployed his troops to secure Union inroads made into Tennessee and Mississippi earlier in the year.
On October 16, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders No. 159, creating the Department of Tennessee and placing Grant in command of the new department. Although still not officially designated the Army of the Tennessee, the informal handle for Grant’s forces was now more closely aligned with the actual name of his command.
Following the creation of the new department, Grant organized his army into four corps—the 13th under John A. McClernand, the 15th under William T. Sherman, the 16th under Stephen Hurlbut, and the 17th under James B. McPherson—as he prepared for an offensive against Vicksburg, Mississippi. He then spent the next seven months subjugating the Mississippi River stronghold.
After capturing Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Grant had little time to rest on his laurels. The stunning Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863) prompted President Lincoln to reorganize U.S. forces in the West. On October 16, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders No. 337, naming Grant to command the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, encompassing the departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee—nearly all Union forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. On October 19, Grant issued General Orders No. 2, naming William T. Sherman to succeed him as commander of the Department and Army of the Tennessee.
Upon assuming command of the Division of the Mississippi, Grant immediately proceeded east to suppress the Confederate investment of the Union garrison at Chattanooga, Tennessee. He arrived in Chattanooga on October 23, 1863, and immediately approved Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s plan to open a “cracker line” to supply the city. Meanwhile, Major General William T. Sherman led nearly one-third of the Army of Tennessee east from Vicksburg to support Grant’s operations in Chattanooga. Sherman’s soldiers arrived at Chattanooga in mid-November. By November 27, Grant’s combined forces, led by the Army of the Cumberland, lifted the siege and drove Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee back into Georgia.
With Bragg’s forces in retreat, Grant ordered Sherman to lead part of the Army of the Tennessee north toward Knoxville, Tennessee, where Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio was being besieged by Confederate General James Longstreet’s command. Sherman’s approach convinced Longstreet to call off the investment and to withdraw to Virginia.
With eastern Tennessee under Union control, Sherman returned to Vicksburg in February 1864, to lead the portion of the Army of the Tennessee he had left behind in a campaign against General Leonidas Polk’s troops at Meridian, Mississippi. As Sherman approached Meridian, Polk determined that he could not stop the Federals, so he evacuated the city. Sherman reached Meridian on February 14 and began laying waste to the area, practicing the “total war” strategy that he would use on his March to the Sea in November and December.
Grant and Sherman’s successes in Tennessee and Mississippi propelled them to new heights. On February 29, 1864, President Lincoln approved legislation reviving the rank of lieutenant general—the highest rank in the Army. On the same day, Lincoln nominated Grant for the position. The Senate confirmed Grant’s nomination on March 2, 1864. On the next day, Grant traveled to Washington. On March 10, Lincoln issued an executive order appointing Grant “to the command of the armies of the United States.” On March 12, the War Department issued General Orders No. 98, naming Sherman to succeed Grant as commander of the Division of the Mississippi and promoting Major General James B. McPherson to command of the Department and Army of the Tennessee.
During Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign (May 7–September 2, 1864), the Army of the Tennessee fought its way to the Georgia capital along with the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Ohio. During the Battle of Atlanta (July 22, 1864), a detail of Confederate skirmishers mortally wounded McPherson, as he attempted to escape capture on his way to Sherman’s headquarters. Upon McPherson’s death, Major General John A. Logan assumed temporary command of the army for six days. On July 26, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 44, placing Major General Oliver O. Howard in charge of the Army of the Tennessee. Howard assumed command the next day.
Under Howard’s leadership, the Army of the Tennessee served as Sherman’s right-wing during the March to the Sea (November 15, 1864–December 21, 1864) and during the Carolinas Campaign (February–April 1865).
As the war began to wind down, Congress approved An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees on March 3, 1865. Signed by President Lincoln on the same day, the bill established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson selected Howard as the Bureau’s first (and only) commissioner. Howard’s departure as commander of the Army of the Tennessee prompted the War Department to issue General Orders No. 96, naming John A. Logan as Howard’s successor on May 19, 1865.
On May 24, 1865, Logan had the honor of leading the Army of the Tennessee on the Grand Review through the streets of the nation’s capital. A few weeks later, the War Department started mustering the men of the Army of the Tennessee out of service. On July 13, Logan issued a farewell address to his soldiers, and on July 3, he issued General Orders No. 26, stating that “all the remaining troops of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Seventeenth Army Corps, and of the Provisional Division of the Army of the Tennessee, not included in the muster-out ordered in General Order No. 14 . . . will be at once mustered out of the service of the United States, and placed en route for their respective State rendezvous, there to be paid off and finally discharged.” On August 1, 1865, the War Department issued General Orders No. 131, discontinuing the corps that comprised the Army of the Tennessee.