Defending Confederate Borders
At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised most of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, which flow north to the Ohio River) provided relatively easy access to the South. In 1861, the State of Tennessee constructed earthen forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to prevent federal invasions from the north.
Grant Captures Fort Henry and Fort Donelson
By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the West to invade the South. On January 30, 1862, the western theater commander, General Henry Halleck, reluctantly approved Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s request to attack Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River. Eager to move, Grant left Cairo, Illinois on February 2, with 15,000 soldiers plus a flotilla of seven gunboats commanded by United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. On February 6, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman surrendered Fort Henry after a seventy-five-minute bombardment by Foote’s gunboats. Following the surrender of Fort Henry, Grant turned invested Fort Donelson located just twelve miles to the east of Fort Henry on the Cumberland River. After a failed breakout on February 15, the Confederate commander of Fort Donelson, General Simon B. Buckner, surrendered Fort Donelson to Grant the next day.
Confederates Abandon Nashville
The fall of the two forts was a serious blow to the Confederacy. It forced General A. S. Johnston, the commander of Rebel forces in the West, to abandon Kentucky and to fortify his position deeper in Tennessee. The fall of the two forts also provided the Federals with two major waterways in the West from which to launch an invasion of the South. As Union armies surged into Tennessee, Johnston abandoned Nashville, Tennessee, and moved even farther south in late February, rather than risk suffering a major battlefield defeat.
Battle of Shiloh
Following the fall of Nashville, Halleck ordered Grant to march his army south to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, near the Tennessee-Mississippi border, to await Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Halleck’s intention was to merge the two armies and move south and to capture the Confederate railroad center at Corinth, Mississippi.
By early April, Grant had his army of nearly 50,000 men encamped along the western side of the Tennessee River near Pittsburg Landing. On the morning of April 6, 1862, Johnston launched a surprise attack against Grant’s army. In the ensuing confusion, many of the panicked federal troops fled. The on-coming Rebels drove the Yankees back until they held at a new defensive position behind Shiloh Church. During the fighting, Union soldiers killed Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard succeeded him as commander of the Confederate forces.
The next morning, bolstered by Buell’s reinforcements, Grant launched a successful counterattack. When the outnumbered Rebels ran low on ammunition, Beauregard ordered his men to retreat Corinth.
Halleck Takes Control
Although the Union was victorious at the Battle of Shiloh, Halleck was displeased that Johnston had surprised Grant. Thus, he assumed field command of the Union forces and advancing against Beauregard’s army entrenched at Corinth.
Uniting Union Forces
Corinth was a small but strategically important town where the east-west Memphis & Charleston Railroad crossed the north-south Mobile & Ohio Railroad, near the Mississippi-Tennessee border. Halleck considered Corinth and the railroad center at Richmond, Virginia to be “the greatest strategic points of the war.” Halleck’s resolve to capture Corinth prompted him to merge the Army of the Tennessee, Army of the Ohio, and Army of the Mississippi into one massive force of approximately 120,000 soldiers.
Beauregard also understood the importance of Corinth, observing, “If defeated here we will lose the Mississippi Valley and probably our cause.” To stop Halleck and prevent the loss of Corinth, the Confederate general had nearly 65,000 soldiers entrenched behind earthen fortifications guarding the city.
Advance on Corinth
After making all necessary preparations, on April 29, 1862, Halleck’s forces departed 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 divisions of the Army of the Tennessee and one division of the Army of the Ohio, led by Major General John McClernand. Halleck relegated Grant—whose reputation suffered at Shiloh—to the inconsequential position of second-in-charge and denied him a field command.
Corinth Under Siege
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 the town, Earl Van Dorn’s 14,000-man Army of the West reinforced the Rebels, but Halleck still outnumbered Beauregard’s 65,000 defenders nearly two to one. In addition, the Confederates were running out of water, and nearly 20,000 of them were wounded or wracked with dysentery and typhoid. On the same day that Halleck began shelling the Rebel defenses, Beauregard developed plans to evacuate the town and save his army by implementing an elaborate hoax.
Starting on May 29, Beauregard increased train traffic into Corinth to evacuate his sick and wounded soldiers and 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, surprised Union patrols found the Confederate fortifications undefended, and the town evacuated.
Although it took Halleck over one month to capture Corinth, he did so with very little bloodshed. Each side suffered roughly 1,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured/missing). That fact was not lost upon Halleck’s men, many of whom had taken part in the bloodbath at Shiloh and who were expecting no less at Corinth. In honor of his accomplishment, they gave him the nickname of “Old Brains.” Although Beauregard’s army escaped to fight another day, federal officials and the Northern press celebrated Halleck’s victory. Within two months, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Halleck to Washington, placing him in charge of all federal armies, hoping he might duplicate his success on a larger stage.