CORINTH INFORMATION DATABASE Version 1.3 © 1995 Milton Sandy, Jr.

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CORINTH: An Urban National Battlefield Park

By

LARRY C. SKELTON October, 1972

An abstract of local Civil War history from a report published by the
Corinth-Alcorn Chamber of Commerce


INTRODUCTION

"Richmond and Corinth are now the great strategical points of war, and our success at these points should be insured at all hazards."[1]

So stated Union General W. H. Halleck in a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in May of 1862. And well he might have said this, for Corinth had dominated the high command's strategy since the fall of Fort Donelson.[2] The bloody Battle of Shiloh had been fought solely for the possession of Corinth." Halleck had assembled the largest army in America to wrest Corinth from the Confederacy. In fact, no less than three Federal armies had converged on Corinth in the spring of 1862: the Army of the Tennessee under Ulysses Grant, the Army of the Mississippi under John Pope, and the Army of the Ohio under Don Carlos Buell. In terms of aggregate numbers of troops involved, the Siege of Corinth would become the greatest in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

Corinth's importance was due to the railroads.

Here the Confederacy's only east-west link, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, crossed the vital Mobile and Ohio Railway; these were the two longest railroads in the South. Confederate Secretary of War L. P. Walker called this railroad junction the vertebrae of the Confederacy, [4] and the village was soon to acquire its sobriquet "Crossroads of the Confederacy." With Corinth in Union hands, two avenues of conquest were open to the Federal armies: one led to Vicksburg, which would bisect the Confederacy, and one led to Atlanta.[5]

The strategical value of Corinth had not escaped the notice of the Confederate high command. Halleck's opponent, General P. G. T. Beauregard, wired Richmond from Corinth:

"... Can we not be reinforced? ... If defeated here we lose the Mississippi Valley and probably our cause, whereas we could even afford to lose for a while Charleston and Savannah for the purpose of defeating Buell's army, which would not only insure us the valley of the Mississippi, but our own independence.[6]

As a result of the ensuing concentration at Corinth, the South's largest city, New Orleans, was abandoned to fall immediately into Federal hands. The coastal defenses were stripped from Mobile, Pensacola, and as far away as Charleston. Missouri and northern Arkansas were abandoned, never again to be in Confederate hands. Thus, the Confederacy made these sacrifices to concentrate enough troops to defend a small northeastern Mississippi village. As one witness observed: "The best of everything was sent to Corinth."[7]

As the opposing armies entrenched only a few yards from each other, Beauregard exhorted his men, "You can tell your grandchildren you were at the Battle of Corinth."[8] But the battle did not occur, at least not yet. Faced with overwhelming numbers, Beauregard retreated; and Halleck, content with the possession of Corinth, did not pursue.

However, the war had not yet departed from Corinth's environs. First Shiloh, then the awesome siege, had been undertaken to determine who controlled the railroad junction. Now a final chapter was to be written. In the autumn of 1862 the Confederacy unleashed a powerful, three-pronged offensive. Lee invaded Maryland; Bragg, who replaced Beauregard, marched to Kentucky; and Van Dorn attempted to retake Corinth. In a three-day battle, the largest and bloodiest in Mississippi, Union General Rosecrans successfully withstood repeated Confederate attacks and preserved Corinth for the Union. During the battle, Corinth was bombarded for the second time by Federal artillery as the heavy guns within the Union forts were reversed to repulse a Confederate breakthrough which carried the entire downtown section. Following Van Dorn's defeat, the war shifted eastward and Corinth faded from the picture.

Corinth not only faded from the war but apparently from memory as well. Of all the major campaigns of the Civil War, the Siege and Battle of Corinth are undoubtedly among the least known and are certainly the least enshrined. While the Department of Interior has glorified the lesser battles of Pea Ridge, Fort Donelson, and others, Corinth has been bypassed. All that commemorates Corinth's part in the Civil War is Fort Robinett Park, consisting of six graves, two markers, and a wheelless cannon pointing in the wrong direction.

Despite the lack of memorialization in the past, Corinth today constitutes an ideal site for a National Military Park. Because the battle took place on one side of town and the siege on the other, the city is literally surrounded with potential development sites. Moreover, the growth of Corinth over the last century has resulted in the inclusion of most historical areas within the present corporate limits. Thus, Corinth could become the first city with a National Military Park superimposed upon it. The idea of an urban battlefield park is a novel one. The chief advantages of such a development would be the limited amount of land to be purchased, the minimum cost of development (few, if any, access roads would have to be constructed), low maintenance costs, and easy accessibility.

In summary, the reasons Corinth should be developed into a National Military Park are these:

  1. The Battle of Shiloh was fought for the possession of Corinth.

  2. The Siege of Corinth was, in terms of aggregate numbers of troops involved, the largest in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

  3. The Battle of Corinth was the largest and bloodiest in Mississippi.

  4. Two of the three principal Confederate armies were formed from the conglomeration of troops concentrated at Corinth in the spring of 1862.

  5. An urban setting offers advantages of cost minimization in development and maintenance.

  6. The proximity of the Shiloh National Military Park offers the possibility of a combined administration.

  7. Many battles and siege sites are miraculously still vacant tracts of land.

It must be noted that buildings have been constructed on many battle areas, while many other sites have the immediate prospect of being subdivided. Unless action is taken in the immediate future, most of the historical sites will succumb to the bulldozer.


WAR IN THE WEST

With the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, the first line of Confederate defense in the West was broken. There was consternation throughout the South. The shattered wings of the Confederate Army, divided by the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, headed South to safety. However, Union General Halleck, commander of all Federal forces west of the Alleghenys, did not view the destruction of this army as the primary objective. The Union high command was far more concerned with breaking the vital Memphis and Charleston trunk line. Geography determined where this line would be broken; henceforth, the primary objective of Federal forces in the West would be the northeast Mississippi village of Corinth.[9]

Not only was Corinth the South's primary rail center, but also it was the nexus for highways radiating to Florence, Tupelo, Memphis, Jackson, Bolivar, Ripley, and Jacinto.[10] Furthermore, the Tennessee River was within easy reach of the town. The loss of this strategic town would paralyze Confederate transportation in the West. It would represent the gateway for two great avenues of advance to the Union troops; to Vicksburg and down the Mississippi splitting the Confederacy in two, and toward Chattanooga and across the Allegheny barrier.[11] This could then be done without overextending Federal supply lines. [12] For these reasons Grant regarded Corinth as the great strategic position in the West between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers and between Nashville and Vicksburg.

Concentration

Halleck's caution had given Beauregard and Albert Sydney Johnston time to unite their widely separate wings at the crossroads village, and now they were calling for reinforcements. General Lovell at New Orleans was ordered to Corinth with his division. This stripped the South's largest city of defenders, but the Confederate high command had already decided that Corinth was more important than the Crescent City. Soon after Lovell departed, New Orleans was occupied by Federal troops.[13] The troops under Bragg at Mobile and Pensacola were also dispatched to Corinth. From Arkansas and Missouri Generals Van Dorn and Price and the Army of the West were summoned. With the transfer of this army eastward, Missouri and northern Arkansas were forever lost to the Confederacy.[14] From east Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, troops began the long trek to the tiny crossroads town which was only in its eighth year of existence. From this congregation of troops now converging on Corinth, two of the South's three principal armies would be created.

Corinth had enjoyed a quiet past, the two railroads were still newcomers. Now the fame of Corinth was for a brief season to span the world.[15] Poet Henry Timrod visited Corinth in early April of 1862. He had expected to find ". . . a railroad station, two or three dwellings, perhaps a store, and a postoffice." He was surprised to find the village "quite a place." It was a large village with two hotels, churches, streets lined with many stores, a college, and many attractive residences. The stores had been converted into depots taken over by the commissary department to house the mountainous supplies for the vast army accumulating in the town.[16]

Shiloh

Ulysses Grant put a note of urgency in the Confederate concentration. In April he arrived with his army on the banks of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing, Corinth's river depot. Neither Grant nor William Tecumseh Sherman, one of his division commanders, expected a battle at this place near a little log church named Shiloh. Both regarded the landing as only a stepping stone on the route to Corinth. Grant pitched camp to await the arrival of Don Carlos Buell and the Army of the Ohio.

Johnston had other ideas. He would not sit placidly at Corinth and await the Union avalanche. He wanted to strike Grant before the two Federal armies could unite, and before his own concentration was completed. On the night of April 3, Johnston marched from Corinth, and by the morning of the sixth was in position to do battle. His attack caught the Federals by complete surprise. No defensive positions had been prepared as no attack was expected. Johnston's plan was to drive the Union army into the Tennessee River bottoms and to crush it there. For several hours it appeared that the plan would be successful despite the desperate stand of a Union division along a sunken road. In mid-afternoon Johnston fell mortally wounded and was succeeded by Beauregard, who called off the attacks later in the evening as the Federal troops took position in a final defensive line around Pittsburg Landing. During the night, Buell's army arrived, and the next day the combined Union forces took the initiative. The Confederates fell back stubbornly across the ground they had won the day before and at 2:00 began the retreat to Corinth. Grant did not pursue.[17]

The Siege

Following the battle, Corinth was transformed into one vast hospital. Churches, schools, residences, and the two hotels were crammed with the wounded. Prior to Johnston's march to Shiloh, General Bragg had begun work on a system of field fortifications surrounding the town. After the Confederate defeat and return of the army to Corinth, work on these breastworks was vigorously renewed. They soon took on awesome proportions. The concentration of troops was now completed with the arrival of the eastern contingent and Van Dorn's Army of the West. Beauregard now commanded an aggregate force of 112,092, but due to an extreme amount of sickness and a high desertion rate, the effective strength of the army was under 60,000.[18] During the siege more troops would die of sickness and disease than were killed in the Battle of Shiloh.[19]

Halleck arrived at Pittsburg Landing soon after the battle and superseded Grant as Federal commander. He now began the accumulation of a vast army, in fact, three armies. The Armies of the Tennessee and the Ohio under Grant and Buell were arrayed at and around Shiloh. Halleck bolstered these forces with new levies and brought down General Pope's Army of the Mississippi from Island Number Ten. Altogether, Halleck now commanded an army of 128,315 effectives gathered at Shiloh.[20] With this huge Federal army, Halleck commenced to literally dig his way to Corinth, erecting earthworks every step of the way and taking a month to cover a distance of less than 20 miles. Beauregard's army was to be feared and mistrusted but was not Halleck's prime objective. The goal of this vast army, then the largest ever assembled in America, was the crossroads village of Corinth.[21]

Halleck's caution prevented Beauregard an opening to attack the numerically superior Federal forces. The Union general arrived before Corinth in late May and Beauregard declined battle; instead he performed what is undoubtedly the greatest hoax of the war. While giving the impression that he was being reinforced, he quietly slipped his army away to Tupelo, a point 50 miles to the South. So complete was the secrecy of the move that on 1:20 a.m. on May 30, the final day of the retreat, General Pope was writing Halleck,

"The enemy is reinforcing heavily, by trains, in my front and on my left. The cars are running constantly, 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."[22]

A few hours later the hoax was revealed and Halleck occupied his prime objective immediately.

Jefferson Davis was infuriated. Although Robert E. Lee had approved of Beauregard's retreat, the President blamed Beauregard not only for the loss of Corinth but for the high rate of both sickness and desertion. He sent his personal aide to investigate Beauregard's handling of the army, and as a result the general was relieved of command to be replaced by Bragg.[23]

With the capture of Corinth, Halleck gave no further thought to the Confederate army now at Tupelo. As a reward for his victory the Union general was called to Washington and given the position of Commander-in-Chief of all United States forces. The huge army assembled at Corinth was broken up into garrison units and spread throughout western Tennessee, northwestern Alabama, and northern Mississippi. With Halleck's departure, Grant assumed command of the western forces.

The Battle

With the fall of Corinth the Union high command was content to sit upon its laurels and digest its conquered territory. The initiative thus passed to the Confederacy, and Bragg, who had transferred most of his army to east Tennessee, soon began a march to Kentucky. In the East, Lee had won devastating victories; first over the Army of the Potomac at the Seven Days Battle, then over the Army of the Virginia at Second Manassas. By early autumn his legions were invading Maryland. Van Dorn, who with his Army of the West had remained in northern Mississippi after the rest of the troops had been sent east with Bragg or south to Vicksburg, now contemplated an invasion of his own.

In September, Van Dorn met with General Lovell and General Sterling Price to determine whether the Army of the West should attack Memphis, Bolivar, or Corinth. They unanimously agreed that Corinth, despite its impregnable defenses, should be the objective of the campaign. As Van Dorn noted, "The attack on Corinth was a military necessity requiring prompt and vigorous action... Corinth, so hurtful to us while in the possession of the enemy, so advantageous to us if in our own. . ."[24] General Price later stated that, ". . . Corinth warranted more than the usual hazard of battle."[25]

On September 29th, Van Dorn moved his army of 22,000 from Ripley northward. His strategy was to feint against Bolivar, then to turn and strike swiftly at Corinth. Grant had divined the Confederate General's plan and had posted his 25,000 men behind strong entrenchments to the west of Corinth. In one of the unexplained mysteries of the war, Grant turned his command over to William Rosecrans and retired to Jackson, Tennessee.[26]

On October third, Van Dorn arrived at Corinth, and at noon launched his attack. For five hours the Confederate army drove the Federal troops back a distance of over two miles. At dusk the attacks were called off as the casualties on both sides had been extremely heavy. During the night both commanders rearranged their divisions and prepared to renew the battle at first light.

The fighting which occurred on October fourth gave the battle its reputation of being one of the most vicious fights of the Civil War. It started with an artillery duel which ceased shortly after daylight. The first attack of the day was launched against Rosecrans' extreme right flank (in the vicinity of what is now Corinth High School). Three times the attacks were repulsed, and at 11:00 a.m. the Confederate troops retired from this portion of the field. Shortly after 10:00 brigades from Hebert's Confederate Division broke the Federal lines to the northwest at two points. From here the assault carried down Jackson, Polk, and Fillmore Streets, the Confederates firing into the windows of residences to drive the Federals out. By 11:30 they had penetrated to the railroad and beyond, capturing the Tishomingo Hotel and Rosecrans' headquarters. At this point the reserve brigade of Union General Sullivan made an appearance and, for one of the few times in the Civil War, hand-to-hand fighting took place. The Federal reserve artillery unlimbered in the streets and went into action as the fighting spread throughout most of the downtown area. To add to the confusion, the Federal batteries at Forts Williams and Phillips reversed their guns and began firing indiscriminately into the massed combatants. The Confederate assault was unsupported, however; and by 12:00 the fatigued troops were driven out of town.

While chaos was under way downtown, Van Dorn unleashed his most vicious attacks of the day in the western part of town. Three times the brigades of Price stormed Fort Robinett, and on the third attempt captured the massed artillery. But the ever-vigilant gunners of Fort Williams, having ceased their demolition of downtown Corinth, turned their attention and their cannon on the captors of Fort Robinett. For the second time within an hour, troops on both sides were exposed to the wrath of Fort Williams' energetic cannoneers. The Confederates quickly withdrew.

The final attack of the day took place in the southwestern portion of town, where Lovell made two feeble attempts to capture Fort Phillips. Both attacks were easily repulsed by the fort's cannon with the assistance of Fort Williams' active batteries. By 2:00 the Confederate attacks had all been repulsed, and the retreat toward the Hatchie River began.

On October 5, fresh Federal troops from Bolivar and Jackson interrupted the Confederate retreat ten miles west of Corinth. In this endeavor the Federals were severely repulsed and Van Dorn continued his withdrawal to Ripley. The official losses (killed, wounded, and captured) for the three-day battle for the Confederacy were 4,838, and for the Union, 3,090. There is evidence that the Confederate losses were understated by several thousand casualties and that the combined losses on both sides approached 12,000.[27]

Aftermath

For a month or more after Van Dorn's repulse, Grant was convinced that the Confederacy would make still another attempt to recapture Corinth. But Corinth had been the South's last great offensive in the Valley of the Mississippi.[28] Soon Grant began the accumulation of the army that would eventually take Vicksburg and sever the Confederacy; with this done, the war moved eastward into its final stages. Corinth was partially destroyed and abandoned by the Federals in 1864 when the transportation facilities of Chattanooga and Nashville were used to supply Union forces in the West.

But the crossroads village was to enjoy one final moment of glory. In late 1864, Jefferson Davis foresaw the end of the Confederacy unless drastic action could be taken. Grant was hammering at Lee in front of Richmond while Sherman was making his drive on Atlanta and beyond to the sea. Davis decided to take a big gamble; he appointed John Bell Hood to the command of the Confederate army opposing Sherman and instructed him to invade Tennessee and Kentucky, hopefully drawing Sherman from Georgia. The immediate problem was how to supply this army behind Federal lines. The Federal evacuation of Corinth provided the solution. The railroad between Mobile and Corinth was rapidly repaired, and Corinth became the supply base for Hood's army which represented the Confederacy's last chance at independence. [29] However, Sherman was not lured from Georgia and Hood was smashed in front of Nashville. A few months later the Confederacy collapsed.


Footnotes:

1. The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol.X, Part 1 (Washington: 1880-1901), p. 667.

2. Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), pp. 265-266.

3. Ibid., p. 216.

4. Official Records, Series I, Vol. VII, Part 1, p. 889.

5. Francis V. Greene, The Mississippi (New York: 1883), p. 31.

6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. X, Part 1, p. 403.

7. Papers of Alfred P. James.

8. Official Records, Series I, Vol. X, Part 1, p. 482.

9. Catton, pp. 265-266.

10. Robert G. Hartje, Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General (Vanderbilt University Press, 1969), p. 214.

11. Green, p. 31

12. Catton, p. 279

13. Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative - Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 319.

14. Papers of Alfred P. James.

15. Robert C. Black III, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952), p. 139.

16. J. Cutler Andrews, The South Reports the Civil War (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 153.

17. Albert Dillahunty, Shiloh: National Military Park, Tennessee, Historical Handbook Series, No. 10 (Washington: National Park Service, 1955, reprint: 1961), p. 153.

18. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. X, Part 1, p. 781.

19. The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960), p. 375.

20. Catton, 277.

21. Ibid., 265.

22. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. X, Part 1, p. 225.

23. Foote, pp. 389-390.

24. Hartje, p. 244.

25. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. XVII, Part 1, p. 444.

26. The Lost Account of the Battle of Corinth and the Court-martial of General Van Dorn, author unknown, ed. by Monroe F. Cockrell (Jackson, Tennessee: McCowat-Mercer Press, 1955), p. 54.

27. Account of Battle of Corinth taken from Official Records
and Monroe F. Cockrell.

28. Greene, p. 54.

29. Black, p. 264.



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