Soldiers and civilians knew that he was the only general in the Federal Army who had consistently brought victory to Union arms. Under his command in St. Louis, his subordinates in the field had won important battles. Ulysses S. Grant had captured Forts Henry and Donelson (with naval support), John Pope had taken Island No. 10 and Samuel R. Curtis had defeated Confederates at Pea Ridge, Ark. Armies under Halleck’s command had not only driven Confederates out of Missouri but also broken Albert Sidney Johnston’s long defensive line between the Cumberland Gap in the East and the Mississippi River in the West. While preparing his army to launch an attack on the Confederates in their new defensive line at Corinth, Miss., Grant had suffered a one-day setback at Shiloh, but on the following day he had sent them limping back to their Corinth base. Still, it was not easy for Halleck’s soldiers to feel optimistic after the bloody Shiloh victory. It had been a wet spring, and the constant rains had turned the Pittsburg Landing battlefield into a muddy quagmire of horror. The wounded, sick and dead lay mingled in the mud; the sights, smells and sounds were sickening. Burial parties were everywhere; wagons and open pits were full of corpses. ‘War is hell broke loose,’ one soldier said in the days immediately after Shiloh.
For Halleck, the movement against Corinth would be his only campaign in the field during the entire war. (Library of Congress) Halleck’s arrival at Pittsburg Landing signaled a new beginning. A soldier remembered seeing him, confidently dressed in impeccable civilian clothes, pacing in front of a mud-spattered and embarrassed Grant. Halleck was scolding Grant in what the soldier said was ‘a loud and haughty manner.’ Grant might have won the recent victory at Shiloh, but Halleck was clearly lambasting him for the surprise of the first day and the awful condition of his army at that juncture.
Halleck saw his task as similar to the situation in Missouri after he had taken over from John C. Frémont: cleaning up a mess. This time, however, it was Grant’s mess. He evaluated Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which had joined Grant’s Army of the Tennessee on the second day at Shiloh, as being in ‘good condition,’ but he castigated Grant’s force as ‘without discipline and order.’ ‘Immediate and active measures must be taken to put your command in condition to resist another attack by the enemy,’ he berated Grant. He also ordered Pope, the victor at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, to bring his Army of the Mississippi immediately to Shiloh.
Something amazing was happening at Pittsburg Landing. Halleck, whose military department was geographically the largest under Federal jurisdiction, was now organizing what would become the young war’s largest military force. He took three armies and merged them into a single unit of more than 100,000 men. The collection of officer talent that led these troops was similarly impressive: In addition to Halleck, Grant, Buell and Pope, there were George H. Thomas, William T. Sherman, William Rosecrans, Phil Sheridan, James B. McPherson, John McClernand, John A. Logan, James A. Garfield, William ‘Bull’ Nelson, Jefferson C. Davis and Lew Wallace.
On April 30, Halleck established three wings of his new army: the Right Wing, under Thomas, consisting of four divisions from the Army of the Tennessee and one division from the Army of the Ohio; the Center Wing, under Buell, consisting of four divisions from the Army of the Ohio; and the Left Wing, under Pope, made up of four divisions from the Army of the Mississippi. The reserve, under McClernand, consisted of two Army of the Tennessee divisions and one from the Army of the Ohio.
Grant became second in overall command. Halleck always insisted that he made this assignment because Grant’s rank required it, but in fact he did not trust Grant and wanted to keep a close eye on him. ‘I never saw a man more deficient in the business of organization,’ Halleck said of Grant. ‘Brave & able in the field, he has no idea of how to regulate & organize his forces before a battle or to conduct the operations of a campaign.’
Facing this massive Union army was P.G.T. Beauregard’s still-recovering Army of Mississippi. After the loss at Shiloh on April 7, it had staggered back to Corinth, leaving scattered along the roads everything from blankets to tent poles, muskets to broken wagons. The original commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, had died in battle, and Beauregard, who had replaced him, had not inspired immediate confidence by ordering an end to the first day’s attack. During that evening Buell had arrived and Grant had reorganized, and the revitalized Union army had swept the Confederates off the field on the second day. Beauregard recognized how shattered his troops were and called for reinforcements. When the long-awaited Earl Van Dorn with his Army of the West arrived from across the Mississippi River in mid-April, his command consisted of only about 14,000 men. Beauregard added those soldiers to his own 30,000 and scraped together others from all over the Confederacy to create a respectable force of 70,000 with which to face Halleck’s 100,000. Unfortunately for him, nearly 20,000 Confederates were suffering from wounds or disease. Beauregard did, however, have many well-known generals in his officer corps, including Van Dorn, Leonidas Polk, William Hardee, Braxton Bragg, John C. Breckinridge, Mansfield Lovell and Sterling Price.
Corinth, where the Confederate army was entrenched, was not a large city. Incorporated in 1856, it was originally named Cross City because the east-west Memphis & Charleston Railroad and the north-south Mobile & Ohio Railroad were slated to intersect there in the near future. When the Civil War began, Corinth was still a small village with a population of only 1,000. Once the fighting started, the city became a rallying point for troops and supplies. When Albert Sidney Johnston and his army arrived there after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, the city gained more than 40,000 new military residents, numbers of whom were already ill or became ill and died. Corinth resembled a huge hospital and morgue. Entrenchments protecting the city, begun under Bragg’s direction prior to Shiloh, now stretched into 10 miles of mounded clay and lumber. They reinforced the natural defenses of the swamps and the flooded streams. They ran out of coffins because of the huge number of deaths, but there was always plenty of clay to dig and pile up.
The terrain that separated the Union army at Pittsburg Landing and the Confederate army some 22 miles away in Corinth was rolling, wooded and, in places, swampy and traversed by streams and roads. These bodies of water were hardly imposing enough to stop an advancing army, but they were robust enough, particularly because of the wet spring, to make land approaches swampy and water crossings difficult.
There were several roads leading into the city. A direct road ran from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth, first passing through Monterey 10 miles out and then continuing for another nine miles into the former Cross City. This was the route that the Right Wing followed. The Center Wing followed the Purdy-Farmington Road, while the Left Wing traveled along the Hamburg-Corinth Road, which passed through Farmington.
Rain was a major problem, resulting in a flood that carried away bridges, and creating mud that slowed road traffic to an exhausting crawl. Pope said that he almost lost his boots in slogging through the mud to get to Halleck’s tent. Future president Garfield bemoaned the’succession of heavy rains…[which] made camp life in these woods very uncomfortable.’ Soldiers had to clear numerous trees the Confederates had dropped in the army’s path, and they also corduroyed roads through the swamps. It was a difficult existence. Inexorably, however, Union troops were bearing down on the Mississippi-Tennessee border in a line almost 12 miles wide. They expected a major battle soon, a repeat of the horror of Shiloh.
Rumors of Confederate activity filled the air, influencing the generals and the lowliest privates alike. Still, by May 3, Pope’s wing was only a mile and a half from Farmington, which was a scant four miles from Corinth. Slowing its progress, however, was a swollen creek to the front and what was described as ‘an impregnable jungle and swamp’ to the left. Pope also worried that Buell, on his right, was not keeping up. Meanwhile, Thomas’ Right Wing had advanced beyond Monterey until rain stopped its movement. Sherman, who commanded a division in the Right Wing, described the situation in a circular to his soldiers: ‘Our situation from the rain and road has become difficult, and it becomes the duty of every officer and man to anticipate our danger and labor. Every ounce of food and forage must be regarded as precious as diamonds….General Halleck and our superior officers will do all they can, but their power is limited by nature.’
The heavy rains, the washed-out bridges and muddy roads that made supply difficult, the fact that Halleck found the region ‘almost a wilderness and very difficult to operate in’ and the rumors of Beauregard’s being reinforced and feeling confident at being able to repulse any Union attack frustrated Halleck. Some of his soldiers, however, had more basic concerns. They were hungry and cursed the quartermaster. ‘The cry of `crackers,’ `crackers’ resounds from one end of the camp to the other,’ a soldier said. Yet, despite it all, Halleck was pleased to be able to tell Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on May 6 that ‘our advance guards are within six (6) miles of Corinth.’
The weather turned briefly hot and dry, and the army began a siege of Corinth — what one soldier termed the ‘First Epistle to the Corinthians.’ Soldiers on both sides had predicted a quick fight. Union troops had believed they would be marching into Corinth by May 2, but this had not happened.
Certainly the horrible weather and subsequent widespread illness had played a role in this slow movement, but Halleck was the primary reason. He was the authority on military theory, and his book called for massing troops and winning victories through maneuver and numerical superiority. He had also been Dennis Hart Mahan’s star pupil at West Point and, like Mahan, he was a great admirer of the French doctrine that emphasized the necessity of field fortifications, particularly for amateur soldiers like the ones that comprised his massive army. So he dug in every chance he had. The memory of the recent surprise Confederate attack at Shiloh only made his orders regarding entrenchments more insistent. He massed, he inched forward, he worried and he entrenched.
Although second in command, Grant found himself with little to do. He complained to Halleck, ‘I believe it is generally understood through this army that my position differs but little from that of one in arrest.’ Although he was nominally vice commander, he did not have any real authority. ‘I respectfully ask either to be relieved from duty entirely or to have my position so defined that there can be no mistaking it,’ he concluded.