Leaders of both sides recognized the necessity of holding it, because it was in Corinth that the north-south Mobile and Ohio Railroad intersected the east-west Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Whoever controlled Corinth held an important logistical key to the entire lower Mississippi Valley.
The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862 began the series of events leading to advances on Corinth. The Confederates, under General Albert Sidney Johnston, saw their trans-Appalachian defense line broken and fell back on Corinth as their new anchor of defense of the Lower South. Federal General Henry W. Halleck set his sights on the same target stating that the railroad centers in Richmond and Corinth were “the greatest strategic points of the war and our success at these points should be insured at all hazards.”
In early April 1862, as the Federal Army under Grant camped at Pittsburg Landing, some 22 miles north of Corinth, waiting for the arrival of reinforcements, Johnston decided to go on the offensive to prevent the massing of the Federal forces. Leaving Corinth on April 3, 1862, Johnston’s troops made a surprise attack near Shiloh Church on April 6. Although the Confederate Army made a strong showing on the first day of the battle, it experienced a terrible loss when Johnston was mortally wounded. Taking his place as Confederate commander was General P.G.T. Beauregard, who halted the attack late in the day. During the evening Federal General Don Carlos Buell’s Army arrived and on the second day of battle the Federals retook the field. The tattered Confederates made their painful trek toward Corinth. The two-day Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest exchange that the nation had experienced at that point of the Civil War.
After the Battle of Shiloh, Corinth was in chaos. Soldiers were retreating into the city and all of the houses and buildings became hospitals. The largest and best recognized of these places was the two-story, brick Tishomingo Hotel, located near the railroad crossing. Because of the overwhelming numbers of casualties, many soldiers were sent via the railroad to Okolona, Columbus and Oxford, Mississippi.
More than ever, Confederate leaders realized the significance of holding Corinth. Beauregard said that if they lost Corinth, “we would lose the Mississippi Valley, and probably our cause.” He received reinforcements, but his army remained weak from its losses at Shiloh.
Halleck, at the head of three Federal Armies, had, at the start of the march toward Corinth, the largest military force ever assembled in the United States. Despite the size of his force, Halleck worried about another surprise attack and entrenched every night. By late May 1862, the Federal Army was on the high ground within a few thousand yards of the Confederate fortifications near Corinth.
On May 25, Beauregard decided to withdraw from Corinth. He knew that Halleck’s army outnumbered his two to one and reasoned that the Federals planned to lay siege. With his men’s health steadily worsening, Beauregard had no choice. His army was to evacuate the City as quickly as possible. He executed a clever plan. Soldiers removed the artillery and replaced them with “Quaker guns,” logs painted black to give the appearance of real weapons. Then, trains moving southward took the sick, wounded, and supplies toward safety. When the empty cars returned, Beauregard had the soldiers cheer as though they were welcoming reinforcements. On May 30, the Confederate army completed its evacuation. When Federal troops marched into Corinth, they found it deserted. Beauregard had escaped, and Halleck did not bother to pursue the Confederate Army because he simply wanted to take Corinth.
Shortly after Halleck’s capture of Corinth, he was promoted to be the general-in-chief of all Federal armies. His departure left Grant in command. His army wasn’t ready for immediate battle, because troop levels had been reduced as they were ordered to different theatres. In June, Federal General William S. Rosecrans, who had taken command of Pope’s army, convinced Grant that it was imperative to build better fortifications to defend against a surprise attack on Corinth. Earlier in the summer, Halleck had ordered a series of batteries to be built, but Rosecrans believed an inner line of batteries would better protect the railroads. Therefore, during the summer of 1862, the Federal soldiers built forts and periodically skirmished with Confederate cavalry.
Conversely, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, convinced that Grant and Rosecrans could rapidly concentrate a huge force, considered Confederate General Sterling Price’s earlier proposal of joining their armies to make a surprise attack upon Corinth. The two generals met in Ripley, Mississippi, and marched northward to Metamora, Tennessee, hoping to make the Federals in Corinth believe that they were going to attack Bolivar, Tennessee, when actually Corinth was their primary target. They hoped to make a surprise attack before Rosecrans had a chance to recall troops in outlying areas.
Meanwhile, Grant made his headquarters in Jackson, Tennessee, leaving Rosecrans in control of Corinth where he continued to build the city’s defenses. He posted troops in outlying areas, but close enough for their recall in case of an offensive. Receiving contradictory intelligence, Rosecrans was not sure whether the Confederates would attack Bolivar or Corinth. As a precautionary move, he sent a brigade to Chewalla, Tennessee, ten miles northwest, to await any possible attack.
With a force numbering 23,000, the Confederates pushed the Federals from Chewalla to Corinth on October 3 where they made a full-scale attack upon Rosecrans and his 23,000 men. The first action took place on a ridge outside the city near the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. The Confederate soldiers charged again and again until the Federal troops were forced from the high ground. At about the same time, Price’s corps encountered Federal troops in a wooded area on the west side of the Mobile and Ohio railroad. Sweeping through fallen timber, Confederates pushed the Federals out of Battery F and into the inner line of batteries. Another portion of Price’s corps engaged the Federals near the “White House” about a mile from Corinth. They took the ridges above town and were poised to capture Corinth itself. For the heights, they viewed the fronts of Forts Robinett and Powell. October 3 ended with the Federals concentrated inside the inner works at Corinth, awaiting another Confederate attack.
There were two major pushes by the Confederates during the second day of fighting. The first charge took place at Battery Powell. Although the Federals fled the fort, the Confederate were unable to hold it for very long. However, some Confederates made it into town and engaged the Federals in hand-to-hand, house-to-house combat. The heaviest fighting took place near the Tishomingo Hotel. The Federals having re-taken Battery Powell turned their attention to this threat. The Federal troops rallied and counter attacked, driving the exhausted Confederates out of Corinth.
In the approaches further west of Corinth, fierce action was taking place. The Confederates made three charges upon Battery Robinett. Despite shells raining down upon them from massive Battery Williams, some Confederates managed to reach the earthwork. After desperate fighting, Federal reserves broke the enemy columns. The second day of battle was over by one o’clock in the afternoon, and Van Dorn ordered a retreat back to Ripley.
These battles were the last major Confederate offensive in Mississippi. Victories enabled Grant to turn his attention toward Vicksburg. However, military activity did not end in 1862. The Federal army remained strongly ensconced for the next fifteen months and did not leave town until January 1864. The Confederates were ordered to defend Georgia, leaving Mississippi in the hands of Confederate cavalry and bands of guerrillas. Confederate General Stephen D. Lee began repairing the railroads to strengthen communications and supply lines. During early 1865, much skirmishing occurred in the area with a Federal garrison in winter quarters on the Tennessee River. Finally, on May 4, 1865, the Civil War in Mississippi ended when Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered to Federal General Edward S. Canby.