We visited Shiloh National Military Park in Mississippi and Tennessee in September. The Battle of Shiloh and the siege of Corinth were important engagements early in the Civil War.
“If defeated here we lose the Mississippi Valley, and probably our cause.” After the Battle of Shiloh Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard cabled this haunting prediction to his superiors in Richmond. A month later his adversary, Union commander General Henry W. Halleck, shared similar sentiments with Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Our first stop was the Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth, Mississippi. The Center museum was well-done and provided a good overview. The order of our stops was purely based on the fact that it was a few miles less on our journey if we went to Corinth first. This turned out to be fortuitous as without Corinth there would have been no Battle of Shiloh. Looking at the chronology of events this statement seems counter-intuitive. The Battle of Shiloh took place April 6-7, 1862, the Corinth Siege was April 29-May 30, 1862 and the Battle of Corinth was October 3-4, 1862.
The importance of Corinth lies in the fact that the town of Corinth was at the crossroads of the two most important railroads in the Confederacy.
To prevent a Union advance into the Mississippi valley, Confederate forces were concentrated in and around Corinth under the leadership of General A. S. Johnston. Union forces under Major General U. S. Grant gathered near Pittsburg Landing preparing for an advance on Corinth but were ordered to wait for the reinforcement of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.
Johnston took the initiative and attacked the Union troops on the morning of April 6. The battle raged until nightfall. During this time, General Johnston was hit by a stray bullet and bled to death.
After Johnston’s death, General P.G.T. Beauregard took command. By the end of April 6, the Union lines had been broken and they were forced back to Pittsburgh Landing, where they held the important landing under protection of gunboats on the river. Confederate troops plundered the over-run Union camps and Beauregard established his headquarters at Shiloh Meeting-House.
During the night, torrents of rain fell and Buell’s forces arrived. Grant counter-attacked in the morning. After heavy fighting throughout the day April 7 and now facing overwhelming numbers, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth. There was little Union effort to follow them.
One of the costliest battles of the Civil War up to that point, Shiloh’s 23,746 casualties left in doubt the question of who would control Corinth’s railroad junction.
On the Shiloh battlefield there are five known mass graves where many of the 1,728 Confederate dead were buried. Many of the 1,754 Union dead are buried in the National Cemetery at Pittsburgh Landing.
In the beginning of the Civil War, Corinth was a frontier boomtown, with a growing population, numerous businesses, hotels, churches and a college. It was at the junction of two railroads, the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio. These two railroads were vital for the Confederacy, linking the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico to Kentucky.
In the spring of 1861, the railroad junction became a liability for Corinth. Corinth had become a mobilization center for the South and tens of thousands of soldiers passed through the town. The railroads were essential for the movement of Confederate troops and war materiel and Corinth was the most strategic transportation hub in the western Confederacy.
Beauregard was determined to maintain control of Corinth and the railroad junction. Following the Confederate retreat from Shiloh, Union General Halleck’s army of 120,000 men besieged Beauregard’s 65,000 Confederates at Corinth.
Both Confederate and Union troops built almost thirty miles of earthworks to guard the approaches to Corinth from all four directions. Several miles of rifle pits, trenches and artillery positions still exist.
Finally forced to withdraw, the Confederates on the night of May 29,1862, secretly slipped out of Corinth by rail and Halleck occupied the town the next day. In October, Confederate General Van Dorn tried to recapture Corinth but this effort failed and the town remained in Union hands until January 1864 when it was abandoned to supply soldiers for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.
The National Cemetery in Corinth is the final resting place for both known and unknown soldiers. The many small uninscribed headstones mark unknown soldiers. It’s difficult to contemplate the many families who were left not ever knowing what happened to their husbands, fathers and sons.
Both the Union and Confederate armies wreaked havoc on the town and its citizens. After the Battle of Shiloh, Corinth was nearly overwhelmed with sick and wounded southern soldiers. During the Union occupation, Corinth’s population swelled with thousands of soldiers, contraband slaves, and white southern Unionists.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, granting freedom to the slaves in the Confederate States if the States did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863.
The security offered by the presence of Union troops in Corinth attracted enslaved African-Americans who fled plantations and farms seeking freedom. The actual origins of a “freedmen’s camp” at Corinth are obscure but as thousands of destitute people poured into Federal lines after the Battle of Shiloh something had to be done. Newly freed and first called “contraband of war”, they found a temporary home in the contraband camp at Corinth. This camp, established northeast of town and beginning as a tent city, became a thriving community of homes, a school, church, hospital and a progressive cooperative farm program. Northern abolitionist and benevolent organizations provided assistance and instruction. Considered a model of its kind, this camp provided the first taste of non-slave life for these men, women and children. Nearly 2,000 African American men who passed through the camp enlisted in the Union Army. The camp was closed and moved to Memphis a month before Union forces abandoned Corinth. All physical evidence of the camp has disappeared but the park preserves a small portion of the historic site.
Shiloh National Military Park offers visitors an opportunity to put many of the pieces together to understand the ramifications of the battles, the siege, and the immediate and long-term effects on civilian life.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm