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Reading 2: The Battle of Corinth

After the Confederates evacuated Corinth, Union soldiers occupied the town. They spent most of the long, hot summer digging wells to find good water and building additional fortifications. Gen. Halleck ordered the construction of a series of larger earthwork fortifications called "batteries," designed to hold cannon to protect Corinth against Confederate forces approaching from the west or south. His successor, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, concentrated on protecting the railroad crossover and its vital supplies. He built an inner series of batteries on the ridges immediately around the town. Trenches for infantrymen connected the batteries and masses of sharpened logs pointing outward (the Civil War equivalent of barbed wire) strengthened the line.

In the summer and early fall of 1862, the military situation changed dramatically. The South seized the initiative from Virginia to the Mississippi River and beyond. In hard-fought battles, the Confederates carried the fighting to the North. On the all-important diplomatic drawing room "front," the British government seemed on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy as an independent country.

In September, many of the men at Corinth went off to fight a bloody battle at Iuka, successfully blocking a Confederate move into Middle Tennessee. On October 2, Gen. Rosecrans learned that the Confederates were approaching from the northwest. The two armies each had 22,000-23,000 men, but Rosecrans's position behind his defensive earthworks was a strong one. He stationed his advance guard about three miles beyond the town limits. On October 3, Union and Confederate forces clashed initially in the area fronting the old Confederate earthworks. In heavy fighting throughout the day, the Confederates pushed Union forces back about two miles. Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, the Confederate commander, certain he could win an overwhelming victory in the morning, called a halt to the fighting about 6:00 p.m. His troops, parched and exhausted from lack of water and 90-degree heat, camped for the night, some only a few hundred yards from the inner fortifications where Union troops had taken refuge.

During the night, Union commanders moved their men into a more compact position closer to Corinth, covering the western and northern approaches to the community. The partially entrenched line was less than two miles long and was strengthened at key points by the cannons of the batteries named Tannrath, Lothrop, and Phillips located on College hill southwest of the town; batteries Williams and Robinett, positioned overlooking the cut of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad immediately west of the rail junction; and an unfinished Battery Powell, still being built on the northern outskirts of Corinth.

Before dawn on October 4, the Confederates woke the Union troops with artillery fire, but things quickly began to go wrong. The general who was to lead the opening attack had to be replaced, causing confusion and delay. But about 9:00 a.m. the Confederates opened a savage attack on the Union line. Some of the Confederates fought their way into the town. Battery Powell changed hands twice in fierce fighting. About 10:00 a.m., four columns of gray clad Confederates advanced on Battery Robinett. The men inside the battery watched them come:

As soon as they were ready they started at us with a firm, slow, steady, step. In my campaigning I had never seen anything so hard to stand as that slow, steady tramp. Not a sound was heard but they looked as if they intended to walk over us. I afterwards stood a bayonet charge . . . that was not so trying on the nerves as that steady, solemn advance.1

A man from an Alabama regiment described the scene from the Confederate side:

The whole of Corinth with its enormous fortifications, burst upon our view. The United States flag was floating over the forts and in town. We were met by a perfect storm of grape[shot], canister, cannon balls, and minie balls. Oh God! I have never seen the like! The men fell like grass.2

Four times they charged, each time being mowed down by withering fire from the cannons of batteries Robinett and Williams and from the muskets of the men lined up in the field next to the batteries. After desperate fighting, a Union bayonet charge broke the enemy columns and drove them back. By noon Van Dorn's army was in retreat. Rosecrans did not pursue the retreating army until the next day, and eventually Van Dorn managed to save his army. The Union lost 2,360 men killed and wounded in the fierce two-day fight; Confederates losses totaled 4,848. Union victories at Corinth, MS, Antietam, MD, and Perryville, KY set the stage for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and helped prevent the British and the French from recognizing the Confederacy. The Confederacy never recovered from its losses of September and October 1862.

The Union continued to occupy Corinth for the next 15 months, using it as a base to raid northern Mississippi, Alabama, and southern Tennessee. Control of Corinth and its railroads opened the way for Union victory at Vicksburg, MS in July 1863. On January 25, 1864, Union troops left the town. The Confederates returned, but it was too late. The South had not built a single locomotive since 1861 and could no longer take advantage of the once critical railroad lines. The only cars moving on the patched-together tracks were pulled by mules.

Questions for Reading 2

1. How did Union forces try to prepare Corinth against a Confederate attack?

2. What changed during the summer of 1862?

3. What happened when the Confederates charged Battery Robinett? Why did the attack not succeed?

4. What were the consequences of the Confederate defeat?

5. Why was it too late when the Confederates returned to Corinth?

Reading 2 was adapted from Paul Hawke, et al., "Siege and Battle of Corinth" National Historic Landmark documentation; Ray S. Price and Ellsworth R. Swift, "Civil War Corinth, Interpretive Concept Plan," 6-7; Cozzens, The Darkest Days of the War and Rogers, Civil War Corinth, 27-40.

1Oscar L. Jackson, The Colonel's Diary (Sharon, PA: n.p., 1922), 71. 2Letter of Charles C. Labuzan, 1st Lieutenant, Co. F, 42nd Alabama, Grenville Dodge Papers, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

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