March 29, 1862 (Saturday)
Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was the hero of Fort Sumter, the hero of Manassas and, should he accept command of the western army, potential hero of the Mississippi. In the weeks since his arrival, Southern forces in Tennessee had taken great losses, starting with Forts Henry and Donelson, and continuing with the retreat from Nashville. Throw in the abandonment of Columbus and New Madrid and things were not looking so bright for the Confederacy in the west. This was, hoped the South, only temporary.
As the Army of Tennessee, under General Albert Sidney Johnston, retreated south from Nashville to Corinth, Mississippi, part of the Army of the Mississippi, under General Beauregard, clung to Island No. 10 in the river bearing the army’s name. The remainder of Beauregard’s forces, mostly under General Braxton Bragg, were also filtering into the Mississippi town.
When Generals Johnston and Beauregard met to discuss their next action, they were well aware that the 27,000 men of General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee were concentrating twenty miles north at Pittsburg Landing (also known as Shiloh). They were also aware that General Don Carlos Buell’s Union Army of the Ohio, 37,000 strong, which had taken Nashville when Johnston abandoned it, was moving south to join Grant. It was obvious that something had to be done quickly, before the two forces could unite against the roughly 40,000 Confederates consolidating near Corinth.1
They decided to combine both of their forces into one. Officially, Beauregard’s Army of the Mississippi was never a real army. It was always under Johnston’s umbrella. On this date, however, Johnston’s umbrella seemed to grow larger. It also had a new moniker, casting aside the “Army of Tennessee” for Beauregard’s “Army of the Mississippi.” Through all of this, Johnston made General Bragg his chief of staff and then offered command of the army to Beauregard, leaving himself in command of the department.2
This quixotic offer surprised Beauregard, who declined to accept, leaving Johnston in command of the newly organized Army of the Mississippi. This new force was made up of three corps, under Generals Polk, Bragg and Hardee. There was also a reserve division under General Crittenden (who would soon be replaced by Breckinridge).
This new force was new indeed, its troops, largely, untried and green. Many of the men in Polk’s Corps had never seen battle. Bragg’s Corps was much the same, with the 5,000 reinforcements from New Orleans only adding to the greenness. The men of Hardee’s Corps had seen some action, but mostly light skirmishing.3
The officers were also nothing to write home about. On the corps level, all had attended West Point, though General Polk had chosen to be a bishop in the Episcopal Church, rather than pursue a career in the military. Of the division commanders, only two had any military education, though a few served in the Mexican War. As for the regimental officers, most were civilians, political appointees with no military experience whatsoever.
Another huge problem, perhaps even the biggest, was the lack of uniformity in firearms. Many were armed with shotguns or squirrel rifles, old flintlocks or merely revolvers. This made issuing ammunition to the army a complete nightmare.
To make matters worse, one of the most capable, well-trained, experienced and respected generals in the Army of the Mississippi, General George Crittenden, was often drunk. He commanded troops in the Black Hawk War, as well as the Mexican War. Though he bore much of the blame for the defeat at Mill Springs, his experience alone was sorely needed in the Army of the Mississippi.4
Wading and Crossing the Duck
Facilitating the Confederates, by allowing them more time to attack Grant’s Army before Buell’s Army could reinforce it, was the bridge over Duck River, swollen by rains and melting snow. Near Columbia, Tennessee, the retreating Confederates of Johnston’s Army had torched the bridge before Federal forces could take it. Buell, who insisted upon the bridge being properly rebuilt, had stopped up his entire army for two weeks.
The progress was mind-numbingly slow. Properly rebuilding a bridge was, of course, no easy task. It’s also a task that should probably not be undertaken when in the midst of a campaign. It was taking so long that Buell finally ordered a temporary pontoon bridge to be built and used until the original bridge was finished. This endeavor also went over schedule. Both bridges were completed on this date.
By this time, the swollen waters of Duck River had receded enough to allow men to cross without using either bridge. The day before the bridges were completed, General William “Bull” Nelson took his division through the Duck and headed for Savannah on the Tennessee River, ten miles north of Pittsburg Landing. He hurried and pushed his men in an effort to reach Grant. The rest of Buell’s Army crossed the Duck on this date.5
Meanwhile, near New Madrid and Island No. 10, things were at a stalemate. The Union gunboats of Flag Officer Andrew Foote had twice engaged the Rebel batteries on and along the Mississippi River, to fruitless results. In the days since then, General John Pope, commanding the Union Army of the Mississippi, was able to cut off the Confederates on Island No. 10 by establishing a battery covering its supply line. Additionally, since Foote refused to run his ships through the gauntlet of Rebel batteries on and around the island, Pope decided to cut an eight mile long canal across a peninsula, bypassing the island altogether. If things went right, Foote could take his gunboats through the canal, leaving Island No. 10 a pointless venture for the Confederates.
Things did not go right. The building of the canal was a brilliant bit of engineering – daring, risky and quickly executed – but by this date, it was only about halfway completed.6 Though secret, it was somehow leaked to the press and ran in the New York Tribune on March 23. The Rebels, apparently not Tribune subscribers, were not aware of the news until this date.
From the beginning, however, Foote refused time and again to cooperate with Pope, who had promised his superior, General Henry Halleck, that Island No. 10 would fall by April 3. On the evening of this date, Foote held a council of war, asking each of his gunboat captains what should be done.
Through debate, it was determined to finally steam through the Rebel gauntlet on the first foggy or stormy night that would avail itself to the task.7
- P.G.T. Beauregard; Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams, Louisiana State University Press, 1955. Also, Army of the Heartland; The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University Press, 1967 – mostly for the figures. [↩]
- The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn, University of Oklahoma Press, 1941. [↩]
- Army of the Heartland; The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University Press, 1967. [↩]
- Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham, Savas Beatie, 2007. [↩]
- All for the Regiment; The Army of the Ohio, 1861-1862 by Gerald J. Prokopowicz, The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. [↩]
- General John Pope by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press, 2000. [↩]
- Island No. 10 by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock, University of Alabama Press, 1996. [↩]