May 21, 1862 (Wednesday)
General Henry Halleck’s Union Army of the Tennessee was, more or less, besieging the valuable railroad hub of Corinth, Mississippi. Following the reorganization and combining of three armies into one gigantic mass of 120,000 troops, Halleck stepped off on May 2nd, making decent time, at first, but quickly grinding into an incredibly slow, but ever-tightening stranglehold.
Though Corinth had only been twenty-nine miles from the Union camp at Pittsburg Landing, Halleck and his army, after nearly three weeks of marching, were not yet there. The reason for this was simple. General Ulysses S. Grant had been surprised by the Confederates on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. Halleck did not want the same thing to besmirch his record.
To ward off surprise and to discourage the Rebels under General P.G.T. Beauregard from attacking, Halleck ordered entrenchments dug each night, and, prior to moving forward, good, corduroy roads to be built. The advance scouting parties were cautioned not to bring on a fight. “The National armies were thoroughly intrenched all the way from the Tennessee River to Corinth,” wrote General Grant in his Memoirs after the war.
Prior to Halleck’s reorganization, Grant had commanded the Army of the Tennessee. When combined with General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi and General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Grant was made second-in-command of the entire affair. His old army, over which he retained nominal command, was made into the right wing of Halleck’s Army of the Tennessee. General George Thomas, a former division commander, was given actual command of the right wing.
Technically, all orders, reports and correspondence between Generals Thomas and Halleck, should have gone through Grant. But, as the month of May wore on, Grant was increasingly bypassed, turning the commander of the Union right wing into a mere figurehead, while making the job of Halleck’s second a practice in redundancy.
“For myself,” wrote Grant, “I was little more than an observer.” General Halleck kept his headquarters on the right wing, so he, even more than Thomas, directly commanded its movements. “My position was so embarrassing,” remembered Grant, “that I made several applications during the siege to be relieved.”1
“General Grant was substantially left out,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, a division commander in what was once Grant’s army, wrote after the war, “and was named ‘second-in-command’ according to some French notion, with no clear, well-defined command or authority.” Though Grant spoke little of it, Sherman could see “that he felt deeply the indignity, if not insult, heaped upon him.”2
Though fighting along the line had been minimal, General Pope, commanding the left, engaged the Rebel outposts several times. Pope had arrived and was nearest to his final position long before the rest of the army. Early in the campaign, he had taken the town of Farmington, but not the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. It was from there, that he expected an attack on his left flank.3
But no attack was planned. The 75,000 Confederate troops under Beauregard lashed out here and there, but it was clear that they were in no shape to do little more than retreat. And retreat was exactly what Beauregard had in mind when he wrote to Richmond on the 19th. Since the battle of Shiloh on April 6th and 7th, the General had received no instructions from Richmond. Through the fall of New Orleans and the Union domination of the Mississippi River up to Vickburg, nothing had been said.
Since the Confederate War Department had fallen silent, General Beauregard decided to speak up. He defended his decision to hold Corinth, due to its position on two important rail lines. If he retreated, he would have to give up his two forts on the Mississippi River and probably Memphis, leaving Vicksburg the only Confederate stronghold along is banks.
If he had to retreat, he planned to move southeast towards Georgia, rather than southwest towards Memphis. This, said Beauregard, was to maintain communication with Richmond (just in case Richmond wanted to check in or something). And so, he found it “essential to hold Corinth to the last extremity, if the odds are not too great against us, even at the risk of a defeat.”4
The letter wouldn’t reach Richmond for a few days and a reply wouldn’t reach Beauregard before he made up his own mind.
Stonewall Jackson Has a Plan
With the drama over orders, counter-orders and possible insubordination behind them, Confederates Generals Stonewall Jackson and Richard Ewell were free to combine their forces (minus General Branch’s Brigade) near New Market in the Shenandoah Valley and plan an attack upon the Union troops under General Nathaniel Banks at Strasburg.
Between Harrisonburg in the south and Strasburg, the Shenandoah Valley is divided in two by the Massanutten Range. The main Valley falls to the west, while the Luray Valley is on the east.
General Ewell’s scouts had informed him that a small Union force held Front Royal, east of Strasburg. Instead of continuing up the main Valley, they decided to cross their 17,000 men over into the Luray Valley and take Front Royal, making a surprise appearance upon Banks’ left flank, cutting him off from the east.5
Union General Banks held Strasburg with roughly 6,000 men. Over half of his original force had been carried east to hold Fredericksburg, so that General Irvin McDowell’s First Corps could reinforce General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula.
Banks’ defenses, however, were pitiful, with but a stingy line of breastworks and a small, half-finished earthen fort north of town. While his troops were mostly optimistic, General Banks was growing more and more worried with each passing day. He believed that Ewell was still at Swift Run Gap, but had no real idea that Jackson was encamped less than thirty miles south of Front Royal.6
- Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant, C.L. Webster & Co., 1885. [↩]
- Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman, D. Appleton and Company, 1875. [↩]
- General John Pope by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois, 2000. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 3, p530. [↩]
- Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 1996. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina Press, 2008. [↩]