May 30, 1862 (Friday)
Through the long night, General John Pope, commanding the Union left wing near Corinth, Mississippi, had heard the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. Train load after train load were deposited to the wild cheers of their welcoming comrades. And then, at 4am, it all stopped.
Pope, and the army’s commander, General Henry Halleck, were certain that they were to be attacked at dawn by hordes of Rebels. While Halleck told General Ulysses Grant to prepare his men to reinforce the left, Pope prepared his troops to receive the onslaught. But after all fell silent, a series of explosions from inside the town filled the dusk with thick columns of smoke. And Pope understood that instead of assaulting, the enemy was retreating. The trains through the night were not bringing soldiers in, but taking soldiers out. It had all be a ruse and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard got the slip on them.
At 6am, Pope threw forward his skirmishers, and after another hour and a half, he was in possession of the abandoned Rebel works with the United States flag flying over the courthouse.1
By mid-morning, General Beauregard’s army of 53,000 effectives halted after crossing the Tuscumbia River, six miles south of Corinth. There, they awaited the Union attack they were so certain would come. But there was no pursuit, and so in the early afternoon, they continued their southward movement, following the rail line to Rienzi. Behind them, they burned the bridge spanning the river and posted several regiments to act as a rear guard. Beauregard’s destination was Baldwyn, thirty miles south of Corinth, which they hoped to reach the following day.2
Though Beauregard himself saw no pursuit while he waited along the Tuscumbia, General Pope had been marching south from Corinth since the late morning. As the Rebels were burning a bridge, the first elements of Pope’s command, his cavalry, appeared on the northern bank of the river, and extinguished the fire before capturing forty of the Rebels and giving chase to the remaining who fled south.3
Meanwhile, Pope followed with a large part of his corps, drawing up at the Tuscumbia River where the bridge across had been successful burned by the Rebels. Across the water, he saw the Confederate rear guard, and dispatched skirmishers to feel them out. Further pursuit, however, was pointless. The retreat caught the Federals by such surprise that they were nowhere near prepared for an overland campaign.
There was a kink in Beauregard’s retreat, however. Pope’s cavalry had ridden hard to Booneville, arriving well before any of the retreating Rebels. The cavalry destroyed track, switches, bridges, burned the depot and a locomotive, along with 10,000 stand of arms and several pieces of artillery. For nearly three hours, Booneville was shaken by the explosions of ammunition being consumed by fire.
Though a relatively unknown affair of little consequence, it gained fame for a certain Michigan cavalier, whose star would soon be rising. Col. Philip Sheridan’s 2nd Michigan Cavalry (one of several regiments) destroyed track south of town and tangled with some Rebel cavalry, dispersed them and captured 500 of the enemy.4
By evening, back in Corinth, General Halleck wanted to dig in. Figuring that since Corinth was such an important railroad hub, the Confederates would regroup and retake the town they just abandoned. This line of thought produced the order to not occupy Corinth itself, but to fortify the southern approaches while moving into the abandoned Confederate trenches. Pope could continue to probe a bit on the left, but there would be no formal pursuit.5
Just as the Federals had no idea that the Rebels had left, at Front Royal in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the lone regiment of Confederates had no idea that an entire Union division was encamped several miles east with designs upon taking the town. If the town fell to the Northerners, one avenue of escape for Stonewall Jackson’s force, twenty miles north near Harpers Ferry, would be cut off.
Col. Z. T. Conner, commanding the 12th Georgia, had failed to throw out advanced pickets, and so he had only an hour’s notice that there were 11,000 enemy soldiers ready to make themselves at home in his small camp. By 11:30 in the morning, General James Shields’ Division was outside of town. Col. Nathan Kimball, commanding the lead Union brigade, sent an Ohio regiment, which divided itself and was prepared to sweep down into the unsuspecting Rebel camp.
Union artillery, however, gave the Georgians fair warning by lobbing two shells amongst the tents, scattering the Southerners before the infantry could make their attack. The Rebels set fire to the depot and to $300,000 worth of captured Union supplies. They also fired a road bridge leading north, but for some reason neglected to put the railroad bridge, heading in the same direction, to the torch.
As the Georgians made their escape, flames threatened to engulf the town, but the men of the Ohio regiment, as well as a spring thunderstorm, quickly doused the blaze. The Federal troops were unable to save most of the supplies and ammunition, but liberated around 500 of their friends, held as prisoners since the first battle of Front Royal.6
At the outskirts of Harpers Ferry, Stonewall Jackson knew that he had overstayed his welcome. He had spent the morning dueling with Union artillery across the Potomac River, and even cleared the town of the enemy, but could not stay. He had received word that Union forces under Generals Fremont and McDowell were about to enter the Valley, cutting his army of 16,000 off from Richmond.
At noon, Jackson ordered all of his troops but the Stonewall Brigade back to Winchester. There, Jackson had to figure out what the Federals were doing. Would McDowell and Shields head west to unite with Fremont at Strasburg? Or would they head north to Winchester? Either way, Jackson now had only one road, the Valley Turnpike, to use for his withdraw. He had to beat both McDowell and Fremont to Strasburg, but at this moment, McDowell was closer to the town than he was, and Fremont wasn’t so much farther.7
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 2, p225-227, 228. [↩]
- The Military Operations of General Beauregard, Vol. 1 by Alfred Roman, Harper & brothers, 1884. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 1, p861. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 1, p862-863, 865. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 2, p230-231. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina Press, 2008. [↩]
- Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 1996. [↩]