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Chapter 17:

  • Evacuation of Columbus.
  • -- how the enemy discovered it. -- loss of ordnance stores, anchors, and torpedoes. -- Island no.10. -- difficulty in placing guns in position. -- Federal gunboats might have passed unhindered. -- small garrison under Colonel Gantt reinforced by General McCown with part of the garrison of Columbus. -- defences at New Madrid to be held until the completion of the works at Fort Pillow. -- remainder of General Polk's forces assembled upon Humboldt. -- preparations for an offensive movement by the enemy. -- danger of isolation for General Johnston. -- General Beauregard's letter to him. -- the great battle of the controversy to be fought at or near Corinth. -- General Johnston accedes to General Beauregard's request, and begins a movement to join him. -- General Beauregard assumes command. -- arrival of General Bragg's forces at Corinth. -- Corinth the chief point of concentration, as originally decided upon. -- General Beauregard appeals to the War Department for the General officers promised him. -- their services greatly needed. -- unwillingness and apathy of the War Department.

It will be remembered that one of the conditions of General Beauregard's departure for the Mississippi Valley was, that he should be furnished with a certain number of officers from the Army of the Potomac, should their services be needed, some of them to be promoted to be brigadier-generals and others to be major-generals. Early in February a list of their names was left with the War Department by Colonel Thomas Jordan, General Beauregard's Adjutant and Chief of Staff. On the 20th of that month General Beauregard called for Captains Wampler and Fremeaux, as Assistant Engineers, to aid in constructing the several defences on the Mississippi River; and for Major G. W. Brent, as Inspector and Judge-Advocate-General, whose immediate services were much needed at the time. After considerable delay, the two engineers only were sent: Captain Fremeaux arriving a few days previous to the impending battle, and Captain Wampler not until it had been fought. Closely following this first demand upon the War Department, General Beauregard, with a view properly to organize the forces under General Polk, and the new levies daily expected, formally applied for the general officers so greatly needed [246] for the efficiency of his command; carefully explaining that no suitable subdivision of the troops had yet been made, or could be practicable, without their assistance. His request, however, remained unheeded, or, rather, after much controversy, was only partly complied with at the last hour, and not according to his desires, nor in the manner promised. We shall again refer to this subject as we proceed with the present chapter.

Meanwhile, General Polk was making preparations for the evacuation of Columbus, which began on the 25th of February. The next day he requested General Beauregard to join him there, but this the latter was unable to do, being yet too unwell to undertake the journey. He continued, however, to send directions to General Polk, as the necessity arose respecting certain main points of the evacuation, and particularly as to the occupation of New Madrid. So imminent was the danger of an attack upon that place, that he had telegraphed General Johnston for a brigade to be sent there, as soon as possible, by railroad; a request which, it seems, could not be complied with. On the 28th, his Adjutant-General was sent to Columbus, to suggest the establishment of a telegraphic line between Humboldt or Union City and Island No.10, by means of which that now important position—the left of his new defensive line—should be brought into immediate communication with his headquarters. Colonel Jordan was also commissioned to advise General Polk in person as to the evacuation then in process of execution, which he did. He then returned without delay to Jackson.

The evacuation of Columbus was completed on the 2d of March, owing, in no small degree, to a lack of watchfulness and daring on the part of the enemy. So cautious in their reconnoitring had the Federal gunboats been, that the fact that Columbus was unoccupied was only discovered by them on the 4th, and then by mere accident. While slowly advancing down the river, they were much surprised at the sight of a United States' flag flying over the place. It had been hoisted there on the afternoon of the 3d, by a troop of Federal cavalry, who, attracted by a cloud of smoke rising from the quarters and storehouses, and prudently creeping up to the works, had thus discovered the real state of the case. These buildings had been set on fire by injudicious orders, the day before the appearance of the reconnoitring party. In the hurry of final departure, some ordnance and a quantity of ordnance [247] stores, torpedoes, and anchors—the latter much needed for river obstructions at New Orleans—were left behind and fell into the hands of the enemy.

At Island No.10 and the batteries in the Bend, the difficulty of placing the guns in position from the spot where they had been landed was such that for at least two days neither of those defences could have successfully resisted the passage—if attempted —of any of the Federal gunboats. Had Commodore Foote then displayed the boldness which he afterwards showed at the same place, and which so characterized Admirals Farragut and Buchanan, and Captain Brown, of the Arkansas, he might have passed without much resistance and captured New Orleans from the rear. Instead of this, he merely left a gunboat and two mortar-boats to protect Columbus from the river, and, with the remainder, quietly returned to Cairo.1

A part of the heavy armament and ammunition from Columbus was sent to the unfinished batteries on the upper end of Island No.10, a naturally good and defensible position in New Madrid Bend, and to those on the main Tennessee shore. The small garrison under Colonel Gantt, at New Madrid, a little town on the Missouri bank of the river, about sixty miles below Columbus, and ten, more or less, from Island No.10, was reinforced by General McCown, with part of the garrison of Columbus, and was hastily fortified with field-works. General McCown, with about seven thousand men, was placed in command of all the defenses at Madrid Bend, intended to be held only long enough to permit the completion of the stronger and more important works designed for Fort Pillow, to which the remainder of the heavy armament and ammunition from Columbus had already been sent. This position (Fort Pillow), about fifty-nine miles above Memphis, which, as yet, was but partly fortified, General Beauregard had determined to strengthen and hold, with a garrison not to exceed four thousand men, as the left of his new defensive line, already referred to, covering Memphis, and the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.

What was left of General Polk's forces (about seven thousand men) was then assembled, mainly upon Humboldt, at the intersection of the Memphis and Louisville and Mobile and Ohio Railroads—a point having central relation and railroad communication [248] with the principal towns in west Tennessee and north Mississippi. A strong line of infantry outposts was established from Union City, on the left, to Lexington, on the right, by the way of Dresden and Huntington, protected by a line of cavalry pickets thrown well out in advance, from Hickman, on the Mississippi, to Paris, near the Tennessee River. Mounted parties, supplied with light artillery, patrolled the west bank of the latter stream, and kept General Beauregard well informed of the movements of the enemy's boats.

During the evacuation of Columbus, reports of great preparations for an offensive movement had reached General Beauregard from the Federal rendezvous at Cairo, Paducah, and Fort Henry. Pope's forces were then moving upon New Madrid, the left of our river defences, and it seemed evident that the abandonment of Columbus must necessarily stimulate active hostile operations in the valley.

Convinced that there was early danger to be apprehended from the direction of the Tennessee River, which might result in completely isolating General Johnston's forces, General Beauregard, who now had the assurance of being soon joined by General Bragg and the reinforcements promised him by the governors to whom he had applied, on the 2d of March despatched Captain Otey, of his staff, to General Johnston, with written evidence of the enemy's threatening intentions, and with a short but impressive letter, urging him to hurry forward his troops by railroad to Corinth. This letter read as follows:

Jackson, Tenn., March 2d, 1862.
Dear General,—I send you herewith enclosed a slip showing the intended movements of the enemy, no doubt against the troops in western Tennessee. I think you ought to hurry up your troops to Corinth by railroad, as soon as practicable, for there or thereabouts will soon be fought the great battle of this controversy. General Bragg is with me; we are trying to organize everything as rapidly as possible.

Yours truly,

On the same day, and to the same effect, he also telegraphed General Johnston, reaffirming the urgency of a junction at Corinth, and asking specially for the 9th and 10th Mississippi and 5th Georgia regiments, under Brigadier-General J. R. Jackson, they having been sent to Chattanooga, by order of the War Department, to reinforce General Johnston, then moving upon Stevenson, [249] and about the disposition of whose troops, and projected plans, Mr. Benjamin wrote that he ‘was still without any satisfactory information.’2 General Beauregard was most anxious that these troops should at once reach Corinth—now become the important strategic point—in anticipation of the arrival there of the reinforcements coming from the adjacent States.

On the 3d, General Johnston, through Colonel Mackall, A. A. G., replied, from Shelbyville, that the 10th Mississippi would be forwarded from Chattanooga, and that his own army would move as rapidly as it could march. He then answered General Beauregard's letter, from Fayetteville, on the 5th, stating that his army was advancing; that it had already reached that place; would move on to join him, as fast as possible; and that, upon his arrival at Decatur, he would decide upon the promptest mode of effecting the desired junction.

General Beauregard, by most strenuous efforts, and in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles, was thus enabled to hope that all our available forces would be assembled in the quarter designated, ready to meet the enemy as soon as he should venture upon the west bank of the Tennessee River, and before he could be fully prepared for our attack.

Hitherto, in order to avoid the burden of the irksome details incident to the organization of an army, General Beauregard had not assumed command, but had directed matters through General Polk; but as the new levies and reinforcements were now gathering, and as there was a prospect of an early encounter with the enemy, he determined formally to assume command, and, on the 5th of March, issued the following order to the forces under him:

Headquarters, army of the Mississippi, Jackson, Tenn., March 5th, 1862.
Soldiers,—I assume this day command of the “Army of the Mississippi,” for the defence of our homes and liberties, and to resist the subjugation, spoliation, and dishonor of our people. Our mothers and wives, our sisters and children, expect us to do our duty, even to the sacrifice of our lives.

Our losses, since the commencement of the war, in killed, wounded, and prisoners, are now about the same as those of the enemy.

He must be made to atone for the reverses we have lately experienced. Those reverses, far from disheartening, must nerve us to new deeds of valor [250] and patriotism, and should inspire us with an unconquerable determination to drive back our invaders.

Should any one in this army be unequal to the task before us, let him transfer his arms and equipments at once to braver, firmer hands, and return to his home.

Our cause is as just and sacred as ever animated men to take up arms, and if we are true to it and to ourselves, with the continued protection of the Almighty, we must and shall triumph.

Recent information had led General Beauregard to look upon Pittsburg, on the Tennessee, as one of the places likely to be selected by the enemy for a landing; and on the 1st he had ordered General Ruggles to occupy it, and make it, as well as Hamburg, a point of observation. This required the substitution of Bethel Station, on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, for McNairy's, as one of the places appointed for the assembling of the Tennessee troops.

The order concerning Pittsburg was executed by General Ruggles, who sent thither the 18th Louisiana, one of the finest regiments from that State, supported by Captain Gibson's battery of light artillery. On the day following, General Beauregard's foresight was shown to have been accurate by the enemy attempting to make a landing at that point. The 18th Louisiana, armed with rifles and smooth-bore muskets, and firing from the steep bluffs overhanging the river, forced the landing party to take to their boats, and even drove back the two gunboats—the Lexington and Tyler—inflicting severe loss upon them. This dashing and curious encounter caused the regiment3 to be highly complimented in general orders. Had the supporting battery stood its ground and exhibited equal intrepidity, not only would the whole landing party have been captured, but probably the foremost of the two gunboats would also have fallen into our hands.

General Bragg's forces began to arrive at Corinth, from Mobile and Pensacola, on the 6th. He had reported in person to General Beauregard, at Jackson, on the evening of the 2d, and was placed at once in charge of that portion of the forces assembling at Corinth, with definite instructions as to their organization into brigades and divisions, and as to supplying them with equipments, [251] transportation, ammunition, and tents, according to our limited means.

General Beauregard now directed General Bragg to examine critically the position of Monterey, about half-way from Corinth to Pittsburg or Hamburg; for though he had selected Corinth as the chief point of concentration for his reinforcements, yet, from examination of the map, the advanced position of Monterey seemed to offer such advantages for a sudden offensive movement, in case the enemy should land at either of those places, that he was inclined to substitute Monterey for Corinth, as he could move from either with equal facility, to the defensive position of Yellow Creek, in advance of Burnsville, should the enemy decide upon effecting a landing at Eastport. General Bragg, however, having reported in favor of Corinth, on account of the character of the roads and the deficiency of transportation among the reinforcements arriving there, Corinth remained, as originally determined upon by General Beauregard, the grand central point for the rallying and concentration of all the Confederate forces.

The services of the officers General Beauregard had called for now became indispensable, in view of the great diligence and energy displayed in the assembling of his forces. Though required for the proper organization of the troops under General Polk, these officers were even more needed to assist General Bragg in preparing for the field the large number of raw Confederate and State forces just concentrated at the three points designated, Corinth, Grand Junction, and Bethel. Every moment was precious, and rapid and determined action imperative. On the 4th of March, General Beauregard, therefore, again urgently asked for two major-generals and five brigadiers—one of the latter to serve with the cavalry—and all to be ordered to report immediately to him. To his great surprise—and greater disappointment—the War Department replied that these officers could not be spared. General Beauregard's perplexity was extreme. He could not account for the procrastination and evident unwillingness shown by the War Department. Here was an incongruous army, concentrated under the greatest difficulties imaginable, ready for any sacrifice, eager to meet the enemy, but whose organization and effectiveness were fearfully impaired by the absolute want of general officers, to enforce discipline and establish harmony between its several parts. General Beauregard could not quietly acquiesce in [252] such supineness. He appealed to the War Department, ‘for the sake of our cause and country,’ to send, at once, Colonel Mackall as major-general, and three officers recommended by him for brigadiers, with Colonel Ransom to take charge of the cavalry. He was informed that Colonel Mackall had been nominated for brigadier, and that all officers designed for promotion must be selected from among those of his own present army. As General Beauregard had then with him very few graduates of West Point, or of other military schools, or officers of any experience, he answered, on the 7th, that he knew of none to recommend; but he forwarded, for immediate action, a list containing the names of two major-generals and six brigadiers, suggested by Generals Bragg and Polk; and, as there was still no cavalry colonel to recommend, he repeated his application for Colonel Ransom. On the 8th he also asked that either Colonel R. B. Lee or Major Williams, of his former Army of Virginia, be sent him, for the important duties of Chief Commissary, as he had, in his present command, no officers of equal experience to select from; and he earnestly inquired whether Major G. W. Brent would be sent him for inspector, as he needed the services of such an officer almost hourly. The reply came, that the promotions as general officers could not be made until he recommended them from his own personal experience of their merits.

The existing state of affairs had become all the more embarrassing for the reason that General Beauregard's scouts reported large forces of the enemy moving, in transports, up the Tennessee River, with the probability of an early landing, at any moment. He, therefore, overlooking the discourtesy shown and the annoyance occasioned him by the War Department, asked that permission be given him to appoint acting brigadiers and major-generals, to supply the immediate wants of his army. He again received an unfavorable reply. His request, said the War Department, was irregular and unauthorized by law. Not knowing what further step to take, he telegraphed General Cooper, unofficially, that if the officers he had applied for the day before were denied him (so disastrous might be the consequences, from the fact that part of his forces were in a state of chaos, and his health too greatly affected to allow him, if unaided, to establish order around him), he would forthwith request to be relieved from his present command. The obstructive policy of the government so palpably thwarted his efforts and endangered [253] the success of his plans, that he had even resolved, should it be longer persevered in, to tender his resignation.

By telegram of the 9th, received on the 11th, he was notified that the following officers were nominated for his command: J. L. Bowen, as major-general; J. M. Hawes, J. E. Slaughter, and S. M. Walker, as brigadiers; Hawes for the cavalry. He was also notified that Ransom was appointed a brigadier, but must be sent to North Carolina, as his presence there was of the first importance; and that Samuel Jones had been promoted to be majorgen-eral, but could not be spared from Mobile. We must here state that Bowen was not confirmed as major-general, and did not report; nor did Hawes, until about a month later, and just before the battle of Shiloh. General Beauregard at once replied that he had called for ten generals, as absolutely indispensable to the efficiency of his forces; that out of the four granted him, two only were present for duty; and that, as the enemy was already engaged with his left at New Madrid, he would not hold himself responsible for the consequences that might ensue. He appealed, at the same time, to some leading members of Congress, urging them to use their influence with the government, so as to change its unaccountable policy in matters of such vital importance to the Confederacy; but this was of no effect. The course of the War Department resulted disastrously, as General Beauregard had apprehended; for it contributed towards delaying, by several days, our subsequent offensive movement from Corinth, against the enemy at Pittsburg Landing.

1 See ‘Record of the Rebellion,’ vol. IV. p. 226.

2 See Mr. Benjamin's letter to General Bragg, dated Richmond, Va., February 18th, 1862.

3 The 18th Louisiana was, at that time, under Colonels Mouton and Roman and Major Bush. Later it acquired additional fame under the heroic Armant, killed at Mansfield. Colonel Jos. Collins, of New Orleans, was its last commander.

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