Sunday, March 11, 2012

Author Q & A: Christopher Slocombe on the Siege of Corinth

Christopher Slocombe is in the midst of researching and writing a full length history of Henry Halleck's April-May 1862 campaign, the post-Shiloh operation aimed at capturing the critical Mississippi rail junction and town of Corinth. The successful completion of such a project will mark a true milestone in western theater military historiography, so I thought I would invite Chris to participate in a brief interview about his work and its progress.


CWBA:  The 1862 “Siege of Corinth” campaign is probably the largest (and certainly among the most significant) remaining Civil War campaigns lacking a detailed operational and tactical treatment. Why do you think it has been neglected and what motivated you to give it a try?

CS: I think that the lack of a pitched battle is what has kept the siege from receiving the attention it deserves. It also suffers from living in the shadow of its bigger and bloodier brother: Shiloh. These two characteristics, however, are what attracted me to the siege in the first place. After years of reading about western theatre operations and strategy, it became clear to me that the siege was being treated largely as an afterthought. I found that many authors covering the 1862 western campaigns implied that the capture of Corinth after Shiloh was almost a foregone conclusion, and that only Halleck’s imbecility prevented a quicker Union success. I can’t remember one book or article that took primary source material and analyzed the eccentricities of the campaign. Instead, everyone seemed to be relying on generalizations garnered from the same tired sources. Many important details were being neglected – the first widespread use of fieldworks in the western theatre, the ridiculously high rate of sickness on both sides and the military medical system’s attempt to deal with it, the political fallout from the Shiloh bloodbath, the Confederate reorganization, the small but important fights that shaped the siege, and the overarching Union strategy, among others. It seemed to me that Civil War scholars recognized Corinth to be very important but were more than willing to let the analysis stop there. I wanted to fix that and tell the full military story.


CWBA:   You mentioned to me that you are 5+ years into the project. What stage are you at in terms of the research and writing?

CS: Aside from a few repositories I haven’t yet visited, I’ve finished my research and am now on to the analysis and writing parts of the project.  If I’m being realistic, I’m still several years away from being finished. But there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t make progress. This is a labor of love for me, and I want to make sure I’m doing it right and leaving no stone unturned. My goal is to have this be the definitive military study of the siege. I don’t want to make the mistake of not being thorough.


CWBA: What unit scale are you looking at for your narrative description of the fighting?

CS:  I’m doing a regimental level tactical study of the entire Siege of Corinth similar to Tim Smith’s Champion Hill. In short, my book begins on April 7th as the Confederates leave the Shiloh battlefield and begin their retreat back to Corinth. The book ends with the Confederates gathering at Tupelo after evacuating Corinth. I will cover in detail Fallen Timbers, the outpost fighting of April, the multiple Farmington fights, Russell House, Shelton House, Serratt’s Hill, the general siege operations, the many cavalry raids (particularly the Federal cavalry trying to break the Memphis and Charleston Railroad), and of course the Confederate retreat from the town and the subsequent Federal pursuit.


CWBA: Are you satisfied with the amount of research material available from both sides?

CS: Absolutely. Sometimes I feel as if I have too much material actually – our home office itself is under siege from the mountains of material. Just ask my wife! As many folks that study the western theatre well know, there were a substantial number of troops in the Corinth vicinity in the spring of 1862. After Shiloh there was a mass concentration of forces for what many on both sides believed would be the battle that would end the war in the west. On the Federal side there were three full armies – the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Tennessee, and the Army of the Mississippi. The Confederate side boasted two full armies – the Army of Mississippi and the Army of the West. So finding material to draw from was never an issue, but it did mean that when I started that I had a long research road ahead of me -- a lot of repositories to get to, a lot of manuscripts to read, and a lot of material to analyze.

CWBA:  Can you describe your process in constructing your orders of battle and strengths data? I’ve never seen regimental OBs for the campaign and only very rough estimates of numbers engaged.

CS:  Orders of battle and strength data are tough to compile for the siege, particularly because of the large amount of troops that arrived in Corinth on both sides throughout April and May.  Also, the level of sickness experienced by each army makes it difficult to assess how many troops from each organization were sick at a given time, a given battle, etc.  Some troops would be sick one day, fine the next, and sick again a few days later.  Throughout the siege new regiments were being added to brigades, other regiments were switching brigades, and on the Federal side the stream of reinforcements was consistent.  I’ve found that during the siege there was not one order of battle but instead several orders of battle.  While a few organizational charts exist in the Official Records for both the Union and Confederate armies, in practice some of these were fluid organizations because of sickness; certain regiments would be attached to certain brigades to make up manpower lost to sickness. Patton Anderson’s Confederate brigade of Ruggles’ Division, for example, is listed for the May 9th Farmington fight to contain some regiments very different than it does at any other time during the siege. And during the May 9th Farmington fight some regiments were commanded by captains for the same reason: sickness.  Thus far I haven’t dug into the strengths data to any great length, but am well on my way to creating clear orders of battle.

CWBA:  In terms of the extraordinary affect of sick lists on assessing the number of available effectives, the Peninsula Campaign offers similar problems to historians interested in numbers. I’m sure you want to save your best discoveries for the book, but can you hint at some surprising things you’ve found in your research?

CS: There are many things. Among them is the fact that the Siege of Corinth was significant in convincing many western Union soldiers that it would likely be a longer and bloodier war than they had thought after Shiloh.  One Illinois soldier flatly stated that when the Federals captured Corinth he thought that the war would be over in the west and everyone could go home.  Another Union soldier wrote to his wife in 1863 about how foolish and na├»ve he was in the spring of 1862 to believe that the Rebels would be completely defeated once Corinth was captured.  After the tactical victory Shiloh many Union soldiers thought that one more victory at Corinth would defeat the Rebels for good.  After the Confederates left Corinth many recognized that it was going to be harder to achieve victory than they thought.  It was a hard realization for some.

Beauregard deserves more credit than he has usually been given for the defense of the town. He tried on multiple occasions to decisively attack the Federals, but terrain, bad management of troops from his subordinates, and simple bad luck failed to produce the desired results.  Halleck, for his part, isn’t quite the incompetent field commander that many have made him out to be.  He isn’t very good either, but he deserves to be assessed fairly.

CWBA: What do you have planned for the maps?

CS:  The maps are something I’m really looking forward to creating.  I’m sure other avid readers of Civil War books will agree that nothing beats good maps in a military history book.  It is my belief that in order to make the text meaningful to readers that detailed maps with terrain features are necessary.  For the battles and skirmishes during the siege there will be regimental scale maps.  I’ve already read too many articles and books where I lose track of the author’s text because I can’t follow what I’m reading on a map, and I don’t want my readers to feel the same way.  Besides, maps are fun, and I want people visiting the Corinth area to be able to pinpoint exactly where their ancestor’s regiment fought.

CWBA: That's good to hear. What publishing options do you have under consideration?

CS:  I haven’t contacted any publishers yet, but will be doing so fairly soon. I’d love to have the book picked up by a publisher like Savas Beatie or a university press. If no publisher wants it, I’ll self-publish.

CWBA:  Thanks, Chris, and good luck. I know many of us will very much look forward to seeing the final product. Readers, if you'd like to ask Chris a question or if you have source information you think he might be interested in, you may contact him here.

2 comments:

  1. Great interview, Drew. Mr. Slocombe, Savas Beatie would be very interested in taking a look at this manuscript, and I appreciate your even thinking about us. Give me a shout at: editorial@savasbeatie.com.

    Theodore P. Savas
    Managing Director
    Savas Beatie LLC
    www.savasbeatie.com

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  2. Chris EvansApril 14, 2012

    Excellent interview.

    One of the best primary sources on the campaign by one of the generals there is contained in the relevant chapters of 'Military Memoirs of John Pope' edited by Cozzens, etc.

    Pope really credits Beauregard for a good defense and wonders what else Davis expected of him. Pope really is tough on Halleck, though. For the most part I agree as Halleck conducted one strange campaign. If the Atlanta campaign would have been conducted in a similar manner I guess it would have taken the Federal armies 2-3 years to get from Chattanooga to the outskirts of Atlanta.

    Chris

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