Thursday, May 31, 2012

Smith: "CORINTH 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation"

[ Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2012). Hardcover, 8 maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. 472 pp. ISBN:978-0-7006-1852-1 $39.95 ]

Situated at the junction of two of the South's longest and most commercially and militarily vital railroads, the north-south running Mobile & Ohio and the east-west Memphis & Charleston (the "backbone" of the Confederacy), the small town of Corinth, Mississippi was a logistical hub of immense interest to both sides. Timothy Smith's groundbreaking Corinth 1862 examines events from the period when many considered the town the key to the entire western theater.

With rough estimates of over 100,000 Union soldiers and 80,000 Confederates, the April-May 1862 campaign (the Siege of Corinth) by General Henry Halleck's massive army group was one of the largest operations of the war, yet it has been badly neglected in the literature. Running around 100 pages and described primarily at the scale of the division, Smith's tight operational summary is inarguably the best published overview available, although some readers will be left hungry for more tactical detail pertaining to the Russell House, Double Log House, Serratt's Hill, Shelton House, and Farmington clashes. Also, with the book providing only a single area map of Corinth for the entire "siege", a close following of the action, even at the scale presented, is more difficult than desired.

Then and now, Halleck's deliberate pace of advance has been the subject of heaps of scorn, but Smith properly credits the general with the achievement of his object at small cost.  Critiques of the follow up strike one as more powerful.  On the Confederate side, the author does not take a determined stance on the controversies over the level of formidability offered by the Corinth defenses and the timing of Beauregard's withdrawal (although he does praise the general's success in saving most of the equipment and supplies accumulated in the town).

Smith's operational and tactical discussions of the campaign and October 3-4 battle for Corinth are excellent, although the latter has a bit of an imbalance of scale [tactical movements are at regimental level for the Union side, and brigade for the Confederates]. The author's grasp of how the natural landscape and Corinth's concentric lines of earthwork defenses drove the conduct of the battle is admirable all around. George Skoch's maps closely resemble those he created for The Darkest Days of the War, Peter Cozzens's superb 1997 rendering of the campaign and battle.  Smith's views on the mysteries and controversies of the battle (e.g. General Louis Hebert's enigmatic illness, Mansfield Lovell's failure to attack College Hill on the 4th, and the miscommunication between William Rosecrans and Charles Hamilton that derailed a potentially devastating Union flank attack on the 3rd) are generally similar to those presented by Cozzens.

The largest complaint raised by both Union and Confederate occupiers of swampy Corinth was the poor quality of water and the epidemic of sickness. These health issues, and the effect they had on the fighting effectiveness of the Confederate defenders during Halleck's advance, are worthy of their own study (perhaps in conjunction with a look at the "Chickahominy fevers" that similarly prostrated tens of thousands of Union soldiers during the concurrent Peninsula Campaign).

Unionism in Corinth and the rest of Tishomingo County is another issue examined by Smith. Many of the ladies of Corona College welcomed the arrival of Union troops, and with the departure of so many secessionists from Corinth following Beauregard's retreat, the town was essentially transformed into a unionist bastion. Beginning in late 1862, the Union general in charge of the Corinth district, Grenville Dodge, established a contraband camp whose population swelled into the thousands. In the next year, many of the able bodied men among them would be recruited into black combat units.

The body of research materials consulted by Smith is astounding, a testament to his many years of diligent digging through archive collections located across the entire breadth of the country. The listing of manuscript sources alone far exceeds in size the entire bibliographies of most Civil War works published today.

The first attempt at a comprehensive examination of a strategic point commonly acknowledged to be one of the continent's most important, with an emphasis on the year of most decisive action and change, Corinth 1862 is a terribly important and original contribution to the Civil War literature. While it's true that a definitive level study of the Battle of Corinth published during the time Smith was researching this volume takes a bit of steam out of that particular section, the parts covering the siege and occupation are truly unmatched.  Corinth 1862 is highly recommended reading for all students of the war, not just those with a primarily western outlook.

More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union
* Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals
* A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign
* The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
* Guide to the Atlanta Campaign: Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain
* Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
* Civil War St. Louis
* The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
* Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era


  1. Hi Drew

    Thanks for the review. I really like Tim's books. His Champion Hill book is still one of my favorites.

    Although I think Cozzens's book on this subject is his best, I've been eagerly awaiting this study. University of Kansas Press has published two very nice books this spring. I hope this is a continuing trend. Looking forward to your review of the Thomas biography.

    Don Hallstrom

    1. UPK had a good season with the Border State book, the Thomas bio, and this one. I haven't seen it yet, but the recently released study of the Union occupation of N. Alabama might be good, too.

  2. Thanks for the review of Tim's book.

    I just finished it last night and I was very pleased. Wonderful book, and one that was badly needed to fill a critical gap in western theatre literature. I agree with you that the siege and occupation parts of the book fulfill the greatest need.

    Tim's extensive bibliography is amazing - in fact it reminded me of an Ed Bearss blurb on Mark Bradley's book on Bentonville: "The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book."

    Chris Slocombe

  3. Great review.

    I knew it would be fascinating to read about the advance on Corinth.

    My interest was recently piqued by John Pope's description of the campaign in his fascinating memoirs edited by Cozzens.


    1. Chris,
      I never did get around to picking up a copy of that book. I would be most interested in the Missouri portions (esp. any part about Fremont's campaign).

    2. Yes, he really has some excellent sections on Missouri in there. His account of Fremont's headquarters and his first meeting with him is great.



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