The North and South fought to control the railroad lines that crossed in this small town twice “” the first time, at the infamous Battle of Shiloh.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
By April 1862, the American Civil War had been under way for a year and any thought that the conflict would be short or easy had faded. The North and the South learned the true horror of war when the two sides met in a terrible melee near Shiloh Methodist Church in southern Tennessee. In this two-day conflict, later called the Battle of Shiloh, 24,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing before the armies pulled apart.
The losses were a true wake-up call to both the Union and the Confederacy. No one had imagined such a toll could result from a two-day battle. To put the loss in perspective, as of the end of February 2007, the United States had lost more than 3,100 men and women in Iraq in the few years since the war began, and Americans everywhere feel the loss. Now imagine casualties nearly eight times that figure.
Twenty-three miles away from where the fighting took place, two railroads met at right angles and crossed each other. This was a time when railroads often chose different track gauges, meaning cars could not be interchanged. But these rail lines were of the same gauge, enhancing the crossing point as a place where freight cars could be easily switched from one line to the other. A small community, Corinth, had grown up around the rail intersection, and a depot sat beside it.
The war made this crossing the most valuable 22 acres in the United States, as one historian put it. The Union had to gain control of it to conquer the South. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad, one of the two railroads at Corinth, was the South’s primary east-west rail line. If that line could be severed, the South’s ability to continue the war would be badly hampered. Both sides understood the importance of controlling Corinth, and the battle of Shiloh was the immediate result.
After the Union victory at Shiloh, the Northern forces moved on toward Corinth, their original goal. Henry Halleck, the Union commander, was a cautious, even tedious man, according to some. The three armies under his command moved slowly along, developing massive fortifications at each stop until they were so close to Corinth they could hear the bugle calls of the Confederates and the whistles as trains came and went.
Confederate Commander P.G.T. Beauregard was neither cautious nor tedious, but he could see the handwriting on the wall. He was surrounded by three Union armies and if he stayed and fought, the Confederates risked annihilation. In a master stroke, Beauregard managed to extract his forces during the night of May 29, leaving behind lit campfires, wooden poles placed to look like cannons, and a few buglers who would sound calls until they could slip away after the troops had departed down the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. On the morning of May 30, the Union forces realized the trenches at their front were empty. They had control of the railroads, at least for a time.
By late September of that year, the Confederate strategy in Mississippi was focused on retaking Corinth and the vital railroad junction. Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, along with the army of General Sterling Price, headed toward Corinth with 21,000 men in the vanguard. They would face 23,000 Union soldiers under General William Rosecrans. More importantly, they would face a city that now had been surrounded by massive artillery positions and earthworks. In spite of that, the Southern attack almost succeeded.
On October 3, 1862, Confederate troops overwhelmed a key artillery fort on the north side of Corinth and some troops actually reached the railroad crossover point before cannon fire from three other forts was directed at them. Caught in a massive crossfire, the Confederates were forced to retreat. They never were able to recapture the town. Only near the end of the war, when Corinth no longer had any strategic importance and the Union troops had withdrawn, could Confederate troops re-enter. It was an empty gesture.
Modern Corinth has capitalized on its Civil War history. Visitors to town can start at the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, which opened in 2004 and is operated by the National Park Service. Appropriately, it was built on the site of Battery Robinett, a focal point of the Confederate attack and a key to the ultimate Union victory. As you proceed up the zigzag walk to the entrance, you will see bronze castings of the kind of battlefield debris that might have been left in front of Battery Robinett: shells, buttons, a canteen, a broken pair of glasses, bits of letters, even broken swords and rifles. At the entrance to the building is a bronze cast of six soldiers moving at the double-quick.
Inside are two separate theaters, one with a film recounting the horror that was Shiloh, the other depicting the siege and later Battle of Corinth itself. Other exhibits recall the role supplies played in times of war, as well as how fighting was often a pick and shovel exercise. A small gift shop completes the indoor facilities.
At the rear of the interpretive center is an outdoor courtyard featuring a fountain, a pool, and flowing water. Closer inspection reveals that the layout of the watercourse depicts the stream of American history from 1770 to 1870, beginning with a stone monument engraved with words from the Constitution of the United States. Water flowing from that monument passes by granite markers that cause ripples in the water, indicative of the troubled times that led up to the Civil War. The war itself is symbolized by a jumble of blocks with the names of major battles inscribed thereon; the bigger the block, the greater the number of casualties. The blocks break the water into two separate streams that are only reunited at war’s end. There, a reflection pool with quotations below the surface of the water gives you an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the Civil War. This alone is worth a visit to the center.
The Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center is located at 501 W. Linden St. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, and admission is free. For more information, call (662) 287-9273 or visit www.nps.gov/shil.
The city provides a well-marked driving tour around Corinth that leads to places where major events in the siege and battle took place. These include a national cemetery, where many of the Union dead from the battles are buried. It is still an active cemetery, containing graves of soldiers killed as recently as the Iraq war.
An unusual aspect of the Civil War is commemorated at the Corinth Contraband Camp. This quiet 21-acre park, marked by walkways and interpretive exhibits, was once a bustling, if somewhat temporary, town populated by blacks, who with the Union victories, flocked to the Army lines to escape slavery. This once was a 400-acre community set up on the site of the Contraband Camp, including a working farm, church, hospital, school, and housing area. The camp lasted until the Union Army abandoned Corinth in 1864 as no longer worth the effort of garrisoning the town. The park is open daily year-round.
Several homes in Corinth date from before the war, including the 1857 Verandah-Curlee House, which served as headquarters for Confederate generals Braxton Bragg, Earl Van Dorn, and John Bell Hood, and Union General Henry Halleck at different times. The house was built by Hamilton Mask, one of the founders of Corinth. Tours of the Verandah-Curlee House can be arranged at the Civil War Interpretive Center. Artifacts in the dining room include an ironstone pitcher that was taken with a supply of molasses by a Union soldier during the October 1862 battle. It was recovered and later given to the Curlee house.
Other homes with the same flavor of that era include the Oak Home, built in 1856; the Duncan House, dating from 1860; and the Fish Pond House, built in 1857. All were used at various times as headquarters for generals from both sides.
Although it has made the most of its Civil War history, Corinth is more than a memorial to battles. Its downtown is filled with charming, well-preserved buildings centered on an imposing courthouse with the obligatory military statue in front. Borroum’s Drug Store is the oldest continuously operated drugstore in Mississippi, established in 1865. It still features an old-fashioned soda fountain, plus several exhibits that range from weaponry to the kinds of things that might have been found in a drugstore in the 1800s. It is not a great place for anyone on a strict diet, judging by the ice cream confections I saw.
The other “must see” business in Corinth is Waits Jewelry, also started in 1865 and said to be the oldest in Corinth. It was closed for a while after Mrs. Waits died; she had run the place until she was well into her 90s. Happily, new owners are now operating the establishment. Inspect the hand-painted murals that circle the four walls and the old clock that provides the time, the date, and the year and was once wired into the courthouse clock. The paintings were done by Ernest Waits, the founder of the shop, who, according to his wife, had never painted before he embarked on these fine efforts.
The original Corinth train depot is long gone, and the one there now is the third to stand on the site. It houses the Crossroads Museum, which contains some original artifacts from the siege and battle of Corinth. The collection also includes railroad artifacts and models, an extensive doll collection, and a tribute to a wacky 1930s aviator and stunt pilot, Roscoe Turner, whose copilot was a pet lion named Gilmore. Turner is the only Corinth resident ever to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
An entire room at the depot is devoted to 1940s cartoonist Russell Keaton, a native Corinthian who was among the first, if not the first, cartoonist to use a woman “” Flyin’ Jenny “” as his hard-fighting heroine. The depot museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $5 per person ($3 for seniors, active military, and students with a student I.D.).
Perhaps the best way to get a handle on Corinth is to begin by stopping at the Mississippi Welcome Center, located just off U.S. 45 at Harper Road and South Tate Street, southwest of town. There you can stock up on all manner of maps and handouts, in addition to grabbing a cup of coffee or a soda. It’s a great place to experience good old Southern hospitality. Exhibits within the visitors center focus on Corinth’s Civil War history. As a veteran of many highway rest areas and welcome centers, I have to say this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Corinth is, in many respects, symbolic of the entire Civil War. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard made the statement on April 9, 1862, that, “If defeated here, we lose the Mississippi Valley and probably our cause.” It was the focus of everyone’s attention and grim, tenacious, and bloody battles were fought to control this transportation hub. Men on both sides gave their lives in the sincere belief that without victory at Corinth, there could only be total disaster. And yet, within months, the focus had changed for both sides to other places and other battlefields. Corinth went from front page news to back page filler.
But in the final analysis, Beauregard was right. The Confederate loss of Corinth opened the door for General Ulysses Grant to take Vicksburg, regain full control of the Mississippi River, and effectively cut the Confederacy in half. The South fought on for two more grim years after Vicksburg, but the cause had indeed been lost.
There is much to see in Corinth, but its history makes it special.
Corinth is 23 miles southwest of Shiloh National Military Park, near the junction of U.S. 45 and U.S. 72. It is 93 miles east of Memphis, Tennessee, and 33 miles west of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
We took our towed car into Corinth, since we were staying for an extended period in a state park near Tupelo, Mississippi. The downtown streets are narrow, and several railroad underpasses have height limitations severe enough that no RV can get through. (These places are marked on the city’s tour map.) Therefore, I recommend leaving your coach at a local RV park, or simply unhooking your towed car at the Mississippi Welcome Center while visiting. The folks at the visitors center may have other recommendations, too. Several RV parks in the area are noted in the literature available from the Welcome Center.
Corinth offers several food options ranging from inexpensive to upscale. I made no attempt at an exhaustive survey, but have no hesitation in recommending The General’s Quarters (also a bed-and-breakfast inn) for lunch. The Bourbon Pecan Pie is to die for! The restaurant is located at 924 Fillmore St.; phone (800) 664-1866.
For more information, contact:
Corinth Area Tourism Promotion Council
P.O. Box 2158
Corinth, MS 38835-2158