By Renée S. Gordon
“But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” –Isaiah 40:31
In March of 1862 the Union forces began a campaign to cripple the South’s east-west communications line. The CSA considered the Memphis & Charleston Railroad the “vertebrae of the Confederacy” and Major General Henry Halleck intended to break its back with coordinated attacks led by Generals Grant and Buell. Most of the sites listed are part of The Civil War Discovery Trail, a 24-state, 420-site route, created to bring history to life where it occurred. 1-800-CW-TRUST. They are also part of Corinth’s Civil War Trail.
The Battle of Shiloh occurred on April 6th and 7th. Confederate General Johnston launched what was to be a surprise offensive to halt Grant before Buell could arrive. Discovered at 5AM a battle ensued. More than 100,000 troops were engaged, resulting in 23,746 casualties and a Union victory. www.nps.gov/shil
The Battle of Shiloh set the stage for the events that took place in and around Corinth. General Halleck now marched on to capture the city and, more importantly, the rail center. The Siege of Corinth began on April 29th. On the evening of May 29th General Beauregard began withdrawing the Confederate troops, under cover of darkness, leaving the Federal forces in control of the area. Of the 190,000 men who fought there were an estimated 2,000 casualties. Halleck was promoted to General-in-Chief and US Grant became commander of the entire West Tennessee North Mississippi Theater.
On September 29, Confederate Generals Van Dorn and Price marched north to retake Corinth and then move further north to push Grant’s troops out of Tennessee. The Battle of Corinth began on the morning of October 3rd and ended with Van Dorn’s retreat on the 4th. Forty-four thousand men fought and at battle’s end there were 6,747 casualties.
The significance of the battles waged in the area was manifold. This was the final CSA offensive in Mississippi and the number of casualties seriously impacted on their ability to mount troops in the field. At this point Grant became the aggressor and shortly thereafter began a nine month siege of Vicksburg that would result in Union control of the Mississippi River.
Corinth’s Civil War Earthworks, Battery F, Battery Robinett and the Beauregard Line are considered the best preserved in the country and are National Historic Landmarks. These fortifications were largely constructed using enslaved labor. Viewing platforms afford visitors an overview of the sites and tours are given bimonthly.
The 2004 Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center is an outstanding 15,000-sq. ft facility that explores all aspects of the Civil War in the Western Theater through creative use of videos, dioramas, memorabilia and interactive exhibits. This is truly a unique interpretive center that is an absolute must visit.
The center is situated in close proximity to the site of the Union’s Battery Robinett, the focal point of some of the Battle of Corinth’s most intense and bloodiest warfare. Your immersive experience begins as you walk along a gently ascending path, in the footsteps of the attacking Confederates, to the entrance. The walkway is strewn with 66 brass sculptural replicas of items that the soldiers of both sides might have discarded. Some are poignant, eyeglasses and a letter, and some practical, an empty haversack and broken musket. The “Detritus of Battle” ends at the entrance with a final bronze of six soldiers marching at the double-quick in the direction of the battery.
Six themed interior exhibits are designed to captivate the interest of the Civil War buff and the novice, the scholar and the student. A small section of railroad track in the first gallery underscores the importance of 1860s Corinth. Exhibits and two films take you through the battle, the city’s siege and occupation and the construction of forts and batteries. The black presence is interpreted in galleries and in a life-sized display of an African American teacher, in uniform with rifle and book and a student Visitors can seat themselves on one of the classroom’s benches.
As if the center were not impressive enough, in the commemorative courtyard there is a Water Feature, “The Stream of History 1770-1870,” that is both educational and visually stunning. A black granite block, inscribed with portions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, rises out of a pool representing the genesis of the nation. Directly below are 13 weirs depicting the year 1790 and the 13 original states. The stream of water flows, widening as states enter the Union, at a rate of 3.5″ for each year. The watercourse divides in 1860 and is separated by large blocks representing 56 significant battles selected from the more than 10,000 fought in the Civil War. The water again becomes one stream after flowing past the three Constitutional Amendments enacted after the war. Fallen leaves, one from the state tree of each the 36 reunited states are placed around the periphery of the pool. Plan to spend several hours. www.nps.gov/shil
Approximately one month after the war began three slaves absconded from their owner and went to Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. The next day their angry owner demanded that they be returned by the commanding officer, General Benjamin Butler. Butler, a lawyer with abolitionist sentiments refused to return them to slavery declaring that he was not bound to honor any laws of a secessionist state. He further deemed them “contraband of war” because they could be used to further the Confederate war effort. Lincoln’s administration backed his stance but decreed that no freedmen should be sent into the Northwest Territories. As a result blacks flocked to southern areas held by the Union for freedom and protection.
Union troops occupied Corinth in May of 1862 but it was not until later in the year that control was firmly established. The date of the establishment of the Corinth Contraband Camp varies but records indicate it was active by October 1862. The camp would exist until 1864 and thousands of freedom seekers would pass through this “model” camp.
Ironically, the first job at which the refugees were employed was bringing in the cotton crop on abandoned fields for use by the federals. Later some became part of the army’s labor force. Just as they moved into different forms of labor they moved from tents into numbered wooden houses on planned streets. They also constructed a store, two room school, hospital and a church.
The population was inconsistent but averaged from 1,500 to 4,000 with people arriving daily. A census revealed that though the majority were field hands others were skilled blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, seamstresses and teamsters. Only 160 people could read upon entrance but by the time the camp was disbanded more than 1,000 were literate. Residents cultivated 400-acres, 300 cotton and 100 vegetables, for sale and through their industry made an estimated profit of $5000 for the government. Each house had a garden and even those in the infirmary cultivated a garden.
Sixty men were chosen to be camp guards after February 11, 1863. These men formed the core of the 1st Alabama Infantry of African Descent, a colored troop that would later be designated the 55th United States Colored Infantry and they would eventually number a thousand. Each company within the corps had a teacher so that their education could continue. The teacher’s salary was paid by a “tax” assessed on each man.
In January of 1864 the camp was evacuated because of Sherman’s troop movements. Residents were relocated nearly 100-miles to Holly Springs and some moved on to Memphis and helped establish the black community that would nurture W. C. Handy and BB King.
The Corinth Contraband Camp site is located on a 15-acre portion of the original. It consists of a circular, ¼-mile, trail with six bronze life-sized figures. The sculptures are placed at intervals and depict scenes from daily camp life. An emancipated female, hands on hips, eyes meeting yours, greets you at the entrance. The central sculptural display is of a teacher with a student reading a book. The book is inscribed with the Biblical quote from Isaiah 40:31.
Larry and Andrea Lugar created each of the sculptures at a cost of approximately $80,000. The faces were modeled after those in photographs from contraband camps. This is the only site in the nation that memorializes the contraband camps and that transitional moment in time when the newly liberated gained their freedom, a new sense of self worth and hope for the future. The site is open daily at no cost.
The annual Grand Illumination is Corinth’s signature event. Thousands of luminaries are lit to honor the thousand who died in the battle and siege of Corinth. The illuminated trail winds from Battery Robinett into downtown Corinth. The scene has a surreal beauty and you can experience it via a carriage ride.
Many of those memorialized are interred in Corinth National Cemetery, established in 1866. At the close of 1870 there were 5688 burials, 3895 of which were unknown. US Colored Infantry troops from the 14th, 40th, 106, 108, 111 are interred here.
To visit Corinth is not just to step back in time, but also to step back into time. Let your travels take you there. www.corinth.net
I wish you smooth and edifying travels!