The Army of Tennessee was one of over two-dozen independent field armies created by the Confederate States of America. Although the Army of Tennessee was not formally so named until November 1862, its history dates from the first days of the war when its predecessor units came into being. Upon leaving the Union, each seceding state created its own army, and eventually these state-organized military forces were absorbed into Confederate service. The Army of Tennessee evolved from these forces that had been raised by the Western states of the Confederacy.
The force that became the Army of Tennessee had its origins in the summer of 1861 when
President Jefferson Davis sent General Albert Sidney Johnston to command all the Confederate forces between the Appalachian Mountains on the east and the Ozark Mountains on the west, with the exception of the troops defending the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico.
By the winter of 1861 – 1862, Johnston had his 40,000-man army spread thin trying to defend a very long line running from Columbus, Kentucky, to the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. Among the troops holding this line were 12 regiments of Mississippi infantry.
Johnston’s defensive line was fatally ruptured on February 16, 1862, when a Union army under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured 11,500 Confederates at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. Among the prisoners were approximately 3,000 Mississippians.
Among the men from the Magnolia State that fought at Fort Donelson was George E. Estes, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 14th Mississippi Infantry. In a post-war reminiscence for the book Reminiscences of the Boys in Gray he wrote: “I started out in May, 1861, from home with the expressed intention of cleaning up all Yankeedom. I had been taught by demagogues and politicians to believe that I could whip a ‘cowpen full’ of common Yankees. I lived and acted under this delusion till Gen. Grant and his army met us at Fort Donelson. I soon found that the Yankees could shoot as far and as accurately as I could, and from then until the end of the war I was fully of the opinion that the United States Army was fully prepared to give me all the fight I wanted.”
After his line was breached, Johnston pulled his army back to Corinth, Mississippi, where he united his command with new reinforcements to create the Army of Mississippi in March 1862.
The Army of Mississippi was made up in large part of men from the western half of the Confederacy. The largest part of them hailed from the states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, And Tennessee. Almost all the others came from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. In this army were eight Mississippi infantry regiments: the 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 15th, and 22nd Infantry regiments, plus the 3rd Mississippi Infantry Battalion.
The Army of Mississippi suffered from a lack of qualified officers to lead its soldiers. The majority of southerners with pre-war military experience came mostly from the eastern states of the Confederacy, very few of whom served in the Western theater. To make matters worse, most of the few experienced men living in the western states joined units in 1861 that were rushed to Virginia where the early fighting was expected to take place. This lack of qualified military leadership plagued the Army of Mississippi, and it successor, the Army of Tennessee, and the western army never had the strength of command enjoyed by the Army of Northern Virginia.
Johnston had 40,000 men in and around Corinth, and he decided to attack General Ulysses S. Grant’s army at Pittsburg, Landing, Tennessee, just 20 miles away, while the two forces were about equal in numbers. On April 6, 1862, Johnston surprised the Union army at Shiloh, driving the Yankees back to the Tennessee River and threatening to trap and destroy it. In savage fighting on the first day of the battle the 6th Mississippi Infantry had 300 out of 425 men killed or wounded, a 70% casualty rate. During the remainder of the war only three Confederate regiments had more casualties in a single battle.
After darkness ended the first day’s fighting at Shiloh, the Union army was reinforced, and this infusion of fresh troops allowed the Federals to go on the offensive on April 7. Unable to stop the surging blue tide, the Rebel army was forced to retreat. In two days of fighting, the Confederates suffered nearly 11,000 casualties, including army commander Albert S. Johnston, who was killed on the first day. The Mississippi Brigade commanded by Colonel James R. Chalmers, consisting of the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 10th infantry regiments was especially hard hit at Shiloh, taking 445 casualties out of 1,739 men engaged.
Private Augustus H. Mecklin of the 15th Mississippi Infantry never forgot the horrible
sights that he witnessed on the retreat from Shiloh: “Then it was when the veil of night was rent and the curtain of darkness was lifted, that sickening sights fell before my eyes. Near me at one time lay a dead man, his bloated, ghastly, bloody face turned up to the pattering rain drops. Not far off another flare revealed a body half covered up in a pool of water. At another flash I saw one of our men stumble over a corpse that lay in the road and again as the light of heaven flashed across this scene of blood I saw a large piece of ground literally covered with dead, heaped and piled upon each other.”
After Shiloh, the Confederates retreated to Corinth under the direction of their new commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard. The Yankees did not pursue immediately, and for the next six weeks Beauregard was given a respite to strengthen the defenses of Corinth and bring in reinforcements. By late May 1862, 11 more Mississippi infantry regiments had joined his army, and with reinforcements received from other states, the southern army at Corinth had grown to 66,000 men.
By late May a huge Union army numbering some 110,000 men had finally advanced to the outskirts of Corinth. Faced with such a disparity in numbers, Beauregard withdrew from the city on the night of May 29 and retreated with his army to Tupelo, Mississippi.
Beauregard was replaced as army commander soon after the retreat to Tupelo by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He named General Braxton Bragg as the new army commander, and soon after taking over the general transferred four Mississippi infantry regiments out of his army, leaving 14 Mississippi regiments in the Army of Mississippi.
Bragg decided to strike first with his army before the Federals in north Mississippi resumed their advance. Leaving 30,000 men in Mississippi, he transported the remainder of the army to Chattanooga, Tennessee. From there Bragg launched an invasion of Kentucky that he hoped would draw the Federals after him.
Advancing from Chattanooga on August 28, 1862, with 30,000 men, the initial battle of the campaign took place at Munfordville, Kentucky, on September 14. Chalmer’s Mississippi brigade made the attack on the fortified garrison of the town, and they were repulsed with heavy losses, suffering 288 men killed or wounded. The 10th Mississippi Infantry was particularly hard hit, having 13 killed and 95 wounded in the battle.
Bragg’s march into Kentucky culminated with the battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862. The battle produced lots of casualties but no clear winner, and Bragg retreated back into Tennessee after the battle which ended the campaign. The Confederate casualties in the battle were 510 killed, 2,635 wounded, and 251 missing. A number of Mississippi units were engaged in the fight, and among the hardest hit was the 34th Mississippi Infantry. The regiment had all three of its field officers wounded, and one company in the unit only had seven men left after the battle.
During a lull after the battle of Perryville, the Army of Mississippi merged with the Army of Kentucky on November 20, 1862, creating the Army of Tennessee. The newly established army was camped at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, about 27 miles from Nashville.
In late December 1862, the Federal army at Nashville under Major General William S. Rosecrans advanced on Murfreesboro to attack Bragg’s army. The Confederate commander beat him to the punch, however, attacking on December 31, and driving back the surprised Federals, but failing the make a decisive breakthrough.
On January 2, 1863, Bragg launched a second attack, but it was repulsed with heavy losses. The Confederate army had 10,000 casualties at Murfreesboro, and the Mississippians in the army were particularly hard hit, suffering more than 1,513 killed, wounded, or missing. Many of these men became casualties while trying to storm a strong Federal position known as the Round Forest. So many Mississippians died trying to take this small patch of woods that the area was later christened “Mississippi’s Half-Acre.” The 29th Mississippi Infantry probably had the highest casualties of any unit from the state at Murfreesboro, having 34 men killed and 202 wounded.
Private John W. Simmons served in the 27th Mississippi Infantry and fought at Murfreesboro. Reflecting on the battle after the war he wrote: “I believe I saw as much war as any man in it, never being absent, but I never in all the war saw as many dead men of one single command in so small a place, as I did there on the plains of Murfreesboro. Attala County ought to erect a monument on the spot to mark the place where her gallant sons fell.”
After the battle of Murfreesboro the Army of Tennessee went into winter quarters, and even after spring made campaigning possible, the Confederates remained on the defensive. This was because the Confederate army at Vicksburg, Mississippi, had priority on reinforcements in the spring of 1863. In mid-June, the Union army under General Rosecrans advanced on Chattanooga, and over the next few months Bragg was outmaneuvered and had to abandon the city on September 9, 1863, and retreat back into the mountains south of the city.
Rosecrans pursued the Rebels into the mountains, and about this time Bragg was reinforced with troops from the Army of Northern Virginia, bringing his army up to 60,000 men. Among Bragg’s army were 18 regiments and three battalions of Mississippi infantry.
On September 19, 1863, Bragg attacked Rosecrans at Chickamauga, Georgia, in one of the few battles where the Confederates actually had a numerical superiority. The first day of fighting ended in a bloody draw, but the next day the Confederates broke through the Union right and the Yankees were forced to retreat back to Chattanooga to avoid being destroyed.
Colonel William F. Tucker, commander of the 41st Mississippi Infantry at Chickamauga, wrote in his after action report on the battle: “The Forty-First Mississippi was advancing at a double-quick through the woods when it was met by Manigault’s men,
and for a moment was thrown into confusion as they burst through its ranks; but the men responded with a regular Mississippi yell to the command forward, and dashed at the enemy, who immediately fled.”
The battle of Chickamauga was the bloodiest battle in the western theater of the war, costing the Confederates over 18,000 casualties. For Mississippi, Chickamauga was costliest battle of the Civil War. Combined losses among the Mississippi infantry regiments probably exceeded 1,900 men.
Colonel Jacob H. Sharp of the 44th Mississippi Infantry wrote in his official report on the battle of Chickamauga: “We went into action with 272 officers and enlisted men and lost 81 killed and wounded. Among the killed was Major John C. Thompson, fearless among the fearless. He fell as he had wished to fall, fighting the foe that had invaded his home.”
After the bloodletting at Chickamauga, Bragg followed the Union army to Chattanooga and laid siege, placing his forces on the mountains surrounding the city. The north poured reinforcements into Chattanooga, and during the battle of Missionary Ridge on November 24-25, 1863, the Confederates were driven from the heights overlooking Chattanooga and forced to retreat into north Georgia. During the fighting the Mississippi brigade commanded by Brigadier General Edward C. Walthall particularly distinguished itself at Lookout Mountain, suffering 972 casualties in the process. On the second day of the battle the Mississippi brigade of Brigadier General Mark P. Lowrey played an important role in the fighting at Tunnel Hill, holding open the retreat route for the Army of Tennessee after their defeat.
The Army of Tennessee retreated to Ringgold, Georgia, where Lowrey’s brigade was part of a force called on to delay the Union pursuit force while the rest of the army made good their escape. On November 27, 1863, the Mississippians were heavily engaged at Taylor’s Ridge, Georgia, outside of Ringgold. In his after action report, General Lowrey wrote that “When my ammunition was nearly exhausted and I had sent for more, my men and officers gave me assurance with great enthusiasm that they would hold the position at the point of the bayonet and with clubbed muskets if the enemy dared to charge them.”
After the Confederate rout at Missionary Ridge, Braxton Bragg resigned as commander of the Army of Tennessee on December 27, 1863. Jefferson Davis appointed General Joseph E. Johnston as the new commander of the army.
In the spring of 1864 it was evident to the Mississippians in Johnston’s army that heavy fighting was about to take place, as Union General William T. Sherman was poised to advance into Georgia. On April 24, 1864, Lieutenant Louis G. Sleeper of the 44th Mississippi Infantry wrote “The enemy has doubtless concentrated his entire force in our front…Johnston seems to be making every preparation to welcome them to hospitable graves beneath the clod of good old Georgia.”
In May 1864 Sherman moved into north Georgia, his objective being the city of Atlanta, Georgia. Johnston retreated to Resaca, Georgia, where he was reinforced with troops from Mississippi. Included in this force were three brigades of Mississippians serving under Brigadier General Winfield S. Featherston, Brigadier General John Adams, and Brigadier General Claudius W. Sears. With these additions, there were at least 33 Mississippi infantry units serving with the Army of Tennessee, making this the largest concentration of Mississippi commands to ever serve in one Confederate army.
For the next three months Sherman flanked the Army of Tennessee out of one position after another, all the while moving ever closer to Atlanta. During the campaign Mississippians saw action at places such as Resaca, New Hope Church, Moore’s Mill, and Kennesaw Mountain. The Rebels fought bravely, but Johnston was unable to stop the relentless Union march on Atlanta.
During the constant marching and retreating, Sergeant Major John T. Kern of the 45th Mississippi Infantry took time to write this note in his diary on May 22, 1864: “We have passed through some of the prettiest country on this move that I have ever seen, it is hard to give up so much of our Dixie to the vandal hordes of Lincoln. God will surely aid us in driving them back to their bleak north & give us our goodly land in his own good time when he finds we have suffered enough & are worthy.”
By mid-July the Federals were almost within sight of the city, and Jefferson Davis removed Johnston from command and replaced him with General John B. Hood. General Hood immediately took the offensive, assaulting the Federals on July 20th and the 22nd. In the fighting on the 20th, Featherston’s brigade suffered 616 casualties out of 1,230 men engaged, and on the 22nd Lowrey’s Mississippi brigade had 276 casualties. In another assault on July 28 at Ezra Church, the Mississippi brigades of Brigadier General William Brantley and Brigadier General Jacob Sharp suffered a combined 340 casualties.
Hood’s attacks were all defeated with heavy casualties for the Confederates, and the fighting settled down into siege warfare, with both sides sheltering in extensive trench lines. In late August Sherman sent some of his forces on a flanking march to cut the railroad line below the city to cut the flow of supplies to the Confederate army at Atlanta. Hood attempted to block this flanking movement at the battle of Jonesborough, Georgia, on August 31, 1864. After bloody fighting the Rebel attack was repulsed, and Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta.
The 1864 Atlanta Campaign cost the Confederates thousands of men they could ill afford to lose: there were over 27,000 casualties, many of them Mississippians. The Mississippi regiments in the Army of Tennessee were so depleted in numbers from the fighting that many of them had to be consolidated with other units to give them enough men to be combat effective.
Having lost Atlanta, Hood took his 40,000 man army north to Tennessee in November 1864, hoping Sherman would pursue. Marching with the Confederate army were 31 infantry regiments and three battalions from Mississippi. Hood’s plan to lure the Federals out of Georgia failed, as Sherman only detached a portion of his men under the command of Major General George H. Thomas to deal with the Rebels in Tennessee, while the remainder of his army marched from Atlanta to the sea.
On the evening of November 30, 1864, Hood threw almost 16,000 of his infantry against a very strong Union position at Franklin, Tennessee. By the end of the battle all he had to show for his effort was a huge casualty list – 1,750 dead, and 4,500 wounded. The Mississippians who fought at Franklin pressed the attack, showing a suicidal bravery as they repeatedly charged the Federal entrenchments. They suffered terribly for their gallantry, having 1,277 men killed or wounded. 423 of the Mississippians killed at Franklin are buried in the Confederate cemetery at Carnton Plantation, the greatest number from any southern state that fought in the battle. Corporal Abner J. Wilkes of the 46th Mississippi Infantry simply said of the battle, “Then we made an attack on Franklin. Oh! My God from Heaven, it rained fire and brimstone for some time if it ever did in the world.”
Hood bled his army white at Franklin, but when the Union army retreated to Nashville, he blindly pursued with the Army of Tennessee, now reduced to only 24,000 men. The Mississippi units in the army were mere shells of their former selves – the largest command was Lowrey’s Mississippi brigade, which numbered only 1,047 men, the size of a single regiment at the beginning of the war.
On December 15-16, 1864, Union General George Thomas attacked Hood with 55,000 men, and the Army of Tennessee shattered like a pane of glass. During the retreat back to Mississippi the army came undone as individual groups of men struggled to survive the terrible winter storms in their ragged clothing. Many of the men had worn out their shoes and were barefoot: James R. Binford of the 15th Mississippi Infantry noted that on the march “My heart almost bled as I saw traces of blood in the icy slush, that came from the barefeet of our brave soldiers.”
Eventually 13,000 exhausted, half-starved survivors of the Army of Tennessee limped into Tupelo, Mississippi. The physical condition of the men could only be described as deplorable. William P. Chambers, a sergeant in the 46th Mississippi Infantry, wrote in his diary “The regiment numbers about 150 men, about half of whom are barefooted. All are ragged and dirty and covered in vermin. There are, perhaps, twenty guns, but not a single cartridge box in the regiment.”
Despite the terrible conditions that caused many men to desert the army and go home, many Mississippians resolved to stay with their units and fight until the bitter end. About 5,000 men from the Army of Tennessee were sent as reinforcements to General Joseph E. Johnston, who was operating in the Carolinas. Among these troops were four very depleted brigades of Mississippi infantry: the exact number of men in these units is not known, but they probably numbered less than 1,000 souls.
The Mississippians sent to Johnston saw their last action of the war in the battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, on March 19, 1865. Johnston attempted to stop General Sherman’s march through North Carolina by attacking the Union army, but he was repulsed and forced to retreat. On April 26, 1865, Johnston surrendered to Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina. After signing their paroles, the Mississippians were left to make their way home as best they could across a desolate southern landscape.
Historian Stanley F. Horn, in his history of the Army of Tennessee, wrote a fitting epitaph for these brave men: “On foot, or astride the bony army horses, or piled in the patched-up, creaking army wagons, they started home over the mountains. They had fought a good fight, they had finished their course, they had kept the faith.”
Binford, James R. Recollections of the Fifteenth Regiment of Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A. Patrick Henry Papers, Z/0215.000, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Connelly, Thomas L. Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861 – 1862. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Current, Richard N., Ed. Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, Volume III. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
_____. Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
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Mecklin, Augustus Hervey. “The Battle of Shiloh.” Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN: 8 May 1921.
Moneyhon, Carl and Bobby Roberts. Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Mississippi in the Civil War. Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
Rowland, Dunbar. Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898. Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, 1978.
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Swann, Francis, Ed. The Markham Letters. Privately Published, 1987.
United States War Department, Compiler. War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 73 Volumes, 128 Parts; Washington, DC: 1880-1902.
Wilkes, Abner J. A Short History of My Life in the Late War Between the North and the South. Published 1957. A copy of this book is available on microfiche at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Yeary, Mamie. Reminiscences of the Boys in Gray 1861-1865. McGregor, TX: Reprint by Morningside Books, 1986.