September 19, 1862 – Federal forces attacked Confederates in northern Mississippi but could not prevent them from escaping to join with another force.
By the 19th, Major General Sterling Price’s 14,000 Confederates were at Iuka, east of Corinth, Mississippi. Knowing that General E.O.C. Ord’s 8,000 Federals were approaching from the northwest, Price prepared to move his force south to join the Confederate army led by Major General Earl Van Dorn. However, Price did not know that another Federal force of 9,000 men under Major General William S. Rosecrans was moving from the southwest to attack his left flank.
One of Rosecrans’s divisions got lost along the way, so Rosecrans spent the morning waiting for those troops to countermarch and join the rest of his men. The Federals were to advance on the two roads leading to Iuka, but Rosecrans chose to only use the Jacinto road and keep his force united in case of a Confederate attack. The Federals encountered Confederate pickets about a mile and a half south of Iuka. They deployed across the road and drove the Confederates north toward the main army.
When Price learned of the attack from the south, he guessed that Ord’s presence to the north was just a diversion and pulled his Confederates from that sector to turn toward Rosecrans. Price instructed his division commander and close friend, Brigadier General Henry Little, to bring up the rest of his men. Before Little could comply, he was killed by a shot to the head. Price “wept over him as if a son” before he was replaced by General Louis Hebert.
Price quickly composed himself and directed Hebert to counterattack. The Federals, unable to fully deploy due to the rough terrain, were driven back. The 11th Ohio Battery suffered the worst casualty percentage of any artillery battery in the war, losing 54 (19 killed and 35 wounded) of its 80 men. The Confederates captured nine guns.
Rosecrans sent a dispatch to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the department commander, reporting that a battle was underway, but it did not arrive at Grant’s headquarters until the next day. Meanwhile, the Federals established a new defensive position that the Confederates could not break. As the sun set, Price disengaged and fell back.
Ord was supposed to attack upon hearing the sound of battle to the south. He advanced along the northern road to within four miles of Iuka, but an atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented him from hearing the fighting. Thus, he never ordered his assault, and just a small Confederate cavalry unit held him at bay.
Rosecrans sustained 790 casualties (141 killed, 613 wounded, and 36 missing), while Price lost 1,516 (263 killed, 692 wounded, and 561 captured or missing). The Federals claimed victory because they drove the enemy from the field and inflicted nearly twice as many casualties as they incurred.
Price planned to renew the fight the next day, but Hebert and his other division commander, Brigadier General Dabney H. Maury, argued that Ord might get involved, which could be disastrous for the Confederates. Price relented and led his men south on the road that Rosecrans had opted not to use. Rosecrans inexplicably left it unguarded, enabling Price to get away with his supply train in front and a large rear guard to face any pursuers.
Before Grant found out about Price’s escape, he submitted a complimentary official report: “I cannot speak too highly of the energy and skill displayed by General Rosecrans in the attack, and of the endurance of the troops under him. General Ord’s command showed untiring zeal, but the direction taken by the enemy prevented them from taking the active part they desired.”
When Rosecrans learned that the Confederates were gone the next day, he tried pursuing them but could not due to the muddy road and harsh terrain. Price may have been defeated, but he got away to join forces with Van Dorn as planned. This caused resentment among the Federal high command. Grant later conceded that Rosecrans had correctly used the one road instead of both, but he questioned Rosecrans’s failure to guard the unused road. Rosecrans questioned Ord’s claim that he could not hear the fighting.
Ultimately, the Federals had succeeded in preventing Price from joining General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates in Kentucky, whether he had planned to do so or not. Grant quickly turned his attention to Corinth, fearing the Confederates might try retaking this important railroad town. Ord arrived at Corinth on the 21st, while Grant pulled Federals from Bolivar and Jackson in Tennessee to reinforce the town’s defenses.
Price joined with Van Dorn at Ripley a week later, but the eight-day march had turned Price’s army into a disorganized mob. Meanwhile, Van Dorn reported: “Field returns showed my strength to be about 22,000. Rosecrans at Corinth had about 15,000, with about 8,000 additional men at outposts from 12 to 15 miles distant.” There were also 6,000 Federals at Memphis, 8,000 at Bolivar, and 3,000 at Jackson, Tennessee.
All told, the Federals could muster 40,000 men to defend Corinth, but Van Dorn wanted to try retaking the town nonetheless. To succeed, he needed the elements of surprise and speed. He resolved to head toward Pocahontas, hoping to trick the Federals into thinking he intended to attack Bolivar, 40 miles northwest of Corinth.
Van Dorn’s subordinate, General Mansfield Lovell, opposed this plan and suggested that the Confederates simply attack Bolivar, which would force the Federals to abandon Corinth to save their supply line. Price wanted to wait for the upcoming release of 15,000 exchanged Confederate prisoners at Jackson, Mississippi. Price argued that Van Dorn could not hold Corinth if these men did not rejoin the ranks.
Van Dorn overruled both Lovell and Price, ordering them to prepare three days’ rations for their men. This new Confederate Army of the West began marching out of Ripley the next day, and Corinth was the ultimate destination.
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