October 3, 1862 – Confederates under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price lost the element of surprise and with it the chance to reclaim a key city in northern Mississippi.
After their defeat at Iuka last month, Price’s Confederate Army of the West had joined with the Van Dorn, the ranking officer, who named his new force the “Army of West Tennessee.” As the force advanced on Pocahontas, Tennessee, Federals under Major General Ulysses S. Grant patrolled the region from four key points: Memphis, Jackson, and Bolivar in Tennessee, and Corinth, Mississippi.
Grant’s largest force, the 23,000-man Army of the Mississippi under Major General William S. Rosecrans, held Corinth. This town was a vital railroad center and the region’s strongest point. Unaware that the combined Confederate force was moving toward Corinth, Grant incorrectly reported from his Jackson headquarters that Price had moved south of Corinth while Van Dorn moved west toward the Mississippi River.
Van Dorn planned to feint against Bolivar and then launch a surprise attack on Corinth in the hope that the unsuspecting Federals would have no time to call for reinforcements from the other points. He dismissed suggestions from subordinates to instead push into Tennessee to cut Rosecrans’s supply lines, which could have forced him to abandon Corinth without a fight. After reclaiming Corinth, Van Dorn would use the town’s railroads to supply an advance into Middle Tennessee. This would at least prevent Grant from sending Federal reinforcements to oppose the Confederate invasion of Kentucky taking place at that time.
Grant realized that the Confederates were in fact targeting Corinth when they reached Chewalla, 10 miles northwest of the town, on the 2nd. Ruining the Confederate element of surprise, Grant notified Rosecrans to be on alert and began directing troops from other points to head toward Corinth. Grant hoped these troops could cut off Van Dorn’s communication and supply lines and destroy his army.
Rosecrans’s defenses consisted of two lines of fortifications west of Corinth, a half-mile apart. Being less certain of an attack than Grant, Rosecrans placed a small force on the outer line and most of his other men in defense of the railroads and in the second, stronger line. The Confederate troops, moving along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, slept on their arms during the night of the 2nd, intending to launch their surprise attack the next day.
Van Dorn advanced on the morning of October 3 with 22,000 troops in three divisions. They marched the 10 miles from Chewalla without water and attacked the outer Federal lines northwest of Corinth around 10 a.m. The massive onslaught overwhelmed the unprepared Federals, and the Confederates seized the line within 30 minutes despite sustaining heavy casualties. As the Federals fled to their interior lines, Van Dorn called a halt for his thirsty men to rest in the 90-degree heat. This allowed the Federals to strengthen their positions.
The Federals’ second, more compact, defense line proved much stronger, and they repelled a series of piecemeal assaults. Near sundown, Van Dorn consulted with Price and agreed to suspend the attack. Van Dorn reported:
“I saw with regret the sun sink behind the horizon as the last shot of our sharpshooters followed the retreating foe into their innermost lines. One hour more of daylight, and victory would have soothed our grief for the loss of the gallant dead who sleep on that lost but not dishonored field.”
Despite sustaining heavy casualties, Van Dorn resolved to attack again the next day. He planned for his three divisions to launch coordinated attacks on the Federal right, center, and left. Rosecrans anticipated this renewal of hostilities and informed his commanders at a council of war that night. The Federals concentrated in the defenses closest to Corinth.
The next day began with an artillery duel before the Confederates advanced. Brigadier General Louis Hebert, leading the division slated to attack the Federal right, reported sick. He was replaced by Brigadier General Martin E. Green, who led the troops in taking Battery Powell. However, Green refused to advance any further, prompting a subordinate to say that he seemed “hopelessly bewildered, as well as ignorant of what ought to be done.” This allowed the Federals to reinforce their line and regain their guns in a counterattack.
On the far Confederate right, Major General Mansfield Lovell refused to advance his division after surveying the strong Federal works in his front. Lovell’s brigade commanders feared that attacking such a line would be suicidal. When one of Lovell’s staffers asked a brigade commander, “Suppose General Lovell orders you to take it?” the officer replied, “My brigade will march up and be killed.”
This left Brigadier General Dabney H. Maury to attack the Federal center unsupported. Maury’s Confederates managed to seize the vital Battery Robinett, but Federal units laying prone 30 yards behind the earthwork suddenly stood and fired, driving the enemy off. By then, some Confederates between Green and Maury had pierced the Federal right and entered Corinth, but they too were driven off around 11:30 a.m. after ferocious hand-to-hand combat.
With the Confederates exhausted in the intense heat, Van Dorn ordered a withdrawal back toward Chewalla around 12 p.m. Lovell’s division served as the rear guard. An hour later, Rosecrans rode among his men at Battery Robinett to dispel rumors he had been killed. He removed his hat and announced, “I stand in the presence of brave men, and I take my hat off to you.” Rosecrans specifically praised the 5th Minnesota for having “saved the day.”
Grant ordered Rosecrans to pursue and destroy the Confederate army, but to Grant’s dismay, Rosecrans stated that his men were too exhausted and shaken to pursue until the next day. As Rosecrans conducted an uninspiring chase from behind, Grant dispatched a force under General E.O.C. Ord to meet Van Dorn in front, cut his supply lines, and possibly destroy his army.
Ord confronted Van Dorn along the Hatchie River near Pocahontas on the 5th. A brief but intense fight ensued that became known as the Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge. It ended when Van Dorn’s men used another bridge to cross the river and slipped away to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Van Dorn lost another 600 men, but his army had not been destroyed as Grant hoped.
In the fighting since October 3rd, the Federals sustained 2,839 killed, wounded, or missing. Grant initially praised Rosecrans’s performance at Iuka and Corinth, but he later criticized the general for allowing the Confederates to escape destruction after both battles. The Confederates lost 4,838, or more than a fifth of their total force. Van Dorn blamed the defeat on Hebert for calling out sick and Lovell for refusing to move; he soon relieved them both from command.
This battle outraged many southerners because it had produced such high casualties for almost no gain. The Confederates successfully prevented Federal reinforcements from being sent to Kentucky, but they failed to either regain Corinth or knock the Federals out of northern Mississippi. In fact, they did not even alter Grant’s plan to push deeper into Mississippi.
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