When General Braxton Bragg led his Confederate Army of Mississippi into Kentucky, he left behind two forces in Mississippi under Major Generals Sterling Price near Tupelo and Earl Van Dorn at Vicksburg. They were assigned to watch the Federals in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, and prevent them from trying to reinforce Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio pursuing Bragg.
The Federals in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi belonged to Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s military department:
- The left wing consisted of Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Mississippi, which operated around Corinth, Rienzi, Jacinto, and Danville.
- The center consisted of Major General Edward O.C. Ord’s command, which held the Mobile & Ohio Railroad from Bethel to Humboldt, and the Mississippi Central Railroad from Jackson to Bolivar in Tennessee.
- The right consisted of Major General William T. Sherman’s command, which held the area in and around Memphis.
Since the movements of Bragg and Buell took precedence in the eyes of the Federal high command, Grant had been asked by General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to send reinforcements to Buell. Grant replied on September 1, “I am weak and threatened with present forces from Humboldt to Bolivar, and at this point would deem it very unsafe to spare any more troops.”
Grant said only if he could pull out of Alabama and compact his forces would he be able to help Buell. Halleck agreed, and even allowed Grant to compact his line westward all the way to Corinth if he could spare a division. Grant complied by sending one of Rosecrans’s three divisions. He wrote, “Jackson and Bolivar were yet threatened, but I sent the reinforcements.” Grant now had no more than 50,000 men available for active duty in his department.
Meanwhile, Bragg wanted Van Dorn and Price to keep Grant’s forces occupied so that they did not reinforce Buell. Specifically, Bragg feared that Rosecrans’s whole army might be sent to join with Buell. Bragg wrote Price, “Buell’s whole force in full retreat upon Nashville, destroying their stores. Watch Rosecrans and prevent a junction; or if he escapes you follow him closely.”
Price had hesitated to move without Van Dorn reinforcing him, but now Bragg’s message gave Price a new sense of urgency, and he felt that he could no longer wait for Van Dorn’s help. Price told him that Bragg’s “order requires me to advance immediately… I hope nothing will prevent you from coming forward without delay with all your disposable troops.”
Van Dorn was in the process of moving his forces to Holly Springs, between Memphis and Corinth. From there, he could prevent Sherman from reinforcing Rosecrans, or he could threaten Rosecrans’s flank and force him to come out and fight. Van Dorn proposed that Price join forces with him at Grand Junction and from there attempt to retake Corinth. But this would leave the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, which Price depended on for supplies, open for Federal capture. It would also give Rosecrans an opening to move his troops by rail eastward to reinforce Buell, which was exactly what Bragg wanted to prevent.
As Van Dorn sent Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates to Holly Springs, Price moved from Tupelo to Iuka, east of Corinth. On the 6th, Bragg urgently notified Price that Rosecrans’s army was moving to reinforce Buell, and as such Price “should move rapidly for Nashville” to prevent a junction. But this was only the division that Grant had pledged to send to Buell, not Rosecrans’s entire army as Bragg feared.
The next day, Grant learned that Van Dorn was targeting Holly Springs and Price was targeting Iuka. As he recalled, “One division was brought from Memphis to Bolivar to meet any emergency that might arise from this move of the enemy.” Grant also ordered Rosecrans to shut down the Federal outposts east of Corinth and bring all the troops at those posts into Corinth to bolster that city’s defenses.
Price moved his headquarters to Guntown on the 8th and readied to clash with Rosecrans in the Iuka area. He informed Van Dorn that he “expected to move immediately against Iuka in accordance with order just received from General Bragg, who again instructs him to follow Rosecrans.”
Van Dorn, frustrated with Bragg’s plan and Price’s reluctance to join forces with him, wrote Secretary of War George Randolph asking to be given “command of the movements of Price, that there may be concert of action.” Randolph forwarded this request to President Jefferson Davis, who in turn sent it to Bragg. But without waiting for Bragg to respond, Davis told Van Dorn, “The troops must co-operate and can only do so by having one head. Your rank makes you the commander.” Thus, Davis gave Van Dorn command of all Confederates in Mississippi, apparently without notifying Price that Van Dorn was now his superior.
Meanwhile, Grant notified Halleck, “For two days now I have been advised of the advance of Price and Van Dorn on this place. Should the enemy come I will be as ready as possible with the means at hand. I do not believe a force can be brought against us that cannot be successfully resisted.” However, Grant added, “With all the vigilance I can bring to bear I cannot determine the objects of the enemy. Everything threatens an attack here but my fear is it is to cover some other movement.”
The situation in Mississippi would become much more critical as the month progressed.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Cozzens, Peter, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 1997.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.