The military situation in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi was starting to heat up. General Braxton Bragg, the overall Confederate commander in the region, was busy leading an army in Kentucky, so he left matters to the commanders of the two largest forces in Mississippi: Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price. Unbeknownst to Bragg (or even Price), President Jefferson Davis had given Van Dorn authority over Price.
For the Federals, Major General Ulysses S. Grant had three main forces within his military department:
- Major General William S. Rosecrans’s command held the area in and around Corinth, comprising Grant’s left.
- Major General Edward O.C. Ord’s command held Jackson and Bolivar in Tennessee, comprising Grant’s center.
- Major General William T. Sherman’s command held the area in and around Memphis, comprising Grant’s right.
Price complied with orders from Bragg to prevent Rosecrans from reinforcing Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which was pursuing Bragg into Kentucky. Price’s 14,000 Confederates moved out to threaten Rosecrans’s left flank by taking Iuka, a resort town 20 miles east of Corinth. They marched as far as Marietta, about eight miles east of Baldwyn, on September 11. Van Dorn was sending Confederates to Holly Springs, between Memphis and Corinth, to prevent Sherman from reinforcing Rosecrans and also to threaten Rosecrans’s right.
Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, worried about the Confederate incursion into Kentucky, had asked Grant to send reinforcements to Buell. Grant had complied by detaching one of Rosecrans’s divisions. Halleck sent another frantic message urging Grant to hurry the men because the main Confederate thrusts seemed to be toward Maryland and Kentucky, and therefore “there can be no very large force to attack you.”
Grant, who had been unable to figure out what Price was trying to do, now concluded that the Confederates’ ultimate aim was to take back Corinth. He directed Rosecrans to concentrate his forces and prepare to meet an attack, but Rosecrans replied, “I see nothing in this to alarm us.”
Rosecrans was complying with an earlier directive to pull his Federals from their outposts at Iuka and other points east. Since Iuka was the main supply depot on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad east of Corinth, Rosecrans left a brigade under Colonel Robert C. Murphy to ensure that the supplies there were sent to Corinth. Price was unaware that Rosecrans had pulled most of his men into Corinth and believed that he would be facing Rosecrans’s entire army at Iuka.
Price’s cavalry, riding ahead of the infantry, attacked Murphy’s pickets outside Iuka on the morning of the 13th. The Federals held their ground, but they learned from Confederate prisoners that Price’s entire army would be arriving the next day. The telegraph lines were cut, so Murphy had to send a message via courier to Rosecrans requesting orders. The courier disappeared. He sent another message that went unanswered, so at 2 a.m. on the 14th, he ordered the town evacuated.
Murphy’s Federals set fire to the supplies and withdrew before dawn; thousands of slaves followed them out. Confederate cavalry rode in around 7 a.m. and reported the town empty. The troopers were able to salvage about $30,000 worth of unburned supplies and cotton. They took the former and burned the latter.
Price entered the town that night and tried to persuade Van Dorn to join him in an attack on Corinth: “Rosecrans has gone westward with about 10,000 men. I am ready to co-operate with you in an attack upon Corinth.” Van Dorn agreed to a joint attack and directed Price to move his force to Pocahontas “so that we may join our forces and attack without loss of time… Rosecrans is a quick, skillful fellow, and we must be rapid also.”
Grant wrote that when he learned that Price had taken Iuka, “My desire was to attack Price before Van Dorn could reach Corinth or go to his relief.” He ordered Ord’s 8,000 Federals to pull out of the Jackson-Bolivar district and join forces with Rosecrans’s two divisions of 9,000 men. Together they would then march on Iuka to destroy Price’s Confederates.
Rosecrans, however, had another idea. He proposed to have Ord move from Burnsville, seven miles northwest of Iuka, and confront Price from the north. At the same time, Rosecrans would lead his divisions from Jacinto, 14 miles east of Iuka, to confront Price from the south. Ord would attack first, driving Price into Rosecrans’s force, which would destroy him. Grant approved this plan because Rosecrans, having formerly been stationed at Iuka, “had a most excellent map showing all the roads and streams in the surrounding country (and) was also familiar with the ground.”
Synchronizing the movements of two armies converging from different directions would be extremely difficult. But Grant believed that the reward for success outweighed the risk, and it would be better to seize the initiative than to wait for either Van Dorn or Price to attack. Grant wrote Ord on the 17th, “We will get off all our forces now as rapidly as practicable. I have dispatched Rosecrans that all our movements now would be as rapid as compatible with prudence.” Despite a pouring rain, Ord’s men reached their first objective, Glendale, by end of day.
Ord’s troops reached Burnsville via railroad on the morning of the 18th. They moved to within four miles of Iuka as planned and waited for Rosecrans’s Federals to get into position. That was supposed to happen first thing next morning, but the torrential rains had put Rosecrans behind schedule. By the end of the 18th, Rosecrans was still 20 miles from Iuka. Grant directed Ord to wait until Rosecrans was ready, which was estimated to be 2 p.m. on the 19th. Rosecrans assured Grant, “When we come in, will endeavor to do it strongly.”
Price was largely unaware of the forces bearing down upon him until the night of the 18th. Soon after, he received a message from Van Dorn stating that President Davis had approved (without consulting Bragg) joining the forces of Van Dorn and Price, and directing Price to go to Baldwyn. Price prepared to comply, unaware that Rosecrans’s Federals were approaching from the south. However, part of Rosecrans’s force got lost, leaving him unprepared to engage the enemy. Unaware of this, Grant reversed the plan and directed Rosecrans to attack first and push Price north into Ord.
Later that day, Grant received news that the Federals had won decisively at Antietam yesterday: “Longstreet and his entire division prisoners. General Hill killed. Entire rebel army of Virginia destroyed, Burnside having reoccupied Harper’s Ferry and cut off retreat.” Grant sent this message to Ord and directed him to forward it to Price. Since Robert E. Lee’s destruction meant the virtual end of the war, Grant instructed Ord to demand that Price “avoid useless bloodshed and lay down his arms.”
Ord forwarded the message and the demand. Responding in third person, Price stated that he did not believe the report was true. And even if “the facts were as stated in those dispatches they would only move him and his soldiers to greater exertions in behalf of their country, and that neither he nor they will ever lay down their arms–as humanely suggested by General Ord–until the independence of the Confederate States shall have been acknowledged by the United States.”
As Price worked to move away from Ord’s advancing Federals, he was inadvertently planning to march straight into Rosecrans’s men trying to organize themselves to the southwest.
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