By September 19, Major General Sterling Price’s 14,000 Confederates were at Iuka, east of Corinth, Mississippi. Knowing that Major General Edward 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 flank.
Rosecrans had originally planned to move his two divisions along the Jacinto and Fulton roads, but he realized that the roads diverged too far for the divisions to support each other. So he instead put his entire force in a long line on the Jacinto road. He did not have enough men to fend off a possible Confederate attack and guard the Fulton road at the same time, so that road sat undefended.
Price, feeling uncomfortable about the number of Federals closing in, replied to Van Dorn’s request to join forces: “I will make the movement proposed in your dispatch… Enemy concentrating against me.” But in a later message, Price conceded that he would probably have to fight his way out of Iuka: “I will move my army as quickly as I can in the direction proposed by you. I am, however, expecting an attack today, as it seems, from the most reliable information which I can procure, that they are concentrating their forces against me.”
Around 4 p.m., Rosecrans’s vanguard, consisting of elements of Brigadier General Charles S. Hamilton’s division, 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. Fighting soon became so fierce that Hamilton wrote that he had never been involved in “a hotter or more destructive engagement.”
When Price learned of the attack from the south, he guessed that Ord’s presence to the north was just a diversion and sent the bulk of his army toward Rosecrans. If Price had attacked Rosecrans in full force from the beginning, the Federals may have been destroyed. Near 5:45 p.m., Price stopped to discuss the situation with his division commander and close friend, Brigadier General Henry Little. Price noted the unexpected intensity of the fight and asked Little to bring up the rest of his division. Just then a bullet passed under Price’s arm and hit Little in the face, killing him instantly. Price “wept over him as he would for a son” before he placed Little’s two brigades under the command of Brigadier 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, or 68 percent of its strength. The Confederates captured nine guns.
To the north, Ord had orders to advance into Iuka as soon as he heard the sound of firing. But the day was humid with a wind blowing from the north, causing what was called an “acoustic shadow.” Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the department commander over Ord and Rosecrans at Burnsville, could not hear the noise and spent the day wondering why Rosecrans had not yet attacked. Ord spent the day waiting to hear firing so that he could order the advance. All the while, Rosecrans was left to fend for himself while just a small Confederate cavalry unit held Ord at bay.
Rosecrans sent a courier on a roundabout route to report to Grant that a battle was underway, but the message was not received until late that night. Meanwhile, the Federals established a new defensive position that the Confederates could not break. As the sun set, Price disengaged and fell back. He later reported, “The fight began, and was waged with a severity I have never seen surpassed.”
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. Rosecrans held a council of war with his division and brigade commanders, where he fumed, “Where in the name of God is Grant?” He ordered his officers to make a last-ditch bayonet charge in the morning. Brigadier General David Stanley, his other division commander, replied, “I feel that I shall be killed tomorrow, but your order shall be obeyed.”
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 Fulton road, which Rosecrans did not have enough men to guard. The Confederates headed back to Baldwyn, getting away with their supply train in front and a large rear guard to face any pursuers.
Grant finally received Rosecrans’s message that fighting had begun, and as he recalled, “I at once notified Ord of the fact and ordered him to attack early in the morning.” Not yet aware of Price’s escape, Grant 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.”
But the Federals would soon realize that the enemy had slipped away.
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