By the time the sun rose on the morning of September 20, Major General Sterling Price’s Confederate army that had fought at Iuka, Mississippi, the previous day was gone. Major General William S. Rosecrans, whose Federal army had battled Price, left the Fulton road unguarded due to a lack of manpower, and Price used it to go around the Federals on his way to join forces with the army of Major General Earl Van Dorn.
Major General E.O.C. Ord, whose Federal army had sat idle north of Iuka during the battle because Ord could not hear the fighting, marched into Iuka on the morning of the 20th. The town was now back in Federal hands. The battle had been a Federal victory because Price was driven from the field, but Ord had not joined forces with Rosecrans to destroy Price as planned.
Confederate morale dipped when the men learned that they would be leaving Iuka. They viewed this as a retreat, even though officers tried to explain that they were merely following orders from President Jefferson Davis to link with Van Dorn. Price, fearful that the Federals would catch up to him, pushed his hungry, exhausted men to their limit on the march to Baldwyn.
Rosecrans received word around 8:30 a.m. that Price had withdrawn. He rode up to the front and met with Ord, who was leading his columns forward. Angry that Ord had not supported him in yesterday’s battle, Rosecrans asked him, “Why did you leave me in the lurch?” Ord showed him a message from Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal department commander, directing Ord to suspend the assault. Neither Grant nor Ord had heard the fighting and therefore did not know to support Rosecrans. According to a fellow officer, “This miscarriage was the beginning of a misunderstanding which grew into positive dislike between Grant and Rosecrans–a breach that was never healed.”
Grant rode up from Burnsville and met with Rosecrans around noon. Grant learned that Price had got away, which led him to conclude that Price would most likely join with Van Dorn and attack Corinth, the Federals’ largest supply depot in Mississippi. Grant ordered Ord to leave one brigade to defend Iuka and bring the rest of his army to Corinth. Rosecrans recalled that Grant instructed him to “pursue the enemy as far as I thought it likely to result in any benefit to us or injury to them.”
Grant approved of Rosecrans’s actions during the battle but noted that he “had put no troops upon the Fulton road, and the enemy had taken advantage of this neglect and retreated by that road during the night.” As a result, “I was disappointed at the result of the battle of Iuka–but I had so high an opinion of General Rosecrans that I found no fault at the time.” 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.
Rosecrans tried to pursue Price’s Confederates but could not due to the muddy road and harsh terrain. He therefore returned to his original positions at Jacinto. Thinking that Van Dorn was still at Vicksburg, Rosecrans wrote Grant, “If you can let me know that there is a good opportunity to march on Holly Springs to cut off the forces of Buck Van Dorn I will be in readiness to take everything. If we could get them across the Hatchie they would be clean up the spout.” But Van Dorn was now less than 10 miles from Corinth, with Ord’s Federals hurrying from Iuka, Jackson, and Bolivar to meet him.
Price’s Confederates stopped at Baldwyn on the 23rd. The “utterly exhausted and demoralized” men straggled, looted farms, and grumbled about their leadership. A Missouri officer wrote, “Our trip accomplished, and we are again at Baldwyn. But I am totally at a loss, as well as everybody else, to know what we accomplished by it.” Price and Van Dorn agreed to join forces at Ripley.
Meanwhile, Grant was in poor health and wanted to take a leave at St. Louis. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had urged Grant to work with Major General Samuel F. Curtis, commanding Federals in Missouri, to raise a force to destroy Confederate ironclads on the Mississippi, and Grant used this as the ostensible reason for asking Halleck to leave: “The enemy being driven from his position in front of Bolivar by the rapid return of troops drawn from there to reinforce Corinth, and everything now promising quiet in our front for a short time, I shall go to Saint Louis in person to confer with General Curtis.” He added that “another reason for my going is that for several weeks my health has not been good and although improving for the last few days I feel that the trip will be of benefit to me.”
But everything was not promising quiet, as Confederates were now within striking distance of Corinth. Price left Baldwyn on the 26th, the same day that Rosecrans’s Federals returned to Corinth and began strengthening the town’s defenses. Price’s Confederates reached Ripley two days later, “covered with mud and thoroughly drenched with rain.” By this time, Price’s army had become little more than a disorganized mob.
Van Dorn met with Price and revealed his plan: the Confederates would advance to Pocahontas, making the Federals believe that this was the first leg of a march on Bolivar, 40 miles northwest of Corinth. But then the Confederates would turn sharply to the east, and while the cavalry cut the Mobile & Ohio Railroad (i.e., the Federal supply line) above Corinth, the main force would take the town by surprise.
Van Dorn reported: “Field returns showed my strength to be about 22,000 (Price and Van Dorn combined). 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. By Van Dorn’s own estimation, 40,000 Federals were in the vicinity to defend Corinth if needed. Since this was nearly twice the number that Van Dorn could bring to bear, he would need the elements of surprise and speed.
Van Dorn’s subordinate, Major 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, with Price moving 18 miles to Jonesborough and Lovell stopping at Metamora, Tennessee. Despite their objections, Corinth would be their ultimate destination.
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