Following his defeat at Iuka in September, Major General Sterling Price had linked his Confederate Army of the West with the army of Major General Earl Van Dorn, the ranking Confederate officer in Mississippi. Van Dorn optimistically named this new force the “Army of West Tennessee,” for the region he expected to reclaim in this campaign. This 40,000-man army consisted of:
- The divisions of Brigadier Generals Louis Hebert and Dabney H. Maury from Price’s army
- Major General Mansfield Lovell’s division from the District of Mississippi
Van Dorn was free to move in any direction or threaten any Federal post. Conversely, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal commander in the region, had many static points to defend across hundreds of miles of railroad and river. His forces were therefore necessarily spread out. Grant’s largest concentrations consisted of:
- Major General William S. Rosecrans’s 23,000-man Army of the Mississippi in and around Corinth, the vital railroad hub for the region.
- About 10,000 men at Bolivar and the nearby posts of Grand Junction and La Grange in Tennessee.
- Major General William T. Sherman’s 6,000 men at Memphis.
Van Dorn planned to feint against Bolivar to make the Federals think he was going to cut their supply line above Corinth. He would then suddenly turn and launch a surprise attack on Corinth before the Federals had time to call in reinforcements from other points. After reclaiming Corinth, Van Dorn would use the town’s railroads to supply an advance into Middle Tennessee. At best, this would drive Grant out of Mississippi and west Tennessee; at the least, it would prevent Grant from sending reinforcements to stop the ongoing Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Van Dorn rejected 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.
Grant had initially reported from his Jackson headquarters that Price and Van Dorn had split apart, with Price going south of Corinth and Van Dorn going back west of the Mississippi River. But by October 1, Grant was receiving intelligence that the Confederates were united and were targeting either Corinth or Bolivar. Grant wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that “it is now clear that Corinth is to be the point… My position is precarious but hope to get out of it all right.”
Grant directed Rosecrans to pursue Van Dorn if the Confederates moved on Bolivar. Grant then wrote Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding a 5,400-man division in the Memphis district: “If Van Dorn is in west of you it will not do to detach too much of your force to look after the Rebels about Pocahontas.” If Van Dorn attacked Corinth, Hurlbut was to move west of the Hatchie River, where he would be poised to cut the Confederate line of retreat after Rosecrans repelled them.
Grant wrote Rosecrans, “Inform yourself as well as possible of the strength and position of the enemy and if practicable–move on them as you propose. Inform me if you determine to start and I will give you all the aid possible from Bolivar.” Rosecrans was concerned about Van Dorn bypassing him and moving into Middle Tennessee, and he was therefore in no hurry to strengthen his defenses outside Corinth.
The Federal high command became certain that the Confederates were targeting Corinth when they reached Chewalla, just 11 miles northwest of the town, on the 2nd. Van Dorn had lost the 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, still not completely sure that Van Dorn was moving on Corinth, had just two brigades of Brigadier General Thomas J. McKean’s division (which was not even part of his Army of the Mississippi) in the town. A defensive line that had been built by General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates when they held the town back in May ran from north to east of Corinth. A second line (called the Halleck Line) lay closer to Corinth, at College Hill. This line consisted of batteries built into the earthworks with names such as Robinett, Phillips, and Lothrop. Rosecrans placed a skirmishing force in the first line, with his main force poised to fight off the attack from the second if necessary.
Rosecrans finally began to realize that Van Dorn was heading his way and called for reinforcements around 1 a.m. on the 3rd. Unaware of which direction the Confederates would come from, Rosecrans planned to position his forces so that all potential directions would be covered:
- McKean would hold the northwestern sector of the first line
- The division of Brigadier General Thomas A. Davies (on loan from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee) would hold the center, guarding the intersection of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio railroads.
- Major General Charles S. Hamilton’s division would hold the northeast, from the Purdy to the Hamburg roads.
- Brigadier General David S. Stanley’s division would be the reserve, positioned south of Corinth.
According to Rosecrans, “The controlling idea was to prevent surprise, to test by adequate resistance any attacking force, and, finding it formidable, to receive it behind the inner line that we had been preparing from College Hill around by Robinett.”
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.
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- Cozzens, Peter, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 1997.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
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