The Battle of Corinth

Major General Earl Van Dorn led his Confederate Army of West Tennessee out of Chewalla. His objective was Corinth, Mississippi, about 11 miles southeast. Corinth was the key to northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. If the Federals lost this vital railroad town, they would be forced to abandon the region and fall back to Kentucky. A setback of this type, especially when Confederates were currently operating as far north as the Ohio River, would be disastrous for the Federals.

Van Dorn’s army numbered about 22,000 men in three divisions:

  • The divisions of Brigadier Generals Louis Hebert and Dabney H. Maury from Major General Sterling Price’s Army of the West
  • Major General Mansfield Lovell’s division from the District of Mississippi

Van Dorn feared that the element of surprise might be ruined and that reinforcements would be rushed into Corinth and/or his rear. He therefore woke his Confederates at 4 a.m. and sent them on a nine-mile forced march without water. They advanced from north-northwest, covering both the Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. This would prevent reinforcements from reaching the Federals. Van Dorn intended to attack as soon as he came within sight of the enemy.

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit:

Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Mississippi, was hurrying his Federal forces west from Iuka to defend Corinth. As the sun rose on October 3, the outer defensive line around the town was manned by just one division under Brigadier General Thomas J. McKean. These Federals held the northwest sector of the line. As for the rest of the force:

  • Brigadier General Thomas A. Davies’s division would come up on McKean’s right and hold the northern sector
  • Major General Charles S. Hamilton’s division would come up on Davies’s right to hold the northeast sector
  • Brigadier General David S. Stanley’s division was to be the reserve, but it was still six hours away.

The Confederates formed a line of battle in full view of McKean’s Federals, with no reserve. Despite this, Rosecrans still believed that this was just a feint. He thought that Bolivar, on the supply line above Corinth in Tennessee, was his true objective.

Van Dorn’s plan was to open with an attack on the Federal left (McKean’s division), causing Rosecrans to shift troops to that sector. Van Dorn would then launch his main attack on the weakened Federal right and thereby open the path to Corinth.

The attack began at 10 a.m., with Lovell’s Confederates hitting McKean’s men. Maury then came up and attacked Davies’s left. The massive onslaught overwhelmed the unprepared Federals and opened a gap between McKean and Davies. The Federals were forced to fall back, and the Confederates seized the line within 30 minutes, despite sustaining heavy casualties.

Only when the Federals abandoned the first defense line did Rosecrans realize that this was a battle and not a feint. But he did not inform his division commanders of this new realization. The Federals withdrew to the inner defenses on College Hill, just a half-mile outside Corinth. This second, more compact line proved much stronger, as it was supported by redoubts and batteries.

Van Dorn and Price met to assess the situation. Van Dorn worried that Federal reinforcements might be coming up and therefore urged that the attack be pressed. Price argued that the men were exhausted, having marched nine miles and then fought for several hours in unseasonable 90-degree heat. Price was also angry that Lovell had not come up to support him and later asserted that “with a cordial support from General Lovell’s command we would have carried their works and held them.”

Gens Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price | Image Credit:

The fighting resumed, but since Hamilton’s division on the Federal right was not under attack, it sat largely idle while McKean and Davies bore the brunt of the assaults. Around 3 p.m., Rosecrans issued a contradictory order for Hamilton to move to the left of Davies, which would have opened a clear path into Corinth. Hamilton chose not to obey it, instead replying, “Respectfully returned. I cannot understand it.”

Rosecrans sent two messengers with a clarification around 4 p.m.; one of the couriers was killed but the other survived to hand it to Hamilton an hour later. Hamilton was to attack the Confederates’ left flank, which was busy attacking Davies. When Hamilton finally got the clarification, he slowly began to mobilize his men until he was forced to halt for the night.

Van Dorn and Price met again around 5 p.m. Since Lovell still had not come up to join the attack, Price urged Van Dorn “to delay the attack on the town until the succeeding morning.” Maury wanted to keep up the fight, but Price refused unless Lovell came up. Maury believed that no harm could come from waiting until morning to renew the attack, so Van Dorn agreed to suspend operations.

Lovell, who later went on record as having opposed this campaign, never explained his inactivity after his initial assault on the Federal left. Van Dorn had apparently not ordered Lovell into action. Had Lovell advanced, he would have faced a lone Federal brigade, and could have easily pushed through. This would have virtually assured a Confederate victory. But Van Dorn was unaware of this; he was not even aware that Federals were in the woods directly behind his line which, if sent forward, could have destroyed his army from the rear.

The Confederates were exhausted and demoralized; they had been so close to achieving victory before being ordered to stop for the night. Van Dorn reported, “I saw with regret the sun sink behind the horizon as the last shot of our sharpshooters followed the retreating foe into their innermost lines. One hour more of daylight, and victory would have soothed our grief for the loss of the gallant dead who sleep on that lost but not dishonored field.” But another hour would have enabled Federal reinforcements to come up, as well as Hamilton’s division to come down on the Confederate left flank. Opportunities were missed on both sides.

Despite sustaining heavy casualties, Van Dorn resolved to attack again the next day. He planned for his three divisions to launch coordinated attacks on the Federal right, center, and left. There would be no elaborate plan of feinting against one front while attacking another. Van Dorn expected to simply slug it out with Rosecrans in a fight to the finish.

The Federals were exhausted and demoralized as well. Rosecrans had used just half his force to fend off an enemy from a position that was virtually impossible to hold. He did not coordinate the movements of his division commanders, he issued contradictory and sometimes even incoherent orders, and he believed that he was almost hopelessly outnumbered. A council of war was held where it was decided to concentrate the Federals in the strong inner defenses on College Hill. Rosecrans personally inspected the lines to ensure everything was in place before fighting resumed the next day.

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, overall Federal commander in the region, could not get news of the battle at his Jackson, Tennessee, headquarters because Confederates had cut the railroad and telegraph communications. But he anticipated that Rosecrans was under attack and therefore ordered his chief engineer, Brigadier General James B. McPherson, to lead four regiments to Corinth.

Grant also ordered Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, whose division was stationed in nearby Tennessee, to get most of his Federals on the move for Corinth no later than 3 a.m., adding, “Rush as rapidly as possible.” But because the Confederates controlled the railroad, the Federals had to take a roundabout route to get there. Grant then sent a message to Rosecrans: “General Hurlbut will move today towards the enemy. We should attack if they do not. Do it soon Fight!”


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