As October 4 began, Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Mississippi held a strong defense line on College Hill outside Corinth, Mississippi. Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Army of West Tennessee, had driven the Federals into that line the previous day, and now he was poised to renew his attack in the hopes of reclaiming the vital railroad intersection in the town.
Rosecrans had spent the pre-dawn hours riding along the lines and deploying troops where he thought they would be needed most. The sounds of Federal wagons and cannon moving in the darkness led Van Dorn and his second-in-command, Major General Sterling Price, to believe that the Federals were abandoning Corinth. But troops closer to the enemy line could also hear wood being chopped, which indicated that they were strengthening their defenses to make a stand. Even so, Van Dorn could not withdraw after making such impressive gains the previous day. The battle plan would remain intact.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander in the region, expected a Federal victory and therefore began arranging to destroy Van Dorn’s army with the forces he had outside Corinth. He ordered Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s division at Bolivar to march to Pocahontas, with Major General Edward O.C. Ord in overall command. Grant also directed Brigadier General James B. McPherson to lead a brigade to reinforce Rosecrans at Corinth.
The Confederates opened a six-gun artillery bombardment at 4:30 a.m., to be followed by a general infantry assault. Van Dorn ordered it to start at dawn, led by Brigadier General Louis Hebert’s division attacking the Federal right (northeastern) flank. But dawn came and went without an attack. Finally, at 7 a.m., Van Dorn received word that Hebert was too sick to participate in the action. Van Dorn replaced him with Brigadier General Martin E. Green, who was not briefed by Hebert on the plan.
Green did not begin the advance until around 9 a.m. His men charged directly south, with half his division looking to seize Battery Powell (anchoring the Federal right) and the other half advancing on Major General Charles S. Hamilton’s division to the right (east) of Battery Powell. The Confederates seized the battery but could not break through Hamilton’s line. Green refused to advance any further, prompting a subordinate to say that he seemed “hopelessly bewildered, as well as ignorant of what ought to be done.” This allowed Hamilton to send troops to Brigadier General Thomas A. Davies’s division on his left, which enabled the Federals to launch a counterattack and regain the battery.
On the far Confederate right (southwestern) flank, Major General Mansfield Lovell’s Confederates skirmished with Federals around Battery Phillips, but Lovell refused to advance in force after surveying the strong Federal works in his front. Lovell’s brigade commanders feared that attacking such a line would be suicidal. When one of Lovell’s staffers asked a brigade commander, “Suppose General Lovell orders you to take it?” the officer replied, “My brigade will march up and be killed.” Lovell was later criticized for doing so little in this two-day battle, but had he advanced as ordered, his men would have most likely been badly cut up by the Federal batteries in this sector of the field.
This left Brigadier General Dabney H. Maury to attack the Federal center unsupported. Maury’s Confederates managed to seize the vital Battery Robinett, but Federal units laying prone 30 yards behind the earthwork suddenly stood and fired, driving the enemy off. By then, a Confederate brigade between Green and Maury had pierced the Federal right and entered Corinth, but they too were driven off around 11:30 a.m. after ferocious hand-to-hand combat with a brigade detached from Hamilton’s line.
All through the fight, Rosecrans rode up and down his lines, shouting orders and cursing his men as cowards for allowing the Confederate breakthrough. But Rosecrans was unaware that by this time, most Confederates were at the point of exhaustion in the unseasonable heat and could fight no more. In addition, Van Dorn was too far away from the action to be able to adequately reinforce the troops who made the breakthrough.
With his army near its breaking point, Van Dorn had no choice but to order a withdrawal at 12 p.m. He reported, “Exhausted from loss of sleep, wearied from hard marching and fighting, companies and regiments without officers, our troops–let no one censure them–gave way. The day was lost.” Lovell’s division, which had seen the least amount of combat, served as the rear guard.
Van Dorn tried to hurry his men out of fear that Rosecrans might pursue and destroy them. But the Federals were just as exhausted, and Rosecrans was in no way anxious to order a pursuit after two days of such intense fighting with scant food or water. Around 1 p.m., Rosecrans rode among his men at Battery Robinett to dispel rumors he had been killed. He removed his hat and announced, “I stand in the presence of brave men, and I take my hat off to you.” Rosecrans specifically praised the 5th Minnesota for having “saved the day.”
Grant had ordered Rosecrans to pursue and destroy the Confederate army even before action had begun on the morning of the 4th. But to Grant’s dismay, Rosecrans issued congratulations to his men and instructed them to “replenish their cartridge boxes, haversacks, and stomachs, take an early sleep, and start in pursuit by daylight.” This enabled the Confederates to get a day ahead of their pursuers. Grant later wrote, “Two or three hours of pursuit on the day of the battle without anything except what the men carried on their persons, would have been worth more than any pursuit commenced the next day could have possibly been.”
Near sunset, Van Dorn issued orders for his army to return to Chewalla, just 11 miles northwest of Corinth. He then stunned his commanders by declaring that the troops would move southward to Rienzi and then turn back to attack Corinth from the south. The generals persuaded Van Dorn to call a council of war, where they unanimously protested such a risky move with such a battered force. Van Dorn relented and instead directed the army to bivouac for the night at Chewalla, and then cross the Hatchie River before turning south to Ripley.
Meanwhile, Ord’s Federals spent the day marching 23 miles before stopping about three miles from Davis Bridge, which Van Dorn intended to use the following day to cross the Hatchie. The Federals were poised to meet Van Dorn in front, cut his supply lines, and possibly destroy his army.
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