On the morning of October 5, Major General Earl Van Dorn’s battered and demoralized Confederate Army of West Tennessee was camped at Chewalla, about 11 miles northwest of Corinth, just north of the Tennessee-Mississippi border. Van Dorn planned to move west to cross the Hatchie River at Davis Bridge, then turn south and retreat to Ripley.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, overall Federal commander in the region, had dispatched a combined force of about 4,000 men under Major Generals Stephen A. Hurlbut and Edward O.C. Ord to block Van Dorn’s retreat. Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal army that had stopped Van Dorn’s drive on Corinth, would pursue the Confederates and, with Ord and Rosecrans striking Van Dorn’s front and rear, they would destroy his army.
Grant had urged Rosecrans to give chase as soon as the battle ended on the 4th, but Rosecrans opted to give his men rest before starting the pursuit next morning. Brigadier General James B. McPherson’s Federal brigade, which had come to Corinth too late to reinforce Rosecrans during the battle, led the pursuit. Rosecrans stayed at Corinth to coordinate movements and stay in contact with Grant. He sent his force out with a supply train, which would necessarily slow the pursuit. Worse, the Federals took a wrong road that caused a massive traffic jam, and by day’s end they had only gotten as far as Chewalla.
Hurlbut’s Federals moved out at 8 a.m., and were soon joined by Ord’s force, with Ord taking overall command. They struggled through the dense woods and thick undergrowth until they met the Confederate advance at Robinson’s farm, a couple miles west of the Hatchie. Grant was notified that fighting had begun, and he confidently wired Washington, “At this distance everything looks most favorable and I cannot see how the enemy are to escape without losing everything but their small arms. I have strained everything to take into the fight an adequate force and to get them to the right place.”
But the Confederates held their ground for nearly six hours against overwhelming numbers. This was partly possible because Rosecrans never came up in the Confederate rear as Grant and Ord had expected. According to Brigadier General David S. Stanley, commanding a division in Rosecrans’s army, “The heat was excessive and the men were worn out; they had narrowly escaped a most terrible defeat, and no one was anxious to crowd their late antagonists.” Rosecrans, still at Corinth, urged Grant to order Hurlbut’s (and Ord’s) Federals to attack: “Where is Hurlbut? Now is his time to pitch in.”
Ord and Hurlbut were already in the process of attacking in what would become known as the Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge. An artillery duel followed by an infantry assault finally drove the Confederates back across the Hatchie, but it cost the Federals nearly 600 casualties, including Ord, who was wounded in the ankle. Van Dorn disengaged, moved his army south down the east bank of the river, and crossed below the Federals at Crum’s Mill. Had Rosecrans’s men come up on the Confederate rear, the army would have been destroyed. A Federal officer at Corinth wrote, “The delay in pursuing the enemy by General Rosecrans was unaccountable.”
The last Confederate crossed the Hatchie around 1 a.m. on the 6th. Van Dorn continued pushing the men hard, fearful that the Federals might catch up to them. Demoralized troops bitterly blamed Van Dorn for their defeat. They were not allowed to stop until that night, when they were a few miles short of Ripley. From there, Van Dorn decided to go to Holly Springs, which had warehouses of rations and surrounding farms. It was also the northern terminus of the vital Mississippi Central Railroad.
Rosecrans left Corinth and joined his army as it resumed the pursuit at 8 a.m. on the 6th. The Federals were delayed by felled trees and other obstacles the Confederates had placed in their path. Rosecrans told Grant, “The enemy are totally routed, throwing everything away. We are following sharply.” Later that day, Rosecrans reported that Van Dorn seemed to be moving toward Holly Springs, and his men would continue the pursuit. Grant replied, “You will avail yourself of every advantage and capture and destroy the Rebel army to the utmost of your power… All news received cheering and all parts of the army have behaved nobly.”
Hurlbut, now in command of the expeditionary force west of the Hatchie, was too intoxicated to lead effectively. He reported that his men could do no more: “The total want of transportation, the loss of battery horses, the shortness of provisions, and the paramount necessity of burying my dead, taking care of my wounded, and securing the prisoners and captured munitions of war prevented my pursuing.”
Rosecrans continued the pursuit on the 7th, pushing his men in sweltering heat beyond range of their food and water. He informed Grant that the chase would go on, despite slowing down due to conditions. He also told Grant that he was sending supplies to Hurlbut so that he could resume the pursuit as well. But Grant knew that once Van Dorn’s Confederates had been allowed to cross the Hatchie River, any further attempt to chase them down would be worthless.
Grant informed Rosecrans that he had ordered Hurlbut to return to Bolivar, so he needed no supplies. Grant also directed Rosecrans to end the pursuit and return to Corinth. Rosecrans, who had been so slow to start the chase, now argued against ending it: “We have defeated, routed, and demoralized the army which holds the lower Mississippi Valley… All that is needed is to continue pursuing and whip them.” But it would have been very unlikely for the Federals to successfully attack Van Dorn behind the strong defenses at Holly Springs, at least not without heavy casualties.
The next day, Hurlbut backed Rosecrans by reporting, “I have just heard from Holly Springs. There are no forces there; all left on Sunday…” Grant was not moved, and he ordered Rosecrans to stop his pursuit a second time. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck sided with Rosecrans as well, writing Grant, “Why order a return of your troops? Why not reinforce Rosecrans and pursue the enemy into Mississippi, supporting your army on the country?”
Grant explained, “An army cannot subsist itself on the country except in forage. They did not start out to follow but a few days and are much worn out.” Also, there was evidence of “reserves that are on the way to join the retreating column… Although partial success might result from further pursuit, disaster would follow in the end… If you say so, however, it is not too late yet to go on, and I will join the moving column and go to the farthest extent possible.” Halleck, who seldom offered an opinion on what a general should do in the field, did not reply. Grant issued a third order for Rosecrans to return to Corinth. Rosecrans complied, and the campaign was over.
In the fighting since October 3, the Federals sustained 2,839 killed, wounded, or missing. Grant initially praised Rosecrans’s performance at Iuka and Corinth, but he later criticized the general for allowing the Confederates to escape destruction after both battles.
Major General William T. Sherman, commanding a division under Grant at Memphis, later wrote, “The effect of the battle of Corinth was very great. It was a decisive blow to the Confederates in this quarter and changed the whole aspect of affairs in western Tennessee. From the timid defensive, the Federals were at once able to assume the bold offensive. Memphis residents openly admitted that their cause had sustained a death-blow.”
According to Grant, “This battle was recognized by me as being a decided victory, though not so complete as I had hoped for, nor nearly so complete as I now think was within the easy grasp of the commanding officer at Corinth. Since the war it is known that the result, as it was, was a crushing blow to the enemy, and felt by him much more than it was appreciated at the North.”
The Confederates lost 4,838 men, or more than a fifth of their total force. Nevertheless, Van Dorn’s army had not been destroyed as Grant hoped. Van Dorn blamed his defeat on Brigadier General Louis Hebert for missing the action on the 4th due to illness, as well as Major General Mansfield Lovell for refusing to move decisively on both days of the battle. Van Dorn ultimately relieved them both from command.
This battle outraged many southerners because it had produced such high casualties for almost no gain. The only small measure of success gained by this campaign was that it prevented Grant from sending reinforcements to the Federals trying to stop the Confederate invasion of Kentucky. But Van Dorn failed to regain Corinth, northern Mississippi, or western Tennessee. In fact, he did not even alter Grant’s plan to push deeper into Mississippi.
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