“The Civil War Was Won in the West” – or so they say

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

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On September 11, 1862, it could be said that the North was doing well and certainly winning the war in the West. In the East, McClellan had repulsed Lee at Antietam, last year’s field trip at which our guide Steve Recker eloquently argued – whether you agreed with him or not – won the war because it paved the way for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Coincidentally, it’s Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Illinois, that will be the destination of Ellen’s field trip at the end of this month. I tend to agree with Steve; the Emancipation Proclamation and the momentum it produced in so many ways, be it in the heart of the slaves who slowly learned of the document, or the morale boost that it gave many of the soldiers in the North and the resultant moral incentive to fight on to victory – and everything in between – that would overwhelm the South by 1865.

But, these history briefs for the foreseeable future will focus on the “West” and track monthly the Union army’s progress or lack thereof, starting in September of 1862, with focus on the campaigns on or near the Mississippi River – not to diminish the real threat being posed in September 1862 by General Bragg’s southern offensive into Kentucky, the topic so well covered last November 14th by Chris Kolakowski’s presentation “Perryville: Battle for Kentucky.” When Bragg railroaded most of his army to eastern Kentucky, one of the brilliant strategic redeployments of the entire war, he left about 32,000 troops in Mississippi under Generals Van Dorn and Price to defend the state. Also, in the event that Grant tried to move east in support of General Buell’s defense of Kentucky – or even if Grant did not – they could strike north into western Tennessee.

By now, Ohio’s U.S. Grant had become the shining star of Union generals through his accumulated victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh and others. And his nemesis at Shiloh, General Albert Sidney Johnston, whom many historians think could have become the most successful southern general in the war, fell with a mortal wound, but for the lack of something so basic even to medical technology of the time – a tourniquet! The strategic railroad junction at Corinth had also by now fallen into Union hands.

Despite the tragic loss of the General Johnston, the South was by no means without leadership in the west, as evidenced at the time by none other than “That Devil – Nathan Bedford Forrest” whose rearguard action ended the battle of Shiloh.

By September 1862, there was enthusiasm to plan an offensive by Confederate commanders across the Western theater. Near the Mississippi confederate Generals Van Dorn and Price had both been given commands by Bragg – but command confusion over who should take the lead in their northern Mississippi vicinity ensued. Van Dorn appealed to the Secretary of War and received confirmation from Confederate President Jefferson Davis that his rank made him the leader in Mississippi.

Accordingly, Van Dorn messaged Price that their commands should rendezvous, but Price with 15,000 men decided to stay at his current location in the rail town of Iuka in northern Mississippi, after driving out a small Union force, until he heard more specifics – perhaps Price would even move into eastern Kentucky to aid Bragg’s offensive.

Sharp eyed, General Grant saw an opportunity to trap Price in Iuka with 8,000 troops under Ord coming from the north in two divisions along the railroad from Corinth and Rosecrans with 9,000 from Jacinto southwest of Iuka, also in two divisions.

Approaching Iuka, in a seemingly humane but false gesture, General Ord offered Price the opportunity to surrender instead of being annihilated, in the supposed spirit of being held only until such time that the “independence of the Confederate States shall have been acknowledged by the United States.”

This ruse was declined by Confederate General Price, and on September 18th Grant ordered Ord’s men to begin the envelopment from the north after the sound of battle was heard from Rosecrans assaulting Price in Iuka from the south. Unfortunately for Grant and the North, Rosecrans was delayed and by nightfall, Ord still remained static. The following day, September 19th, Price wisely maneuvered southward in the direction of Rosecrans and succeeded in pushing him back after correctly analyzing that one of Rosecrans’ two divisions was faltering. Because of acoustic shadow, Ord heard nothing and stayed put.

The result was a loss to the Union of about 800 men and nine guns; less for the south by about 200. Price scooted away the following day on a road left unguarded by Rosecrans to the southeast and left Iuka behind. Price would hope to join Van Dorn, finally, and try to win back Corinth from the Union. Subsequently, Union General Ord headed back to the location of Van Dorn in Holly Springs, hoping to defeat him instead.

This essentially wrapped up the fighting in northern Mississippi for the month of September, 1862. In the November history brief, we will see what happened here in October 1862!
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Related links:
This history brief is the first in a series of three.
The second in this series is: The Second Battle of Corinth and the Start of the Vicksburg Campaign.
The third in this series is: The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou: Grant’s First Attempt to Vanquish Vicksburg.