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 November 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We pick up from my September 11, 2019 history brief, with Confederate General Price maneuvering away from Iuka on September 19, 1862. His movement was in a wide southwestwardly arc. (Follow map.) He first went to Baldwyn, Mississippi, then northwest toward Ripley, where he was joined by Van Dorn, and together they headed due north to Pocahontas, Tennessee. Van Dorn assumed command of what was now known as the 22,000 man Confederate Army of Western Tennessee. Positioned thusly, he threatened both Corinth and the Mobile & Ohio Railroad providing a supply line to the Union troops to the south.
In the meanwhile, Union General Grant set up his headquarters in Jackson, Tennessee which was roughly equidistant to the components of his command: 6,000 troops with him; 12,000 under Hurlbut at Bolivar, Tennessee; Rosecrans’ 23,000 dispersed around Corinth in what was known as the Army of the Mississippi; and lastly Sherman’s 7,000 at Memphis.
In Grant’s mind, Van Dorn was heading for Corinth, but Rosecrans thought that Van Dorn would be foolish to strike the important fortified rail junction when he could maneuver the Union out of Corinth by cutting the Mobile & Ohio Railroad north of town. Accordingly, Rosecrans was somewhat mentally unprepared for an assault but tactically lucky since he pulled in all of his command in anticipation of moving north to aid the expected thrust at Hurlbut (see top map) – thereby giving him his full 23,000 troops outnumbering his foe by 1,000 – when Van Dorn struck on October 3rd. Unknown or uncomprehended by Van Dorn, the textbook 3:1 preponderance of troops to defeat a prepared position was now clearly to the Union advantage at a 1:1 ratio.
However, the initial first day assault was so successful that it carried Rosecrans’ first line of defenses – that being Beauregard’s old rifle pits built for the Confederates’ previous defense of Corinth (see bottom map). They were overwhelmed within a matter of hours and the Confederate command thought that they could take the town but for the descent of nightfall.
The following day, October 4th, a heavy line of breastworks and prepared batteries at “College Hill” met the Confederate early morning advance (see map). Temperatures in the mid 90’s and scarcity of water created extreme hardship on both sides, but the batteries in the middle of the Union line were briefly overcome and some Confederates even advanced into the town itself. Recall Chris Kolakowski’s presentation last November on the Battle of Perryville in eastern Kentucky taking place at roughly the same time, the severe heat and drought also greatly influenced that battle. Ultimately, flanking artillery fire and a Union infantry counterattack succeeded in driving the Confederates out. Van Dorn, now realizing the strength of numbers on the Union side, saw as his only option a retreat to the west.
Grant states in his memoirs that he ordered Rosecrans to immediately pursue, but he waited until the following day and, as such, allowed Van Dorn to essentially depart unmolested eventually reaching Holly Springs, Mississippi. The losses had been about 4,200 for the Confederates and about 2,500 for the Union. As a result of the destruction of about 20% of his force and accusations of drunkenness during the battle, Van Dorn was swiftly replaced with Pemberton who would lead the defense of Vicksburg. On the Union side, Grant comments in his memoirs that the failure to pursue coupled with the Iuka debacle greatly diminished the value of Rosecrans in Grant’s eyes.
Speaking of Vicksburg, with the key railroad junction of Corinth now unthreatened and in secure Union control, this roughly marks the advent of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Over the next three quarters of a year, Grant would have the initiative in subduing the Mississippi fortress known as the Gibraltar of the South.
Vicksburg was named after Methodist Minister Newitt Vick who bought a thousand acres of land in the early 1800’s to develop the town. At the time it was a prosperous trading post with cotton-laden steamboats heading north and south on the mighty Mississippi. The “Southern Rail Road of Misssissippi” eventually was built and created a link to the interior of the south which made Vicksburg by the time of the Civil War, the largest city in the state of Mississippi. Standing 200 feet above the east bank of the wide and the meandering Mississippi River below, it was 300 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The marshy terrain to the east and west and the Yazoo River to the north, with a maze of shallow and swampy inlets – sometimes dry and other times flooded – was essentially an untamed tree and shrub wilderness. Any successful assault would have to overcome this tricky terrain, much less the formidable fortifications, cannon and garrison that the South had wisely positioned at Vicksburg.
Lincoln said that “Vicksburg is the key,” and Jeff Davis shortly after the Corinth battle visited Vicksburg in December of 1862 in recognition of its importance. We will pick up next month with the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, as Grant’s troops under his buddy, General Sherman, make the first attempt to subdue the fortress!
This history brief is the second in a series of three.
The first in this series is: “The Civil War Was Won in the West” – or so they say.
The third in this series is: The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou: Grant’s First Attempt to Vanquish Vicksburg.