Iuka – Part 1



It is traditional to judge the outcome of battles by standards that may ignore the original intent of the commanders involved. While territorial gain, dominance on the field, or inflicting greater casualties are noteworthy accomplishments in themselves they do not always satisfy a claim to success. These can often be an unintended result, used to disguise failure of the true purpose of an operation. The retreat of MG Sterling Price’s Confederate forces from the northern Mississippi town of Iuka in the early fall of 1862 is an example of an apparent Union victory that actually represented a miserable failure with dire consequences. Only by judging the end result against the intended objective can the true depth of the failure be determined. This series of posts will examine the Battle of Iuka and attempt to explain this “victory” as just such a failure.

The Command Shuffle

The post Shiloh command situation in Northern Mississippi was undergoing significant changes for both sides. The Confederates had lost Albert S. Johnston to his wounds and P.G.T. Beauregard led the retreat to Corinth. The position there proved untenable in the face of the combined Union armies that took up a glacial but steady pursuit. A completely disheartened and ill Beauregard took his forces south to Tupelo and then without authorization handed command to Braxton Bragg and departed. Beauregard’s departure probably saved Jefferson Davis the unsavory task of relieving him. Other command placements were more on his mind. The newly formed Trans-Mississippi Department needed a commander. MG Sterling Price was actively campaigning for the position when he traveled to Richmond for a meeting with the Confederate President in June. Davis was unconvinced of Price’s loyalty to the Confederate cause and preferred West Point educated officers. The position was granted to MG John Magruder. The slight caused Price to offer his resignation. It was a bold reaction but Davis simply refused to accept it or allow Price to return to Missouri with his troops. Disgruntled Price returned to Mississippi to serve under Bragg with a vague promise to be returned to Missouri as soon as the situation allowed. Davis had also placed another West Pointer, MG Earl Van Dorn, in charge of the Trans-Mississippi District Two, to mediate the disputes between the two major leaders of state forces in Missouri, Price and BG Benjamin McCullough. Those issues became secondary as Van Dorn and his forces occupied the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg. When the early threat to that city passed they were called to Mississippi to join Beauregard. The situation became even more muddled when Bragg departed with the Army of Mississippi (later the Army of Tennessee) for a joint venture in Kentucky with MG Edmund Kirby Smith. Bragg failed to clearly designate an overall commander in his absence and left only instructions to cooperate to prevent the Union forces in the area from reinforcing his intended target. It was not a promising situation.

Conflicting goals, personal enmity, and different interpretations of Bragg’s order offered little hope of cooperation between Van Dorn and Price. The Union forces also experienced changes at the top. MG Henry Halleck was called to Washington to act as General in Chief of all US forces. The departure of Halleck allowed Ulysses S. Grant to re-emerge in the command spotlight. The distrust and jealousy of Halleck and the near disastrous surprise at Shiloh had stolen much of the star power he had gained at Fort Donelson. But Grant had survived the innuendo and meaningless assignments to gain command of the District of West Tennessee. William S. Rosecrans also found himself in a new command position as John Pope was called to Washington. He assumed command of the Army of the Mississippi. The two men and Don Carlos Buell, with the Army of the Ohio, formed the triumvirate of Federal commanders in the west. Like their Confederate counterparts they suffered from opposing viewpoints and unclear lines of authority. In this atmosphere of uncertainty the two sides began the movements leading up to the battle of Iuka.

What to do?

Braxton Bragg’s ambiguous orders to occupy the Federal forces in Northern Mississippi and the poorly defined command structure there led to immediate problems between Price and Van Dorn. They could not agree on an operational concept to satisfy Bragg’s directive. Van Dorn was inclined to more grandiose schemes while Price favored a more localized approach. Indeed Van Dorn had already embarked on a scheme to liberate Baton Rouge from Yankee control. The move had significantly weakened his available force and he replied to Price’s suggestion for an offensive in western Tennessee by requesting reinforcements from Price. Bragg had rationalized that a move in that direction would draw the Union forces from Corinth into middle Tennessee and away from any possibility of reinforcing Buell. Price refused Van Dorn’s request for reinforcement because it was contrary to what he understood of Bragg’s desire to occupy the Federal forces. His proposal was a combined effort in support of Bragg’s upcoming campaign in Kentucky. If they could not maneuver Grant and Rosecrans away from Buell then Price felt they must occupy them directly by an attack on Corinth. Van Dorn simply would not budge. In the first week of August he telegraphed Van Dorn that his army was in no condition to enter into offensive operations outside of Mississippi and also demurred on attacking Corinth. Price appealed to Bragg to intervene but Bragg only sent a weakly worded suggestion to Van Dorn that he cooperate with Price. The stubborn Mississippian chose to ignore the suggestion and the impasse continued. Price was left to operate alone. Lacking the strength to threaten Corinth alone Price began a series of harassing operations using BG Frank Armstrong’s cavalry brigade. The Confederate troopers conducted raids against Holly Springs, Chewalla, and Bolivar. The moves kept the Union commanders guessing and caused Grant to request that all forces in northern Mississippi be consolidated to face the possibility of an attack on Corinth. Newly named General in Chief Halleck had other ideas however. Instead of a reduction he ordered the line expanded to cover the railroad as far east as Decatur, Alabama. The move would stretch the available forces extreme thin. As the campaign into Kentucky ramped up Bragg’s call for support became more urgent. A September 1st message from Bragg implored the two men to prevent a junction of Rosecrans army and Buell. Again Van Dorn disregarded the message and informed Price that he would be unavailable for operations until September 12th. Price was incensed but determined to obey the order even if he had to act independently. Another message from Bragg on the 6th left Price no choice but to act against Rosecrans, whom Bragg believed (incorrectly) was moving toward a junction with Buell. Price’s problem was that without Van Dorn he lacked the necessary strength to make much of an impact against the Union forces at Corinth. He needed an opportunity where he had a chance at success. Union reactions to the Confederate moves presented just such an opportunity at Iuka.

Price takes Iuka

At Corinth the seemingly disconnected Confederate moves left the Union leadership thoroughly baffled. Trying to assemble an accurate intelligence picture of the situation Grant and Rosecrans began to search out clues to the enemy intent. Reports from scouts, cavalry patrols, deserters, and even an escaped prisoner were gathered and evaluated to make an estimate of the next move. More and more Grant became convinced that Corinth was the target. He was determined to fortify the Federal position there by calling in his scattered forces. Included in the outposts to be abandoned was Iuka. The town of Iuka was an important part of his logistical support network. Materials intended for the Union forces were unloaded at Eastport on the Tennessee River and brought into town on the Eastport Stage Road to be transferred to the line of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and then on to Corinth. The process meant that large quantities of stores were stockpiled in town awaiting movement. By September 12th Colonel Robert Murphy’s brigade was alone in Iuka. Murphy was ordered to guard the town until all the stores could be removed. Murphy’s exposed situation proved to be the opportunity that Price was looking for. Price expected battle at Iuka but he also expected a much larger force to oppose his effort. Unaware of Grant’s consolidation order Price was working under the assumption that Rosecrans was at Iuka with the bulk of his forces in a prelude to a move toward Buell. He began his march with an order for haste before Rosecrans could complete the expected crossing of the Tennessee and move off . The march was preceded by Armstrong’s cavalry who entered Iuka on the morning of the 13th. The Confederate troopers quickly rounded up thirty Union pickets as prisoners before they were driven off by a counter-attack by Murphy. Armstrong misinterpreted this aggressiveness as validation of the expected strength and called for infantry support. The exhausted 3rd Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) and 3rd Louisiana Infantry were roused to make a mad dash to Armstrong’s aid. In Iuka Colonel Murphy faced a dilemma of his own. His orders were to defend the stores until the arrival of a train to move them off to Corinth. When the train did not arrive and he faced the possibility of being assaulted by Price he ordered the provisions burned. The destructive mission proved a failure as the officers and men assigned the duty departed town at the first sign of the enemy approach. As Armstrong’s men rode into town they found no enemy and massive quantities of stores ripe for the picking. The infantry arrived, led by the 3rd Louisiana, and the feasting began. Order was not restored until the main body arrived and orders were sent out to place the stores under guard. Iuka was won and a large booty of stores secured without significant loss. Price’s bloodless victory, however, was not without its negatives. He had declared his intentions, separated himself from any timely support from Van Dorn, and done so by isolating himself in an area with few movement options. To the north the way was blocked by the Tennessee River, to the west was the Union armies, to the east was just the narrow line of the railroad through poor country, and finally the south offered only two escape routes: the Fulton and Jacinto Roads. Now it was the Union commanders turn to take advantage of an opportunity.

Mower’s Reconnaissance

Grant was also under pressure to confront the enemy. A message from Halleck exhorted him to “attack the enemy” if he could find a situation that offered advantage. Price’s force at Iuka appeared to offer just such an opportunity. But before rushing off Grant wanted a more complete picture of the enemy’s strength at Iuka. He ordered a reconnaissance in force by Marcellus Crocker’s brigade. Crocker was to move east along the railroad until they struck the Confederates. Rosecrans had other ideas, however. Crocker’s men had been subjected to three days of hard marching and were played out. Rosecrans shifted the burden of the mission to Col. Joseph Mower, now in command of Murphy’s brigade (Murphy had been arrested for failure at Iuka and replaced by Mower).The men who had given up the town would have a chance to return and gain a measure of redemption.

The column advanced to within six miles of the Iuka on the Burnsville road when they encountered the first Confederate pickets. The pickets were driven in and the march continued forward. The Confederates responded to the threat by deploying two squadrons of Wirt Adams cavalry and sharpshooters to slow the advance while the rest of BG Dabney Maury’s division formed a line of battle about a mile outside of town. Mower aggressively brought up his artillery and shelled the enemy for a short time before attempting an advance. He discovered that his line was overlapped by the arriving reinforcements and began a retreat. The movement along the narrow road was covered by a single artillery piece loaded with canister and dragged back by a fixed prolonge. When they reached high ground Mower stopped and assembled a line of battle and deployed his guns again. Two pieces shelled the advancing enemy at a distance of about a mile and the pursuit stalled as the two sides faced each other across the intervening low ground. Pickets exchanged shots until nightfall but no serious confrontation played out and the sides fell on their weapons and went to sleep in place. The reconnaissance had thus far established that the Confederates were indeed in possession of Iuka in strength but the exact nature of the force there was still a mystery. During the night a deserter from the 2nd Texas came into the Union camp and informed Mower that Price was in town with about 12,000 men. With the number established and the threat of that force overwhelming them Mower wisely ordered a return to Burnsville. Mower’s information was confirmed when BG Charles Hamilton captured a small Confederate supply train south of Iuka and got the same story. Grant had the information he needed to plan an attack.

The All Important Plan

With the critical information in hand Grant was eager to get started. His concept of the operation was to call Rosecrans north (minus details to provide early warning of a movement by Van Dorn) from Jacinto to cooperate with MG Edward O.C. Ord’s division. Ord’s men, reinforced by BG Leonard Ross’ division from Bolivar, totaled around 6,000 men of all arms. They would return to Iuka via the Burnsville Road while Rosecrans, with about 9,000 troops, would march east along the railroad. Grant hoped to catch Price between these pincers and force him to relinquish the town. By his estimate he had four days to act before Van Dorn could pose any threat to the thus depleted defenses at Corinth.

Rosecrans was also eager to act but he had a plan of his own. Acting on a suggestion from BG Charles S. Hamilton, his Third Division commander, Rosecrans proposed that he avoid the unnecessary trek north and begin operations from his current location at Jacinto. He argued that an advance in this fashion would allow him to seal of the Jacinto and Fulton Roads in Price’s rear. Thus denied the only real escape routes Price would be caught between the jaws of a Union vise, Ord’s division attacking from the north and his forces suddenly appearing in his rear.

The plan immediately appealed to Grant who saw the great possibility of success that it offered. He was further convinced in the knowledge that Rosecrans had spent time in Iuka and was “personally familiar with the ground.” He was also impressed with a map of the area that Rosecrans had drawn up that would facilitate movement. The plan was approved and everything pointed to a grand victory. Grant was so completely convinced of the validity of the plan years later while writing his memoirs he noted that he felt at the time if Price was still in Iuka when the Federal columns converged there “his annihilation was inevitable.” The march to Iuka was no longer about regaining the town but about the destruction of Price’s Army.

Game On

In Iuka Price was also hearing about a different plan. A courier arrived from Van Dorn announcing that he had been named overall commander in Mississippi by Jefferson Davis. He also informed Price that he had reconsidered a joint venture against Corinth and wished him to move toward unification. Although Price wanted to comply the call from Van Dorn had come too late. His cavalry had already detected the first Union movements down the Burnsville Road. BG Dabney Maury’s division was pushed out to establish a line of defense. The idea of attempting a move away while under imminent threat did not appeal to Price who sent a message to Van Dorn stating that he would move as quickly as possible but was now preparing for the expected Federal assault. The wagons were loaded and all preparations made for a getaway but the first business at hand was the threat from Ord’s troops on the Burnsville Road. He also strengthened the position there by adding BG Henry Little’s division to extend the line. There was no thought of a threat from the rear.

Indeed the Federal forces were gathering for a strike from Burnsville. The attack was scheduled for 0430 on the 19th. Unfortunately Rosecrans plan began to unravel almost from the start. BG David Stanley’s division had been led astray by a guide and did not arrive at Jacinto until 2100 on the 18th. The attack would have to be delayed. Rosecrans estimated that an early start on the 19th would have his troops in place by 1400. Grant doubted the distance (18-20 miles) could be covered in that time and began altering the plan even more. In a message to Ord Grant claims to have instructed him to attack at the first sound of guns to the south. Ord claims he did not receive the message until 1000 when he was informed of Rosecrans’ delay and told “not to be too rapid with your advance this morning.”*

To the south Rosecrans was doing his best to make up for lost time. The cavalry vanguard broke camp at 0430 and the infantry units were all on the road by 0600. The march was invigorated by the news of the Confederate defeat at Antietam and made excellent time. The march proceeded unabated to Barnett’s Crossroad. Here the column was expected to split. Hamilton was to continue on to the Fulton Road while Stanley would turn north on the Jacinto Road. But events produced a drastic and fatal change to the original plan. The cavalry screen in that area, eight companies of the 3rd Michigan, encountered Confederate cavalry in their path. In a short skirmish the enemy was driven off but the lead elements of Hamilton’s division, Col. John Sanborn’s brigade, opted to stop and await orders. A messenger from the cavalry advance brought back word that the true distance between the two roads was more than five miles. Rosecrans knowledge of the area and his map makers had failed him. This was double the distance that he had considered in his plan. The extra distance would take his separate columns out of mutual support range. Doubts about his plan began to creep into his thinking and he decided to forego the advance on the Fulton Road, both divisions would move north on the Jacinto Road. They would block the side door but the back door would remain unprotected.

At 1230 two Grant staffers arrived to discuss matters with Rosecrans. One claimed to have given Rosecrans a message from Grant but Rosecrans later denied it. The one thing that was certain was that there was a complete misunderstanding about how the battle would be initiated. Ord acting on Grant’s directive was to wait for the sound of guns from the south while Rosecrans told his visitors that Ord would start the battle to gain the enemy’s full attention allowing him to gain a position in the rear. The ambitious plan was falling apart with each step.

Battle Joined

It was not long after Rosecrans started his full strength march north up the Jacinto Road that his cavalry advance made contact with Armstrong’s Confederate outriders. The time was about 1300 and they were still eight miles from their objective. The Confederate troopers were stretched extremely thin but contact with the enemy, even these small numbers, made Rosecrans’ predicted 1400 arrival time even more unrealistic. The outnumbered Rebel riders were easily pushed back to the Moore house where they consolidate to form a line. Company K of the 3rd Michigan cavalry attacked but was repulsed and the fusillade of fire chasing them back nearly took down the leadership group of the division. BG Hamilton had ridden forward with members of his staff to investigate the gunfire at the head of the column. The general was barely missed but LT Schraum, commanding the escort, was brought down with a bullet in his chest. Several others were unhorsed when their mounts fell to the volley. The close call convinced Hamilton to call up his infantry. A messenger was sent to Col. John Sanborn, commander of the lead brigade, for a regiment. He detailed the lead regiment, the 5th Iowa, for the duty. The Iowans hustled to the front where they were ordered to deploy skirmishers to drive the pesky Confederate troopers away. As three companies were being shaken out for skirmishing detail two enemy messengers made a mad dash through a barrage of bullets that killed one. The other reached Price with the disturbing news of Rosecrans’ approach from the south about 1430. Still expecting a major action on the Burnsville front he had little to commit to a blocking action on the Jacinto Road. His lone reserve brigade, commanded by BG Louis Hebert, set out at the double quick for the two mile march to action.

Back at the Federal column the infantry were easily handling the Confederate cavalry, driving them back to within about a mile of town. Here the played out troopers passed through the approaching column of Confederate infantry. BG Hebert stopped his men on a hill overlooking an intersection of the Jacinto Road and a connecting trail to the Fulton Road. Across the intervening ravine was the approaching Yankee infantry. Eager to dissuade them from further advance Hebert called for a section of guns from Clark’s Missouri battery. The two guns were ordered into a clearing in full view and range of the enemy infantry. The attempt was short lived as the gunners were driven off before they could place their guns in battery. Failing artillery Hebert sent skirmishers from the 3rd Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) to harass the enemy and gain time for him to deploy the rest of his command. The thin line drove off the skirmishers of the 26th Missouri, who had relieved the exhausted men of the 5th Iowa. The two sides settled down to establish their lines and place their artillery.

On the Union side the 5th Iowa came on line to the right of the Jacinto Road followed by the 11th Ohio Light Artillery. The six pieces (2-6lb rifled guns, 2-6lb smoothbore guns, and 2-12lb howitzers) were placed nearly hub to hub on the only available ground, which was also dangerously exposed. To the right of the 5th Iowa, the 26th Missouri lengthened the line. On the left of the guns the untested 48th Indiana extended north from the Jacinto Road with the 4th Minnesota falling in on their left. By coincidence of the order of march that day the only battle tested regiment in the brigade came up last. The 16th Iowa found that all available space had been filled and they settled for a reserve position behind the battery and 48th Indiana.

On the other side of the ravine the Confederates deployed their forces. The 3rd Texas Cavalry formed a skirmish line across the entire front. The consolidated 14/17th Arkansas straddled the road with two guns behind them on higher ground. To their right was the 1st Texas Legion supported by the remaining two guns of Clark’s Battery. On the left was the 3rd Louisiana, backed by the 40th Mississippi and supported by four guns of Dawson’s St. Louis Battery. The small battle field was extremely crowded with more troops to follow. The stage was set for what many would call the most furious three hours of battle fought during the entire war.

Iuka (Campaign Series)





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