IUKA – VICTORY AS FAILURE (Part 2)
As soon as the opposing batteries were brought on line they began exchanging fire. Amidst the barrage both sides had senior officers arrive. Rosecrans immediately called up reinforcements from BG Jeremiah Sullivan’s brigade to secure his flanks. The 10th Iowa and the 12th Wisconsin Battery (2 guns) were sent to the left. The battery commander, LT L. D. Immell, was as distrusted by LTC Warren Lothrop, chief of artillery, as he was despised by his men. Lathrop felt compelled to ride along to supervise the placement of the guns. They found poor ground for both artillery and infantry. The guns were placed in the best available spot covering a large field. The 10th Iowa deployed in a dense wood line and to avoid being flanked sent three companies further into the trees on the left. The 10th Missouri was sent to the far right to cover any possible flanking effort there. The move put them squarely into the sights of the Confederate gunners. They lost heavily to the enemy guns despite going into the prone “under the most trying conditions.”
Hebert was also adjusting his lines when division commander BG Henry Little appeared with Col. John D. Martin’s brigade. Lack of activity on the Burnsville front had convinced Price that he could safely bolster Hebert by diminishing his Burnsville Road line. The 3rd Texas Cavalry skirmish line was also extended by Company F of the 3rd Louisiana. Martin’s brigade was then split with the 37th and 38th Mississippi extending the main line to the right and the 36th Mississippi and 37th Alabama to the left.
At 1715 the rebel yell was raised and the Confederate line surged forward. As the line disappeared in the ravine a short pause was called to allow the 3rd Texas Cavalry to reform and take its place in the center of the line. The consolidated 14/17th Arkansas was pushed into the second line with the 40th Mississippi. The depression gave them protection from the line of sight weapons and they advance to within 150 yards of the Union line. The Confederate guns then lifted their fire to prevent fratricide. As the line revealed itself the entire left of the Federal position greeted them with a massive volley and canister. The crowded battlefield was a target rich environment and despite the thick cloud of smoke that settled into the area losses mounted. The 11th Ohio Battery was playing havoc on the 3rd Texas Cavalry who had the misfortune to emerge directly in front of the guns. They were being decimated and there was only one solution – attack! The entire Confederate line oriented toward the guns in a desperate effort to silence them. The battery and supports on each side bore the brunt of the assault. For the unblooded 48th Indiana, on the left, the pressure was too much. The inexperienced men were facing the veterans of the 1st Texas Legion and a portion of the 3rd Texas Cavalry. The regiment fell apart at the first volley, running for the rear. Col Norman Eddy rode into the fleeing men to restore order. He was joined by Brigade Commander Col. Sanborn who shot down two of the fleeing men. Whatever success the two had at turning the men back to the task at hand disappeared when Eddy was brought down by five bullets. The 48th bolted for good. Sanborn gave up on trying to stem the panic and went to the 16th Iowa. The veterans there lost their cool and let loose a volley into the mixed stream of men coming toward them, killing mostly Hoosiers.
The Hawkeyes regained their composure and attacked the Texans pushing them back. The Confederate attack had thus far failed to quiet the 11th Ohio battery which continued to batter the 3rd Texas Cavalry. It was 1800 and night was only a short time away but there was still time for action and Col. Whitfiled’s 1st Texas Legion made good use of it. In an exchange of volleys Col. Chambers of the 16th Iowa was brought down. The Iowans took 75 additional casualties before they too collapsed leaving the battery completely uncovered on the left.
On the right of the guns the 5th Iowa was giving a much better account of itself. The 3rd Louisiana appeared barley 50 yards away after emerging from the ravine. At this range the volleys were extremely effective. For fifteen minutes the two sides stood toe to toe. Losses mounted at a fearful rate but neither side gained the upper hand. The 5th was taking a fearful beating and to prevent another collapse Col. Matthies ordered a bayonet assault which temporarily pushed the Cajuns away. They regrouped and Matthies attempted another charge. The lines surged together and the fighting became very close. Two Confederates were shot down as they reached out for Federal banners. It was now around 1815. Darkness was only moments away but there was still enough time for more killing to be done before sunset would put a stop to the deadly chaos.
Battle at the Guns
The departure of the 16th Iowa made the entire left flank of the hard fighting gunners of the 11th Ohio vacant. The 4th Minnesota supposedly extending the Federal line in that direction had been badly mishandled. The commander, Col. John Sanborn, had been elevated to brigade command and in the absence of any other candidates the regimental command fell to inexperienced Cpt. Ebenezer LeGro. The captain was in over his head and it was reflected in the farcical manner in which he deployed his 407 men. Orders and counter orders finally got the regiment into position on the left of the 48th Indiana. It was a poor position but it made no difference for at the first volley LeGro backed the regiment into the tree line and essentially sat out the battle.
On the right the 5th Iowa had its hands full just trying to survive. Matthies called on Col. George Boomer’s 26th Missouri for support. Boomer readily complied by ordering Maj. Ladislaus Koniuszeski to take the four left companies of the regiment to the aid of the beleaguered 5th Iowa. The Missourians rushed up the back slope of the ridge and entered the fight by walking into a volley from the 3rd Louisiana. Stunned the men began to reverse direction and Boomer decided to take command from the confused major to avoid a rout. He appealed to Cpt. DeWitt Brown to stem the tide but he could gain only partial control. Failing his mission Brown did the only thing he could think of; he yelled charge! The company obeyed but Boomer realized that more men would be needed. He rode down the slope to find the remaining six companies of his regiment gone. Without help Boomer had no choice but to order his four companies to retreat. It was too late for most of the 162 men that had gone up the slope. They had lost 21 killed and 76 wounded or missing. The 5th Iowa, without them, was also forced to abandon the ridge.
The 11th Ohio Battery was now on their own. There were no horses left to remove the guns even if it had been possible. It was not. The 1st Texas Legion and 3rd Texas Cavalry now had complete freedom to focus on the Buckeye gunners. The artillerymen refused to give up their pieces without a fight. As the Texans closed on the battery the left section fell first to a charge bayonets. Still the remaining gunners refused to yield. W. P. Helm of the 3rd Texas Cavalry recalled;
“Sword and bayonet were crossed, muskets, revolvers, knives, ramrods, gun swabs all mingled in the death dealing fray.”
Despite the heroism of the artillerymen the inevitable happened. The Confederates won the guns and captured the surviving crews. In a remarkable display of respect for the valor of their fight the survivors were sent on their way to their own lines. One rebel remarked that they had too much “spunk” to be held captive.
The 3rd Louisiana duplicated the feat at the Federal battery section on the extreme left of the Union line. The ridge was cleared of Federals. The time was 1830 and the fighting in the center stopped. Darkness and the loss of key leaders prevented the Confederates from exploiting their triumph. The wild back and forth affair left both sides exhausted and badly beaten up but not yet finished.
Battle on the Left
As the brutal fighting at the guns was playing itself out another initiative was just beginning on the far left. MG Price had arrived to assess the situation and was discussing plans with BG Little. The two men understood the need for more pressure on the Union line and were urging the 37th and 38th Mississippi forward against the Union left. A bullet barely missed Price and instantly killed General Little. As commander of the right wing of Martin’s brigade his death left the regimental commanders with no guidance (Price had ridden off to consult with Hebert). The two regiments were left to their own devises. Neither leader stepped up to the challenge.
Col. Fleming Adams, of the 38th, allowed his men to follow an anonymous order to fall back. This removed his regiment from any further involvement in the battle. Col. Robert McClain of the 37th became confused by orders to avoid shooting into the backs of the 1st Texas Legion. The Texans were nowhere to be found in his front so he simply followed the path beaten into the ground that they had left behind when they turned oblique to attack the 11th Ohio guns. The route took them across the front of the 10th Iowa and 12th Wisconsin Battery. With plenty of time to prepare Col. Perczel of the 10th and Immell’s guns greeted the 37th warmly. Having been abandoned by Adams and the 38th McClain found himself alone on the field facing what he believed was a full Federal brigade. The devastating blast from the two Wisconsin guns and the 10th Iowa must have felt like a full brigade as it left 78 Mississippians dead or wounded. McClain’s shocked men answered with a few feeble volleys before retiring from the field. The fight on the left was over.
Understandably the Union leadership was unhappy with the outcome at the ridge. Sanborn’s brigade was in shambles and nearly all the artillery was lost. BG Jeremiah Sullivan gathered two reserve regiments, the 17th Iowa and the 80th Ohio, with a design to win back the center of the ridge. The 17th was a poor choice for such a mission. The commander, Col. John Rankin, had asked for and received approval of his resignation but because the second in command was missing, the major under arrest, and his replacement not yet on the scene he had accompanied the unit to Iuka. Rankin rapidly confirmed his reputation as an incompetent by seriously bungling the deployment of his men for the move up the slope. Nevertheless he boldly ordered them forward. They were met by a barrage of bullets that badly rattled the inexperienced Iowans. Rankin complicated matters when he fell from his horse unconscious. Some believed that he had drunkenly ridden into a tree limb and knocked himself out. It was recorded as being thrown from his horse. Whatever the truth command fell to Captain John Young but he could not restore order. The 17th dissolved into a mob of panic stricken men fleeing for the safety of the rear.
The 80th Ohio fared better. Their advance was met by skirmishers from the 1st Texas Legion and the commander, Lt. Col. Matthias Bartilson was among the first to fall. Wounded he retired from the field. For the first time all day the junior officers rose to the challenge. The company commanders managed to hold the line firm in the face of increased resistance. Sullivan, meantime, had assembled an ad hoc battalion of refugees from the 26th Missouri, 48th Indiana, 16th Iowa, and 4th Minnesota soldiers and led them through the 80th Ohio. The twilight attack caught the battered rebels at the guns unprepared and they were driven down the hill relinquishing the guns.
The 3rd Louisiana again counter attacked the Federals who were pushed back to a line just in front of the unmanned artillery pieces. The respite gave the 1st Texas Legion the opportunity to strike another blow. Three companies of Texans rose up and delivered a volley into the left flank of Sullivan’s line before charging. Temporarily stunned the Union line recoiled but regrouped to meet the Confederate attack. Sullivan got help from an unexpected source. Cpt. Young had convinced the 17th Iowa to return to the fight. They released a jittery volley that partially struck the backs of Sullivan’s line. It was impossible to tell friend from foe in the fading light. Sullivan compensated by moving his line back to join Young, ceding the guns once again, but they continued to take fire from the rear. The 4th Minnesota had finally been spurred into action. Regrettably they were firing blindly into the dark and into the backs of their own men.
In one final act of battle a reserve regiment from each side clashed on the extreme right. The 11th Missouri had been diverted to the far fight were the sounds of the 5th Iowa battle with the 3rd Louisiana indicated they might serve the best purpose. They moved into the trees and ran into the 37th Alabama and 36th Mississippi who were attempting a flanking movement around the right end of the Union line. The fight opened at less than 30 meters with the 11th firing the first volley. The Confederates responded and then came on with bayonets lowered. The two lines collided in a wild frenzy. The Missourians managed to hold their ground during three separate rushes. After nearly an hour of close deadly combat the Confederates gave up the effort and retreated into the darkness. The stand cost the 11th Missouri 75 casualties while Col. John Martin leading the left section of his brigade reported 77 men lost.
Despite the chaos in the Federal ranks the Confederates had had enough. They dragged away what cannon they could and returned to the other side of the ravine. It was 2000 and the Battle of Iuka was over. Exhausted by the back and forth struggle and badly beaten up both sides fell on their arms for desperately needed rest.
Aftermath and Retreat
Darkness stopped the carnage between the opposing forces but nervous troops on both sides continued to create havoc by firing into any movement. This generally resulted in friendly troops being added to the already enormous casualty reports. Unable to move without eliciting fire there was little effort to recover the wounded from the field. Eventually things settled down and the only sounds were the cries of the abandoned wounded men. Those that could fell asleep while the commanders met to discuss options for the coming day.
MG Price had every intention of renewing the fight at first light but faced opposition from his subordinate leaders. Hebert felt his troops had been fought out. The loss of Little and the monumental casualty lists left them disheartened and unlikely to put up a good fight. Cavalry commanders Armstrong and Adams concurred with his assessment against resuming the struggle. Unmoved Price was adamant; the battle would be rejoined at sunrise. Finally MG Dabney Maury roused Price to talk again. Maury argued that Grant had not yet been heard from and fighting a two sided battle put them at great risk. The split portions of his command could be defeated in detail. Besides, Maury reminded him, an order from Van Dorn had arrived calling for the unification of the two forces. The opportunity for a clean getaway was now while the two Union forces seemed to be working at cross purposes. Reluctantly Price saw the validity of Maury’s view. Retreat might be the only means to save his army and the essential supply trains that had been replenished courtesy of Murphy’s failure. The Fulton Road was open and they could be gone before a coordinated effort by Grant and Rosecrans could trap them in the city. Orders were sent out for the retreat to begin at 0300.
MG Rosecrans was also contemplating renewed action. But without word from Grant he was unsure of exactly what opposed him across the ravine. He had to consider the possibility that Price had shifted his entire force down from Iuka. As the early morning hours came increased activity in the Confederate position indicated something major was afoot. Was the enemy reinforcing or retreating? It was unclear. Undeterred Rosecrans prepped his force for the renewal of combat. Hamilton’s battered troops were replaced by the fresh division of BG David Stanley. A message was sent to Grant pleading for the assistance of an attack in his sector. Finally he found BG Stanley and gave him personal instruction for the morning operation. A bayonet assault across the entire front would be executed at sunrise.
At Grant’s headquarters Ord’s division was being sectioned off to support another operation. A report of activity against Corinth caused Grant to detach BG Thomas Davies division for a move in that direction. There was apparently little concern for Rosecrans plight on the Jacinto Road. At 0330 Rosecrans’ dispatch arrived describing the situation. Grant then instructed Ord to use his remaining force to attack as early as possible.
In Iuka, preparations for retreat took on a frenzied attitude. The teamsters of the supply train were threatened with death by hanging if they stopped for any reason. The threat of being caught in column weighed heavily on Price’s mind and he pushed his men unmercifully. By morning the only troops left in town were the cavalry rearguard. On the Jacinto Road the captured guns were spiked (there were no animals available to draw them off.) and regiment by regiment the troops were marched east to intersect with the troops from Iuka and the unguarded Fulton Road.
Conclusion and Assessment
At first light BG Stanley’s troops stood prepared to execute the attack order issued By Rosecrans. But a decided lack of activity on the opposite ridge caused Rosecrans to order a company sized reconnaissance by the 39th Ohio. The Buckeyes pushed their way through the unimaginable gore of the previous day’s battle to discover that the Confederates were gone. A company of the 2nd Iowa Cavalry was ordered to dash to Iuka to determine the status there. They were followed by the 39th Ohio and Battery M of the 1st Missouri Artillery. They arrived on the outskirts of town just in time to see the departure of the last of the Confederate rearguard. A few rounds from the Missouri battery crashed into town in a wasted effort to disrupt them. There was no sign of movement from Ord’s front.
Ord’s men would finally begin arriving at 1000. A brief effort at pursuit was given up as Grant’s concerns about the safety of Corinth overrode thoughts of Price’s departure. The great Union vise had failed to materialize. Instead of crushing Price he was allowed to escape, wounded but still very much combat effective. The failure of Rosecrans’ elaborate plan to defeat Price can be attributed to many factors but key among them are;
-The aforementioned inability to coordinate the movement of two distant bodies of troops. Grant significantly contributed to this problem by establishing his headquarters separate from both Ord and Rosecrans. By putting his headquarters in Burnsville he increased the already elongated time required to transfer information between the two commands. Operations of this kind are difficult to control in a world of real time communication. They were almost impossible under the communication standards of the Civil War.
-Lack of unified command focus. Grant seemed to lose interest in the operation shortly after he authorized it. He became more concerned with Corinth than with operations against Price’s army. When the post battle question of why Ord and he did not support Rosecrans was asked the best he could do was to blame the dreaded acoustic shadow. Both he and Ord failed to hear the sound of battle on Jacinto road. This fails to explain the confusion about who was to initiate the battle. No substantive effort was ever made on this front.
-Rosecrans trusted too much in what he thought he knew of the surrounding terrain. When he learned the distance between Jacinto and Fulton Road was greater than he expected he allowed himself to second guess the entire plan. By removing the force from the Fulton Road he pretty much gave up the chance to succeed in his pre operation expectations. A simple reconnaissance of the route of march could have spared him this. -The unexpected appearance and hard fighting of the Confederate troops. Little’s division carried out a vitally important blocking action. The only real problem with their performance on Jacinto Road was over aggressiveness. It was enough to be in front of Rosecrans they did not need to attack him. All this did was to add to their casualty rolls.* Nevertheless their efforts saved Price from certain defeat.
Although he was encumbered by the failure of inexperienced troops and poor subordinate leadership (see the 4th Minnesota, 48th Indiana, 17th Iowa…) Rosecrans would still have to concede the obvious. The desired end state was nowhere to be found. The Battle of Iuka saw the pre-operation commander’s intent go completely unsatisfied. The enemy that was supposed to be crushed was gone and the possibility of their unification with Van Dorn revived. Iuka was won but it was a victory smothered with failure. It was a failure for which the price would be paid at Corinth.
*Confederate losses at Iuka are hard to pin down. They have been estimated by various studies at between the reported 652 to as high as 1500. By evaluating reports from leaders on both sides one thing is clear. The reported loss is nowhere near the actual. Union losses were reported at 790 and have not been questioned.
- Official Records Volume XVIIa
- The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth; Peter Cozzens
- Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans; William M. Lamers
- Army of the Heartland; Thomas Connelly
- Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant; U. S. Grant
- Roster and Record of Iowa Troops in the Rebellion, Vol. I; Guy E. Logan
- History of the Fourth Regiment of Minnesota Infantry during the Great Rebellion 1861-1865; Alonzo L. Brown
- With Fire and Sword; S. H. M. Byers
- Bugle Echoes – The story of the 47th; B. C. Bryner
- The Drums of the 47th; Robert J. Burdette
- Lone Star Defenders – A Chronicle of the Third Texas Cavalry; S. B. Barron
- A Southern Record: The History of the Third Regiment Louisiana Infantry; W. H. Tunnard
- Articles A Battery at Close Quarters; A paper read before the Ohio Commandery of the Loyal Legion; Henry Neil and John Sanborn
- The Battle of Iuka; C. S. Hamilton, taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II