William Holden at Corinth

I have posted two of Iowa soldier William Holden letters before, one at the end of the war and one from Atlanta. This one is a detailed description of the Second Battle of Corinth fought on October 3-4, 1862 at Corinth, MS between the Confederates under generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price, and the Federals under general William Rosecrans. Both armies fielded about 23,000 men. Holden was with the 2nd Iowa, part of Hackleman’s brigade of Davies’ Division. Holden tells about the battle in a letter to his father:

Our Brigade, composed of the 2nd Iowa, 7th Iowa and 52nd Illinois, commanded by Brig. Gen. P.A. Hackleman marched from Camp Montgomery on the morning of the 3rd, at daylight, about 1 mile North West of Corinth and there joined the rest of our division, and formed line of battle.

Though the battle had commenced on the left, Davies’ division then advanced to a line of old trenches left over from the previous battle, just in time to meet the advancing Confederates.

They marched by flank through the woods to the left of our division and there formed a solid column by battalion, four battalions deep, and thus concentrating upon a single regt of our division, and advanced to the charge. This was a grand sight, from our position we could see the contending forces. The artillery of the whole division was playing on them as was the infantry in their front and on their flanks. They waver. Their leaders are all down, and every stand of colors have been shot down. At this point two field officers finely mounted dashed to the front, seize each a stand of colors and dash forward, their men gather courage and follow, the officers soon fall and their horses go back without them, but the men push forward, although our fire is mowing them down by hundreds. But they press on and soon and soon gain the works and our forces retire. The left flank of the division was turned and the enemy was advancing rapidly toward the Corinth road to cut off our retreat. We got the command to retreat and had to leave that part of the field without firing a gun. We retreated by flank, left in front on double quick, and passed down the road to Corinth under the fire of the advancing Rebs, who came near reaching the road ahead of us. We retreated about a mile and again took up our first positions, and staid there until the Rebels had prepared to charge us again we retired in line to within a half mile of Corinth.

The Confederates were not long in following them, and soon set up their artillery.

…then commenced a terrible Artillery duel which lasted about an hour, and was most destructive on both sides. Our regt did not suffer from this fire, being behind a hill, lying down behind a fence, but their shells came close enough to knock the top rails off.  The Rebel batteries silenced ours, and about 4 o’clock they advanced to charge our position. Our position was on a slight eminence in the edge of a heavy piece of timber and in front of us lay an open field a quarter of a mile in width, through this field the Rebels had to advance to the charge. They advanced as usual with them in solid column. We awaited them in silence.

Holden then gives a detailed description of the fight, including the ranges:

When they got within about 200 yards we received the command to fire, and our fire told with fearful effect on the enemy, we were soon loaded again, and at about 100 yards poured in a fire so destructive as to cause them to halt. Their field officers rode to the front to cheer them on, but they were soon dismounted. The Rebels opened fire on us and continued to advance slowly. The firing became general on both sides, you could no longer distinguish any volleys it was a continual roar. The fire was terrible on both sides and this fire was kept up 45 minutes at a distance of from 25 to 75 yards. It was in the first of this fight that Gen. Hackleman was mortally wounded and our brigade was left without a commander. The next in command not being apprised of it, Col. Baker of our regt. fell mortally wounded and our cartridges being all shot away, our boys knowing what ought to be done took it upon themselves to do it, and that was to charge the enemy, and we did it in a regular Fort Donelson style, driving the Rebels before us across the field. We then retired for ammunition a reserve taking our place.

The Confederate reserves soon came up and renewed the attack, driving the Federals back to their forts on the outskirts of Corinth, where the fighting ended at dusk. The next morning the Rebels began an artillery duel, but their guns were soon silenced, leaving them only the option of an infantry attack.

To do this they would have to march over half a mile though fallen timber and under brush, and through the cross fire of four of our forts. Our infantry was drawn up in line with these forts, and in front of the Rebels. None of our troops were behind breastworks, save the gunners in the forts. Our field artillery was all in position and everything was in readiness to meet a charge. We had the advantage in position, they were superior in numbers. About 10 o’clock their heavy columns moved forward to the attack. Our artillery siege and field opened on them. The roar was incessant and deafening. For a mile in length their line was visible and along this line they were advancing steadily, but their men were falling like leaves in Autumn before a gale. But on they came determined to conquer or die. The infantry opens fire on them and the din is complete. They face it all manfully, and return our fire as they advance. Right up to the very muzzles of our cannon. The 81st Ohio Regt was right behind the fort on our right and as soon as the Rebels reach the fort they run leaving them in possession up goes the Rebel flag on the fort. The Rebels were now on our flank and in front and were pouring terrible crossfire on our brigade and we were replying in right good earnest.

Under the guidance of Gen. Rosecrans, Davies’ division fell back and reformed.

The whole division rallied under the fire of the enemy (something that is rarely done successfully) and charged the enemy with a shout and drove him back at the moment he was certain of victory, took our fort back and opened up our batteries again on the retreating foe. The enemy also took one of our main forts about 3 quarters of a mile on our left in this charge but were likewise driven back. In this charge it was a perfect slaughter on the Rebel side. They brought up fresh troops and charged on us again with impetuous fury, but it was no go this time. Our troops had got their Irish up and met them part of the way and gave them such a copious shower of musket balls that they broke and fled in confusion, but they had come too far to retreat, as our bullets could stop them and about 300 of them dropped down behind logs and brush and waited until our troops came up and took them prisoners. This ended the struggle at Corinth.

Although some modern historians have questioned both Rosecrans’ generalship at Corinth and even his personal courage, Holden gives him high praise. “During all this time, Major Gen. Rosecrans was riding down the lines cheering on the men. He was present where the bullets flew thickest.”

The cost was high for Holden’s regiment.

Our Regt went into action at Corinth with 500 and 40 men, 90 of them was killed and 80 wound[ed], 7 or missing. Now you may judge for yourself whether we were in a warm place or not or whether we fought any. Nearly every 3rd man was hit. Our loss in officers is heavy Col. Baker of our Regt is killed, Lt. Col. is thought will not live, four Lieut. Killed and 5 wounded in our regt. I got a slight wound in my left leg on Saturday morning when the enemy made the first charge on our forts but it did not disable me from duty.

All in all one of the best battle letters I’ve read. It gives battle ranges and also describes the Confederate attack formations, adding that “solid column” attacks were “usual” for them, which no doubt added to Van Dorn’s casualties. Overall losses were some 4,200 Confederates (almost half of these captured or missing) versus around 2,500 Union. In spite of being routed in the final stages of the battle Van Dorn and Price withdrew virtually unmolested.


2 responses to “William Holden at Corinth”

  1. Robert Welch Avatar

    Absolutely an amazing letter, and a greatly detailed description of the battle. This is the best account I’ve seen of the 2nd’s actions at Corinth over those two days.

  2. […] at his trade until he enlisted in 1861. His company fought in the battles at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Atlanta, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. After the war he returned to Ottumwa where he held […]

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