Will the Real Winner of Iuka Come On Down!

by Ned B. on June 13, 2013 · 0 comments

Brett’s post last month on the new book by Frank Varney inspired me to write this post. In my view, the standard conclusion about the Battle of Iuka is wrong, but not in the way Varney would like. I agree that the winner of the battle has been unjustly overlooked, but its not Rosecrans that has been slighted. On the contrary he has enjoyed undeserved credit. The real winner of the battle was Sterling Price.1

In mid September 1862, Price occupied Iuka, Mississippi, with his Army of the West. His mission was to stop Rosecrans from reinforcing Buell in Kentucky and possibly to head into Kentucky himself. He paused in Iuka to determine the appropriate course of action. But on the night of September 18th Price received an order from CSA President Davis that he was to unite with General Van Dorn, then south of Corinth. As a result he determined to depart Iuka the next day and had ordered wagons packed even before he encountered US forces moving his way.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans had proposed a plan to trap Price at Iuka. He would lead two divisions — commanded by Generals Hamilton and Stanley — by way of Jacinto to approach Iuka from the south while General Ord would lead another three divisions to approach Iuka from the west. They would catch Price between them, blocking off his escape route. Grant okayed the plan and on September 18th US forces began to move. By the next afternoon Rosecrans was approaching Iuka from the south.

Alerted to Rosecrans’ approach, Price dispatched a brigade to block him and then followed with a second brigade. Hamilton, leading Rosecrans’ column, deployed his men across the road. Price attacked — note that despite Rosecrans advancing toward Iuka, Price was the tactical attacker. Price was able to drive Hamilton back, capturing a battery and throwing several regiments into disarray. Hamilton’s situation was made worse by poor coordination with Rosecrans and confusion among the US troops — at one point US forces fired on each other. With the arrival of Stanley’s division, the US position stabilized; with the setting sun, the fighting ended.

Tactically the Confederates had gotten the better of the US forces. After the close of the battle, Price considered how he could attack Rosecrans in the morning; Rosecrans was concerned about being attacked. But during the night Price’s subordinates prevailed on him to depart. This was not a result of the battle — Rosecrans hadn’t driven him from town. Instead it was pointed out that Ord was west of town with a large force of fresh troops and that Price intended to leave anyway. Since Rosecrans had failed to block one of the roads, Price slipped away.

To recap, on September 19th Price was looking to leave Iuka in order to join Van Dorn while Rosecrans was looking to trap Price at Iuka; as Rosecrans approached, Price attacked and neutralized Rosecrans; Price then left, leaving the US trap empty. Price succeeded in his objective; Rosecrans failed at his.

Rosecrans was successful at one thing — friendly newspapers reported a victory. As a result it seems to me that the standard summary of Iuka has been shaped more by who better managed the press than by who achieved better results on the ground.

  1. Note to Brett — no writings by Grant were used in making this post. My primary sources were: WITH PRICE EAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI By Colonel Thomas L. Snead and THE BATTLE OF IUKA By C. S. Hamilton, Major General, U.S.V. both of which appear in Battles and Leaders, Volume 2 and The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies; Series 1 – Volume 17 (Part I), Reports of Engagement at Iuka; as a secondary source, I have read The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens

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