Where was Rosecrans?

Previously I wrote about who really won the battle of Iuka. This time I am going to dig deeper into Rosecrans’ performance at that battle. Attention has often been deflected from Rosecrans by questions about where Grant and Ord were during the battle. A lot of ink has been spilled about ‘acoustic shadows’, mis-communication or more negative aspersions on Grant. But to me it seems to be the wrong question. We should be asking – where was Rosecrans?

Rosecrans proposed a plan to trap and crush the Confederates at Iuka: ”I telegraphed you, proposing that the force from Burnsville should attack the rebels from the west and draw them in that direction, and that I would move in on their rear by the Jacinto and Fulton roads and cut off their retreat.” A key component of the plan was to cover both the roads mentioned in order to cut off Price’s escape routes. Starting early on September 18th, the idea was that both forces should be in position by the end of the day so that attack could happen early on the 19th.

Ord advanced on schedule: on the evening of the 18th Ord’s lead units had pushed the confederate pickets back along the Burnsville Road a few miles outside Iuka. But as soon as Rosecrans starts, the plan starts to unravel. Late on the 18th he reported that Stanley’s division had gone the wrong way and thus was delayed and fatigued. This was blamed on a “fault of guide” but could just as well be blamed on a fault of leadership as it seems to me that ensuring the command moved in the right direction is part of a commander’s job. Where was Rosecrans as the 18th drew to a close? Not where he planned to be.

Still, Rosecrans was full of optimism and at 6am on the 19th he wrote to Grant that “Eighteen miles to Iuka, but think I shall make it by the time mentioned – 2 o’clock p.m.”. He did not make it by that time. By the afternoon he was still miles from Iuka. Since Rosecrans was struggling to get his men into position, the timetable he had worked out with Grant was thrown off. Grant had to alter the plan of action by ordering Ord to sit tight and wait for a signal. Where was Rosecrans mid-afternoon of the 19th? Not where he said he would be.

Finally getting near Iuka, Rosecrans made a crucial change to the plan by choosing not to cover one of the two roads. That morning he had written to Grant that “Hamilton will go up the Fulton and Iuka road; Stanley up the Jacinto road from Barnett’s.” But, without informing Grant, Rosecrans send his entire force down just one of the roads. There is a good argument that it was better to keep his two divisions together, but he could at least have detached some cavalry to watch the second road and delay the Confederates if they tried to escape on it. So where was Rosecrans as he approached Iuka? Not where he was expected to be.

As General Charles Hamilton, commanding the front of Rosecrans column, approached Iuka he encountered Confederates blocking his way. More Confederates arrived; they charged, pushing Hamilton back. Intense fighting continued until dark. In an article that appeared in Battle & Leaders, Volume 2, Hamilton wrote about trying to find Rosecrans several times during the battle: “Thinking General Rosecrans was in the rear, where he could hurry up the troops of Stanley’s division, I dispatched an aide with the request that General Rosecrans would come forward far enough to confer with me. …. I dispatched another officer, the only one in reach, for General Rosecrans … I dispatched my adjutant-general, Captain Sawyer, and a short time later another aide, Lieutenant Wheeler, with messages for General Rosecrans, saying that I considered it imperative he should come forward to see me, and should hurry forward fresh troops.” But, according to Hamilton, Rosecrans could not be found during the battle. Where was Rosecrans?

In their official after action reports, Hamilton and his subordinates didn’t refer to any support or direction coming from Rosecrans. In the reports from General Stanley and the commanders of his division there is mention of Rosecrans. Specifically Rosecrans was involved in the confusion over Mower’s brigade. Leading his brigade into action, Mower “found I only had one regiment with me”. From looking at the reports of Mower and his regimental commanders it appears that both Rosecrans and Stanley were issuing orders without communicating or coordinating with each other. Mower responded to Rosecrans, leading his regiment in one direction, while the other regiments responded to Stanley and went in a different direction. The chain of command broke down.

It seems to me that a closer look at the Battle of Iuka does not put Rosecrans in a good light. His management of the moving column did not go as expected; he did not cover both roads as planned; and he was not an effective battlefield presence.

Sources: 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 published in 1887 and The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 – Volume 17 Part I and II.


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