Bright Union Prospects
Union prospects were bright for a successful end of the American Civil War in the early part of 1862. In the East, Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had advanced up the Virginia Peninsula and was threatening the Confederate capital at Richmond by early June. West of the Appalachians, Union victories at Middle Creek (January 10, 1862) and Mill Springs (January 19, 1862) drove Confederate forces out of eastern Kentucky and back south into Tennessee. In the Mississippi Valley, the capture of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) opened the door for a federal invasion that culminated with a bloody victory at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) and the capture of the vital railroad center at Corinth, Mississippi (May 30, 1862). One week later, Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s Union fleet captured the city of New Orleans, Louisiana.
By late summer, almost inexplicably, the tide had reversed. General Joseph Johnston, the Confederate commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862). Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with the more aggressive General Robert E. Lee. Lee immediately launched an offensive against McClellan that drove the Army of the Potomac off of the Virginia Peninsula by August. By September, Lee’s army was in Maryland, endangering the United States’ capital. In the near West, Confederate General Braxton Bragg threatened Union dominance in Kentucky by launching his Heartland Campaign in August. Only in the Mississippi Valley did Union prospects remain bright.
Federal Changes in Military Leadership
Two months after the capture of Corinth, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Henry Halleck to Washington to assume command of all federal armies. Before departing, Halleck dismantled the imposing army captured Corinth. Halleck dispatched Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to Nashville, Tennessee, where it operated as a separate command. Halleck’s second-in-charge during the Corinth operations, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, resumed his command of the Army of the Tennessee. Grant also oversaw Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Mississippi. In total, Grant commanded roughly 100,000 soldiers near Corinth.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
On the Confederate side, General P. G. T. Beauregard’s evacuation of Corinth without a fight displeased President Jefferson Davis. On June 17, Davis relieved Beauregard of his command and replaced him with General Braxton Bragg. Later that month, Bragg launched his Confederate Heartland Campaign, hoping to restore Kentucky to the Confederacy When Bragg moved north, he ordered Major General Sterling Price to leave Tupelo, Mississippi and to bring his 3,000-man Army of the West north to join Bragg in Tennessee.
Confederates Occupy Iuka
By September 13, 1862, Price had reached the town of Iuka, Mississippi, roughly twenty miles east of Corinth. As Price’s army advanced on the Union garrison posted at Iuka, the federal commander, Colonel Robert C. Murphy, set fire to the Union supplies, abandoned his post, and marched his 2,000-man brigade back to Corinth. Price then settled in at Iuka to await Major General Earl Van Dorn’s 7,000-man Army of West Tennessee.
Federals Dislodge Rebels from Iuka
The two generals intended to merge their armies and attack Grant’s supply and communication lines as they moved north to join Bragg. Ever the aggressor, Grant had no intention to sit by idly and let the two Rebel armies unite. Instead, he dispatched two Federal forces toward Iuka to trap Price in a pincer movement and destroy his army. Although the attack was poorly coordinated, Rosecrans’ Army of the Mississippi defeated Price at the Battle of Iuka on September 19. The victory proved hollow, however, because the Rebel army escaped the Union trap.
Price and Van Dorn Unite
After his escape at Iuka, Price marched his army west to Ripley, Mississippi and successfully merged forces with Van Dorn’s Army of West Tennessee on September 28, 1862. With 22,000 soldiers under his command, Van Dorn resolved to recapture Corinth for the Confederacy before moving north into Middle Tennessee to support Bragg.
Van Dorn Attacks Corinth
Meanwhile, concerns about Bragg’s actions in Tennessee prompted Grant to move his headquarters to Jackson, Tennessee, leaving Rosecrans in command of the 15,000 Union soldiers garrisoned at Corinth. Despite imposing Union defenses, Van Dorn believed that his numerical superiority gave him an opportunity to recapture Corinth.
On October 3, Van Dorn’s troops mounted a spirited attack against the outer federal fortifications at Corinth, forcing the Yankees back toward the center of the city. As nightfall approached, Van Dorn called off the assault, confident that he could finish the job in the morning. Rosecrans regrouped his soldiers overnight and drove the Rebels back the next day. Realizing that the tide had turned, Van Dorn halted the assault and withdrew. Because the fighting had exhausted his soldiers, Rosecrans chose not to pursue the retreating Rebels until the next day.
Ord Pursues Van Dorn
On the same day that Van Dorn withdrew (October 4), Grant dispatched two separate detachments, led by Major General Edward O. C. Ord and Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, to reinforce Rosecrans. On the morning of October 5, the two forces united, with Ord assuming overall command. Hoping to catch Van Dorn’s retreating forces in a pincer between Ord and Rosecrans, Grant ordered Ord to cut off the Confederate escape route across the Hatchie River at Davis Bridge.
October 5, 1862 Clash Along Hatchie River
Sensing the gravity of his situation, Van Dorn ordered his men to hold at Davis Bridge while he searched for an alternate route across the river. He found one at Crum’s Mill to the south. Ord’s forces engaged the lead elements of the Confederate force and drove them back to Davis Bridge. During the action, Ord was wounded, and Hurlbut assumed command. The Federals eventually drove the Rebels across Davis Bridge, but not before the bulk of Van Dorn’s army crossed the river at Crum’s Mill and escaped back to Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Technically, the Battle of Hatchie Bridge was a Union victory. The Federals captured Davis Bridge, and the Rebels suffered more casualties. The Confederacy lost about 500 soldiers (killed, wounded, and missing/captured) compared roughly 400 for the Union.
Nevertheless, the battle was a lost opportunity for the North. Had the Federals trapped Van Dorn’s army, Grant would have had a clear path to Vicksburg from the east. As it was, Van Dorn’s army blocked the way, and it took Grant nine more months and considerable effort to capture the Confederate stronghold and secure control of the Mississippi River.