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) forced Confederate forces out of eastern Kentucky and back south into Tennessee.
In the Mississippi Valley, the North’s capture of Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) and Fort Henry (February 6, 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.
By late summer, 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 to 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 nation’s capital. In the near West, Confederate General Braxton Bragg threatened Union control of Kentucky by launching his Heartland Campaign in August. Only in the Mississippi Valley did Union prospects remain bright.
Union Command Shakeup in the West
Two months after the capture of Corinth, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Henry Halleck to Washington to assume command of all federal armies. Lincoln hoped that Halleck could duplicate his successes in the West on a broader stage.
Before departing, Halleck dismantled the large army he had used to capture 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 command of the Army of the Tennessee. Grant also oversaw Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Mississippi. Altogether, Grant commanded roughly 100,000 soldiers near Corinth. Federal officials instructed Grant to protect Union supply lines in western Tennessee and Mississippi and to focus on capturing the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Bragg Replaces Beauregard
On the Confederate side, General P. G. T. Beauregard’s evacuation of Corinth without a fight incensed President Jefferson Davis. On June 17, he relieved Beauregard of his command, presumably because Beauregard went on sick leave without prior authorization from Davis. Davis replaced Beauregard with General Braxton Bragg.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
Hoping to draw Federal troops away from Vicksburg and restore Kentucky to the Confederacy, Bragg launched his Confederate Heartland Campaign in June. As 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 him in Tennessee.
Federals Abandon Iuka
By September 13, 1862, Price had reached the town of Iuka, Mississippi, about twenty miles east of Corinth. Iuka was a small Union supply depot on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. 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. Murphy’s superior, Rosecrans, relieved Murphy of his command and later had the colonel court-martialed for his actions.
Price Plans to Attack Grant
Now in control of Iuka, Price settled in to await Major General Earl Van Dorn’s 7,000-man force from the Department of Southern Mississippi and East Louisiana. The two generals intended to merge their armies and attack Grant’s supply and communication lines as they moved north to join Bragg.
Grant Plans to Attack Rebels at Iuka
Ever the aggressor, Grant had no intention to sit by and let the two Rebel armies unite. Instead, using a plan suggested by Rosecrans, Grant dispatched Major General Edward Ord and 8,000 soldiers from the Army of the Tennessee east along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and then northeast to a position where they could attack Iuka from the northwest. Grant also sent Rosecrans and 9,000 soldiers south along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and then east to a position where they could attack Iuka from the southwest. Grant accompanied Ord’s headquarters during the expedition.
Ord’s force reached Iuka on the evening of September 18, ahead of Rosecrans, who had to travel farther and along poorer roads. Rosecrans informed Grant that he would not be positioned to attack until the next day. Grant and Ord agreed to hold off their assault until they heard the sounds of Rosecrans’ fighting the enemy.
September 19, 1862: Clash at Iuka
Rosecrans resumed his march at 4:30 a.m. on September 19 and was within two miles of Iuka by the afternoon. By then, Price, who observed Rosecrans’ advance, attacked first. The ensuing battle lasted about three hours and ended when darkness fell. Realizing how dangerous his situation had become, Price evacuated Iuka overnight, using a road that Rosecrans had not secured.
The Battle of Iuka was a hollow Union victory. Rebel casualties nearly doubled federal losses. The Confederacy suffered 1,516 casualties (263 killed, 692 wounded, and 561 captured/missing) and the Union lost 790 soldiers (144 killed, 598 wounded, and 40 captured/missing). The Yankees also regained their supply depot at Iuka. Still, the failure to coordinate the Union attack and to involve Ord’s forces enabled Price and Van Dorn to rendezvous and merge their forces into the Army of West Tennessee. Their new army assaulted Corinth the next month.
After the battle, controversy swirled regarding why Ord’s troops never entered the fray. Grant and Ord claimed that unusual weather conditions, marked by high winds, prevented them from hearing the sounds of the battle to their south. Some Union soldiers later swore that there were no high winds that day and others stated that they not only heard the battle but that they could see smoke on the horizon.
Rumors swirled that Grant did not order the attack because he was “dead drunk,” although such allegations were never proved. In his original after-battle report, dated September 20, 1862, Grant praised Rosecrans’ performance. In a second report, submitted on October 22, after Rosecrans filed his own report and after Rosecrans received considerable praise for his actions at Iuka, Grant was less complimentary. Some historians speculate that the Battle of Iuka may have been the source of differences between the two men that ultimately led to Grant relieving Rosecrans of his command at Chattanooga a little over one year later.