Bright Union Prospects in Early 1862
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 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.
Reversal of Fortunes
By late summer, almost inexplicably, the tide had reversed. As fate would have it, 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 nation’s capital. In the near West, Confederate General Braxton Bragg threatened Union hegemony in Kentucky by launching his Heartland Campaign in August. Only in the Mississippi Valley did Union prospects remain bright.
Lincoln Calls Halleck to Washington
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 accomplishments in the West on a greater stage. Before departing, Halleck dismantled the grand army he had used to capture Corinth.
Halleck Sends Buell to Nashville
Halleck dispatched Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to Nashville, Tennessee, where it operated as a separate command.
Grant Resumes Command of the Army of the Tennessee
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’s Army of the Mississippi. In total, Grant commanded roughly 100,000 soldiers in and around Corinth. Grant’s orders were to protect Union supply lines in western Tennessee and Mississippi and to develop plans to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.
Bragg Replaces Beauregard
On the Confederate side, General P. G. T. Beauregard’s surrender of Corinth without a fight angered President Jefferson Davis. On June 17, he relieved Beauregard of his command, because Beauregard went on sick leave without prior authorization from Davis. Davis replaced Beauregard with General Braxton Bragg.
Bragg Launches the Confederate Heartland Campaign
Hoping to draw federal troops away from Vicksburg and to 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 Bragg in Tennessee.
Federals Abandon Iuka
By September 13, 1862, Price had reached the town of Iuka, Mississippi, roughly 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.
Rebels Plans to Attack Grant’s Supply Lines
Now in control of Iuka, Price settled in to await a small force commanded by Major General Earl Van Dorn advancing from Vicksburg. The two generals intended to unite their armies and to attack Grant’s supply and communication lines as they moved north to join Bragg.
Union Victory at Iuka
Ever the aggressor, Grant had no intention to sit by idly and let the two Rebel armies unite. Instead, he dispatched two Federal forces totaling 17,000 troops toward Iuka to trap Price in a pincer movement to destroy his army. In a poorly coordinated engagement on September 19, only one of the two Union forces took part in the battle. Rosecrans’ Army of the Mississippi defeated Price at the Battle of Iuka, but the victory was hollow because the Rebel army escaped the Union trap.
Price and Van Dorn Form the Confederate Army of West Tennessee
After his escape at Iuka, Price marched his army west to Ripley, Mississippi and successfully combined forces with Van Dorn to form the Army of West Tennessee on September 28, 1862. With 22,000 soldiers under his new command, Van Dorn determined to recapture Corinth for the Confederacy before moving north into Middle Tennessee to support Bragg.
Rosecrans in Command at Corinth
On the federal side, concerns about Bragg’s actions in Tennessee prompted Grant to move his headquarters to Jackson, Tennessee after the Battle of Iuka, leaving Rosecrans in command at Corinth. Rosecrans had approximately 23,000 men under his command in northern Mississippi, but only 15,000 of them were garrisoned at Corinth, which was well protected by three lines of fortifications. Despite the imposing Union defenses, Van Dorn believed that his numerical superiority presented him an opportunity to recapture Corinth if he moved quickly before Rosecrans could merge his forces.
Rosecrans’ Secret Weapon
Unbeknownst to Van Dorn, Rosecrans had another advantage. Union soldiers captured a message from a Rebel spy informing Van Dorn that the weakest point of the Federal defenses was on the northwest side of town. After reading the message, Rosecrans made sure that Van Dorn received it. He then shored up his defenses where he expected the Van Dorn to attack if he heeded the contents of the message.
Van Dorn Approaches Corinth
By October 1, 1862, Van Dorn had moved his army to Pocahontas, Tennessee, northwest of Corinth. On October 2, he moved his men closer to Corinth and bivouacked at Chewalla, Tennessee. By this time, Grant knew Van Dorn’s intentions, and he telegraphed Rosecrans to brace for an attack. On the morning of October 3, Rosecrans dispatched three divisions to old Confederate rifle pits northwest of town to prepare for the expected assault.
October 3 – 4, 1862: Clash at Corinth
October 3: Rebels Drive Federals Back
On the morning of October 3, Van Dorn moved his army into line and attacked the outer federal fortifications at 10 a.m. Despite Rosecrans’ preparations, the Rebel attack was successful. They steadily pushed the Yankees backward and opened a gap in the Union line around 1 p.m. As the federal soldiers tried to close the gap, the Confederates redoubled their efforts and drove their adversaries farther back to their inner line of defense. As nightfall approached, Van Dorn called off the assault, confident that he could finish the job in the morning.
October 4: Federals Turn Back Delayed Rebel Attack
Overnight, Rosecrans regrouped his soldiers and prepared for Van Dorn to resume the attack the next day. Van Dorn intended to attack again at daybreak, but the illness of one of his brigade commanders forced him to postpone resuming the fight until 9 a.m. When the second day’s fighting began, Union artillery swept the field, inflicting severe casualties on the Rebels. Nevertheless, the Confederates continued to advance, capturing two federal batteries. A few Rebels entered Corinth itself, but Union soldiers quickly drove them back.
By the afternoon, after suffering substantial losses, the Confederate assault was spent. Rosecrans’ soldiers began pushing the Rebels back, recapturing the two lost batteries and finally driving the Confederates from the field. Rosecrans chose not to pursue the retreating Rebels with his exhausted soldiers until the next day, a decision for which Grant later criticized him.
The Second Battle of Corinth was a costly defeat for the Confederacy. Van Dorn failed to recapture Corinth, and he suffered 4,233 casualties (473 killed, 1,997 wounded, and 1,763 captured or missing) for his efforts. By comparison, Rosecrans lost 2,520 men (355 killed, 1,841 wounded, and 324 missing). Still, the Union victory was incomplete. As at Iuka, Rosecrans had defeated an opposing army but failed to destroy it. Despite Grant’s criticisms, the Northern press celebrated Rosecrans and Union officials soon rewarded him with the command of the Army of the Ohio.