(April 9, 2018) While Lee was invading Maryland and Bragg was “liberating” Kentucky, the latter asked the Confederate commanders in north Mississippi to distract Union General Ulysses Grant in west Tennessee so that he would not join Union General Don Carlos Buell in the defense of Kentucky. The first Mississippi Rebel leader to act was General Sterling Price when his 15,000 soldiers captured a Union depot in northeast Mississippi at Iuka on September 15, 1862. Two days later Ulysses Grant approved a plan suggested by subordinate General William Rosecrans to eliminate Price’s army by converging on it with two separate 8,000-man units from the North and South simultaneously. Grant would be in overall command while Rosecrans would lead one column and General Edward Ord the other.
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The standard battle narrative reflects selective use of Grant-favorable versions of his multiple—sometimes contrary—post battle reports and remarks in his Memoirs twenty-three years later when he wrote that under his plan Price’s “annihilation was inevitable.” Rosecrans and Ord had 17,000 men between them. Ord would descend on Iuka from the north, while Rosecrans came up from the south. Once Price had his attention thoroughly fixed on Ord, Rosecrans would fall on his rear so that the Rebels would have to choose between death and capitulation.
Accordingly, on 17 September Ord moved twelve miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to Burnsville, where Grant established headquarters, having instructed Rosecrans to concentrate at Jacinto, eight miles south. From these two points, the two columns were to push to within striking distance of Iuka the following day in order to deliver their attacks soon after dawn of the 19th. But Rosecrans reported that one of his units had been so badly delayed that he could not be in position before midafternoon of the appointed day. As pictured in the map above, Rosecrans was to arrange his attack so as to block Price’s two escape paths: One to the southeast and the other to the southwest.
Grant told Ord to go ahead with the opening phase on 19 September. But he also told him to await the sounds of Rosecrans’s attack in order to be sure that Price’s escape hatches were closed. Ord’s forward movement captured Price’s attention, but the Federal column north of town did nothing more for the entire day suffering casualties of only one man wounded. When Ord received a four o’clock message from the front at six o’clock—inexplicably two hours later—telling him of “dense smoke arising from the direction of Iuka” he merely assumed Price was evacuating.
The smoke had been beyond, not in the town, and it came from Price’s guns, not his stores. When the Confederates learned of Ord’s approach from the south about two o’clock they opened the battle in that sector. Grant and Ord failed to hear the cannon fire because a strong wind out of the northwest created an acoustic shadow. In fact, Grant did not even suspect that Rosecrans was in position until the morning of 20 September when he received a note the latter had written the night before. It urged Grant to push into the Rebels from the north. Ord finally made his attack at about nine o’clock in the morning on 20 September while Rosecrans assaulted from the south. But the two columns were converging on an empty town because Price had escaped on the road that led to the southeast. Rosecrans had lost 790 men and Price 535.
Grant’s initial battle reports praised Rosecrans. It was, after all, the latter’s men who did all of the fighting. But Grant’s later reports criticized Rosecrans for failing to block both of Price’s escape roads and also for failing to aggressively pursue Price after he had evacuated Iuka.
Grant criticisms are unfair.
First, Rosecrans was fighting a battle outnumbered two-to-one, while Ord and Grant were nearby doing nothing. Second, he could not block both of Price’s escape routes unless he could get closer to the south end of town where the two roads converged. If he tried to cover both roads at the latitude of his battle line his smaller force would have to be split in two and separated by a distance that was too far for the segments to support one another. Third, he could not overpower the enemy and get close enough to Iuka to block both roads unless Ord drew off some of the enemy’s strength by attacking from the north. But that never happened. Fourth, Ord’s men were well-rested and should have been used for pursuit instead of the battle weary and footsore men in Rosecrans’s column. Fifth, while Grant criticized Rosecrans’s alleged un-energetic pursuit, the commanding general set a bad example by leaving the area to visit his family in west Tennessee.
According to Dr. Frank Varney, who authored General Grant and the Rewriting of History, objective historians should be asking several questions about the Battle of Iuka that they generally fail to consider. Did Grant provide effective leadership? What went wrong at his headquarters? Had Grant temporarily fallen victim to latent alcoholism? What was happening within the Federal column north of town? Varney adds that after the battle Grant submitted “a report that was quite at odds with his first messages about Iuka, and submitted it immediately after an acrimonious exchange of telegrams with Rosecrans. . . This should warn us that Grant was not above rewriting official documents in anger and . . . would revise his version of events if it suited him.” Varney also reminds readers that Grant may have been motivated to such actions because his reputation at the time of Iuka was still not secure due to his controversial performance at Shiloh less than six months earlier.