The small town of Iuka, Mississippi, located in the state’s northeast corner, experienced its one and only American Civil War battle on September 19, 1862. The battle resulted from unique circumstances.
General Ulysses S. Grant commanded Union troops from Memphis to the Alabama/Mississippi state line along the border of north Mississippi and west Tennessee. Confederate forces were stationed at Tupelo under the command of General Sterling Price. In Middle Tennessee, two opposing armies, the Union forces led by General Don Carlos Buell, and Confederate forces led by General Braxton Bragg, faced each other. Though they had not fought a battle, both Bragg and Buell wanted more men and they looked to Grant and Price to send them troops to Tennessee. Grant and Price thus decided that they must do what they could to keep each other from sending men to help the opposing two generals, Buell and Bragg in Tennessee. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad ran west to east from Memphis through Corinth and Iuka, Mississippi, into Alabama and beyond. The railroad would be essential transportation for both Grant and Price when they sent soldiers to Tennessee.
Confederate General Price occupied Iuka in the fall of 1862 to block trains carrying Grant’s Union soldiers heading to Buell, while Grant decided he must take Iuka to keep Price from using the railroad to get Confederate soldiers to Bragg. So the battle at Iuka occurred because Grant and Price each intended to stop the other from transporting troops eastward.
Another factor in the coming fight between Grant and Price was Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, who had decided to lead a force north from Vicksburg to join Price and possibly invade West Tennessee. Grant knew that Van Dorn was moving north so Price must be beaten quickly before he could unite with Van Dorn. Therefore, in the early days of September 1862, Grant began moving some 17,000 Union troops from Corinth east to Iuka. Price had 16,000 Confederate men in and around Iuka, where he waited to hear from Van Dorn, while continuing to keep an eye on Grant.
Two Union forces to attack Iuka
Grant decided to attack Iuka from two directions. Part of his army, led by General E. O. C. Ord, moved by railroad toward Iuka; the other part, commanded by General William Rosecrans, moved south from Corinth with the intention of going to a town called Jacinto, then marching east by northeast over a road that led to Iuka. Grant’s idea was to catch Price between the two wings of his army. Grant’s risk was that he could have trouble communicating with Rosecrans who would be traveling through rugged, swamp-like country. Grant established his headquarters aboard a train car near Ord’s wing, and he had to depend on messengers sent by men on horseback to keep in touch with Rosecrans. The overall Union plan was for Ord to attack first, and once Ord had starting fighting Price, Rosecrans would attack the rear of Price’s army. Victory would be certain if everything went according to schedule.
The Mobile and Ohio Railroad ran south from Corinth, and Rosecrans could make use of it to transport his troops to Jacinto. Grant planned for Rosecrans to be in position near Iuka by the evening of September 18. Ord, and then Rosecrans, could set Grant’s plan in motion early on September 19.
Rosecrans runs late
Rosecrans immediately ran into problems and got behind schedule. After reaching Jacinto, one division of his army, guided by a local resident, took a wrong road and wasted much time reversing itself to get back to the Jacinto-Iuka road. Grant learned of Rosecrans delays and realized the timing was thrown off for September 19. So Grant changed the order of his plan: Rosecrans would attack first whenever he made it to Iuka, and Ord would wait until he heard sounds of battle between Rosecrans and Price. A major problem arose, however, because Rosecrans never received word from Grant altering the sequence of attack. Grant later insisted that he did send a message to Rosecrans, but Grant never received any verification that the note had reached Rosecrans.
Rosecrans, meanwhile, had to change his own plan of approach to Iuka. He had intended to divide his army eventually, one division on the road to Iuka and the other on a parallel road that connected the town of Fulton with Iuka. The two roads converged just south of Iuka, and Rosecrans reasoned that by using both roads he could ensure that Price would be trapped after being attacked by Ord. Rosecrans soon learned, however, that the two roads were too far apart for his divisions to maintain communications. Rosecrans knew that would be too risky, so he decided to keep both divisions on the Jacinto-Iuka road, one marching behind the other. Thus, Rosecrans had wasted more time by changing his mind about approaching Iuka.
Rosecrans did not arrive at Iuka until late in the evening of the 19th. Along the way, he had a strange encounter with two of Grant’s staff members who rode into his camp. Their presence is somewhat of a mystery; they talked with Rosecrans and then rode back to Grant’s headquarters without reporting to Grant. Had Grant sent them? There is no indication that he did, but he must have known they were going.
The most confusing issue about their meeting with Rosecrans is the nature of the conversation. The two men told Rosecrans that as soon as he began his attack, Ord would attack Price’s rear. Clearly demonstrating he had no idea Grant had changed plans, Rosecrans responded that Ord must attack first, for that had been the plan. Rosecrans insisted he was right, for he had heard nothing to the contrary from Grant. The two men briefly argued with him and left. There is no record that they told Rosecrans the original plan had been changed, though they could see that Rosecrans did not know about it. The conversation among the three men seems incomprehensible.
A bitter fight
Rosecrans stuck to his belief that Ord would attack first, but when he arrived on the evening of the 19th, he ran headlong into Price’s two Confederate divisions commanded by generals Edward Hebért and Henry Little. These generals, learning of Rosecran’s presence, had to rush their divisions to meet the Union troops, and the Confederates did not have much time to deploy. Rosecran’s Union troops also had to act quickly. He had intended on putting one of his divisions on another road as he had earlier planned, but he did not have time. His lead division, commanded by General Charles Hamilton, found itself under attack, and the battle grew fierce in a short time. Rosecrans had to focus on the battle. He wondered why he could not hear sounds of Ord’s wing fighting.
Rosecrans’s and Price’s armies fought bitterly well into the night. Confederate General Little was killed, and many men on both sides fell dead and wounded. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and in the darkness, some soldiers fired on their own men. By the time fatigue and darkness brought the shooting to an end, both sides had suffered about 900 casualties.
Price abandons Iuka
Price was aware that Ord was northwest of the town, but he wanted to continue fighting Rosecrans the next morning. His officers reasoned with him that just because Ord had not joined in the fight of the 19th did not mean he would remain in place on the 20th and that the Confederates should leave town before they indeed found themselves trapped between Grant’s forces. Price agreed, deciding that he should leave Iuka and go west to join with Van Dorn. In the early morning hours, Price’s army escaped, moving south past Rosecrans’s army down the road Rosecrans had left open. The next morning, Rosecrans and his men found no one to fight. Rosecrans sent a detachment to pursue the Rebels, but Price escaped relatively unscathed.
Rosecrans wondered why Ord had not attacked on the 19th, though he should not have been totally surprised after his talk with Grant’s two staffers.
Neither Ord nor Grant had heard the roar of battle south of Iuka, despite the many hours of musket and cannon fire that indicated a fierce fight. Also, Ord’s men heard nothing, although Federal detachments scattered up and down the railroad on guard duty did hear the noise. Rosecrans did not find out about the changed orders until he spoke with Ord on the 20th. He was of course furious, and he and Grant never reconciled.
The bigger issue was what kept Ord and Grant from hearing the sounds of fighting. Rosecrans remained convinced that he had been abandoned by Grant. In later years, the answer to the question of the seemingly deaf ears of many Union officers and men was identified as an “acoustic shadow.” The term basically means that weather conditions, including such factors as wind, humidity, moisture, and terrain, could in some cases block sounds from places not too far away. This theory has been tested and found to be accurate.
So the strange battle at Iuka ended, highlighted by poor communication and a peculiar weather situation. Price joined Confederate forces with Van Dorn and Grant re-concentrated his Union troops at Corinth, where Rosecrans defeated Price and Van Dorn on October 3 and 4. Price’s abandonment of Iuka and Rosecrans’s victory at Corinth secured North Mississippi for the Union forces and led to Grant’s first efforts to attack Vicksburg.
Michael B. Ballard, Ph.D., is coordinator, Congressional and Political Research Center and University Archivist, Mississippi State University Library.
Ballard, Michael B. The Civil War in Mississippi: Major Campaigns and Battles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Cozzens, Peter B. The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Lamers, William M. The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William Rosecrans, U.S.A. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999, reprint.