September 28, 1862 (Sunday)
Sterling Price wasn’t an unreasonable man, it’s just that he didn’t believe a word Earl Van Dorn was saying. Following the strange battle of Iuka, Sterling Price and his army slipped away from Union forces under General Grant. Their move took them southwest, on a track to join up with Van Dorn’s army at Ripley, Mississippi.
The tramp to join their comrades was a trying one, with heavy rains, bad roads, little sleep, and even an earthquake. On top of this, there was quite a bit of apprehension over joining with Van Dorn, who would be in charge of the entire show. Price’s chief-of-staff, Major Thomas Snead, even tried to resign. Thankfully, Price was able to play the patriotism card to convince him to stay.
Finally, on this date, they arrived and heard Van Dorn’s plan. The idea was a move on Corinth, the railroad city that General Beauregard once defended (and abandoned) against 120,000 Yankees. Now, claimed Van Dorn, it was lightly defended and ripe for the picking.
If Corinth fell, he reasoned, it would mean that all of the Federal forces in Western Tennessee would have to retreat. This would even secure Vicksburg, along the Mississippi, from any attacks coming from the north. It would, explained Van Dorn, allow General Braxton Bragg to take Louisville (an idea that Bragg himself had already dismissed).
With the addition of Price’s force, Van Dorn commanded 22,000 troops. Corinth, he reasoned, was only held by 15,000 Federals. General Grant had other troops in the area, sure, but they were too spread out to matter. Van Dorn figured there were 6,000 at Memphis, 8,000 at Bolivar, 3,000 at Jackson and 10,000 more scattered throughout different outposts.
Two things were essential for this plan to work. The Federals had to be surprised and the Confederates had to move swiftly.
These two essentials could be dealt with in one plan. First, they would not attack Corinth directly. They would first move to Pocahontas, just across the state line. This would, reasoned Van Dorn, throw off these dispersed Federal forces, making them believe he were about to strike Bolivar, Tennessee, forty miles to the northwest of Corinth.
However, when his troops reached the Tennessee line at Pocahontas, they would take an abrupt right and quickly fall upon Corinth from the northwest, striking the weakest portion of the Federal defenses. The plan was pure genius!
It was only nineteen miles from Pocahontas to Corinth and the roads were in good shape. It should be a hard day’s march, but hard marching would take care of speed.
Some under Van Dorn, most notably Sterling Price and the newly-arrived Mansfield Lovell, thought the plan a bad one. Lovell, undaunted over the surrender of New Orleans and the tarnished reputation that followed, believed the army should simply attack Bolivar. This would, he argued, cut the Federal supply line and force Grant to abandon Corinth. On the run, they could be easily driven back to the Ohio River.
Price, on the other hand, wanted to wait. There was good reason. Though it possibly slashed Van Dorn’s needs for secrecy and speed, it would add an additional 15,000 troops to the Rebel force. These reinforcements were coming in the form of exchanged prisoners at Jackson, Mississippi. They could be easily armed and established into a division. They would not, however, be available until the middle of October.
Without them, Price believed, Corinth could not be held. It was probably true that Van Dorn could take Corinth, but holding it? Price just didn’t see how. Even by Van Dorn’s own calculations, there were 27,000 Federals outside of Corinth, ready to descend upon the city to take it back. The casualties that Van Dorn would suffer while taking Corinth were sure to be serious. How, with such a weakened force, could Van Dorn expect to hold his bounty?
Adding weight to Lovell and Prices’ reservations were the Yankees themselves. The troops would be commanded by Generals Grant, Sherman and Rosecrans. While Sherman had not yet come into his own, Grant was certainly making a name for himself. Rosecrans, who graduated fifth in his class at West Point, was an officer to be taken seriously. Van Dorn, who graduated fifth from the bottom of the very same West Point class, somehow disagreed.
Lovell, who commanded a division, and Price, who commanded two, were ordered to have three day’s cooked rations ready. The new Confederate Army of West Tennessee, Earl Van Dorn commanding, would step off at dawn the next morning.1
- Sources: The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Nothing But Victory by Stephen E Woodworth [↩]