October 4, 1862 (Saturday)
How had this all gone so incredibly wrong? The fighting of the previous day, while hard, went heavily in favor of the Confederates under Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price. They pushed the Yankees back against the important railroad town of Corinth, Mississippi. One more push should have decided it.
That push came at dawn of this date, following an artillery barrage that ended with the Rebels losing a gun to an enthusiastic Union skirmish line. Martin Green’s Division, with the farthest to go, stepped off first, angling through the woods in their front, emerging 600 yards from the Union lines. Their focus was Federal Battery Powell north of town. Protecting the battery was an irregular line formed by a tattered Union division that had been chewed to pieces the previous day.
With a deluge of steel being poured into them, the Rebels leaned into the storm and took the guns. Soon, the entire Federal right was wavering, fluttery back into town. Green’s Confederates, however, gave no chase.
The pause gave Federal commander William Rosecrans time to steady his men, fixing the lines anew. Before long, they counterattacked and retook their battery.
Two Union batteries were placed west of town and these were attacked shortly after Green began his assault. Batteries Williams and Robinett were hit hard by Dabney Maury’s Division, charging into battle far off Green’s right. The vicious Rebels attacked with all they were worth, but failed to see the Federals lying in wait for them at Battery Williams. Caught off guard, first, by one volley, and then many more, the Confederates melted away or ran for their lives.
Things went better for the Rebels at Battery Robinett, but only slightly. To take the battery, they had to scratch and claw their way up the parapets, while Yankees hurled hand grenades at them. As one would be hit, he would fall bloodied flailing back upon his friends, taking two or three with him in a broken, writhing mess. Somehow, enough Rebels made it to the top and took the battery, but soon other Union artillery, prepared for such an event, opened upon them. Grape and cannister inundated the tired mass of butternut and gore as a Federal Missouri regiment, joined by one from Ohio, dashed into the Rebels. They fought with muskets as clubs, with rocks and fists, with bayonets like pitch forks until the only Confederates left in Battery Robinett were dead or dying.
By late morning, the Confederate division to Green’s immediate right, between the taken and recaptured batteries, joined the ball. The Rebel charge came with a terrifying yell, throwing back, first skirmishers, and then the Union line. But, for all its ferocity, it could not break the Federals. Some Arkansas troops managed to pierce it and storm into the streets, but they were quickly sent tumbling back to their comrades.
The streets of Corinth had not seen their last block by block melee. General Maury’s rightmost brigade slipped south of the batteries and into town with hardly a notice until they were amongst the buildings. They were met with sharp resistance, but a few managed to capture forty pieces of artillery in the town square. Ultimately, they were hurled out of town by Rosecran’s reserves.
The attacks had been murderously repulsed on all fronts, except one. Mansfield Lovell’s Confederate division, on the extreme right, had met only token resistance that morning. Of course, that can mostly be attributed to the fact that Lovell never really advanced. His troops stepped off at dawn, sluggishly trudging a mile or so until they got a good look at what they’d have to attack. Lovell, choosing discretion over valor, declined. He was not alone in this decision. When one of his staff asked a brigade commander what he thought about making such an attack, he said that it simply wasn’t possible. “Suppose General Lovell orders you to take it?” he inquired. “My brigade will march up and be killed,” came the reply.
General Van Dorn soon ordered the retreat, placing Lovell’s Division as rear guard. The withdrawal was more or less orderly, and grew even more so when they were out of danger of a counterattack. They stopped for the night at Chewalla, ten miles west of Corinth.
Rosecrans, at first, didn’t realize the battle was over – that he had won. Though victorious, he could not pursue. The need for rest was too great. They had sustained over 2,500 casualties across the two days.
Though relatively safe from an attack by way of Corinth, Van Dorn was no where near safe. General Ulysses S. Grant had correctly assumed that Rosecrans would hold his ground and send the Rebels reeling. From surrounding strongholds, he ordered Union troops to descend upon Van Dorn’s Army – to cut off their retreat, to capture their supplies, to destroy them. By nightfall, 8,000 Federals under Stephen Hurlbut had taken the bridge across the Big Muddy River, threatening to cut the Rebel line of retreat.
In a short and deadly twenty-four hours, things had all gone so wrong. Rather than victoriously reclaiming the fallen Corinth, the Rebels were facing a very possible decimation at the hands of the quickly enveloping Federals. 1
- Sources: The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens; Banners to the Breeze by Earl J. Hess; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams. [↩]