October 3, 1862 (Friday)
Union General William Rosecrans had been mistaken. He believed that the Confederates under Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price were going to bypass his command at Corinth, Mississippi to head into Tennessee – perhaps towards Jackson or Bolivar – to sever his supply line and force him out of his entrenchments without a fight. That wasn’t a bad plan, really. Several Confederate commanders had even suggested it. But Van Dorn had been itching for a fight and Corinth was the place.
The reason Rosecrans was misled was because Van Dorn’s forces feigned as if they were heading into Tennessee. Rather than strike directly towards Corinth, they moved northwest of the city and then, on October 2nd, quickly changed course to fall upon Rosecrans with all they had. Corinth had once been held by General Beauregard’s army and Van Dorn aimed to get it back. His men would be attacking the very defenses they had helped build.
All that had, however, was about the same as all Rosecrans had – just over 20,000. Rosecrans also had plenty of reinforcements within a day’s march, which was something Van Dorn did not have. The Federals also had Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant had, at first, been fooled, just like Rosecrans. But he figured it all out long before his subordinate, ordering more Federal reinforcements towards the targeted city.
When Rosecrans finally discovered Van Dorn moving upon him, he acted boldly, even brashly. He suggested that he move his entire force out of the trenches to attack Van Dorn as he crossed the Hatchie River and “push those fellows to the wall.” Grant never responded to that idea, and Rosecrans was forced to wait it out. The problem was that while he understood Corinth to be the target, he didn’t know from which direction the Rebels would attack. This would cause him to commit only a fraction of his available forces throughout the day.
After the sun began to rise, sharp skirmishing was heard in the direction of Chewalla, a small border town along the Hatchie, ten miles to the northwest. Rosecrans’ men – skirmishers and pickets – tumbled back into the defenses.
When they were before the town, Van Dorn ordered Price’s two divisions to cover the ground between the two railroads leading into town, and Lovell’s division to fall in on Price’s right, covering the western roads. This was no easy task. The ground was anything but level, covered in thick timber and nearly impossible to traverse. Adding to the confusion was the Federal artillery. It wasn’t until 10am that Van Dorn’s men were ready to step off. From left to right (north to west) the divisions of Hebert, Maury, and Lovell prepared to attack.
To the front of the most northerly division, under Hebert, a steep wooded ridge would have to be scaled under enemy fire. Van Dorn wisely had them wait in the hopes that Rosecrans would pull Union troops from Hebert’s front once Maury and Lovell started their attack.
To Lovell’s front, a small, undersized brigade was all that stood in his way, but they put up one hell of a vicious fight. From behind the old Rebel breastworks, they threw havoc down upon their attackers. Their defense was admirable, causing the Rebels more casualties than they could readily afford. As they screamed ever closer, Federal artillery hit them with cannister, tearing holes in their line and misting the thick air with red.
The Rebels fell back, attacked again, and fell back yet another time. On the third attempt, a hundred men were lost in a fleeting handful of seconds. They came as furies, yelling with blood in their throats and spilling over their former embrasures. The Federal regiments fell back one by one, each seeming to take on and, for a time, hold off a Rebel brigade each.
To the north, atop a wooded ridge, the Federal brigades watched the Rebels under General Hebert form and wait. Six full brigades were clearly ready to attack, but were unmoving. Hebert sent out a thick skirmish line as shots were taken here and there and artillery peppered the morning and afternoon.
The Union division commander, Thomas Davies, quickly realized that he was outnumbered and his cause would be better served by concentrating the forces close to town, under the mouths of the two heavy artillery batteries. Though Rosecrans had not peeled men away from Davies’ line, the Rebels under Sterling Price (including Hebert’s and Maury’s divisions) attacked up the ridge.
They Rebels came at them with a reckless charge, casting off concerns for all safety and humanity. Soon, they threw back the Federals in their front and forced the retreat of any on their flanks. Davies had a mind to reform under the batteries in hopes that Price would attack. There, he believed, he could stop the Rebels. But after taking the breastworks, Price halted his tired and parched men. To the right, Lovell did the same with his Confederates.
Davies’ position was a fine one. Backed by the artillery, his line was under the cover of the woods, with an open field to his front. His right flank was held by an impassible swamp, while his left was anchored by field artillery. But he had less than 2,000 men.
The respite for the Rebels was short-lived. Price advanced with Martin Green’s brigade to the front. The Union artillery exhausted their ammunition several times trying to stymie their sluggish advance. Mostly, the shots went long and missed them. With the artillery coffers now empty, Davies sent word to Rosecrans that more men were needed. As the artillery retired, Green’s men came forth. Rosecrans ordered a division to come to Davies’ assistance, but the written orders were unclear – Rosecrans had ordered them to Davies’ left, when really he should have ordered them to the right. Before it was all cleared away, the battle would be over.
Many of the Union troops were hidden from Confederate sight. When Green’s boys approached to within musket range, the Federals leveled a killing volley, dropping bodies, heads and hearts clutched to the ground. As the wounded fell or streamed to the rear, Price charged again with similar results. He had other brigades waiting in reserve, but sent only a regiment at a time to assist Green. And, a regiment at a time, the Federals mauled the Rebels.
Though Price’s men were melting away, those who stood, stood well – braving the Federal onslaught. As the Union ammunition neared its end, Price finally called off the frontal assault to turn to the enemy flank. Davies saw this and knew he couldn’t hold. By 5pm, the entire Union line had withdrawn into the town.
After the firing had ended, Rosecrans called a council of war. His four divisions realigned themselves in their new positions and waited for dawn and the renewed Rebel attack.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. [↩]