October 1, 1862 (Wednesday)
General Ulysses S. Grant was human. Like other humans (and many Federal officers), he made mistakes. But unlike many of his fellow brass, he could quickly recover and adapt.
Grant had been headquartered in and around Corinth, Mississippi for month. During that time, two Confederate forces under Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price had been doing little more than milling about, seemingly waiting for the right time to strike. Price’s force had escaped Grant’s attempt to snare them at Iuka, disappearing towards the southwest.
Over the ensuing week, both Price and Van Dorn had been on the move. While in reality, they had joined forces, Grant believed Price to be south of Corinth, while Van Dorn was making for the Mississippi in Tennessee. This was faulty information, but Grant informed Washington and started to plan accordingly.
In truth, Van Dorn, commanding the combined force now known as the Army of West Tennessee, was set to fall upon Corinth. His plan was to fool Grant into thinking that the whole Rebel army was headed into West Tennessee (thus the name?). To do this, they were marching north, and, by all appearances, bypassing the targeted city. According to the plan, they would move towards the town of Pocahontas, northwest of Corinth, and then make a sharp right, falling in behind the unsuspecting city’s defences.
To counter this, Union cavalry had taken out a bridge leading to Pocahontas. To complete the ruse, though he had no actual need to use this span, Van Dorn ordered men under General Price to repair the bridge. Another bridge, one that he actually needed to use to cross the Hatchie River, had also been partially destroyed by the Federals. His own men spent the night making the repairs in what they hoped was secrecy. The element of surprise was essential to taking the lightly-defended Corinth.
But Grant caught on quickly. On this day, the same day that Van Dorn was repairing the bridges, Grant surmised that the intended target was not West Tennessee, but Corinth. He knew his position was a precarious one and that not a single soldier could be brought in from outside his command.
So sure was Grant that Corinth was Van Dorn’s intension that he pulled an entire division from one of his outlaying posts to join with two other divisions under General William Rosecrans, commanding the city. He also ordered other bodies of troops to converge towards Corinth, not to aide Rosecrans, but to cut off the Rebel line of retreat and destroy Van Dorn’s army, which would most certainly be defeated.
The problem was that Rosecrans didn’t seem to believe that the Rebels intended to hit his defenses. His cavalry captured a few Confederates – probably the ones helping to reconstruct the bridge across the Hatchie – but they seemed to have no idea where they were headed. Secrecy was critical, and only Van Dorn, Price and Mansfield Lovell, commanding Van Dorn’s former division, knew that Carthage was the intended.
Rosecrans ordered a bridge destroyed west to Chewalla, a small railroad town that was situated upon Van Dorn’s line of march, in hopes of sussing out what the Rebels were up to and possibly cutting off whatever retreat would transpire after they were driven back by Grant’s other divisions to the northwest.
The problem was one of mathematics. Van Dorn believed Rosecrans defended the city with a mere 15,000. The Federals, however, had 23,000. Meanwhile, Rosecrans believed Van Dorn to have 40,000, but the Rebels only added up to 22,000. And so, two evenly-matched armies were about to converge at Corinth, where the defenders believed there would be no fight.1
- Sources: Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens; General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert Castel; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. [↩]