The Expected Yet Unexpected Battle of Iuka

September 19, 1862 (Friday)

Sterling Price wasn't buying that Antietam jive.

Sterling Price wasn’t an unreasonable man, it was just that he needed to make sure. Of course, there was no way to be sure of anything this far west. The news he received was, however, shocking.

Price and his small army of 14,000 were getting ready to leave Iuka, Mississippi to meet up with Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate army south of Corinth. They feared that Federals under Ulysses S. Grant were coming towards them from the northwest, and if they hoped to link up with Van Dorn, they should get while the getting was good.

But the news. In the morning, Sterling Price received a dispatch from Union General Edward Ord, commanding a division under Grant. It was about the battle of Antietam.

“Longstreet and his entire division prisoners,” read the report. “General Hill killed. Entire rebel army of Virginia destroyed, Burnside having reoccupied Harper’s Ferry and cut off retreat.”

When Grant received the news from Washington, he reasoned that if it were true, then the war was all but over. He forwarded the message to Price, demanding that his army be surrendered.

General Ord, the Union Army's very own Ron Swanson

Price had no way of verifying the news. But even if Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been crushed, the war was not yet over. However, as he soon informed General Ord, even “if the facts were as stated in those dispatches they would only move him and his soldiers to greater exertions in behalf of their country, and that neither he nor they will ever lay down their arms — as humanely suggested by General Ord — until the independence of the Confederate States shall have been acknowledged by the United States.”1

As the morning slid to afternoon, Price and his men were nearly ready to leave. The enemy, under General Ord, was expected to come from the northwest. They had not yet arrived when Price’s pickets to the southwest were driven in.

Doing the pushing was the second prong of Grant’s attack. The first, under Ord, was to hit the Rebels from the north, while General William Rosecrans came up from the south. Rosecrans had been delayed and the attack was late, but his arrival played upon Price’s worst fears.

Price immediately ordered General Lewis Little with two brigades to blunt the Federal attack, about a mile south of town. Price and Little both went with the two brigades, but facing them was 8,000 Union soldiers. Seeing that he would need an entire division to get out of this one, Price turned to tell Little to bring up the rest of his men.

At that moment, Price witnessed a bullet smash into Lewis Little’s skull, striking him just above the left eye. Little’s arms shot up in the air as he dropped the reins and slumped upon his horse. He was dead before his body was helped to the ground.

Price was visibly shaken. Little was a friend, and for him, he “wept over him as if a son.” But the battle still raged. Wiping away tears, Price took personal command of the field, and counterattacked Rosecrans.

The Federals could not fully deploy because of the ground over which they were attacking. When Price hit them, they were caught with one boot off. But the Union troops held together – Price could not route them. Driving them back, his Rebels managed to capture nine pieces of artillery.

Darkness drew an end to the conflict, but Price was determined to continue it the next day.

But what had happened to General Ord coming from the northwest? Originally, Grant wanted Ord and Rosecrans to attack the Rebels in Iuka in simultaneous assaults. Rosecrans had been delayed and so Grant decided not to send Ord in until he heard the firing from the southwest.

General Lewis Henry Little

Ord moved his force to within four miles of the town, skirmishing slightly with the Rebels as he went. Around 4pm, with no sounds of battle, smoke was seen rising from near the town. Ord figured that Price and his ilk were burning their stores in preparation of a retreat.

Though so close, Ord heard nothing. The wind was not with him and, as it blew the smoke east, it blew the sound as well.

Rosecrans had sent a dispatch to Grant, letting him know that he was in a pitched battle, but it would not arrive at Grant’s headquarters until the next morning.2

  1. OR 17.2.230. []
  2. Aside from the aforementioned OR, I used: The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth Williams; General Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel; History of the First and Second Missouri Confederate Brigades, 1861-1865 by Robert S. Bevier; Battles & Leaders, p732-733, 736. []
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The Expected Yet Unexpected Battle of Iuka by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International