In the summer and fall of 1862, Confederate leaders planned key offensives in both major theaters of operation. As Gen. Robert E. Lee strategized for his invasion of Maryland, Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, hoped to move north from Mississippi and Tennessee to seize Kentucky. But to do so, he would need help. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces, fresh off a major victory at Shiloh in the spring, sat in western Tennessee, and Union troops under his command had advanced on Corinth, Mississippi, forcing the Confederates to retreat to Tupelo. Additional Confederate forces would have to hold Grant in the northern part of the state and perhaps even push him further north to allow Bragg to invade Kentucky. One result of this holding action was the Battle of Iuka.
Bragg began shifting his forces to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in late July, and by early September he was on his way to Kentucky. Bragg placed Sterling Price, the commander of the Army of the West, in charge of the District of Tennessee. Earl Van Dorn and his force guarded Vicksburg against a threat from Adm. David Farragut. Bragg wanted both small armies to occupy Grant while Bragg’s forces operated in Kentucky, thereby preventing Grant from reinforcing Don Carlos Buell’s Union troops in Middle Tennessee. Van Dorn eventually left Vicksburg to combine forces with Price, who had moved on the small town of Iuka. Grant, troubled with Bragg in Kentucky, did not want Price to maneuver around Grant’s flank and toward the Ohio River in a possible move to join Bragg, so the Union general began to plan the destruction of Price’s force at Iuka.
Van Dorn, moving his small army toward Iuka, had been given overall command of the Army of the West because of his seniority. He urged Price to redeploy his troops to Rienzi, where the two armies could be combined and a campaign could be launched into West Tennessee. But on the afternoon of 19 September, with Price finishing preparations to evacuate Iuka, Confederate and Union forces clashed as Grant’s forces drove Rebel pickets from their positions south of the town. Grant had launched a two-pronged assault on Price, with Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Gen. Edward Ord attacking Iuka from different directions.
Grant’s strategy, had it succeeded, might have destroyed Price’s army at Iuka. But problems occurred, as they do with most military plans. Rosecrans and Ord’s assaults did not occur simultaneously, and Price and his army escaped destruction. Price rushed brigades from Henry Little’s division to face Rosecrans. Little was killed during the battle, and Price then deployed his whole division against Rosecrans in a counterattack. Rosecrans had not been able to get his entire division into the battle, and Price’s forces pushed him back six hundred yards, capturing nine cannons before night fell and the battle had to be suspended. Confused, Ord never moved his forces one inch to aid Rosecrans.
Price wanted to renew the battle the next morning, but reluctant subordinates urged against it. With a road to the south open, Price withdrew during the night and marched west to link up with Van Dorn. By dawn on 20 September, the Confederates had abandoned Iuka. A total of fourteen hundred men had been killed or wounded. Both sides claimed victory, but Grant treated the engagement as a loss because Price’s army had not been destroyed. With Price and Van Dorn now combined, Grant would soon face them again.
- Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (1996)
- Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South, 1861–1863 (1960)
- Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Army of the Heartland: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861–1862 (1967)