“it takes an awful lot of character to quit anything when you’re losing.” –from Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner
As General U.S. Grant gazed down the rolling landscape of the Mississippi Hills, he saw two things: a slight obstacle and a large prize. The prize was Corinth, the Crossroads of the Confederacy where the longest rail lines in the nation converged and crossed. The obstacle was the few hundred miles of hill country that Grant’s armies would have to conquer to take Grenada, where Pemberton’s fortifications guarded the grandest prize of all-Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the South. To Grant, the goal seemed simple enough. First, take Corinth, then in a two-pronged advance, lead his army down the Mississippi Central Rail line toward Grenada while Sherman took his forces down the Mississippi River toward Vicksburg. Grant could foresee Vicksburg taken with hardly a shot. What Grant could not foretell were the mysteries, how an entire army might vanish into thin air as it did in Corinth, how a fierce, murderous battle might take place in seemingly total silence, as it did in Iuka. He could not see how in Coffeeville a retreating army, harried and on the run, would turn like an injured animal and inflict a fatal blow to his plan and a near-fatal wound to his own command and reputation, so that his own men would boo him when he walked their ranks. He had not learned, as he would in Holly Springs, the concept of Total War, a hard truth that would produce a seismic shift in tactics, and a brutal lesson that Grant and Sherman go on to teach the rest of the South to its eternal sorrow.
Grant faced some of his darkest hours here, and while Corinth fell to the Union and in the end Vicksburg was his, he gained his second great victory only after he retreated to Memphis, and to a complex plan of labyrinthine canals that somehow seemed easier than heading back into the hornet’s nest of the Mississippi Hills.
At Corinth, the earth moves, an army disappears.
The rail lines at Corinth were Grant’s first objective, but to take them would first require the bloody battle of Shiloh, a conflict that left more American soldiers dead than all the casualties of the nation’s previous wars combined. After their defeat, the Confederate Army under the direction of General P. T. Beauregard retreated to Corinth, to care for the wounded, and to continue to expand the trenches and earthworks begun before Shiloh.
These “field fortifications” were the latest advance in military strategy, used by both sides. As they followed the Confederates from Shiloh, the Union Army under the command of General Henry Halleck advanced slowly, fortifying their own positions with earthworks all along the way. The fortifications stretched for miles, setting up what was, in terms of manpower, the largest siege that would ever be conducted in the Western hemisphere.
Lacking siege guns and facing water and food shortages, Beauregard engineered a surprise retreat that would become as legendary as the siege itself. He began immediate evacuations by rail, and as the empty rail cars returned to the city, Confederates cheered as if greeting reinforcements. Buglers blew taps; campfires were stoked. False cannons, called Quaker cannon because they couldn’t fire, were made from tree stumps painted black. The next morning Halleck marched his men into a deserted city.
It was no hollow triumph, however-the rail lines were taken, and now the city became a haven for the thousands of escaped slaves who flooded the city, so many that the Contraband Camp was set up to house them.
Grant’s army was now positioned in Mississippi, a fact that precipitated the next battle, in Iuka.
No sound, much fury at the Battle of Iuka.
As Confederate General Braxton Bragg headed into his campaign in Kentucky, he worried Union General William Rosencrans in Mississippi might come north to join with Union forces in middle Tennessee. To prevent that, he ordered Confederate General Sterling Price to advance on the Union storehouses at Iuka, where the Union commander (later court-martialed) simply set fire to the supplies and marched his men away. Price’s army rushed in to save valuable rations and ordinance, while a furious Grant decided to strike immediately. He sent General E.O.C. Ord from the west and General Rosencrans from the southwest, but because he wanted a coordinated attack, he gave Ord the command to hold his charge until he heard the sound of Rosencrans’ army engaging.
On the next day, and well into a brutal night, Rosencrans did engage with Price, in fighting that intense by all accounts. But, incredibly, because of a north wind that blew toward Iuka, a so-called “acoustical shadow” that swallowed the sound, Ord’s men stood by idly, hearing nothing, as only a short distance away the fighting raged. Eventually, Price’s army was able to slip away and join General Earl Van Dorn, now planning a strike to retake Corinth.
At Corinth Redux, Van Dorn’s assaults on the batteries fail.
After occupying Corinth, the Union Army set about expanding fortifications, adding a series of batteries, which would prove vital when Van Dorn’s army charged the city. The Confederates broke through at points, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, but when they met with the hellish fire from Battery Robinette, their advance collapsed.
Although the Confederates were repulsed in this second battle, and Van Dorn stripped of his command, this stubborn soldier would make a comeback as a cavalry leader whose successful strike against Grant’s base in Holly Springs would lead, ironically, to a shift in Union tactics that would contribute to the Confederacy’s undoing.
But before that shift came the quest.
The quest begins for Vicksburg.
Initially, Grant seemed unstoppable as he started south; the Confederates were on the run from Abbeville, and Grant’s army swept into Holly Springs where the general set up his headquarters, so confident he installed his wife Julia, their son, and Julia’s slave in the town’s most lavish mansion, while he and his army pressed southward, to capture General Price’s troops before they reached the fortifications of Grenada. In his eagerness to catch this retreating Confederate rear guard, Grant stretched his troops out more than fifty miles, from his supply base in Holly Springs to his own position in Oxford to his advance guard at Water Valley, under pouring skies that resulted in mud-clogged chaos.
Still, his advance cavalry under the command of Captain Theophilus Dickey continued to press, not realizing that their harassment would only make the Confederate rear guard move faster-and with a great deal more anger. At Coffeeville, the Confederates turned to lay a trap; Dickey obligingly led his men straight into it. The Coffeeville ambush was first great triumph for the Confederates in the West. It would demoralize the Union Army, energize Grant’s rivals, set off a firestorm in the Northern press and make Lincoln question his judgment; at a dress parade in Oxford, even some of Grant’s soldiers refused to salute him and others made cat calls.
And there was one more humiliation ahead for U.S. Grant, back in Holly Springs, where his slumbering officers were about meet the newly rehabilitated Earl Van Dorn and his horsemen.
At Holly Springs supplies are lost. For want of supplies, tactics are changed.
Although the cost in human carnage was relatively light in Van Dorn’s Holly Springs raid-1,500 Union soldiers were captured and quickly paroled-the destruction of supplies was massive. Fires lit up the skies; smoke and smells clogged the air. Thousands of bales of cotton, intended for sale to finance Grant’s army, were burned; railroad car after railroad car packed with bacon was torched, great pools of fat spreading out beneath. Estimates at the time set damages at $1 million for the loss of medical supplies alone.
There was one instance of quarter given-at the Walter Place, the town’s grand gothic confection where Julia Grant was staying, Van Dorn’s men, whether through choice or the intervention of the homeowner, declined to enter her personal quarters. Van Dorn hailed from Port Gibson, in southern Mississippi; when Grant finally reached that town, he declared it “too beautiful to burn” and spared it. Some said it was because of the kindness toward Julia Grant.
Grant, however, couldn’t have felt too much charity toward Van Dorn. It was the final humiliation, and without supplies, his army was forced to pillage their way northward. Still, for Grant those fires at Holly Springs had proven illuminating. As he explained later, until that time he hadn’t believed that an army could survive without provisions. Being forced to “live off the land” showed him a new and brutal path toward success, a path that Sherman would later most famously take in his march to the sea that helped secure the Union victory.
Yet in the Mississippi Hills, in the waning days of the war, even Sherman would meet his own surprising failures as the daring tactics of Nathan Bedford Forrest cemented the Confederate’s reputation as one of the finest cavalry leaders in history.
11th hour strikes at Okolona, Brice’s Crossroads and Tupelo.
In 1864, after the capture of Vicksburg, Sherman determined to advance east to the rail line at Meridian, and then, perhaps, south to Mobile. To that end, he ordered Union General William Sooy Smith to leave Memphis immediately and meet him at Meridian. Smith delayed, however, and then picking up escaped slaves as he moved south, chose to fight at Aberdeen and Prairie Station, and skirmished at Ellis Bridge in West Point, before Confederate Colonel Jeffrey Forrest finally drew Union forces into a swamp at Okolona, near the Tombigbee River, and with aid from the reinforcements of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, ultimately forced a Union retreat.
Later that same year, General Forrest determined that he would advance north into middle Tennessee to strike at the line carrying supplies to Sherman’s army in Georgia. Although Sherman sent a much larger Union column under General Samuel Sturgis to head off the attack, Forrest achieved a resounding success at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroad, a victory that helped to solidify the Confederate’s reputation.
A month later, Sherman ordered General A.J. Smith out of LaGrange to stop Forrest and protect the Union lifeline. When he reached Pontotoc, Forrest was in nearby Okolona. His commander was Lt. General Stephen D. Lee, the officer who had been in charge at Fort Sumpter when the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Lee advised against attack without reinforcements. Smith moved to Tupelo, where Lee launched a number of unsuccessful advances. Although he didn’t destroy Forrest’s army, Smith effectively vanquished the threat to Sherman’s lines, and the Battle of Tupelo signaled the beginning of the end of the war in the west.
There were many other skirmishes in the Hills, more than 100 in and around the Corinth area, 60 different raids in Holly Springs alone. For example, after they left Holly Springs on their most famous raid, Van Dorn’s cavalry came to grief against a smaller but well-prepared Union contingent at Davis Mill. When Grant made his final advance on Vicksburg, he employed a former music teacher to harass and confuse Confederate forces with a massive cavalry raid through the region. A man who hated horses after being kicked in the head by one as a child, Colonel Benjamen Grierson was nevertheless (or perhaps because of that) a ruthlessly effective cavalry leader. Beginning in LaGrange, Tennessee, just above the state line, the infamous Grierson’s Raid through the Mississippi Hills left smoldering towns and charred hunks of bridges in its wake, becoming infamous in the state and later famous in Hollywood after the release of the John Wayne-William Holden film The Horse Soldiers, which was inspired-very loosely-by the raid.