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Blunder at the Bridge

By Peter Cozzens
12/1/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Union troops miss a rare opportunity to destroy a Rebel force near Corinth.

Earl Van Dorn cut a dashing figure, no doubt about it. Handsome, always well-dressed and an expert in the saddle, Van Dorn was also a rake who would be shot down in 1863 by a cuckolded husband. He loved com- bat, which led to his being named commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Sadly for the South, however, Van Dorn failed to make his mark as a good field commander. At the October 5, 1862, Battle of Davis Bridge in southwestern Tennessee, much of his force escaped capture or destruction thanks primarily to Union blunders rather than any stragetic prowess on Van Dorn’s part.

As a young officer during the Mexican War, Van Dorn had caught the eye of another Mississippian, Colonel Jefferson Davis. When Mississippi seceded in January 1861, Van Dorn helped Davis organize the state forces. By that October, Van Dorn was a major general in the Confederate Army. President Davis assigned him to district command in the Trans-Mississippi West.

Van Dorn saw the war as an opportunity for glory. “Who knows,” he wrote privately, “but that out of the storm of revolution I may not be able to catch a spark of the lightning and shine through all time to come?” He caught more than a spark of lightning in March 1862, when an outnumbered Union army smashed his Army of the West at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Ark. That battle cost the Confederacy the state of Missouri, but Van Dorn emerged relatively unscathed.

In the fall of 1862, Van Dorn was handed another chance when the two principal Southern armies launched offensives aimed at turning the war’s momentum: Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland, and Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee thrust north into Kentucky. Van Dorn was assigned to prevent the commander of the Union’s District of West Tennessee, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, from reinforcing the Army of the Ohio, which had set out in pursuit of Bragg. Van Dorn had at his disposal the Army of the West, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, and one division from the District of the Mississippi.

As his first move, Van Dorn determined to attack the railroad junction town of Corinth, Miss., which had fallen after the Battle of Shiloh in April. Capture Corinth, he reasoned, and Grant would be forced to abandon the District of West Tennessee, opening the way for him to march north and help Bragg take the war across the Ohio River. Sterling Price and most of Van Dorn’s other generals believed that Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans held Corinth with 15,000 men, far too many for an attacking force of just 22,000 to overcome. In fact, Rosecrans actually had 23,000 troops. Within the larger area of operations, Grant outnumbered Van Dorn 2-to-1. In addition to Rosecrans’ force at Corinth, there were another 5,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut at Bolivar, Tenn., less than two days’ march from Corinth. Seven thousand more were posted at Memphis, with another 13,000 Federals dispersed throughout Grant’s district.

It is axiomatic that an attacking force should outnumber defenders by at least 3-to-1, but Van Dorn counted on swiftness and surprise to defeat Rosecrans. On September 29, 1862, he started his Army of West Tennessee north from Ripley, Miss., to Pocahontas, Tenn., where they swung east onto the State Line Road. From Pocahontas it was three miles to Davis Bridge, a simple wooden structure spanning the 60-foot-wide Hatchie River. Three miles more brought them to the Tuscumbia River, and in another five miles they reached the village of Chewalla.

Breaking camp at Chewalla before dawn on October 3, Van Dorn pushed his army 12 miles through blistering heat, then went directly into an attack. During two days of brutal fighting, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees, Van Dorn pressed Rosecrans’ defenses, but he could not break them.

Southern casualties at Corinth were staggering, with nearly 1 in 5 Confederates who charged the Federals lost. More than half Price’s line officers fell. After the battle Brig. Gen. Dabney H. Maury’s division existed in name only; he had taken 4,800 men into battle and lost 2,000. John C. Moore’s brigade of Maury’s Division was all but obliterated, losing 1,295 of 1,895 men. The near-destruction of Maury’s division was all the more grievous because it was the best unit in Van Dorn’s army.

To spare Maury’s division further losses, Van Dorn placed it in the vanguard of his army as he withdrew from Corinth on the afternoon of October 4. Van Dorn himself was near collapse at the time. He had counted on a victory at Corinth to erase the stigma of Pea Ridge. Having assumed they would bivouac that night along the Tuscumbia River’s west bank, as far from the Federals as possible, his subordinates were startled to receive orders to make camp instead at Chewalla. Van Dorn had decided to regroup for another go at Corinth, hoping to salvage his reputation.

Any respect Maury might have had for Van Dorn’s generalship was gone. The Southerners lost precious time while Maury and Price tried to convince Van Dorn his plan was absurd and they should continue their retreat at first light. It was well after midnight before Van Dorn reluctantly ordered the army to cross the Hatchie at Davis Bridge and turn south and return to Ripley.

Van Dorn’s return to reason appeared to have come too late. That morning, couriers from Wirt Adams’ cavalry regiment reported a heavy Federal force closing on Davis Bridge from the northwest. The reports were accurate. Although specific information was wanting, by the afternoon of October 3 General Grant knew that Rosecrans was engaged. He ordered the forces nearest Corinth to reinforce Rosecrans. Five regiments under Brig. Gen. James McPherson started from Bethel to Corinth, and General Hurlbut led his division from Bolivar toward Davis Bridge. If the Confederates were still threatening Corinth when he reached the bridge, Hurlbut was to press on and strike them in the rear. Should Hurlbut find the Confederates retreating, he was to destroy the bridge and contest their crossing of the Hatchie. Grant expected victory at Corinth, and he ordered Rosecrans to pursue Van Dorn vigorously after the battle ended.

To Grant, the destruction of Van Dorn’s army seemed all but certain, so long as both Hurlbut and Rosecrans did as directed. If Hurlbut destroyed Davis Bridge and Rosecrans advanced from Corinth rapidly, Grant would have the Confederates trapped in the narrow space between the Hatchie and Tuscumbia rivers. If Van Dorn could be eliminated, Grant saw a clear path to Vicksburg.

Van Dorn recognized that time was at a premium and the army’s order of march could not be reshuffled to place a division less depleted than Maury’s in the lead. So the Southern commander improvised, directing the First Texas Legion of Colonel E.R. Hawkins, which was guarding the army’s supply train two miles east of Davis Bridge, to join Wirt Adams on the Hatchie and hold on until Maury arrived. Meanwhile Van Dorn would search for another escape route.

Along the Hatchie, Confederate prospects appeared dire. On the night of October 4, Hurlbut bivouacked his 5,000 men three miles short of Davis Bridge. At 8 a.m. on the 5th he led the brigades of Brig. Gen. James Veatch, Colonel Robert Scott and Brig. Gen. Jacob Lauman along the State Line Road toward the Hatchie.

Veatch brushed aside Adams’ pickets and reached Metamora, three-quarters of a mile short of Davis Bridge, in less than an hour. Before them, bisecting the State Line Road, stretched the mile-long Metamora Ridge. From the ridge, the ground—open and partly cultivated with corn— sloped gently downward toward a treeline that marked the Hatchie’s course. Veatch and Scott deployed their seven regiments in line of battle on the ridge’s reverse slope. No sooner had Hurlbut made his dispositions than his immediate superior, the normally level-headed Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord, arrived to take command.

At Davis Bridge, Wirt Adams prepared for the Yankee onslaught, throwing the First Texas Legion across the bridge, past the Davis house and into the huge Davis field to slow the enemy advance. The Texans would have done better to stay on the east bank, where the terrain created an almost impregnable barrier to a lodgment.

Three hundred yards north of the bridge the river bent sharply from the southwest to the south. Just south of the bridge its changed course abruptly to the east. Along this stretch the State Line Road paralleled the Hatchie, with only half an acre between the road and the riverbank. The open ground north of the road might, with effort, accommodate a brigade—but once over Davis Bridge an attacking force faced an obstacle even greater than the want of maneuver room. Five hundred yards east of the crossing, the ground rose from spongy bottomland to a steep, timbered bluff that dominated the bridge. Taken together, the bluff and the river formed a compact killing zone into which any force crossing the Hatchie would be channeled.

As he approached the river that morning, Maury had no time to evaluate the terrain. Van Dorn had ordered him to occupy Metamora Ridge before the Yankees reached it, and Maury swept over the bluff and across the rickety, rotten timbers of Davis Bridge at the head of John C. Moore’s wrecked brigade, which fatigue and the heat had reduced to just 300 men.

Federal artillery atop Metamora Ridge opened fire on the Confederates as the Rebels passed the Davis house. Recognizing the futility of any further advance, Maury commanded Moore’s brigade to file off the road and take cover in a skirt of trees lining a creek called Burr’s Branch. Moore brought his left into contact with the right flank of Hawkins’ Texas Legion.

At 9 a.m. the Federal brigades of Veatch and Scott clamored down Metamora Ridge, leaping ditches, climbing fences and shoving through brambles and hedges to close with the enemy. The sheer weight of Federal numbers overwhelmed Moore and Hawkins. Two Illinois regiments slipped into a cornfield beyond Moore’s right, fired a volley into his flank, then charged on toward the river. The Rebels scattered, some plunging into the river and a few running the gantlet of Yankee fire and recrossing Davis Bridge. Nearly 200 men surrendered.

“As for my part I was so hot and tired that I didn’t care about trying to swim with my clothes on and risk getting shot in the back,” said one Arkansan, “so of course I surrendered.” Two enterprising soldiers from the 14th Illinois rousted five officers and 32 enlisted men from the bushes along the water’s edge. “Boys, you are in a tight place, and I am sorry, yes, very sorry for you,” one of the Illinoisans shouted into the underbrush. “The woods are filled with our scouting parties. There is no escape for you. Now, I will give you your choice, surrender to me and have plenty to eat and drink, or you can shoot us down and take the consequences when our men capture you, for capture you they will.” The Illinoisan’s bluster and the promise of food carried the day.

Moore’s brigade had ceased to exist. Colonel Sul Ross’ brigade arrived, but rather than use Ross’ command as the nucleus of a defensive line on the east bank, Sterling Price, until then a spectator, blithely waved it across the bridge. Before Maury and Moore were able to convince Ross to go back, Veatch’s Federals gathered up 100 of Ross’ men. The survivors from the debacle on the west bank—what remained of Moore’s, Hawkins’ and Ross’ commands—flopped down alongside Adams’ regiment behind the bluff on the east bank overlooking Davis Bridge. On the crest, Maury’s chief of artillery massed five batteries of artillery, the cannons charged with double canister and trained on the bridge.

Something about the fighting around Davis Bridge inspired foolhardiness. In clearing the Rebels from the west bank of the Hatchie, Ord had accomplished his mission. He needed only to burn the bridge and hold his ground to compel Van Dorn to search for another crossing site farther downriver while, presumably, Rosecrans pushed the Confederates from the east. But Ord chose to cross Davis Bridge, one regiment at a time in column of fours. Once across, the regiments were to deploy from column into line under fire, alternating between the north and south side of the road. Not only did Ord intend to commit Veatch and Scott to an attack on Maury, but he also called up Lauman. Ord counted on a front 12 regiments long—six regiments on either side of the State Line Road, with which he would sweep an enemy of indeterminate strength off dominating high ground.

Hurlbut was horrified. Having camped earlier that year on the bluff Ord hoped to take, Hurlbut advised him that there was only a half-acre between the south side of the road and the river, scarcely room enough for one regiment to maneuver, much less six. But Ord was unmoved.

At 11:30 a.m. the 53rd Indiana started across Davis Bridge. The front ranks were quickly swept away by canister and rifle volleys. The 53rd’s colonel herded his men to the right, into the soggy strip beside the river. As canister continued to rake their ranks, men dived into the river or huddled along the bank, refusing to rally.

The 14th Illinois negotiated the bridge next, filing to the left, but a storm of shot and shell drove the Illinoisans back to the riverbank. And so it went. The 25th Indiana crossed next and stumbled into the milling mass on the right. The 15th Illinois double-quicked across the bridge behind the Hoosiers. As they filed to the left, the men were forced to avoid stepping on hundreds of men “weltering in their own blood.” The 14th Illinois struggled forward from the riverbank, across the open ground and into a thick forest. The 15th Illinois formed on their left. Apart from keeping their heads down, there was nothing the Illinoisans could do. “The Rebels were strongly posted behind a rail fence a few rods in front of us,” remembered a private of the 15th, “but so thick was the underbrush that we could not see them.”

Up came Lauman’s brigade. Ord gambled on what was, to the Federals on the east bank, a lost wager. The 53rd Illinois plunged into the confused swirl of blue. The 28th Illinois crossed next, stumbling into the rear ranks of the 53rd. The 28th’s commander tried to unmask his front but ran out of ground. Those of his men with a clear field of fire began to shoot. Blinded by gunpowder smoke that hung low in the dank, humid air between bridge and bluff, however, they hit little more than trees and brush.

But the Confederates could hardly miss. Said Colonel Ras Stirman of his Arkansas Sharpshooters: “We would allow them to approach until we could see the whites of their eyes, then without exposing ourselves in the least, we would pour volley after volley into them, cutting them down like grass. I never saw such slaughter in my life.” Brigadier General William Cabell’s brigade came up beside Sul Ross’ command and added 550 more rifles to the turkey shoot.

With four regiments mingling helplessly on the half-acre south of the road, faced with slow but certain annihilation, Ord at last realized his error. But rather than sound a retreat, he started over the bridge himself. A blast of canister knocked him off his horse, and he was carried away with an iron ball in his leg.

Hurlbut resumed command. Calculating that he would lose more men if he recalled the troops on the east bank than if they held their ground, he temporarily abandoned the crowd on the south side of the State Line Road to their fate and sent every remaining regiment to the left to outflank the Confederates. Or so he thought. General Veatch crossed his remaining regiment and the two regiments of Scott’s brigade to the east bank at 3 p.m. They dutifully filed to the left, extending the Federal line by several hundred yards. But Lauman misunderstood Hurlbut’s orders, riding across the bridge with his lead regiment, then veering into the deadly pocket south of the road.

In his haste to enter the slaughter, Lauman neglected his second regiment, the 3rd Iowa. Commanded by a captain, the Iowans staggered across the bridge with no idea where to deploy. Within a matter of minutes, 57 men and half the regiment’s officers were cut down. Many more would have fallen had the Confederate fire not tapered off and ceased shortly after 3 p.m.

With the line of battle Hurlbut had fashioned north of the road, he started for the bluff unopposed. “It is among the proudest moments of my life,” reported Hurlbut, “when I remember how promptly the several regiments disengaged themselves from their temporary confusion and with what a will they bent themselves to conquer the hill.” Hurlbut didn’t mention the agony that their muddle had inflicted: Behind the advancing lines, heaped on the bridge, strewn along the road or clustered and south of it were more than 500 dead or wounded Yankees.

The volleys from the bluff had ceased because the Confederates had left. Van Dorn no longer needed to hold Davis Bridge. Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. Frank Armstrong had scouted out a river crossing six miles south of Davis Bridge called Crum’s Bridge. Van Dorn had ordered it burned that morning, but Armstrong’s cavalrymen could build as well as they demolished, and they quickly fashioned a crude crossing by laying castoff planks over a small dam beside the wrecked bridge.

The crossing site was reached by way of the Bone Yard Road, which branched off from the State Line Road two miles east of Davis Bridge. From Crum’s Bridge it was a 15-mile march to Ripley. By midafternoon the last of the army supply train had turned onto the Bone Yard Road, allowing Maury to withdraw from Davis Bridge. Hurlbut’s command was too disorganized to give chase—and perhaps Hurlbut was too drunk to lead them. A rumor circulated that he had succumbed to a liquor-induced fog while the smoke of battle still shrouded the scene.

Whether his opponent was sober or not, Maury had reason to feel proud. For six hours he had withstood assaults by an enemy four times his number. He had inflicted 570 casualties at a cost principally of the 300 men of Moore’s brigade captured on the Hatchie’s west bank. Fire from Federals on the east bank struck 38 Confederates.

Also working in Van Dorn’s favor was Rosecrans’ bungled pursuit; his columns started late, took incorrect routes or became entangled on the march. Only McPherson’s five regiments neared the Tuscumbia River before nightfall, and they were driven off in a sharp skirmish. The Confederate rear guard commander, Brig. Gen. John Bowen, crossed the Tuscumbia “at my leisure, tore up and burned the bridge, [and] obstructed the ford near by.”

Sterling Price, who had left Davis Bridge to Maury early in the battle, was on hand at Crum’s mill to shepherd the army across Armstrong’s makeshift bridge. All night long Price labored to keep it from collapsing. Van Dorn’s contribution was limited to admonishing Price to make haste. Not until 1 a.m. on October 6 did Price see the last of the army over the Hatchie and on its way toward Ripley. “Shall that night ever be forgotten?” one Mississippi private mused after the fighting. “Dust like a heavy impenetrable fog obscuring our comrades at arm’s length was constantly stirred. This is the darkest gloom that has ever been mine in struggling for freedom.”

The gloom would lift from Confederate Mississippi, if only for a time. All welcomed the removal of Earl Van Dorn in November. He was, as Mississippi Senator James Phelan told President Davis, “the source of all our woes,” and hope lay in his army’s survival. The soldiers who Maury helped to save with his stand at Davis Bridge became the core of a new command, the Army of Mississippi, that would defend Vicksburg until its surrender on July 4, 1863.

 

Peter Cozzens is the author of many books, including The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth.

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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