The Battle of Iuka sparked animosity between Ulysses S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans.
CADET ULYSSES GRANT stood stiffly at attention on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, prepared to spend an 1839 summer evening guarding not an important cannon emplacement or a main gate but a lowly water pump. William Rosecrans was the cadet officer that evening, and during his rounds he came upon Grant at his “post.” Recognizing that the naive plebe was the victim of a prank, “Old Rosy” (as Rosecrans was already known) ordered him to stand down and retire to bed. That act of kindness began a friendship between the two. But any vestiges of friendship were long gone by 1863, when Maj. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans had become, in the words of historian Wiley Sword, “the two great rival Union generals” in the Western Theater. When presented with the opportunity to get rid of his rival, Grant seized it, ordering Rosecrans relieved from command over the Army of the Cumberland on October 19, 1863. Rosecrans is often dismissed as a disappointment to the Union war effort, the vanquished commander of the rout at Chickamauga who then proved himself inept under the strain of the Confederate siege of Chattanooga—a modern interpretation that has its murky roots in the Grant–Rosecrans relationship. The William Starke Rosecrans of posterity has been filtered through the words of the general’s detractors, in wartime dispatches, newspapers and postwar memoirs—writings often authored by Grant or those loyal to him. To understand this rivalry and its influence on the command climate in the Western Theater, it helps to examine the obscure Battle of Iuka, Miss., and a brief period in the fall of 1862 when the two men served side by side.
When the native Ohioans both rejoined the army in 1861 after a period in civilian life, each began the war seeking to serve directly under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, though only Rosecrans would get the job. Both helped raise volunteer units, Grant in Illinois, Rosecrans in Ohio. Both reentered army service as staff officers, Grant in the office of the adjutant general of Illinois, Rosecrans as aide de-camp to McClellan. Almost simultaneously, both were promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, with Rosecrans’ commission dating to May 16 and Grant’s to May 17, 1861. Both served as subordinates under commanders who claimed the lion’s share of glory for their accomplishments.
Rosecrans watched with envy as McClellan propelled himself to national renown as commander of the Army of the Potomac on the coattails of their successful July 1861 dual assault on Rich Mountain, in the Alleghenies of western Virginia. Across the mountains, in the Western Theater, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck enjoyed misdirected credit for being the strategic architect of Grant’s masterful capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862.
By the spring of 1862, it seemed that Grant’s professional reputation had unjustly sunk to a new depth despite his triumphs. Rumors of drunkenness had trailed him since his service in the antebellum Army, and in April 1862 they swept through the ranks of his new command as well as the Northern press with renewed fervor. Despite ultimate battlefield success at Shiloh, the true story of a successful Union standoff was trumped by erroneous accusations that Grant was both incompetent and a drunk. To make matters worse, in an effort to protect their own reputations during the post-Shiloh fallout, two of Grant’s three division commanders, Maj. Gens. Lew Wallace and John McClernand, kept silent and did not refute the criticism directed against him. During this time, Grant had but one guardian in the Army. To his wife he confided, “In Gen. [William T.] Sherman the country has an able and gallant defender and your husband a true friend.” But another friend was on his way.
On May 23, 1862, Rosecrans stepped off a steamboat at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., to join Grant’s gathering Department of the Mississippi and the campaign against the Confederate rail hub at nearby Corinth, Miss. When John Rawlins, Grant’s adjutant general, saw Rosecrans that day, he was “not surprised” that the two generals greeted each other so cordially, saying, “How are you Grant, how are you Rosy.” During this time, Grant spoke of Rosecrans as a “warm personal friend [and] one of the ablest and purest of men, both in motive and action.” At this point, Grant regarded his old West Point acquaintance as one of a select few officers in whom he could confide. When Maj. Gen. John Pope was selected over Grant that spring to command the Army of Virginia in July 1862, Rawlins heard Grant state that he would “willingly serve under” only two junior officers in his department— William Tecumseh Sherman or William Starke Rosecrans. He would soon command the latter in battle.
On September 13, 1862, a Federal supply outpost at the rail-side village of Iuka, 25 miles southeast of Corinth, fell into the hands of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and 12,000 Rebels. Grant seized upon a rare opportunity to strike back and surround and capture the isolated Confederate army. The plan called for a daring strategy. Two independent Federal columns would converge on Iuka from opposite directions, cutting all escape routes.
Between the jaws of this pincer movement, Grant surmised, Price’s outnumbered command would have no option but to surrender. Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord was delegated to strike first, from the north and west, down the Burnsville Road with about 6,500 troops. With the Confederates drawn north of Iuka to defend against Ord, Rosecrans, with a force of 9,000 men, would strike second, seizing the road network south of town, cutting both the Jacinto and Fulton roads, and thus preventing a Rebel retreat. The successful coordination of such an intricate assault called for a flawlessly executed timetable.
By the morning of September 18, both divergent columns were traveling their separate routes, closing in on the ill-prepared and unsuspecting Confederates at Iuka. Ord’s three divisions steamed down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad for the Burnsville depot, where they detrained to march the remaining 12 miles to Iuka. To the south, without benefit of a rail line, Rosecrans’ blue columns—two divisions, four brigades in all—slogged along a winding, muddy, confusing route of some 34 miles across swollen bayous and poor country roads. Grant, meanwhile, made his headquarters at Burnsville, where he maintained an easy contact with Ord’s column via the Burnsville Road. Rosecrans, however, was separated from Grant by miles of ravines, swamps and tangled forest, described by one courier as being “impassable for a man on horseback.” The two commanders managed to maintain limited contact, sending messages along a line of cavalry vedettes that extended across the Mississippi backcountry. The twisting and confusing route, however, significantly delayed communications and jeopardized the plan’s success.
A vacuum of leadership at Grant’s headquarters also endangered the outcome of the operation and the safety of his army that critical day. A prearranged timetable called for Ord and Rosecrans to assemble at jumping-off points around Iuka that evening and launch their attacks the following morning. To the south, however, Rosecrans had run into trouble. A local guide, either by accident or in an effort to hinder the progress of the Union advance, led Rosecrans’ lead division off course. By nightfall, that column had made it only as far as Jacinto and was still 14 miles southeast of Iuka.
Going into camp for the night, Rosecrans sent word back to Grant, notifying him of the delay but promising that he would renew his march at 4:30 a.m. and attack Iuka that afternoon, September 19. Sometime after midnight Grant received the news and was “very much disappointed.” He later admitted that he “did not believe [Rosecrans’ plan] possible because of the distance and the condition of the roads.” To adjust for this anticipated failure, Grant changed the overall battle plan. With a dispatch written and signed on his behalf in the handwriting of a staff officer, Colonel Clark Lagow, Grant alerted Ord: “You will see that [Rosecrans] is behind where we expected him. Do not be to [sic] rapid with your advance this morning unless it should be found the enemy are evacuating.” Grant never notified Rosecrans of this change of plan, and the confusing order resulted in Ord’s halting his advance entirely. In his Personal Memoirs decades later, Grant defended his move, claiming that he “ordered [Ord] to be in readiness to attack the moment he heard the sound of guns to the south or south-east.” In an after-action report, he insisted that “of this change General Rosecrans was promptly informed by dispatch.” To this day, however, no such communiqué, either to Ord or Rosecrans, has ever been found.
In the predawn darkness of September 19, Rosecrans’ columns assembled to begin the final push to Iuka. Shortly after noon, the general halted briefly for a meal and final strategy session at Barnett’s Crossroads, six miles south of Iuka. As his Federal infantry filed through the road junction to turn north up the Jacinto Road, Rosecrans and his staff stepped into a farmhouse to reexamine their plan of attack. Moments later, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Grant’s two staff officers, Colonels Theophilus L. Dickey and Clark B. Lagow, arrived from Burnsville and joined the conference. There at an obscure crossroads in the Mississippi hinterland, Rosecrans convened what, in retrospect, must have proved to be one of the most bizarre meetings of his life, one that would alter Union fortunes at Iuka and forever change his relationship with Grant.
In the presence of Dickey and Lagow, the general altered his own attack plan. The original scheme, agreed to by Grant, called for Rosecrans to split his force at Barnett’s Crossroads, sending two brigades east to Cartersville to seize the Fulton Road, a certain Confederate escape route. Instead, he’d hurl his entire command north up the Jacinto Road toward Iuka. Then, arriving at the east–west Bay Springs crossroad a mile south of town, Rosecrans could shift half his force to the east, cutting both Mill Road and Fulton Road, thereby closing the Con federate escape routes.
The plan hinged on Ord beginning his attack that after noon. With the Confederate strength drawn north of Iuka to face him, the Bay Springs Road and thus the Fulton Road would be lightly defended, if at all. This new, more cautious plan would prevent Rosecrans from dangerously dividing his force by several miles. If split, each wing would be beyond the other’s support, separated by dense forest and marshy swampland. He had no reason to think that Ord would delay the attack from the north, and Grant’s two staff officers gave him none.
At the conference table, Lagow and Dickey held their tongues. Lagow had personally written out and delivered Grant’s dispatch to Ord, ordering him to halt his advance and attack Iuka only after Rosecrans’ assaults had begun. The two colonels, now the only men in the entire campaign with full knowledge of both pincer commanders having altered their attack plans, said nothing to enlighten Rosecrans. With an odd mixture of obsequiousness and evasiveness, the colonels entered into a dialogue, asking the general if he actually intended to attack Iuka that afternoon. “Yes, of course,” Rosecrans replied, “that is the understanding of my movement….We ought to hear Grant’s [and Ord’s] opening guns [to the north] by this time.” To this the colonels offered an astonishing reaction, “Maybe [Grant] is waiting for you to begin.” “Not so,” Rosecrans insisted. “The main attack should begin on the Railroad [from the north] to attract the enemy’s attention and enable me to surprise his left flank and get the roads in his rear.”
By his own admission, Dickey wrote soon after, “Colonel Lagow and I were sent by General Grant to visit General Rosecrans and explain to him the plan of operations.” Rather than actually doing so, the two officers left the strategy meeting “and rode with [Rosecrans] to the head of his [advancing] column,” having explained nothing of Ord’s revised instructions for Ord to attack only after Rosecrans opened the fighting. As such, Rosecrans rode into battle confident that Ord would have already drawn Confederate strength north of Iuka, leaving the Bay Springs Road intersection unprotected, an easy prize for him, and a means to prevent the Confederates from retreating.
Meeting strong enemy resistance, Rosecrans was bewildered to find the Bay Springs Road junction defended by some 11,000 Confederates and eight cannons. “During all this time,” he later wrote his wife, “not a shot was heard from the forces of Ord.” To make matters worse, Dickey and Lagow delayed their return, “witnessing the battle for half an hour [before they] set out for…Grant[’]s Head Quarters…to report the state of affairs and have Ord’s army push on in the morning.” They failed to reach Grant in time, however. As the colonels rode for help, they lost their way in the woods, tumbled into a ravine and built a fire to wait for daylight. Meanwhile, Rosecrans absorbed assaults until nightfall, fully aware that the Rebels blocked him from cutting off their escape route, the Fulton Road, which remained open to Price’s rear.
The following morning, Rosecrans’ battered force awoke to find that the Confederates had indeed fled to the south east down the Fulton Road. The general’s men entered Iuka uncontested, and still Ord was nowhere to be found. Moreover, Rosecrans had not received a fresh message from Grant for more than 36 hours. Now, faced with the consequences of the failed operation, an infuriated Rosecrans turned to his colleague Brig. Gen. David Stanley and roared, “Where, in the name of God is Grant!” Back at Grant’s headquarters in Burnsville, at 8:30 a.m., about the same time the “trusted couriers” Dickey and Lagow finally stumbled out of the woods, a message sent directly from Rosecrans the previous evening arrived, having traveled up the line of cavalry vedettes. This proved to be Grant’s first knowledge that a battle had even been fought.
To his credit, Grant immediately sent word to Ord of this “notice that Rosecrans had a fight” and ordered his divisions to push into Iuka in force. Sometime after 10 a.m., Ord’s infantry came marshaling into the village, “with drums beating and banners flying.” At this sight Rosecrans personally rode to the head of the inbound column, where he found Ord. “Why did you leave me in the lurch?” he growled. Ord, without saying a word, handed Rosecrans the dispatch written in Lagow’s handwriting ordering that he suspend his advance. One brigade commander, Colonel John Fuller, witnessed the exchange and later remembered that “this miscarriage was the beginning of a misunderstanding which grew into positive dislike between Grant and Rosecrans—a breach that never healed.” It was indeed the genesis of endless conflict between the two men.
The failure of the Federal pincer movement at Iuka is commonly associated with a phenomenon referred to as an “acoustic shadow,” or more scientifically, “sound refraction,” created by winds and terrain, which seems to have prevented Ord’s force from hearing the sounds of battle just four miles to the south. At 4 p.m. on September 19, as Rosecrans’ advanced guard made contact with Price’s Rebels, Ord received word from Brig. Gen. Leonard Ross, who from a forward position misinterpreted “dense smoke rising from the direction of Iuka” as nothing more than “the enemy….evacuating and destroying [their supply] stores” there.
Yet larger questions remained unanswered. As late as 1880 Arthur Ducat, who had served as a “senior officer to Ord,” labored to piece together why the general had not attacked. While preparing a lecture on Iuka for the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States that year, Ducat wrote Rosecrans in search of answers. “Why did not Ord attack with or before you at Iuka? Why was not Grant [updated] on the actual situation the day of your attack?” he inquired. Rosecrans, who had posed the same questions for years, seems never to have received satisfactory answers. Grant’s actions at Iuka also remain a mystery. Why did he alter the battle plan and fail to send a written dispatch to Rosecrans alerting him to the changes? Why did his staff officers say nothing of the revised time table while spending hours with Rosecrans as he rode toward the waiting Confederates at Iuka? These questions remain as perplexing today as they were in 1862.
Grant took no ownership over the operation’s failure. To his colleague Maj. Gen. Benjamin Hurlbut, he wrote simply, “couriers lost dispatches sent [to] me by General Rosecrans,” a statement that has proved untrue. To his sister Mary, he answered, “where you ask me the part I played at…Iuka…I had no more to do with troops under Gen. Ord than I had with those under Rosecrans but gave the orders to both. The plan was admirably laid for catching Price and his whole Army but owing to the nature of the ground, direction of the wind and Gen. Rosecrans having been so far behind where he was expected to be on the morning before the attack it failed.”
Perhaps no other Union victory created greater internal divisiveness within an army than Iuka. Anti-Grant sentiments were renewed both along the front lines and on the home front. Unsubstantiated speculation arose that the general had sat out Iuka at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. One Missouri captain snarled: “General Grant was dead drunk and couldn’t bring up his army. I was so mad when I first learned the facts that I could have shot Grant if I would have hung for it the next minute.”
The Cincinnati Commercial printed scathing accusations of Grant’s drunkenness at Iuka. The column’s author was William D. Bickham, a former clerk in the Ohio State Senate and closely associated with Lt. Gov. Ben Stanton, a man once described as “Grant’s bitterest enemy.” Criticism also originated from the desk of Whitelaw Reid, editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, who had been attacking the general’s reputation since Shiloh. Rosecrans, for better or worse, enjoyed friendships with both newspapermen, harkening back to his years living in Cincinnati. Many within the Army suspected Rosecrans of secretly orchestrating a deliberate smear campaign. As a result, the officer corps was further polarized.
Amid this melee of rumor and innuendo, some in the Army appealed directly to Grant’s staff regarding their suspicions about Rosecrans’ ties to the Cincinnati newspapers. To John Rawlins, now Grant’s chief of staff, an impassioned Colonel Mortimer Leggett wrote:
“I have been exceedingly vexed and pained of late, to witness the apparently determined effort…to revive and strengthen an unjust popular prejudice, against Major General U.S. Grant….[It] was a gross outrage for the minions of…General [Rosecrans, to suggest]… irresponsible assertions, and mysterious insinuations, to attempt to awaken and deepen, former prejudices against…General [Grant]. Major General Rosecrans, is undoubtedly an excellent officer—and I hope, for his honor, and the honor of his state, that he is not a party in this hellish attempt to ruin General Grant, but the evidence is such, that I cannot rid my mind of the conviction that he must be, at least, privy to the whole devilish scheme….”
In closing, Leggett sought to resolve the matter and possibly usher in a lasting peace between the two. “It would seem that a friendly note to General Rosecrans from you would bring the subject sufficiently before him, to induce his sense of justice to repair a wrong which at least he has permitted.”
Instead, Rawlins brought the matter to, of all people, the general’s wife, Julia Dent Grant. The chief of staff pleaded with her that he hoped to “reach the General’s ear through you. In justice to General Grant—in fact, in justice to ourselves—General Rosecrans ought to be relieved.” And though Grant gently and confidentially defended Rosecrans to his wife, he had become increasingly hostile with his rival. Two days after Leggett wrote out his note to Rawlins, Grant personally lashed out against Rosecrans—and his stunned subordinate directly rebutted the mounting accusations: “I am amazed at the tenor of your dispatch. You have had no truer friend no more loyal sub ordinate under your command than myself….I now say to you if you have any suspicions at variance with this declaration, or if my position towards you is to receive a shade of coloring different from this, either from the influences, the suspicions or jealousies of mischief-makers, wine sellers or mousing politicians, or from any other cause, I ask you to tell me so frankly and [at] once, as a favor to myself and the service.”
The dispute could not have come at a worse time. Despite defeating Confederate attacks against Corinth on October 3-5, and forcing the Rebels into a crippling retreat, Grant grew livid at Rosecrans’ initial slow pursuit of the enemy. This was followed by Rosecrans cantankerously calling for a fall counteroffensive deeper into Mississippi. Annoyed by that, Grant then accused him of “ignoring higher authority” in the way Rosecrans had begun to parole Confederate prisoners, while adding one further accusation. “The leaky lecture of some in your staff or in confidential relation to you as evidenced by newspaper correspondents…[is] detrimental to the good feeling that should exist between officers and men as well as improper and should not be allowed.” The dispute finally came to a head. Frustrated by weeks of accusations, Rosecrans sought to quash the controversy once and for all, and he wrote Grant: “[To] that part of your dispatch which refers to newspaper reporters and leaky members of my staff…I answer:… [that] there are no headquarters in these United States less responsible for what newspaper correspondents and paragraphists say of operations than mine. This I wish to be understood to be distinctly applicable to the affairs of Iuka and Corinth. After this declaration I am forced to say that if you do not meet me frankly with a declaration that you are satisfied I shall consider my power to be useful in this department ended.”
To each man’s relief, Rosecrans’ time in Mississippi was nearly at its end. For his performance at Iuka, Rosecrans was promoted to major general of volunteers. For his victory at Corinth two weeks later he was made commander of the XIV Corps, soon to be rechristened the Army of the Cumberland.
On receiving word of this, Grant recalled being “delighted.” But by that time the rapport between the two was clearly ruined. “As a subordinate,” Grant later lamented in his Personal Memoirs, “I found that I could not make him do as I wished.” As a result he could not get rid of Rosy fast enough and stood “determined to relieve him from duty that very day.” On sharing word of Rosecrans’ departure with Sherman, Colonel William S. Hillyer of Grant’s staff noted simply, “this is greatly to the relief of [Grant], who was very much disappointed in him. This matter the General will explain to you when he sees you.” As would become evident in time, this or other explanations irrevocably soured Sherman’s own feelings toward Rosecrans. To Rawlins, Sherman wrote, “I note the General[’]s allusion to Rosecrans and was somewhat surprised, though convinced.” Such “allusions” could only serve to poison future interactions.
En route to his new command, Rosecrans stopped at Grant’s headquarters at Jackson, Tenn., to say good bye. Years later Rosecrans recalled that while there he defended himself against the accusations proliferated by Mortimer Leggett and others. “When parting with you at Jackson…on learning that men for selfish ends, had been leading you to believe that which I knew to be wholly false,” he charged, “I asked and gave explanations which you declared, as I considered them, ‘perfectly satisfactory.’” At the time, Rosecrans may have thought the matter was behind him. Yet as he departed Grant’s company that day, he left behind a rift that failed to heal.
Somewhere along the road to Iuka, singular events altered the relationship between Grant and Rosecrans. The operation forever changed the culture of the Federal high command in the Western Theater, engendering a rivalry and disloyalty between the two generals as well as all those loyal to both men.
Within a year Rosecrans would lose command of his new army. Following a Yankee stampede away from the battle field at Chickamauga, Ga., on September 20, 1863, and the ensuing Confederate siege that closed in around Rosy’s army at Chattanooga, the Lincoln administration turned to Grant to remedy the disaster. Grant had a decision to make—retain or remove his old West Point acquaintance as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He chose to do the latter, without any indication of hesitancy. On October 19, General Orders No. 337 reached the besieged Federal army at Chattanooga: Rosecrans was relieved of command. For many close to the situation, Grant’s decision was largely viewed as personally motivated.
William T. Sherman awaited news of developments at Chattanooga from his headquarters, ironically at Iuka. Writing without knowledge of the removal, he defined the gravity of feeling toward Old Rosy. “Grant don’t like Rosecrans—He found great fault with him here at Iuka a year ago,” Sherman wrote his brother-in-law. “I would rather serve under Grant than Rosecrans…Grant would stand by his friend, but Rosecrans would sacrifice his brother if he stood in the way of his popular renown.”
In the last weeks of October, news of Rosecrans’ cashiering began to spread. Still in Iuka, Sherman seemed stunned at the news. “The Change in the Commands is radical,” he conceded to his wife. “I don’t pretend to understand all the secrets of Rosecrans position,” but just as before, Sherman pointed to the history of the previous year. “I know that [Rosecrans] and Grant had sharp words and feelings over at Corinth and here [at Iuka] a year ago, and that Grant does not like him.” Then in mid-November Rosecrans received a telling letter from William Truesdail (his former chief of military police), who cut to the heart of the acrimony against Rosecrans. “I have with me here an esteemed friend,” Truesdail wrote, “who spent two months in New York with Lago[w] of Grant’s staff and up to but a few days since he offered me some strange things and sayings at Grant’s Head Quarters touching you and your command and running back to the Battle [of] Iuka. O dear. O dear,” he concluded, “I am fearful of the future of this country. May God be with us.”
Iuka forever haunted Rosecrans. On September 20, 1874—11 years to the day after his army’s rout at Chickamauga—Rosecrans, languishing in the Nevada silver fields, reflected instead on the more obscure engagement in Mississippi. “Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of the Battle of Iuka,” he lamented to his wife. “Last evening I vividly recalled all its incidents, and among that of Grant’s not getting into the fight with his troops and of all his subsequent lying and rascality on the subject, and of the positions we now occupy. He President of the U.S., and I sub-superintendent of an old mine and mill.” On the morning of September 20, 1862, Rosecrans stepped into Grant’s shadow, where he will likely remain.
Evan C. Jones is a former NPS ranger. This article is adapted from Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863, published by Louisiana State University Press, which Evans edited.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.