The ill wind at Iuka blew away all hope of future cooperation between Ulysses S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans.
It is an ill wind, so the saying goes, that blows no good. Certainly, the strong wind blowing across the battlefield at Iuka did some good for Confederate Major General Sterling Price by preventing Union reinforcements from marching into place to cut off his line of retreat. But for Price’s opponent, Brigadier General William Rosecrans, the meteorological quirk of “acoustic shadow” was an ill wind, indeed. It poisoned his personal and professional relationship with his superior, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and led indirectly to his removal from command almost exactly a year later, at the September 1863 Battle of Chickamauga.
Arguably the most talented strategist of all Union generals, Rosecrans was a strong-willed, temperamental man about whom a close friend once said, “He never omitted an opportunity to do himself an injury.” Talkative and high-strung, he was the polar opposite of the phlegmatic, low-key Grant. The constant intramural jockeying for favor between generals made all military relationships tenuous. In the summer of 1862, Grant’s recent unhappy experience with army politics had probably made him even less willing to verbally cross swords with his subordinates.
When Rosecrans arrived in northern Mississippi in May 1862, Grant was still serving a frustrating stint as second-in-command to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. He probably did not look entirely with favor on the arrival of another highly placed and politically influential general such as Rosecrans.
Nevertheless, Grant and Rosecrans seemed to get along well together–at least at first. When Halleck returned to Washington, and Grant again took over as head of the Army of the Tennessee, he placed Rosecrans in command of one of his three wings. The two men dined together once or twice a week at Grant’s headquarters, and Grant even complained to Washington that “General Rosecrans has not got rank equal to his merit.”
The good feelings–if they could be called that–did not survive the subsequent Battle of Iuka. Grant, concerned about reports of Confederate activity at Corinth, had sent Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord to determine what was happening there. Meanwhile, Rosecrans was left alone to fight a much larger enemy force at Iuka. When Ord finally arrived on the battlefield the next day, Rosecrans angrily demanded to know, “Why did you leave me in the lurch?” Ord simply handed him a copy of Grant’s order directing Ord to delay his attack until he heard the sound of firing from Rosecrans’ position. Union Colonel John M. Fuller, who was on the scene, recalled, “This miscarriage was the beginning of a misunderstanding which grew into positive dislike between Grant and Rosecrans–a breach that was never healed.”
Ord and Grant both blamed their failure to properly support Rosecrans on the phenomenon now known as acoustic shadow, a combination of wind direction, hilly terrain and heavy smoke from the battlefield that muffled sounds–even ear-splitting artillery and rattling rifle fire. Rosecrans did not give their explanation much credence. How, he wondered, could Ord fail to hear the battle from a mere six miles away, when other Union officers reported hearing explosions from a distance of 15 miles?
Whatever the truth of the matter–and there were conflicting reports from others on the scene–Ord and Grant stuck to their story, and Rosecrans, true to form, did not let the matter rest. He, or members of his staff, passed along their perspective of Iuka to newspaper reporters in Rosecrans’ hometown of Cincinnati. Soon, articles began appearing that fulsomely praised Rosecrans while criticizing Grant for “blunders” and “inactivity.” Even worse, there were muttered charges that Grant had been drunk at the time of the battle.
Grant quickly got word of the articles, and his working relationship with Rosecrans became decidedly icy. It got worse after the Battle of Corinth, in which Rosecrans again fought well, only to be stopped by Grant from pursuing the defeated Confederates. Again, Cincinnati newspapers pumped Rosecrans and savaged Grant, who complained to Rosecrans that unnamed
reporters and members of Rosecrans’ staff had created “a distinction of feeling and spirit” between the two camps. Rosecrans responded by placing the blame on “mousing politicians” on Grant’s own staff.
The immediate quarrel was settled when Rosecrans was transferred out of Grant’s department and given command of the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. A year later, after he had lost the Battle of Chickamauga and retreated to Chattanooga, Rosecrans was relieved of command and replaced by Grant. Ironically, it was a series of misleading telegrams from Grant’s friend, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, that led directly to Rosecrans’ ouster. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served cold.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War