Darkest Days of the War?

The Battles of Iuka and Corinth–that’s the answer, at least according to historian Peter Cozzens. Do you agree? Disagree?

When I started the book, I was sketpical that Cozzens could convince me that this was truly the “Darkest Days of the War.” By the end of the book, I could see he had a valid point.

Corinth was, has, and is an obscure campaign in the American Civil War–that’s why Cozzens decided to write about it (xi). Yet, Corinth was a junction of numerous railroads that criss-crossed the South. Furthemore, Corinth sat between two strategic invasion routes of the Deep South (xi).

Also, the personas involved both played major roles in this campaign: the “ludicrous character” of Confederate General Earl Van Dorn and the still-“under a shadow”-because-of-Shiloh Union General Ulysses S. Grant (xii-xiii).

However, Cozzens was not the first to argue how important the Battle of Corinth was. Union General William T. Sherman wrote, “The effect at the Battle of Corinth was very great. It was, indeed, a decisive blow to the Confederate cause in our quarter, and changed the whole aspect of affairs in West Tennessee” (315).

Fellow General David Stanley agreed that the loss at Corinth was a disaster that the Confederacy never recovered from (315).

Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, whose suspect leadership during the disastrous campaign that culminated at the Battle of Corinth almost annihilated his entire command

From the Confederate perspective, the result at Corinth “compromised Braxton Bragg’s position in Kentucky at the climax of his campaign” (317).  If  Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price had defeated General William S. Rosecran’s Union force at Corinth, they could have advanced into Middle Tennessee and into the vulnerable flank of Union General Don C. Buell’s army. Who knows what would have happened next? It would not have been far-fetched to think Bragg might have assaulted the inexperienced forces holding Louisville and brought about the capture of the city.

Those “ifs” will always remain “ifs” but what the victory at Corinth granted for the North was control of northern Mississippi and the opening for General Ulysses S. Grant to strike at Vicksburg.

All that is important when proving his point, yet Cozzens digs deeper and allows the primary sources to build support for his theory. What better way to find that support than to use the primary sources available–the remembrances of the soldiers who survived “the darkest days of the war.”

For the soldiers who marched, fought, and died, the campaign that culminated with the Battle of Corinth on October 3-4, 1862 was long, arduous, and taxed both their physical and mental endurance to the brink. Temperatures were constantly near the triple-digit mark; days were long, hot, sweaty, and supplies were lacking. Countless soldiers’ accounts try to explain how intense the fighting was during the campaign–“the fire from the Confederate lines became so fierce that it seemed as though a magazine had exploded in their very faces” (211). Survivors describe “lack of water” and “desperate for water” as a trademark of the entire campaign. That in itself for a soldier could easily mark this as the “darkest days of the war.”

Scene in front of Battery Robinett
(courtesy of Ohio Historical Society/Ohio Civil War 150

On many levels Corinth was a desperate campaign and a severe gamble by Van Dorn. He came very close to wrecking his and Price’s forces and in the process opened the way for the successful Union campaign against Vicksburg. The defeat at Corinth was, according to Bragg, a deciding factor in his retreat from Kentucky (granted what you may believe in Bragg’s insistence, as he might have been looking for a scapegoat).

Have you started to doubt that first inkling you had that “there is no way that the Iuka/Corinth campaign was the darkest days of the war?” That was me, until I picked up Cozzen’s book and he shed light on why this truly was “the darkest days of the war.”

3 Responses to Darkest Days of the War?

  1. Nice review of a very well-written book.. I toured the region last yr for Shiloh’s 150th and fell in love with the area. One of the many reasons I like being a student/tourist of the Western Front is the beauty of these regions.
    The Shiloh and Corinth battlefields are worth the extra effort to get to this out-of-the-way area. Iuka,sadly, was not. The ridge they fought over is now a run-down roadside motel and the rest of the battlefield was obliteriated by modern hwy 72. Iuka’s a good example of why to support the civilwar.org people and their job of saving America’s CW battlefields.
    I’m now going to read all of your other articles Phill Greenwalt, good job.

    1. Thank you Louis for the kind words. I agree with you about the Civil War Trust and their mission, if we do not save the land now, it goes without saying, that it will be lost forever..and we have too many examples of places like Iuka as proof. I am glad you enjoyed the article and thank you for being a devoted reader. I hope you continue to read all the postings here at ECW, we have a great set of authors. Thanks again!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!