"A General Havoc" :  The Battle of Hatchie Bridge

by Daniel O'Connell

 

 Retreat from Corinth                                                  

The Confederate retreat after the defeat at Corinth on October 3-4, 1862 provided the backdrop for this interesting affair. Following the repulse of the final assault on Batteries Powell and Robinette the Confederates, under MG Earl Van Dorn, began a retreat northwest along the west bank of the Tuscumbia River.  On the evening of the 4th Van Dorn shocked his subordinates by halting the march at Chewalla, far short of the expected goal of the crossings of the Tuscumbia and Hatchie River.  Van Dorn planned to counter march his badly wounded army to attack Corinth from the south. Aghast at the prospect of renewing the assault MG Sterling Price and MG Dabney Maury asked Van Dorn to call a council of war. At the midnight conference Van Dorn was convinced of the folly of the plan and rescinded the order.1 They would cross the Hatchie River at Davis Bridge and proceed to Ripley, Mississippi.

No sooner had the new plan been developed than it began to experience problems. While Van Dorn was concerned about pursuit from Rosecrans, he had not considered the possibility of Union columns from Bolivar, Tennessee moving against him to interrupt his march. MG Ulysses Grant had indeed thought of such a course of action and dispatched a column for that very purpose.  MG Stephen A. Hurlbut’s 4th Division of the Army of West Tennessee, supported by a provisional brigade comprised of the 68th Ohio and 12th Michigan from MG Leonard Ross’ command at Bolivar, was moving to cut off the escape route. Coupled with a vigorous pursuit by Rosecrans from Corinth the expectations for success were very high.  Grant was so confident that he had Van Dorn trapped he wrote to Halleck that he could not see how the enemy are to escape2.

Hurlbut's march was preceded by the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 5th Ohio Cavalry, commanded by MAJ Charles S. Hayes. The 294 troopers were divided to support the individual infantry brigades. The 1st Battalion in support of BG Jacob G. Lauman's Brigade and the 2nd, under MAJ Ricker, teamed with BG James C. Veatch's brigade. While stopped at Middleton the vedettes reported the approach of Confederate cavalry from Pocahontas. Hayes immediately strengthened the skirmish line with the remainder of his cavalry and the Confederates slowly backed away. The retreating enemy forces represented a small portion of COL Wirt Adams Mississippi Cavalry Regiment. The wily Adams knew instantly the threat posed by the approaching Union column and reported encountering the Federal column just six miles east of the planned crossing site to Van Dorn. He then began a delaying fight with the advancing Federals and made an urgent request for reinforcements.

 
"With All Possible Dispatch"   

 With his intended route challenged Van Dorn was in a difficult position. He had placed his strongest division, under MG Mansfield Lovell, at the rear of his column to protect against the expected pursuit of Rosecrans’ forces from Corinth. The most readily available troops were the 1st Texas Legion3, on detail guarding the Confederate trains. They were stripped away and sent forward to aid Adams at the bridge. Van Dorn also realized that more troops would be required.  His most battered division4, commanded by MG Maury, was at the head of the column and in the best position to assist at the bridge. Maury accepted the responsibility to secure the crossing despite being told by Van Dorn that they would be in for it again5. The depleted division dutifully marched out. Their objective was to hold the crossing long enough to allow the remainder of the army to cross at an alternate site, nearby Crum’s Bridge.                                                       

Meanwhile the advance of Hurlbut’s column was being challenged by Adams’ small but aggressive band of Confederate troopers.  The veracity of Adams’ defense convinced Hurlbut that the main Confederate body must be nearby and he urged his brigade commanders to proceed with caution.  The lead brigade, under BG James Veatch, did exactly that. Now lacking cavalry support to report enemy positions, Veatch deployed the 25th Indiana as skirmishers to push forward to the bridge. The move was agonizingly slow through the thick underbrush and was further complicated by a small band of enemy troopers that was using the Davis farm as a stronghold against the advance. Hurlbut sent Battery L of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery to shell the building. Six rounds were enough to scatter the defenders. However, the overcautious Hurlbut stopped the advance to add the 46th Illinois and the 14th Illinois to the line. As Hurlbut deployed his men MG Edward O. C. Ord arrived, escorted by Company A of the 2nd Illinois Cavalry, and assumed overall command of the Union forces and allowed Veatch’s move to continue. The resulting delay granted Adams the time to establish a line on the eastern shore of river. It would be a showdown at the bridge.                                                                       

With the initial forces now arrayed for the fight at the bridge an inexplicable series of poor deployment choices overcame the Confederate command. Adams decided to forego the wonderfully defensible terrain on the east side of the river and sent the 1st Texas Legion across the river into the open spaces of the Davis fields. Once over the river LTC E. R. Hawkins aligned his men south of the State Line Road. The arrival of Maury’s reinforcing column did little to rectify the situation. Maury matched Adams error by throwing BG J. C. Moore’s Brigade across the river with CPT Dawson’s Battery of St. Louis Artillery6. Moore’s brigade existed in name only. Reduced by losses at Corinth, straggling in the intense heat during the march from Chewalla, sickness, and desertion Moore could field no more than 300 men. The entire Confederate line west of the river consisted of about 700 men. They were too few and too late7. Opposing them was Hurlbut’s division, nearly 5,000 strong, who came pouring over the Metamora Ridge.

 "A Galling Fire"  

The advancing Federal horde was taken under fire by Dawson’s guns as Moore’s brigade filed into position north of the State Line Road. His fire proved ineffective and was immediately returned by the Federal guns that targeted Moore’s men on the narrow road. Once Moore’s men completed their deployment the Federal fire shifted to counter battery and for three quarters of an hour the two sides exchanged shots. Eventually Dawson ran low on ammunition and was overwhelmed. When the Confederate artillery fire died down MG Ord ordered the attack to commence with fixed bayonets. The order to advance was anticipated by the left end of the 68th Ohio line. The two end companies moved prematurely ahead of the line. The acting commander of the provisional brigade, Colonel R. K. Scott, sent his adjutant, LT George Welles, to put the wayward companies back into the formation. As the company moved back an irate Ord arrived on the scene demanding the meaning of a rearward movement. Insisting that the order had been to advance and not waiting for Welles to explain Ord struck him with the flat of his sword8. Nearby soldiers seeing the popular officer insulted in this fashion leveled their weapons at the general. Ord, seeing the error of his ways, allowed an explanation before riding away. The Union advance continued.                  

The 53rd Indiana struck the thin Confederate line at the junction of Hawkins’ Texans and Moore’s brigade. The Texas Legion tried to withdraw in an orderly fashion but the numbers were too great and the retreat fell into a panic. Half of the 1st Texas Legion made for the bridge with Hawkins while the remainder struggled to get away, leaving 75 members of the unit to be captured9. The left side of the Confederate line dissolved leaving Dawson and his artillerymen stranded. With nothing left to move the guns Dawson did what he could but the 53rd Indiana claimed all but one of his pieces. Now left alone on the field Moore attempted to change face to meet the threat posed by the 25th and 53rd Indiana. On his right the 14th and 15th Illinois easily outflanked his position. Moore belatedly understood the horrible odds against him and ordered the retreat too late. The movement turned into a rout. Men began to throw away their arms and dive into the river in an attempt to get away. About 200 prisoners were taken. On the other side of the bridge newly arrived MG Sterling Price compounded the previous error by exhorting the 6th and 9th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) over the bridge accompanied by Stirman’s Arkansas Sharpshooter’s. The reinforcements had barely cleared the bridge when their formations were disrupted by the fleeing men from the broken Confederate line. Acting brigade commander, 24 year old Colonel Sul Ross, gave the retreat order. One Union soldier described the retreat by writing after a few irregular volleys, they broke and ran10 a gauntlet of death trying to renegotiate the bridge. Despite the confusion and carnage Ross' order saved most of his command. About 100 members of his brigade, however, joined the ranks of Union captives. Ross’ retreating men were joined by the survivors of Hawkins and Moore’s commands on the ridge overlooking the crossing.  At the east end of the bridge Confederate reinforcements had arrived in the shape of BG W. L. Cabell’s Brigade.  Although the brigade contained just 550 men the added strength coupled with three batteries under the Confederate artillery commander, Major W. E. Burnet, formed a powerful position as they awaited the next Union move. It was now Ord’s turn to participate in the poor decision making trend of the day.

"The Miserable Bridge"

The easy victory on the western bank of the river inspired MG Ord into an ill considered attack across the bridge. Despite the fact that he had no way of knowing the enemy strength, had conducted no reconnaissance of the far side, or that Rosecrans had ignored Grant’s order for an immediate pursuit of the retreating Confederates Ord could not restrain himself. The Federal troops had already accomplished their mission of denying use of the crossing and could have maintained their position with the expectation that the delay created would allow Rosecrans to attack from the rear. Nevertheless, the excitement of the battle got the better of Ord and he ordered Veatch to force the bridge.  The 53rd Indiana led the way to the crossing and was immediately taken under fire by the well placed enemy on the overlooking ridge. A most destructive fire of musketry and artillery11 devastated the column as they made their way across the bridge. When the survivors reached the far side chaos took over as LTC William Jones tried to deploy his men to the right. Under the killing fire of the new Confederate line the Union troops would not budge from the comparative safety of the river bank. The 14th Illinois followed but suffered the same result as the 53rd. They were almost instantly pinned to the river bank as well. The 25th Indiana and the 15th Illinois crossed next and piled into the pinned down regiments that had preceded them creating mass confusion on the south side of the State Line Road. MG Hurlbut, probably attempting to deflect blame for the slaughter to Ord, described the situation at the east end of the bridge this way;

“It unfortunately happened that the peculiarities of the ground on the east side of the Hatchie were not so familiar to the Major General commanding as to those of us who had previously encamped on the very hill we now sought to seize, hence the order to throw the regiments alternately to the right and left of the road massed six regiments of men in a triangular space of ground which would have been abundantly occupied by one.” 12

The survivors of the dash across the bridge crowded into the available space and awaited the only order that seemed to make sense, retreat. They got a horrible surprise when Ord, who was not yet convinced of the foolishness of his attack, ordered BG Jacob Lauman to begin crossing the river with two of his four regiments.  The 53rd Illinois led the way but before they could establish themselves on the far bank nearly all the officers had been shot down. The surviving captain, John McClanahan, assumed regimental command and ordered Sgt Mark Basset of Company E to strip the sword from a fallen officer and assume command of his company. The 28th Illinois was next to run the gauntlet. They had not gone very far before they ran into the rear of the stalled 53rd.  The mass of men trapped on or near the bridge presented an extremely target rich environment for the Confederate defenders. They did not fail to take advantage of it.       

The situation on the east bank was in complete disorder. Rather than recall his impetuous assault Ord decided to personally go to restore order.  Instead he suffered the same fate as many of the men that he had ordered across; he was wounded by a blast of canister while crossing the bridge. Command again fell to Hurlbut, who realized the folly of reinforcing failure. Instead of continuing to feed troops into the huddled mass south of the bridge he called on the remaining two regiments of Lauman’s command to extend the line north of the road in an attempt to flank the Confederate position.  The orders were misunderstood by Lauman who personally led the 32nd Illinois across the bridge and into the milling mass of men to the south of the road. His remaining regiment, the 3rd Iowa, was left without orders and followed blindly. The crossing proved as deadly to them as it had for each of the Union regiments. They lost 57 men and half their officers before they reached the far side. Fortunately for the Union troops they gained a respite as the Confederate defenders began to run low on ammunition. Gradually the deployment north of the road developed including two pieces of artillery to the east bank. Sensing the opportunity the Federal troops rallied and attacked up the hill. The battered Federals found that Maury’s job was over and he had retreated before facing the brunt of the attack. His Confederates had given Van Dorn the time he needed to escape against a force four times his size. They had inflicted 570 casualties on Ord’s men while suffering about 400 of their own (mostly in the form of prisoners). The exhausted and shell shocked Union troops offered no pursuit. What remained of Van Dorn’s army was saved.  

"The Day is Ours"

The Battle of Hatchie (Davis) Bridge is interesting in that both sides managed to accomplish their assigned missions despite poor command decisions all around. Maury successfully managed to keep the Union forces from cutting off the retreat after a miserably poor initial deployment.  The option to defend on the western side of the river had placed the units there in an unenviable tactical position. The units sent across the bridge were severely outnumbered, with a natural obstacle at their back, and only a narrow avenue of escape. It proved disastrous for the troops sent there. The Confederate mission was saved by more prudent decision making by the follow on units.      

The Union forces also accomplished their assigned task by denying the use of the crossing. It was not until the dreaded “mission creep” took hold that they ran into trouble. When Ord decided to include the destruction of the force across the river as an objective he assumed all the negative aspects of the battlefield. The Union forces now had to advance across the river at the single narrow point allowing the defenders to concentrate their fire. Furthermore the far side of the bridge had not been properly examined for deployment possibilities. From the very outset of the action it should have been apparent that the attack could not be successful. Ord, however, persisted in pushing more and more troops into the failing action. It was not until he fell wounded at the bridge and Hurlbut reassumed command that the fortunes of the Federal attack changed.
                                                    
Hurlbut, to his credit, realized that calling the troops back would expose them to the same peril that they had experienced on their advance, concentrated fire on the bridge, and did not order the move. Instead he began to extend the Federal line to the left of the bridge away from the open killing ground to the right. Ultimately, however, it was the order for the Confederate retreat that granted the Union forces the high ground on the east side of the river. It was a hollow prize. The remnants of Van Dorn’s army had already made good their escape.  Continued pursuit without the cooperation of Rosecrans was pointless.                                                                                                                                                        

The real failure here lay with Rosecrans. Had he followed the orders Grant issued for an immediate pursuit the situation would have been drastically altered.  Rosecrans did not start the chase until the morning of the 5th although Grant’s orders for a pursuit began arriving as early in the afternoon of the 4th.  Even after Rosecrans put his column in motion after Van Dorn the pace was hampered by confusion and overcrowding on the roads. They accomplished little more than policing up stragglers from Van Dorn’s column. Had Grant’s orders been followed Van Dorn may very well have been trapped against the river and been forced to surrender or fight a desperate breakout battle of survival against long odds.    
                                                 
When Rosecrans’ tardy pursuit finally caught the Confederate rearguard they were momentarily delayed when a 300 man force under a flag of truce commanded by Colonel William Barry appeared and asked permission to go back to Corinth to bury the Confederate dead. BG James B. McPherson, leading the Federal pursuit, understood the attempt to be a delay tactic and refused passage stating that with active fighting going on only Rosecrans himself could authorize such an action. The would-be Confederate burial detail was bypassed.  A short rear guard action conducted by BG John Bowen at Big Hill was sufficient to ensure the passage of the main body over the hastily reconstructed Crum’s Bridge.                                                     

On October 7th, with his forces dangerously extended, Grant called off the pursuit. Rosecrans’ self serving complaint that Grant denied him the opportunity to complete his victory against Van Dorn opened a rift between the two men. Grant wrote that the actions at Corinth and Hatchie Bridge were victories but "not so complete as I had hoped for, nor nearly so complete as I now think was within the easy grasp of the commanding officer at Corinth (Rosecrans)"13.  The squabble culminated with Rosecrans being removed from command. By determination, skillful delaying actions, rapid recovery from poor decisions, errors by the enemy command, and luck the Confederates escaped the trap. Writing of the campaign Van Dorn stated the attempt at Corinth has failed and in consequence I am condemned and have been superseded in my command14 but the army was saved. They would form the core of the defense at Vicksburg where Grant would get another chance at them.

Order of Battle

Union Forces                                                                                       
Cavalry                                                                                
Company A, 2nd Illinois Cavalry (Escort), 1st and 2nd Battalions, 5th Ohio Cavalry       
Fourth Division – MG Stephen A. Hurlbut                                      
First Brigade – BG Jacob G. Lauman                                             
28th Illinois, 32nd Illinois, 41st Illinois, 53rd Illinois, 3rd Iowa     
Battery C, 1st Missouri Light Artillery                                                       

Second Brigade – BG James C, Veatch                                            
14th Illinois, 15th Illinois, 46th Illinois, 25th Indiana, 53rd Indiana                                                                                  
Battery L, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, 7th Battery, Ohio Light Artillery                     

Provisional Brigade – Col Robert K. Scott                                         
68th Ohio, 12th Michigan
                                                                                          
Confederate Forces   
Cavalry                                                                                         
Wirt Adams Mississippi Regiment

Maury’s Division – BG Dabney H. Maury                                                
Moore’s Brigade – BG John C. Moore                                           
42nd Alabama, 15th Arkansas, 23rd Arkansas, 35th Mississippi, 2nd Texas                                                                                           
Bledsoe’s Missouri Battery                                                      

Cabell’s Brigade – BG W. L. Cabell                                               
18th Arkansas, 19th Arkansas, 20th Arkansas, 21st Arkansas, Rapley’s  Battalion Arkansas Sharpshooters, Jones’ Arkansas Battalion                                                                                        
Appeal Battery                                   

Phifer’s Brigade – Col Lawrence S. Ross                                         
6th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), 9th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), 3rd Arkansas Cavalry (Dismounted), Stirman’s Sharpshooters                  
McNally’s Battery                                                     

Unattached Units                                                                          
1st Texas Legion                                                                      
Dawson’s St. Louis Battery



Bibliography    
                                                                             
Official Records of the War of Rebellion                                     
Volume XVII  Part 1                                                                                     
Reports of;                                                                                      
Bolton, W. H.; Bowen, J. S.; Brotzman, E.; Burnap, S. A.; Cabell, C. C.; Cummins, E. H.; Grant, U. S.; Green, M. E.; Hall, C.; Hawkins, E. R.; Hayes, C. S.; Hurlbut, S. A.; Johnston, A. H.; Jones, J. J.; Lauman, J. G.; Logan, J.; Lovell, M.; McClanahan, J. W.; Maury, D. H.; Moore, J.C.; Morgan, W. H.; Ord, E. O. C.; Price, S.; Pugh, I.; Rogers, G. C.; Scott, R. K.; Sharpe, A. B.; Spear, E.; Trumbull, M. M.;  Veatch, J. C.    

Books    
                                                                                          
The Darkest Days of the War – The Battles of Iuka and Corinth, Peter Cozzens                                    
Nothing But Victory – The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865, Steven E. Woodworth                                      
Army memoirs of Lucius W. Barber, Company "D", 15th Illinois volunteer infantry. May 24, 1861, to Sept. 30, 1865; Barber, Lucius W., 1839-1872                                                     
Complete history of the 46th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry; Woodbury, Henry H., supposed author                                
Michigan in the War - Michigan. Adjutant-General's Dept                                                          
Ross' Texas Brigade;  Victor M. Rose
Recollections with the Third Iowa Regiment; Seymour D. Thompson
Banners to the Breeze - The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River; Earl J. Hess
Campaign for Corinth: Blood in Mississippi; Steven N. Dossman; from the Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series.
A Texas Cavalry Officers Civil War - The Diary and Letters of James C. Bates; edited by Richard Lowe                                                     
Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian and Civil Wars; Dabney H. Maury                                                                   
Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant; Ulysses S. Grant, Two volumes in one


Articles   
                                                                                             
Battle of Davis Bridge – October 5, 1862, Timothy B. Smith, The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 


Notes 

1 Van Dorn was loathe to rescinding the order but after consultation with his subordinates relented.
2 Grant to Halleck; Oct. 5, 1862, OR, Vol. 17(I), pg 155
3 LTC E. R. Hawkins reported that his command with the attached section of artillery from CPT Dawson’s St Louis Battery totaled 360 men. OR, Vol. 17(I), pg 392
4 Maury’s Division reported 2366 casualties (killed, wounded and missing) at Corinth, OR, Vol. 17 (I), pg 383
5 The Darkest Days of the War, Cozzens, pg 279, footnoted to Maury, “Campaigns against Grant”, pg 303
6 Dawson’s battery had an organic strength of four guns but was supplemented by two additional guns captured at Corinth.
7 OR, Maury, Vol. 17 (I), pg 394
8 Nothing But Victory, Woodworth, pg. 237, footed noted to Richardson, “On the Hatchie: How Gen. Ord Struck the Adjutant”, National Tribune, March 25. 1886, pg. 3
9 Total losses for the 1st Texas Legion in the period of October 3-5 were 3 killed, 17 wounded, and 75 missing. OR, Vol. 17 (I), pg 382
10 Memoirs, Barber, pg 82
11 OR, Morgan, Vol.17 (I), pg 329
12 OR, Hurlbut, Vol. 17 (I), pg 306
13 Memoirs, Grant, pg 248
14 OR, Van Dorn, Vol. 17(I), pg 381

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