More than 400 soldiers died during the two-hour battle of Iuka, making it one of the fiercest of the Civil War. (Six people died per minute.) Yet today it’s difficult for visitors to this small Northern Mississippi town to find any trace of the battle. Yes, there’s a big, touristy mural on a crumbling downtown building. But it takes a visit to the local historical society to know where to look for the battlefield, get an idea where the troops were stationed, or find out where the dead are buried.
All this matters to this family archivist because his third great grandfather, J.R. Boyce, fought at Iuka under Missouri General Sherman Price on the politically inappropriate side of the Confederacy. Boyce, who was born in Kentucky and lived in Boone County, Missouri, was in his mid-forties when the war broke out. Two of his children fought with him at Iuka.
The battle took place on September 19th, 1862, during the second year of the war. Five times Confederate soldiers charged up a hill where Union troops led by General Rosecrans held a battery. When the smoke cleared — and apparently there was so much smoke that many soldiers died from friendly fire — Confederate losses (263 killed, 692 wounded, and 561 captured or missing) were nearly double Union casualties (144 killed, 598 wounded, and 40 captured or missing). At 3 a.m. that night, Price withdrew his troops.
The reason: Price learned that more Union troops were on the way. General Ulysses S. Grant had originally planned to have the second battalion arrive on the day of the battle. The idea was to make a “pincer” move trap the Confederate forces. The second Union force led by General Van Dorn, stationed seven miles to the northwest, would come in behind the Confederate troops as they stormed the hill. Van Dorn was told wait for the sound of artillery before approaching. But a strange weather condition — the wind blew from the North that day — prevented the sound from carrying. Van Dorn never heard the fighting.
Today, a derelict motel sits at the top of a hill where the bloody battle took place. A commemorative sign courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History at the bottom of the hill barely covers what happened that day. It notes that the 11th Ohio Battery repulsed four assaults before finally being overrun by Confederate forces. The six-gun Battery lost three of its four officers and 46 of 54 gunners. The sign doesn’t mention that Price ultimately retreated. The consensus among historians seems to be that the battle of Iuka was a draw.
One biography of Boyce says he was part of a north wing that was cut off from Price when the general retreated to the south. The major says he commanded the separated troops. For some time afterward, with numerous compatriots, he vainly attempted to get back to southern lines. He related stories about these experiences to his youngest children. The war took its toll on the Boyce family. “At the close of the great conflict, one of these boys was a prisoner in New Orleans, the other a prisoner at Rock Island,” according to his biography. They both show up in the Montana census after the war.
At the time of the conflict, the battlefield was open forest and cleared farm land. It’s now covered by thick woods and undergrowth. The battlefield, added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 14, 2007, lies along present-day Highway 25, which roughly traces the path that Rosecran’s Union forces used to move north and assume their position southwest of town.
One of the few indications that anything deadly took place in Iuka is a sign that marks a mass grave where Union forces buried 263 largely unknown Confederate soldiers. Many of them died from wounds sustained in battle, says a docent at the historical society, and were transported from a local hospital. A sign says the grave used to be enclosed by a wall and marked by a United Daughters of the Confederacy monument. Today, gravestones for a handful of soldiers, along with a few Confederate flags, dot the ground.
Iuka was a small Union supply depot, the easternmost outpost that Grant had established on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Price and his Army of the West were on their way to meet up with General Bragg for his Kentucky offensive. They occupied Iuka to block trains carrying Grant’s union soldiers. Grant decided he need to take Iuka back to keep Price from using the railroad to get Confederate soldiers back to Bragg.
When the battle opened, the opposing infantry lines were within a close musket shot. The first round of Confederate fire killed most of the Union battery’s horses. (Though they captured all six guns of the Ohio battery, the Confederate forces couldn’t do anything with them because nearly all the horses had been killed in the battle.) The fight then became an infantry duel, with soldiers only managing to fire two or three shots a minute. Price later said that the intensity of the fighting at Iuka had “never seen surpassed.”