Davis Bridge was a small yet fierce battle in the Civil War. Taking place near Pocahontas, Tennessee, on October 5, 1862, the battle served an important role in the Corinth Campaign. Had it been a major Union victory, the battle had the potential to drastically affect the war in the West, but a successful Confederate stand allowed the Southern army to remain a significant force in Mississippi, which assured that the war in that theater would continue for many more months.
As early as May 1862, the Federals had taken and defended a line along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad in north Mississippi and southwest Tennessee. From that line, Major General Ulysses S. Grant hoped to move to Vicksburg. A strong Confederate army lay in his path, however, and that Southern army was on the move by September 1862. It had appeared suddenly at Iuka in mid-September and then attacked Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federals at Corinth on October 3 and 4.
By October 5, that Confederate army had met defeat. It was retreating from Corinth, having lost in a fierce struggle. Fortunately for Grant, Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Southern force, retreated along the same path he had used to attack Corinth–to the northwest. Van Dorn’s retreat would carry him across the Tuscumbia River at Young’s Bridge, across the Hatchie River at Davis Bridge, and then to the main Ripley Road. From there, the army would march to Ripley and move to safety at Holly Springs.
Grant had other plans in mind. Unbeknownst to Van Dorn, Grant had sent another Federal force, commanded by Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, southward from Bolivar to block the crossing at Davis Bridge. If Hurlbut stopped the Southern retreat while Rosecrans at Corinth followed up his victory, Grant could trap the Confederate force between two rivers with large Federal forces guarding each crossing. Grant could smell victory; he could sense a momentous occasion. Most important, with the main Confederate force in Mississippi destroyed, he could see a clear path to Vicksburg.
Van Dorn knew the dire situation. His cavalry had alerted him of the enemy presence near the Hatchie. The Confederate general immediately scrambled for options to escape and located the obscure Bone Yard Road, which allowed a crossing at Crum’s Mill south of Davis Bridge. Van Dorn still had to hold at Davis Bridge, however. His army was stretched thin; even then, Brigadier General John S. Bowen’s brigade was fighting a rear-guard action against Rosecrans at Young’s Bridge on the Tuscumbia River. If Hurlbut crossed the Hatchie, he would catch the Confederate army and its wagon train in marching column.
Throughout the afternoon of October 5, Van Dorn continually fed his brigades forward toward the bridge while his wagon train made its way toward safety. The Union forces they encountered were Hurlbut’s force, which contained two brigades commanded by Brigadier Generals James C. Veatch and Jacob G. Lauman and a provisional brigade of two regiments commanded by Colonel Robert K. Scott. The force had left Bolivar at dawn on October 4 and had camped for the night on Muddy Creek, just south of Middleton, Tennessee. Hurlbut’s superior, Major General E. O. C. Ord, soon arrived on the scene and took charge of the operation.
Seeing their objective in the valley below, Ord’s Federals moved forward to take control of the bridge and bottle up the enemy. The fighting grew heated as the Federals began their assault on the few Confederates that had been left by Van Dorn to cover the bridge and guard the trains. Ord easily overpowered the small Confederate vanguard west of the bridge, despite its being augmented by the arrival of the head of Van Dorn’s army. Soon, Ord pushed the Confederates back to the east side of the river. It seemed he had the trap shut. But then, the operation began to fall apart.
Ord went down with a leg wound, which placed Hurlbut back in command. Meanwhile, the various Union regiments had begun to cross the bridge. Ord’s orders were that each brigade should form one regiment at a time, alternating to the right and left of the road. The Federal commanders obviously did not know the terrain because the river sharply curved to the east just south of the road. The Union regiments had room to deploy on the north side, but no such room existed to the south. Chaos ensued. Also, the majority of the Confederate force had arrived by this time and was pouring heavy musketry and artillery into the confused Federals. Heavy casualties resulted.
Soon, Hurlbut had his lines reformed on ground east of the river’s bend and ordered a charge. The Confederates, low on ammunition, withdrew to high ground, where they stopped the by now timid Federal advance. Little more fighting took place as dark soon arrived. Ord reported 570 casualties while the Confederates did not report their losses. Ord did, however, admit that his losses were probably higher than Van Dorn’s.
Van Dorn had faced three close calls that day, only for the arrival of reinforcements to save him each time. Now, he had used almost all his spare men and had no more reinforcements available. He had to get out of the trap while he still could. Thus, while the Federals camped, Van Dorn had his bone-tired men on the march. In the darkness, the Confederate army made its escape to the south.
Van Dorn, it seemed, had pulled off the unthinkable. He had extracted his terribly battered army from the convergence of two Federal columns. Grant was disappointed to say the least. That the Southerners could get away was annoying, but Rosecrans’s dilatory pursuit caused him more concern. Where he had once seen a clear road to Vicksburg, he now saw the enemy. The army that had escaped from Hurlbut, Ord, and Rosecrans would go on to constitute the core of the army that defended Vicksburg. The war in the Mississippi Valley would continue.
Peter Cozzens, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth (1997). Timothy B. Smith, “The Forgotten Battle of Davis’ Bridge,” North and South 2, no. 5 (June 1999): 68-79; much of the material in this entry came from this article.