Fighting of a Most Desperate Character: The 3rd Louisiana at Iuka

     Shortly after the close of the Civil War, Sergeant William H. Tunnard of Co. K of the 3rd Louisiana Infantry decided to produce a regimental history. The New Jersey native was only 29 years of age, but with his background in newspaper work and his wartime pocket diary at hand, he wrote one of the finest Confederate regimental histories of the western theater.

Tunnard had served in the Louisiana State Militia before the war as a member of the Pelican Rifles, and in May 1861 that militia unit became Co. K of the 3rd Louisiana Infantry. Serving primarily in the Trans-Mississippi as part of General Sterling Price’s army, Tunnard and his regiment saw action at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge before Price’s army crossed the Mississippi River as reinforcements in the wake of the Confederate defeat at Shiloh.

By mid-September 1862, General Price and the 3rd Louisiana were on the offensive, moving into northern Mississippi where they pushed out Colonel Robert Murphy’s 8th Wisconsin and occupied the Federal supply depot at Iuka on September 14th. “The army captured about $200,000 worth of stores consisting of arms, ammunition, and commissary supplies of every description,” he noted. “Such luxuries as coffee, tea, sugar, condensed milk, cheese, mackerel, canned fruit, and preserves, brandy, lager beer, whiskey, claret and Catawba wines, etc. The ragged and half-starved soldiers feasted on the good things for once and had more than a square meal. The soldiers feasted, frolicked, and were in high glee and spirits at the sudden change in their condition,” he noted.

The carefree scenes at Iuka would change quickly when Tunnard and his comrades ran into the rest of General William S. Rosecrans’ army on the hills south of town on the afternoon of September 19, 1862. The below account of the Battle of Iuka comes from Tunnard’s own The History of the Third Regiment Louisiana Infantry published in 1866.

 

Louisiana state seal button depicting a pelican and worn by militia units like Tunnard's. 

While on the Byrneville road on September 19th, news arrived that the enemy under the command of General William S. Rosecrans was advancing on the Baldwin road. General Louis Hebert received orders to proceed with his brigade at a double-quick to meet them. The command, at almost a full run for nearly three miles, hastened forward. Over the railroad through Iuka and out on the Baldwin or Bay Springs road; when about a mile from Iuka, the brigade was formed into line of battle. Immediately in their front was a valley; in fact, the whole country was a succession of valleys and hills of irregular formation, covered by a dense undergrowth. In a few moments the battle opened.

Although greatly outnumbered, this brigade steadily drove back the enemy’s line and gaining sight of a six-gun battery from Cincinnati, Ohio [11th Ohio Battery], charged it with desperate fury, notwithstanding that it poured into their ranks a most destructive fire, the guns being heavily loaded with buckshot.

 

This map from the American Battlefield Trust depicts the primary action at Iuka; Hebert's brigade consisted of the Texas Legion, 3rd Texas Cavalry, 3rd Louisiana, 40th Mississippi, and 14th and 17th Arkansas regiments slammed into Colonel John B. Sanborn's line of Federals about 4 p.m. on September 19, 1862. The fighting waged hottest around the guns of the 11th Ohio and were eventually captured by the 3rd Texas. The dismounted cavalrymen dragged the guns off the field but when it became evident that they couldn't take them on the retreat, nails were driven into the vent holes to "spike" the cannon. Lieutenant Henry Neil of the 11th Ohio Battery recovered the guns the next day, easily removed the nails, and set to work putting the battery back into service. 

Another member of the 3rd Louisiana picks up the story from here:

The skirmishers were soon recalled and had scarcely taken their position in the regiment when we heard the enemy’s order to advance in loud tones ‘Forward-guide center, march!’ Hardly had these words died away when the same command, loud and clear, came ringing on our ears from our commanding officer. Colonel Gilmore immediately ordered forward Co. K was skirmishers. This company rapidly threw themselves in front of the regiment and advanced double quick up the hill, followed closely by the regiment. Directly in our front was one of those long sloping hills peculiar to the country around Iuka. This hillside was covered with large trees with very little underbrush. The enemy’s line soon appeared and were immediately warmly received by the skirmishers who nobly held their ground until the regiment came to their assistance.

The fire immediately opened on both lines liked a sudden clap of thunder and continued without abatement for over two hours. At the commencement of the firing, our boys dropped down on their knees, the best thing they could have done, as the greatest portion of the enemy’s fire flew harmlessly over their heads while their fire had a telling effect on the enemy. The firing was fearful, and the smoke enveloped both lines so that they became invisible to one another. The lines could be distinguished only by the flash of the guns. The evening was one of those damp, dull, cloudy ones which caused the smoke to settle down about as high as a man’s head. This terrible fire continued about half an hour when the enemy was ordered to charge down the hill [5th Iowa], but were so warmly received that they staggered. Instantly our boys received the order to charge and with their old battle yell, they rushed upon the foe and drove them from the hill.

On the hill the regiment suffered. A new line of the enemy opened on them. One of our regiments in our rear, by some mistake, threw their missiles of death in among us; this, indeed, was a terrible moment. Major Russell rode to this regiment and stated that they were firing on their friends. About this time the Colonel’s horse was shot under him and he was wounded in the shoulder. The colonel, now on foot, ordered a charge down the hill and led it in person. Here the fighting was desperate; a number of our men were wounded, and a large number killed.

Night quickly set in, the flashes of the opposing guns almost met, prisoners taken and retaken, no one could distinguish friend from foe, the leaden hail flew in every direction. Still our boys pressed on. Major Russell came near losing his life by giving orders to a company of the enemy, mistaking them for one of our own. Sergeant White captured the enemy’s flag; scarcely had he done so when he was captured, was again re-captured, and finally captured.

 

 “There was one continuous roar of small arms while grape and canister howled in fearful concert above our heads and through our ranks. General Henry L. Little, our division commander, was shot through the head early in the action and fell from his horse dead. He was sitting by General Price and conversing with him at the time and both Generals were no doubt marked for death by the same hand. The Second Brigade was in the hottest of the fire and hereafter it was known as the “Salamander Brigade” for it literally lives in the fire.” ~Soldier in Colonel John D. Martin’s Fourth Brigade

 

Sergeant Tunnard finishes the story of the 3rd Louisiana at Iuka:

The fighting was of a most desperate character on both sides, the Confederates being opposed by the flower of Rosecrans army, the early volunteers from the West, men accustomed to the use of arms and of undoubted courage. For the third time during the war, the Louisianans met the 5th Iowa regiment, a stalwart body of men- heavy infantry. They were nearly cut to pieces in this battle. At times, both lines would stand and pour destructive volleys into each other’s ranks then the Confederates would rush forward with tremendous yells, invariably driving back the foe in their impetuous charge. The fight was mostly with small arms.

During the fight, Drum Major Patterson carried the colors of the regiment. During the progress of the battle, he advanced in front of the regiment too far, discovering which, he began to fall back to his position in the line. The movement was observed by Lieutenant Babin of Co. A who imagined Patterson was retreating with the colors. Rushing forward, the lieutenant seized the colors shouting, ‘Follow me boys!’ and ran rashly into the midst of the enemy’s line. He was captured with the colors by the foe. It was one of those deeds of reckless bravery and rash daring which men often commit in the excitement of the battle. A story is told about this flag worthy of note. After its capture, a Federal officer gave it to an orderly with instructions to convey it to General Rosecrans’ headquarters. While attempting to execute the mission, he was killed and the next morning these beautiful colors were found on the field of battle amid the dead and wounded beside the cold and silent form of the Federal soldier. The regiment felt bitterly the loss of their flag as only brave men can feel such a misfortune.

The regiments of the Army of the West such as the 3rd Louisiana were issued flags with the above crescent and star design during the summer of 1862. It was reportedly captured at Iuka; I have seen one Federal account stating that the flag of the 3rd Texas was captured at Iuka. Its possible that since the design of the flags were identical, it was mistaken as the flag of the 3rd Texas since that regiment was also heavily engaged in charging the 11th Ohio Battery. The Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center has a flag of similar design that belonged to the 6th Missouri. 

The battle continued until after dark, an incessant prolonged roar of musketry. The captured guns were seized and run to the rear. The battle commenced a little after 4 p.m. and the stubbornness with which the 3rd Louisiana fought is proven by the fact than in less than three hours out of 238 men who went into the fight, 115 were killed and wounded. So close were the lines to each other at the termination of the battle that the opposing forces unknowingly walked into each other’s lines and were forcibly seized and taken prisoners, in many instances resulting in hairs-breadth escapes with the loss only of arms. Darkness put an end to the battle and the men laid down on their arms in full expectation of renewing it early in the morning.

 

 “The guns of the 11th Ohio Battery could not be moved for want of horses, and horses could not live under the fire that was poured around the guns from the ranks of the 11th Missouri and 26th Missouri regiments. The Rebels, after spiking them with nails, abandoned them. Darkness closed the fighting and our army fell back to their reserves, formed a line of battle, and hungry and exhausted, lay down with their arms and passed the night upon the bloody field. Oh God, what a night. The parties detailed to carry the wounded from the field were busily engaged all night in missions of mercy and still the cry for help and the stilted groan of the wounded quailed upon our ears until morning.” ~ Dusty Foot, 10th Missouri Volunteer Infantry

 

As the sable mantle of night fell upon the field of strife, thickly strewn with the dead, dying, and wounded of friend and foe, the First Brigade arrived with loud cheers. The loss in officers by the regiment was fearful. General Little was killed, Colonel Whitfield wounded. Among the killed and wounded of the regiment were Colonel Gilmore, Adjutant J. Harvey Brigham, Captains Gentles, Kinney, and Pierson, Lieutenants Irwin, Johnson, Trichel, Renwick, Hedrick, and Ramora; prisoners Lieutenants Babin and Washburne. The principal part of the fighting was done by the Second Brigade of Little’s division of Price’s army, and General Hebert received merited praise for the masterly skill and gallant manner in which he led his brigade into action. It is unnecessary to state that the Louisiana regiment fully sustained its blood-earned reputation; and this was by far the hardest-fought battle they had yet participated in, and the number of killed and wounded fully attest the truth of the statement and the part they took in the affair.

The astonishment of the men was indescribable when, early the morning after the battle, orders were received to evacuate the place. Soon the long line of infantry was filing through the streets of Iuka, leaving the dead and wounded in the hands of the enemy. We carried off all our trains and artillery including the greater portion of the captured stores of Iuka. The trains had all been prepared to leave previous to the battle. The night after the desperate struggle, the cars were heard all night bringing up reinforcements and probably General Price learned that the enemy were too strong to be successfully encountered.

As the enemy held the Baldwin road, the retreat was conducted on a road east of it known as the Fulton road. There was some confusion in starting. General Price came riding up among the teamsters furious with anger. He was dressed in a many-colored shirt, well known by every soldier in the army as the dress he assumed when there was work to be done. A slouched hat covered his head, and a saber was buckled around his portly person. We never remember to have heard General Price swear, only on this occasion and he was not choice in his language at this time. He ordered the teamsters to drive on, adding “If one of you stops, I’ll hang you, by God!” The trains went out of Iuka on a full run, the teams being urged to their utmost speed. When the load became too heavy, clothing, tents, blankets, and bundles were thrown out on the roadside. If a wagon broke down, the mules were unhitched, and a torch applied to the useless vehicle. There was no time to stop or think of saving the contents of these disabled wagons.

 

Later war flag of the 3rd Louisiana depicting the battle honors of Oak Hill, Elkhorn, Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg. 

Sources:

Tunnard, William H. A Southern Record: The History of the Third Regiment Louisiana Infantry. Baton Rouge: W.H. Tunnard, 1866, pgs. 180-189

Martin’s Brigade quote from “The Battle of Iuka- The Retreat and Safe Arrival of Baldwin,” Daily Missouri Republican (Missouri), October 18, 1862, pg. 3

Letter from Dusty Foot, 10th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, Daily Missouri Republican (Missouri), October 3, 1862, pg. 1

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