combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006

Son of Mississippi

It was October 4th, 1862, and Colonel William Rogers, who'd spent most of his life in Mississippi, had come home as commander of the Second Texas Infantry to wrest control of the important railway hub of Corinth from the hated Yankees. It had been considered an insult when William Rosecrans and his Union army captured and occupied northern Mississippi and western Tennessee, and Earl Van Dorn was determined to do something about it with men like William Rogers leading the way. They would start with Corinth.

Colonel William P. Rogers

William Peleg Rogers was born December 27th, 1819. Different references give different birthdates but the one given by his daughter in her writings is considered accurate. He was actually born in Georgia while his Alabamian parents were visiting there. However, soon after his birth, the family settled on a plantation near Aberdeen, Monroe County, Mississippi, and Rogers always considered himself a Mississippian.

William Rogers ethnicity has always been a subject of debate, but most believe he was part Chickasaw Indian, and he was said to be half brother to Sam Houston's wife, Tiana Rogers, who was half Cherokee.

The Mexican War, which began in 1846, would launch Rogers on his military career, and also demonstrate his aggressive personality and his inordinate sense of fair play. This would bring him into conflict with Jefferson Davis, whom Rogers felt used his command improperly. Considering that Rogers was the first to scale the walls of the fort at Monterrey, and that he and his command performed admirably during the victory at Buena Vista in February of 1847, his complaints seem justified. But Davis, a petulant man, never forgave Rogers and this was no doubt the reason that Rogers was only a colonel, leading troops into battle somewhere behind the lines on an October day in 1862, rather than a major general, as many thought he should have been.

When the Mexican War ended, Rogers returned to his wife and six children in Mississippi, only to find that his brilliant war record carried little weight in his home state. He lost an election for Clerk of the Chancery Court and was turned down in his quest for appointment as a federal marshal. He was about to run for election as state auditor when his friend and former commander in the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, tossed him a political plum by appointing him United States Consul at the port of Vera Cruz in Mexico in 1849. Martha promptly informed him that she would not take her children out of the United States, and would go only as far as the new (1845) state of Texas; forcing Rogers to go to Vera Cruz alone.

Things went well until 1851, when false allegations that one of his agents had embezzled federal funds, forcing his abrupt resignation. Impugning his character was the ultimate insult to a man like Rogers. He returned to his family at Washington-on-the-Brazos, and quickly became a man of prominence as a defense attorney. He also became a professor in the law department at Baylor University.

In 1859, he moved to Houston, where he became a fixture in the secessionist movement, causing a split between himself and relative such as Governor Sam Houston, who had labored mightily to get Texas into the Union and then keep her there. Rogers signed the ordinance of secession on February 1st, 1861 and would soon become a soldier in the new Confederacy.

At his wife's insistence, Rogers turned down a colonel's commission in the First Texas Infantry, since it would have taken him to Virginia, but accepted the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Second Texas, destined for the western theater of operations. No doubt in that day, Virginia seemed a world away to Martha and she wanted her husband a little closer to home.

Combat was not long in coming, and Rogers would soon be leading the Second Texas into battle at Shiloh, Tennessee on April 6th, 1862. It's been said that the bloody battle of Shiloh caused both sides to realize that it would be a long and costly war; and this was no doubt brought home to Rogers as the Second Texas lost one third of its men. "The gallantry of our regiment is spoken by all" Rogers wrote to Martha. He was promoted to full colonel. In August of that year, the officers of twenty regiments addressed a letter to the Confederate War Department asking that Rogers be promoted to major general. Rogers told his compatriots he was honored, but he knew that now President Davis would never accede to their request.

Corinth, Mississippi, where the Memphis and Charleston railroads and the Mobile and Ohio railroads intersected, was considered to be of extreme importance by both armies for its strategic value, and had psychological value for the South. It was from Corinth that General Albert Sidney Johnson led his army to do battle at Shiloh, and it was to Corinth that his defeated army retreated. But they could not stay due to lack of supplies and no hope of obtaining any. Under cover of night, they withdrew and the Federal army of William Starke Rosecrans moved in.

Earl Van Dorn, over the objections of Sterling Price, had been named commander of the Confederate armies of the west. Van Dorn had a reputation as a brave but impatient officer who was not very open to advice from his subordinates. Van Dorn was impatient to recapture Corinth, and in mid September, wired Sterling Price, asking that Price move his army to Ripley, Mississippi, just thirty-five miles southwest of Corinth, where Van Dorn and his command were waiting. Together they would form plans for the retaking of Corinth.

At their meeting, Price suggested waiting until fifteen thousand exchanged prisoners now in Jackson could be added to the twenty-two thousand troops now available. But Van Dorn did not want to wait, believing that a surprise attack on Corinth before the Yankees had time to strengthen their defenses would bring victory. It was a bad miscalculation.

William Rosecrans, master planner that he was, already knew of the Rebel army to his south, due to reconnaissance by his cavalry. His only mistake was believing he faced forty thousand Rebels, but this worked in his favor, as he called in all available reinforcements, bringing his total to twenty-five thousand. He now outnumbered Van Dorn.

Meanwhile, Van Dorn, who thought his movements toward Corinth disguised his intentions as to just where he was going to attack, ran into a problem when he found the bridge across the Hatchie River partially destroyed. He was slowly losing any hope of surprise, and lost all hope of surprise when he ran into a force of reconnoitering Federal cavalry. Another commander might have reconsidered, but Van Dorn was intent on retaking Corinth. He called his officers together and described his intentions. All became disgruntled when they realized they would be attacking a prepared enemy. Sterling Price would later say that only one person wanted to go through with the attack – Earl Van Dorn himself.

Van Dorn would actually be attacking a series of defense lines, some built by the South and some by the North. Confederate General Beauregard had built the original line of light defensive entrenchments two-and-a-half miles from Corinth, that extended around the line in an arc. During the Union occupation, Major General Halleck, who loved building entrenchments, had built another line one-and-a-half miles from the city, and the key to Corinth, a strongly built system of breastworks and gun emplacements, constituted a third line. The key to this last line was two exceptionally strong positions, known as Battery Williams and Battery Robinette. At battle's end, whoever held these two positions would be the victor.

At 10am on October 3rd, 1862, the battle for Corinth begins. The first day goes surprisingly well for the Confederates and they carry Rosecrans' outer defenses. Nightfall finds Van Dorn's army drawn up in battle line around the inner defenses of Corinth. But again Van Dorn has miscalculated, overestimating himself and underestimating his enemy. While all of his army has been engaged during the first days fighting, he doesn't realize he will be facing fresh Union troops in the morning. He is so flush with victory that he wires Richmond – "We have driven the enemy from every position. So far all is glorious, our men have behaved nobly."

At 4am October 4th, the Rebel army is awakened and heartened by their artillery shelling Yankee positions. But with dawn they quickly become disheartened when they see what awaits them.

To their four-hundred yard wide front lies an abatis of felled trees with the branches interlaced, causing one Rebel to say – "the most obstructive abatis it was my misfortune to see during the entire war." Behind the abatis is Battery Robinette, in front of which is a six-foot high wall of dirt and directly in front of the wall of dirt is a ditch six-feet deep. Robinette has three twenty-pound siege guns, and not far away on a hill is Battery Williams with its four twenty-pound siege guns and two eight-inch howitzers trained directly in front of Robinette. On the crest of that hill waits Battery F of the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery with its six guns also trained on the clearing in front of Robinette. Just down from Battery F is infantry, the 47th Illinois armed with Springfield rifles. The 43rd Ohio and the 11th Missouri man breastworks that flank Batteries Williams and Robinette. To the right of Robinette is the 63rd Ohio. North of the breastworks are two more artillery batteries.

General Maury's command, which includes William Rogers, now an acting brigadier general in command of the 2nd, the Sixth and Ninth Texas, a company of the 42nd Alabama and a portion of the 35th Mississippi, is ordered to make a frontal attack on Battery Robinette, while other units will attack all along the line at 10am.

Colonel Rogers knows what he's facing, so he puts on an armored vest and pins a short note on his clothing, giving his name, age, rank, command, and the address of friends.

Confederate advance

Rogers' command begins taking galling artillery fire even before they line up to attack. They hug the earth and wait for Van Dorn's 10am signal.

The attack does not go off as planned. General Hebert's division never gets into the fight, as he reports sick and his next in command, suddenly finding himself in command of a division, takes no action. Only Maury's division gets into the fight on time, and the gallant Rogers lines up his men in a woods west of his assignment, Battery Robinette.

Captain Oscar Jackson of the 63rd Ohio describes what he saw – "In my campaigning I had never seen anything so hard to stand as that slow, steady tramp of Rogers and his men. They made not a sound but looked as if they intended to walk right over us. I afterwards took a bayonet charge when the enemy came on us at the double quick but it was not so trying on the nerves as that steady, solemn advance, with the man leading them astride a sleek black stallion."

Full Union attention now fell on Rogers and his men, and fire is concentrated on them. They hack and scramble their way through the abatis while shrapnel explodes over their heads. Once through the abatis, they reform while Battery Robinette switched from shells to grape shot and canister, cutting huge swaths in the advancing Southerners. One Confederate later wrote home to his father – "We advanced through open hilly ground from which there was no protection. It was as if hell had been let loose, shells bursting all around, round shot plowing the ground and canister sweeping the ground by the bushel. It is a miracle how anyone escaped." But most did and soon they were in rifle range, and the Springfields of the 47th Illinois open up. The siege guns switch to bags of buckshot and fire into the coming Rebels.

death of William Rogers

Again Oscar Jackson reports what he saw – "The column was in full view and only about thirty yards distant ... boys, give them a volley. As the smoke cleared away, there was apparently ten yards square of a mass of struggling bodies in butternut clothes. Their column reeled like a rope shaken at the end. Still, they deployed their columns and gave us a volley, but fired too low. We gave them another volley and they broke back in confusion."

The Southerners are forced to fall back. One of their many casualties was Halbert Rogers, son of the Colonel, who is carried off in a blanket.

Oscar Jackson goes on – "When I saw the enemy fall back I remarked that we would not have to fight these men again this day as I thought it would be impossible, but strange to say, just forty minutes later here they came again with that slow steady step and that gallant officer still astride his black steed. Then they came at us with a yell on the double quick. They dashed themselves against us like water on a rock and were again repulsed and driven back."

At this point the colors of the second Texas fall to the ground as the fourth colorbearer of the day goes down. This time Rogers himself scoops up the flag and gallops back to his men. He waves the standard and asks who will return to the fight, who will follow him. Amazingly, the Southerners give a shout of approval and reform their ranks. Who wouldn't follow Colonel William Rogers?

Rogers holds the colors aloft, keeping his horse at a slow pace so as to not outdistance his men. Soon, they reach the ditch in front of Battery Robinette. Rogers jumps his horse over the ditch, dismounts, scrambles up the side of the battery and plants the colors upon the fort. The Rebels yell and follow Rogers into the fort, scattering the defenders. Robinette is theirs!

where William Rogers fell

The Texans, Alabamians, and Mississippians are jubilant, but alas their jubilation is short lived. They look up to see an ocean of blue advancing upon them. It's the 63rd Ohio, the 43rd Ohio, and the 11th Missouri launching a counterattack. They may have been driven off by the irresistible charge of Rogers and his men but that does not mean they are beaten. William Rogers knows he is beaten; so he pulls a white handkerchief from his pocket and waves surrender. But some of the Southerners do not see his sign of surrender and begin firing at the attacking Unionists, sparking return fire from the men in blue, who return a fierce volley. Eleven bullets hit Colonel William Rogers and he falls to the ground dead. No doubt, if he knew he was destined to die in battle, he would have preferred to die on this spot.

In essence, the Battle of Corinth was a fight between an aggressive commander who believed a frontal attack by the right troops at the right spot in the line would bring victory, as opposed to a cautious commander who believed careful planning for the employment of well equipped, rested troops would win any battle. The aggressive commander this day, Earl Van Dorn, was wrong, and the cautious commander, William Starke Rosecrans, was right. But October 4th, 1862 did not belong to either of these men. From that day until this day, when the Battle of Corinth is the topic of discussion, one name stands out – William Peleg Rogers.

Both friend and foe were effusive in their praise. One Northern correspondent reported – "It is the concurrent testimony of all who witnessed it that the charge made by the head of the rebel column on our breastworks, on Saturday had no parallel in this war for intrepid, obstinate courage and none to equal it in history. The Second Texas Infantry, under Colonel Rogers, lead[sic] the charge, and the Colonel himself fell on our breastworks, with the colors of his regiment in his hand. After the battle, but four of his Regiment was[sic] left alive and three of these were wounded and taken prisoner."

William Rosecrans inspects the field at battle's end, discovers the body of William Rogers, and asks his men to uncover the face so he can see it. "He was one of the bravest men who ever led a charge. Bury him with military honors and mark his grave to be sure he will be found."

Rogers' gravesite

Van Dorn was lavish in his praise – "I cannot refrain, however from mentioning here the conspicuous gallantry of a noble Texan, whose deeds at Corinth are the constant theme of both friend and foe. As long as courage, manliness, fortitude, patriotism, and honor exist, the name of Rogers will be revered and honored among men."

The American Civil War would grind on for two-and-a-half more years before we stopped killing each other. No one man could have reversed the result of the war, but we cannot help but wonder, had Rogers lived, what further glory he would have attained.

Many men who made their mark during the Civil War continued doing great things when they returned to civilian life. Had Rogers decided against a third charge at Battery Robinette, he might well have been one of those classic citizen soldiers.

      The Second Texas
      A Comprehensive History of Texas
      The Battle of Corinth
    The author tenders special thanks to Margaret Greene Rogers of the Confederate Museum in Corinth, Mississippi.

by Don Haines
... who is a U.S. Army Cold War veteran, American Legion Post 191 chaplain, a retired Registered Nurse, and freelance writer; whose work has previously appeared in this magazine as well as in World War Two History, and many other publications.

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