By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
In the spring and summer of 1864, mighty battles raged across Virginia and Georgia.
But in Northeast Mississippi and western Tennessee, the fights were aimed at the protection or destruction of single-track railroads over which Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies were supplied.
The thorn in Sherman’s side was the Confederate cavalry corps under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
From late April through August 1864, Union troops tried four times to destroy Forrest and his forces. The second and third of these are called the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads and the Battle of Tupelo.
Brice’s was a victory for Forrest, while Tupelo was a major Confederate defeat.
The fourth and final led to the capture of Oxford.
Ultimately, Forrest couldn’t stop the Union supply chain while he was bottled up in Northeast Mississippi. When Atlanta fell Sept. 2, a major roadblock to Lincoln’s re-election was removed.
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In March and April 1864, Sherman telegraphed Maj. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, now commanding Memphis, not to disturb the Rebel cavalry because they could do less harm “cavorting” around the countryside in west Tennessee. But Gen. Ulysses Grant thought otherwise and told Sherman to send sufficient forces to chase Forrest back into Northeast Mississippi.
Going after Forrest was Washburn’s challenge through Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis.
When Sturgis marched from Memphis with 3,000 cavalry and 2,500 infantry on April 30, Forrest pulled out of Jackson, Tenn., and into Northeast Mississippi. Most of his men led by Brig. Gen. Abraham Buford followed the line of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad en route to Tupelo.
Sturgis and his men pursued Forrest as far as Ripley, where they ran out of supplies and turned back to Memphis. They rejoiced that they’d run him out of Tennessee.
But Sherman wanted to ensure Forrest wouldn’t be back. He sent Washburn’s cavalry to strike the Mobile & Ohio at Tupelo and follow it south to Meridian.
By June 2, Sturgis’ troops assembled at Lafayette, Tenn., and headed for Corinth, with plans for Tupelo, even to Okolona, if Forrest were “not within reach.” Cavalry commander was Brig. Gen. Benjamin H. Grierson.
Since late May, Forrest and his men were camped in and around Tupelo. The Rebels knew the only way to stop Sherman’s advance was to destroy his supply line via the railroads.
Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston appealed to Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee as Forrest’s immediate superior to help break the rail lines.
On June 1, Forrest and 2,400 men and six pieces of artillery departed Tupelo to the northeast. But on the morning of June 3, Lee’s courier informed Forrest that a powerful enemy column was advancing toward Corinth, with Okolona as its objective.
They marched back to Tupelo with advice for Brig. Gen. Phillip D. Roddey in the Tennessee Valley to send a brigade to Corinth.
By June 6, Sturgis’ and Forrest’s men converged on staging areas for their march to Brice’s Crossroads.
Grierson’s cavalry took the Union lead. Foes began to encounter each other at Abbeville and Ripley. After a sharp fight at Ripley, Rebel Col. Edmond W. Rucker withdrew down Guntown Road toward Brice’s Crossroads, then northeast to Booneville, where he reported to Forrest.
At Ripley, Union leaders billeted in the home of Mrs. William C. Falkner, the famed author’s grandmother, who told them Forrest had 28,000 men. It gave Sturgis pause, but officers reminded him of their sure disgrace if they returned to Memphis without fighting Forrest.
After a muddy 10-mile march, they camped nine miles northwest of Brice’s Crossroads.
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At Tupelo, S.D. Lee joined Forrest. Their scouts told them the Union’s 10,000 troops – including 3,000 blacks – were led by hard fighting and drinking A.J. “Whiskey” Smith.
Lee advised Forrest to guard Okolona’s vital farming region.
On the morning of June 8, Forrest proceeded from Tupelo to Baldwyn just behind a division led by Buford. Buford’s forces met Rucker’s in Booneville.
They were joined by other Confederate brigades and an artillery battalion.
During the next day, Forrest and Lee planned their strategy. Forrest was to pass through Brice’s Crossroads, then New Albany and Pontotoc. Lee boarded a train for Okolona.
On June 10, each side was slow in moving ahead.
After a greeting from the family of William Brice in the northwest corner of the crossroads, Confederate Lt. Robert Black’s 7th Tennessee company spotted the Union cavalry beyond Dry Creek. The Federals pursued and ran the Confederates back to the crossroads.
Black’s men met Forrest, who ordered the 7th Kentucky Mounted Infantry to charge the enemy, causing the Union cavalry to rein in their steeds.
Before them lay a large field, surrounded by blackjack.
With three regiments dismounted and deployed, and one regiment in reserve, Forrest applied his unique war philosophy, meaning he got “the bulge on the enemy” then kept them scared.
Grierson was unfazed and sent a courier to Sturgis about the encounter. As Sturgis headed to help, he told Grierson to drive the Rebels toward Baldwyn.
But Forrest’s forces kept the pressure on Grierson. With reinforcements to double his ranks, Forrest ordered another attack. Grierson didn’t know he had superior numbers and cannon.
Forrest knew cannons were coming but he determined that an all-out attack might break Grierson’s back. His bugler sounded the charge.
The Union line started to yield, then Rucker’s forces punched a hole through the 7th Indiana as 1 p.m. approached. Union troops began to pull back.
Rebel cannon arrived as the sun beat down. The Federals’ heavy wool uniforms were black and sopped with sweat.
Sturgis arrived to find exhausted troops with little ammunition, then he ordered more infantry into the fight.
By 2 p.m., the Union infantry had relieved its cavalry and braced for an attack. Forrest was ready to deliver a sledgehammer blow.
Forrest alerted Buford to resume the attack on the Union left and center. Forrest pushed the attack against the left.
Fighting was close and vicious.
As the 93rd Indiana fell back, Federal reserves went in. The tide now shifted.
The 8th Mississippi Cavalry broke. The 19th Tennessee regiment also bolted. Forrest did not panic but put himself at the head of his company.
The Union advance was checked. Then 2nd Tennessee moved to block the Tishomingo Creek bridge and attack the Federals’ rear.
After a brief bit of seat-of-the-pants planning, Forrest ordered cannons forward. They hammered the bluecoats and forced them back, compressed into the crossroads.
Federals had hardly any cover, and morale sagged. Men deserted their comrades and slipped to the rear.
The last organized Union unit to evacuate was the 1st Illinois Light Artillery.
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But Forrest was not one to pause when his enemy was on the run.
With dusk at hand, he redeployed his men. Artillery boomed and his “critter cavalry” stormed forward in savage hand-to-hand fighting.
As the Federals evacuated Agnew Ridge and continued up Ripley Road, many of their black soldiers removed their “Remember Fort Pillow” badges, reminders of a Forrest-led assault in April, when 229 of 262 black and white Union soldiers were killed in Tennessee.
Forrest called a halt near the Agnew house as his men captured more than a score of loaded wagons.
The Federals continued their retreat through the dark and many of their teamsters panicked.
Later, Sturgis was urged to regroup. “For God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone, I will let him alone,” he replied.
Forrest wasn’t deterred. His forces swept through the countryside and rounded up prisoners.
By 5 a.m., the Unions reached Ripley, where Sturgis decided to make a stand. But he was a beaten man and the evacuation was disorderly.
Forrest pressed on, on familiar territory, having grown up in Tippah County. But Forrest could not overcome exhaustion. When his horse stumbled and fell, he was knocked unconscious.
However, Buford’s men caught the rear of the Union column and savaged it unmercifully.
Sturgis and his allies ultimately made their way back to Memphis
In the days after Brice’s Crossroads, Forrest found that victory cost him 96 dead, 396 wounded and no missing. Union losses were 223 killed, 503 wounded and 1,800 missing.
His key to victory was his use of cavalry as mounted infantry. The idea did not originate with him, but few quarrel that Forrest was the first to use it in modern times.
Yet the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads had little or no effect on Sherman’s Georgia operations.
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Sherman wanted Forrest dead. He issued orders for Gen. Washburn to put battle-tested officers together and go after Forrest.
Sherman announced that he was prepared to bankrupt the treasury to see Forrest destroyed, and that he would promote A.J. “Whiskey” Smith and Joe Mower to major generals, if they did.
With more than 14,000 veterans, Smith and Mower set out for Tupelo on July 5, 1864. They engaged Forrest there on July 14, with Gen. S.D. Lee directing operations.
Lee ordered an attack, which brought heavy Confederate losses. Smith was low on supplies and returned to Memphis the next day.
Attacking the Union rearguard at Oldtown Creek, Forrest was shot in the foot and badly wounded.
The Federals returned to Memphis, but Sherman ordered Smith and Mower back again. That expedition captured Oxford but was countered by a Forrest raid on Memphis on Aug. 21.
Forrest was not brought to bay until April 1865.
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Four years after the Civil War, Forrest offered his services to Sherman in the event of war with Cuba. Sherman, then commander of the U.S. Army, told Forrest that any war with Cuba likely would be a naval affair.
But Sherman told the War Department that “were it up to me in the event of a war requiring cavalry, I would unhesitatingly accept his services and give him a prominent place.”
Special thanks to Ed Bearss and his “Forrest Puts the Skeer on the Yankees,” Blue & Gray magazine, Summer 1999.