July 14, 1864 – Federal forces held off an assault from Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry, but Forrest remained a major threat in the region.
As July began, Forrest’s troopers continued disrupting Federal lines of supply and communication in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. Major General William T. Sherman, the overall Federal commander in the Western Theater, directed Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn, commanding at Memphis, “to make up a force and go out and follow Forrest to the death, if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury.”
Washburn assigned Major General Andrew J. Smith to lead this latest expedition. It was hoped that Smith would have more success than Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis did in June. Smith’s command consisted of 14,200 men that included a black infantry brigade, a cavalry division under Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson, and six guns.
Smith was to “pursue Forrest on foot, devastating the land over which he passed or may pass, and make him and the people of Tennessee and Mississippi realize that, although (he is) a bold, daring, and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pause or tarry. If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our past conquests will be lost.”
The Federals left La Grange, Tennessee, on the 5th and moved south into Mississippi, clashing with Forrest at Ripley two days later. After driving the Confederates off, Smith directed his men to burn the town courthouse, along with many churches and private homes. The Federals continued leaving destruction in their wake as they crossed the Tallahatchie River and swept through New Albany.
Smith’s men reached Pontotoc on the 11th, where they met increased resistance. Meanwhile, Forrest gathered a force of about 6,000 Confederates at Okolona to the south. Major General Stephen D. Lee, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, had ordered Forrest not to provoke a battle until Lee could bring up reinforcements, so Forrest waited at Okolona in hopes of luring Smith into an ambush.
Lee had received word that Federal forces were going to move east from New Orleans to attack Mobile. He therefore planned to hurry 2,000 Confederates to reinforce Forrest, and then once Smith was defeated, Lee would send these troops to defend Mobile.
Meanwhile, Smith thwarted Forrest’s ambush by turning instead toward Tupelo, 15 miles east on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Grierson’s cavalry rode ahead of the main Federal body to wreck railroad tracks north and south of the town. The Federals repelled harassing attacks on their flanks and rear before stopping on the night of the 13th on a low ridge at Harrisonburg, two miles west of Tupelo.
Earlier on the 13th, Lee arrived at Okolona with his reinforcements to join with Forrest. Lee took command of the combined force of 8,000 men and led it in pursuit of Smith. The Confederates arrived opposite the Federal positions at Harrisonburg that night. Forrest said to Lee:
“The enemy have a strong position, have thrown up defensive works and are vastly our superior in numbers and it will not do for us to attack them under such conditions. One thing is certain, the enemy cannot remain long where he is. He must come out, and when he does, all I ask or wish is to be turned loose with my command. I will be on all sides of him, attacking day and night. He shall not cook a meal or have a night’s sleep, and I will wear his army to a frazzle before he gets out of the country.”
Lee rejected this plan because it would take too long, and he needed to hurry his troops to Mobile. Lee instead opted to launch an all-out assault on the numerically superior enemy force in the morning. An erroneous report from a Confederate scout stating that the Federals were preparing to retreat further emboldened Lee to attack.
On the morning of the 14th, Lee had trouble getting his men into line, which caused delays. The Confederates finally advanced at 7 a.m., but the attacks were disjointed and piecemeal, and the Federals easily beat them back with concentrated artillery and small arms fire. The Confederates never got within 30 yards of the enemy line.
Lee ordered a halt to the attack after two hours. Both sides continued skirmishing, and the Federals burned several buildings in the town that night. In a rare victory over Forrest, the Federals sustained 674 casualties (77 killed, 559 wounded and 38 missing), while the Confederates lost 1,347 men (210 killed, 1,116 wounded, and 41 missing). Forrest was among the wounded, shot in the foot. Rumors spreading among the Federals that Forrest was dead were quickly dispelled.
Smith could have counterattacked the next day and destroyed the Confederate force, but he learned that his men had just one day’s rations left because most of the food had spoiled in the heat, and he was short on ammunition. He therefore followed up his tactical victory by withdrawing east through Tupelo. Lee directed Forrest to pursue the Federals.
Forrest’s Confederates chased Smith back into Tennessee but were repeatedly thwarted by his rear guard. The Federals returned to La Grange on the 20th, where they boarded trains to Memphis. Smith reported to Washburn the next day, “I bring back everything in good order, nothing lost.”
Smith kept Forrest away from Sherman’s supply line on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, but he did not destroy Forrest’s command as ordered. Sherman wrote that Smith should “pursue and continue to follow Forrest. He must keep after him till recalled… It is of vital importance that Forrest does not go to Tennessee.” Smith immediately began preparing for another campaign.
Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 765-66; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 516; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433, 436-37, 439; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10672-755; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465, 467-70, 472; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 534-35, 537-40, 544-45; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 748; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 694