August 21, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his Confederate cavalry on a daring raid while Federal forces were out trying to hunt him down.
After the Battle of Tupelo in July, the Federals had regrouped and renewed their efforts to destroy Forrest’s command, which threatened Federal supply lines in Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn, the new Federal department commander at Memphis, announced that Major General Andrew J. Smith’s new Federal force would “whip the combined force of the enemy this side of Georgia and east of the Mississippi.”
Washburn informed his superior, Major General William T. Sherman, that Smith would renew his hunt for Forrest “as soon as possible… Forrest’s forces were near Okolona a week since. (Brigadier General James R.) Chalmers in command. Forrest not been able to resume command by reason of wound in fight with Smith (last month). I have a report today that he died of lockjaw some days ago.” The report was wrong.
Smith led about 18,000 Federals on another expedition in search of Forrest in early August. They entered northern Mississippi and crossed the Tallahatchie River, and Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson’s Federal cavalry seized Oxford, an important town on the Mississippi Central Railroad. Forrest directed Chalmers to “contest every inch of ground” as he led a division to oppose Grierson at Oxford.
Grierson fell back to Smith’s main force, which was building a bridge across the Tallahatchie. Rain delayed their operations for a week, during which time Forrest assembled a Confederate force at Oxford. While Chalmers held Smith off with 3,000 men, Forrest planned to lead 2,000 troopers north to raid the Federal headquarters at Memphis.
Forrest knew that Sherman had ordered Washburn to assign most of his men to Smith’s expedition, which meant that the Memphis garrison was weak. Forrest did not intend to capture Memphis, but rather he sought to capture the Federal commanders there, free imprisoned Confederates, and relieve Federal pressure in northern Mississippi.
Forrest did not tell his men that they were going to Memphis, but as they crossed the Tallahatchie on the 19th, rumors quickly spread that Memphis was their objective. They stopped the next evening at Hernando, just 25 miles from the city. Forrest resumed the advance around midnight, relying on the element of surprise. He stopped at 3 a.m. to deliver final instructions, and the Confederates used the dense fog to gallop into Memphis just before dawn.
The raiders failed to free the prisoners at Irving Block Prison. They also did not capture any of the Federal commanders. Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, the former Memphis commander, was not there; Brigadier General R.P. Buckland held Fort Pickering; and Washburn escaped in his night clothes to join Buckland. Forrest did take Washburn’s uniform, but he later returned it.
Forrest ordered a withdrawal at 9 a.m., and the Confederates fell back along the same route they had taken north. They cut telegraph wires while seizing 500 prisoners and a large amount of horses and supplies. Hurlbut, who had been criticized for failing to stop Forrest, later said, “There it goes again! They superseded me with Washburn because I could not keep Forrest out of West Tennessee, and Washburn cannot keep him out of his own bedroom!”
The Confederates did not achieve their first two objectives, but they did achieve the third: Smith ordered his Federals to withdraw from northern Mississippi when he learned of Forrest’s raid. The troops vindictively destroyed Oxford before leaving; a reporter noted, “Where once stood a handsome little country town now only remain the blackened skeletons of houses, and smouldering ruins.”
Rumors that Forrest would return to Memphis caused a citywide panic. Washburn responded by strengthening the garrison at Fort Pickering and arranging for the navy to send him gunboats. Although the rumors proved false, Washburn’s inspector general later said, “The whole town was stampeded” in “the most disgraceful affair I have ever seen.”
Sherman tried putting a positive spin on this Federal embarrassment, telegraphing Washburn, “If you get the chance, send word to Forrest that I admire his dash but not his judgment. The oftener he runs his head against Memphis the better.” However, Forrest remained at large, where he could disrupt Sherman’s supply lines into Georgia and keep Federal forces in Tennessee and Mississippi on high alert.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 449; 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 10745-55, 10766-870; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 480, 485, 489; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 558-59