November 1, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry moved south up the Tennessee River on two captured Federal transports to disrupt Federal river traffic en route to Johnsonville.
Forrest loaded his troopers onto the ships Undine and Venus, making them a makeshift navy or a “cavalry afloat.” His artillerists remained on shore, pulling their guns along the riverbank. Their objective was Johnsonville, named for Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson and the site of a large Federal supply depot holding stocked warehouses, wagon trains, and transport ships. Most of these supplies were earmarked for Major General George H. Thomas’s Federals at Nashville and Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals in Georgia.
The Federal gunboats U.S.S. Key West and Tawah encountered the captured vessels on the 2nd. They ran the Venus aground and damaged the Undine, which the Confederates burned to prevent recapture. Forrest lost 11 men (two killed and nine wounded) and two guns from the Venus. Undaunted, he challenged the gunboats to another fight, and when they declined, he continued toward Johnsonville. Forrest reported:
“The wharf at Johnsonville was lined with transports and gun-boats. An immense warehouse presented itself and was represented as being stored with the most valuable supplies, while several acres of the shore were covered with every description of army stores.”
The Confederates placed artillery directly opposite Johnsonville around 3 p.m. on the 4th and began shelling the barges being unloaded and the gunboats protecting them. Four gunboats were disabled, including the Key West, Tawah, and Elfin. The naval commander, Lieutenant Edward King, declared, “Johnsonville can only be saved by a large force of iron-clads.” He hurriedly burned many steamers and barges to prevent their capture.
Forrest’s men then turned on the land installations, and within two hours, all the abundant Federal stores, warehouses, and wagon trains were set on fire. Johnsonville was left in ruins.
The Federal base commander estimated damage at $2.2 million, not including the gunboats lost. Forrest estimated the damage at $6.7 million, including the gunboats. All told, the Johnsonville raid resulted in the Federal loss of four gunboats, 14 steamers, 17 barges, 33 guns, 150 men, and over 75,000 tons of supplies. Forrest’s Confederates had disrupted Federal supply lines around Nashville and diverted Federal troops from other areas to stop the threat.
This was an embarrassment to Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, the new commander of the Mississippi River Squadron. Federal officials censured the officers at Johnsonville, especially King. The colonel of the 43rd Wisconsin criticized King’s decision to burn the ships, stating, “I do not think there was the most remote necessity of burning either the transports or gun-boats, as the enemy had made no demonstration to cross whatever, nor could they have crossed and captured them under our fire.”
Thomas ordered Major General John Schofield to lead XXIII Corps to Johnsonville. Schofield arrived at Nashville ahead of his men and reported to Thomas that he had “been very seriously delayed the past three days by small runoffs, slippery tracks, bunching of the trains 10 and 20 together, and telegraphic communication imperfect from the storm blocking road, so we could not get any trains around.”
Schofield led the men he had available–two brigades–to start bolstering the Johnsonville garrison. Thomas reported to Sherman that the garrison commander “is hard at work, and says in a short time he will be able to make a successful fight against any attack the enemy may make on him.” Thomas could not pinpoint where Forrest went, but “with General Schofield and his command there, in addition to the force already in place, I have no fear of the enemy getting possession of the town.”
Sherman, the overall military division commander, fumed, “… that devil Forrest was down about Johnsonville and was making havoc among the gun-boats and transports.” Believing that General P.G.T. Beauregard had assumed overall Confederate command in the region, Sherman directed Thomas, “I would not advise you to send too large a force to Johnsonville, as they cannot be anything but Forrest’s cavalry there. Send some heavier guns and some re-enforcements, but keep your main force in hand till Beauregard develops his plans.”
Major General Jacob D. Cox, serving under Schofield, later wrote that when Schofield reached Johnsonville, “he soon saw the real state of affairs, and advised Thomas that the two brigades were enough.” He reported this to Thomas, who replied, “I would rather have you and the greater part of your force at Pulaski, as I want you to take personal charge of the troops there, as my attention may be called frequently to other points.”
In accordance with Thomas’s direction, Schofield turned to gathering the bulk of his force at Pulaski. Meanwhile, Forrest was on his way to Corinth, Mississippi, to link with General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee.
Brooksher, William R. and Snider, David K., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 399; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 482-83; 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 12992-3023; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 517-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 592-93; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 220-21