April 2, 1865 – Federal cavalry led by Major General James H. Wilson captured the important manufacturing city of Selma, Alabama.
Selma was one of the Confederacy’s largest military manufacturing centers still in operation. Over 10,000 people worked at the Ordnance and Naval Foundry, which produced rifles, cannon, ammunition, ironclad warships, and other war materiel.
Efforts to capture Selma had been made by Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson in 1863 and Major Generals William T. Sherman and Lovell Rousseau in 1864, but the city was too deep within the Confederate interior to be taken. But by this time, Confederate resources had been depleted to the point that they could hardly resist another thrust into southern Alabama.
On March 22, Wilson set out from Gravelly Springs, Alabama, with three cavalry divisions totaling 13,500 men. This was the largest mounted force ever assembled on the continent. His opponent was Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose troopers had bested and confounded Federal generals throughout the war. But according to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, Forrest had “neither his old-time army nor his old-time prestige. He now had principally conscripts… not enough to even retard materially the progress of Wilson’s cavalry.” Moreover, Forrest’s troopers were dangerously scattered.
At dawn, Wilson advanced from Maplesville Station with the two divisions of Brigadier Generals Eli Long and Emory Upton. Long moved south on the Federal right, while Upton moved on a parallel road to Long’s left (east). The two divisions would join forces where the two roads joined to form the main Selma road. Wilson ordered them to “press the enemy vigorously and charge them whenever they attempted to make a stand.” The force totaled about 9,000 men.
Forrest was compelled to spread out what he had of his command to meet both Wilson coming from the west and a potential Federal thrust from Pensacola to the south. Forrest hoped to be reinforced by the two divisions of Brigadier Generals William H. Jackson and James R. Chalmers, but Jackson was blocked by the Cahawba River and Chalmers could not get there before the Federals attacked. Forrest fell back to the intersection of the Randolph road and the main Selma road, near Ebenezer Church. He hoped to hold the Federals there until Chalmers arrived. Forrest had just 2,000 men, most of whom were either teenaged boys or old men.
Advance elements of Forrest’s army held the enemy off until 4 p.m., but then the Federals broke through the Confederate center. The men engaged in ferocious hand-to-hand combat that included Forrest killing a Federal officer who had slashed him with his saber. The Federals fell back, but then they came on again, this time hitting both the Confederate center and the untried Alabama militia on the right. The Alabamans broke, prompting Forrest to order a retreat just before the Federals could surround and destroy his command. The Federals took three guns and over 300 prisoners. Chalmers never arrived.
Forrest entered Selma the next morning, with the “horse and rider covered in blood.” He advised Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederates in the city, to evacuate Selma, and Taylor agreed. He placed Forrest in charge of the city’s strong fortifications. These included numerous redans, abatis, palisades, and trenches. The Alabama River served as a natural barrier to attack on one side of the city.
The fieldworks were designed for a garrison of 20,000 men, but even with additional volunteers and reinforcements coming into Selma, Forrest could muster no more than 4,000 for duty. To cover the entire line, the men had to stand 10 to 12 feet apart. Forrest knew that resistance was futile, but he hoped to stall until Taylor evacuated or destroyed the military supplies.
Wilson’s two divisions reached Selma’s outskirts around 2 p.m., having advanced 300 miles through the Deep South in just 12 days. The Federals had captured the engineer who designed the Selma defenses, and he sketched the layout for Wilson. Even so, had the works been adequately manned, they would have easily repelled a mounted assault.
Long was assigned to attack the Confederate right. The dismounted Federals had to march 600 yards across an open field, but they were armed with repeating carbines and supported by artillery. The Confederates opened on the approaching enemy with musket fire and solid shot, even though they could have gotten canister (which was much more effective against massed attacks) from the Selma ordnance factories just a few miles away.
The Federals sustained heavy losses (Long himself was among the wounded), but they finally climbed the parapets and seized the works after 30 minutes of vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Meanwhile, Upton’s division worked its way through a swamp and attacked the Confederate left. Wilson then led a mounted charge down the Selma road that was knocked back until he ordered his men to dismount and try again. This time the Confederate line broke.
Forrest tried making a final stand at the railroad depot, but by 7 p.m. he was outflanked and on the verge of being surrounded. The Confederates retreated across the Alabama River as night fell; many escaped by swimming across. Forrest, Taylor, and other top officers also got away. The Federals took 2,700 prisoners and captured 102 guns while losing just 359 men (46 killed, 300 wounded, and 13 missing).
The Federals quickly took charge of Selma and spent the next week destroying most of the military works, factories, mills, warehouses, buildings, and homes. This ensured that Selma would no longer contribute to the Confederate war effort. It also demonstrated that Federal forces could now control the interior of the Deep South.
With Selma in Federal hands, Wilson resumed his eastward raid by next targeting the first Confederate capital–Montgomery.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 553-54; ExploreSouthernHistory.com: Battle of Selma; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 574-76; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 572; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 160; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 661-64; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 665-66, 834; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 832-33; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 235