Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest led 1,000 Confederate cavalry troopers out of Chattanooga on July 6. Their mission was to raid Federal communication and supply lines in Middle Tennessee. They were also to operate against Federal movements in the region, with their main objective being the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad at Murfreesboro. A small Federal garrison protected that line as it supplied Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio in northern Alabama.
Over the next week, the Confederates rode across the Cumberland Mountains to McMinnville, picking up another five companies to increase their strength to 1,400 men. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Thomas L. Crittenden took command of the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro, which consisted of about 1,400 scattered troops. Crittenden began reorganizing the force, erroneously thinking that there were no enemy forces closer than Chattanooga.
Forrest left McMinnville on the 12th and rode northwest, arriving at Woodbury around 11 p.m. that night. Pro-Confederate residents cheered the troopers’ arrival and informed them of the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro. Residents said the Federals had come into Woodbury the night before, seized most of the men for allegedly having Confederate sympathies, and brought them to Murfreesboro to execute them the next morning. Forrest assured the people that he would save the men.
The Confederates reconnoitered outside Murfreesboro before dawn on the 13th, having rode 50 miles in less than 15 hours. They learned from captured pickets that the Federals had no idea they were there. As the day’s first supply train headed out from Nashville to Stevenson via Murfreesboro, Forrest’s men attacked. Part of his force rode into town to free the prisoners, and part attacked the Federal camp outside town. The Confederates in town saved the prisoners after fleeing Federals tried to burn the jail. They also captured Crittenden and his staff.
Outside town, Forrest’s troopers sent the unsuspecting Federals running, but they eventually regrouped and put up a fight. Colonel Henry C. Lester brought up his Federals from Stones River, who pushed the Confederates back. But then Forrest moved around Lester’s force and destroyed his camp. Keeping Lester’s men occupied, Forrest tricked another portion of the Federal garrison into surrendering by falsely claiming that he had already captured Lester’s command.
Meanwhile, Forrest continuously rode his men in and out of a clearing to make Lester’s Federals think that they were facing overwhelming numbers. Forrest sent a message to Lester: “Colonel, I must demand an unconditional surrender of your force as prisoners of war or I will have every man put to the sword. You are aware of the overpowering force I have at my command, and this demand is made to prevent the effusion of blood.”
Lester surrendered his 450 men and four guns. All told, Forrest took 1,200 prisoners, 50 supply wagons, an artillery battery, and about $250,000 worth of supplies. The Federals lost 29 killed and 120 wounded besides those captured. Forrest lost 25 killed and about 50 wounded.
Forrest’s troopers eventually returned to McMinnville with their captured men and supplies. A detachment of Buell’s army under Major General William “Bull” Nelson was sent to reinforce the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro, but by the time it got there, the garrison had already been captured and Forrest was already gone.
The Confederates moved out of McMinnville again on the 18th, this time riding toward Nashville to divert the attention of Nelson’s new garrison at Murfreesboro. The Federal commander at Nashville learned of Forrest’s advance and dispatched a force to Lebanon, northeast of town. Noting Forrest’s recent victory at Murfreesboro, the commander estimated Forrest’s strength at 7,000 men.
After two days of riding, Forrest’s troopers entered Lebanon and learned that the Federals stationed there had withdrawn the day before to avoid capture. The next day, Forrest (newly promoted to brigadier general) rode through the Hermitage of former President Andrew Jackson and scattered Federal pickets within five miles of Nashville. The Federals in the city telegraphed Nelson to send part of his force northwest from Murfreesboro to help stop Forrest.
The Confederates destroyed telegraph wires, railroad equipment, and three railroad bridges leading to Buell’s army; they also took 97 prisoners. It took the Federals over a week to restore the supply line. Forrest’s men then rode south, avoiding Nelson’s advancing infantry.
Returning to the McMinnville area, the Confederates attacked Federals under Brigadier General William S. Smith as they guarded a secondary railroad line from McMinnville to Tullahoma. Forrest’s raid, along with Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate incursion into Kentucky, not only slowed Buell’s advance on Chattanooga, but it also compelled General Braxton Bragg to lead his Confederates out of Tupelo to try to take back Middle Tennessee.
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- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
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- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.