Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee had advanced southward as far as Oxford, Mississippi, in an effort to capture the Mississippi River bastion of Vicksburg. Opposing Grant was the Confederate Army of Mississippi under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, but Pemberton feared that he lacked the strength to hold Grant off. He called on General Joseph E. Johnston, the new commander of the Western Theater, for reinforcements.
Johnston initially tried to pull troops from Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department, but he had no official authority over Holmes, and Holmes refused to help. Johnston then turned to General Braxton Bragg, whose Army of Tennessee was stationed at Murfreesboro. Bragg’s resources were limited, but he agreed to detach cavalry under Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest, currently about 40 miles south of Nashville at Columbia.
Grant’s supply line stretched nearly 200 miles, all the way up to Columbus, Kentucky, via the Mississippi Central and the Mobile & Ohio railroads. Forrest’s mission was to target this vulnerable line in hopes that cutting the Federal supply line would force Grant to abandon Mississippi. Forrest was to “throw his command rapidly over the Tennessee River and precipitate it upon the enemy’s lines, break up railroads, burn bridges, destroy depots, capture hospitals and guards, and harass him generally.” His troop brigade consisted of four regiments and a four-gun battery totaling 2,100 men from Tennessee and Alabama. This force moved out on December 11.
The troopers cut telegraph lines as they rode toward the Federal supply base at Jackson, Tennessee. Brigadier General Jeremiah C. Sullivan, commanding the Federal District of Jackson, reported on the 15th, “Forrest is crossing (the) Tennessee (River) at Clifton.” This was correct, as the Confederates crossed using two flatboats and making their horses swim. Forrest sunk the boats in a nearby creek so they could be retrieved and used again on their return trip.
When Grant received Sullivan’s message, he replied, “Don’t fail to get up a force and attack the enemy. Never wait to have them attack you.” The next day, Sullivan dispatched 700 troops and two guns under Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll to intercept Forrest at Lexington, 28 miles east. Ingersoll’s men were from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Unionist Tennessee, but only 200 were veterans.
Ingersoll deployed pickets along Beech Creek, five miles east of Lexington, and awaited Forrest’s approach. He also deployed his artillery and ordered his men to burn the bridges spanning the creek on the State and Lower roads leading into the town. But for some reason the Federals left the bridge on the Lower road, south of Lexington, intact.
At dawn on the 18th, Major Otto Funke led Federal troops down the State road and attacked Forrest’s encampment. The Confederates quickly sprang to action, trading fire with the Federals and holding them in place while the bulk of Forrest’s brigade worked around Funke’s right to the Lower road. The Confederates crossed the intact bridge and routed Federals under Colonel Isaac R. Hawkins.
Ingersoll tried to rally the Federals, but by that time the Confederates had enfiladed him and drove his men back to their guns. The Federals repelled three charges, but the fourth broke their line and sent them fleeing in a rout. The Confederates captured the two guns and 150 men, including Ingersoll. Forrest’s men acknowledged the Federals’ valor in standing up to their charges before finally breaking.
In addition to the men taken prisoner, the Federals sustained 17 casualties while Forrest lost 35. Federals who escaped fled to Jackson and warned Sullivan that Forrest was coming with 10,000 men. In fact, Sullivan outnumbered Forrest four-to-one, but Forrest’s troopers soon spread terror throughout the Federal garrisons in western Tennessee.
The Confederates next approached Jackson, where they carried out their mission by destroying sections of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad eight miles north of town, and the Mississippi Central to the south. This caused supply delays for the men of both Grant’s and Major General William S. Rosecrans’s armies.
On the 20th, Forrest split his command in two and seized both Humboldt and Trenton, inflicting 50 casualties at Humboldt. Forrest’s troopers also began wrecking a 60-mile section of the Mobile & Ohio linking Jackson and Union City near the Kentucky border. Meanwhile, Sullivan deployed his Federals in a feeble pursuit, and Forrest paroled the 1,200 Federals he had taken prisoner since his raid began.
Forrest’s men captured Union City, which Forrest made his headquarters. From there, they rode north into Kentucky and destroyed track on the Mobile & Ohio within 10 miles of Columbus. The troopers encountered minimal opposition as they wrecked so much track that the railroad could not be used for the rest of the war.
On Christmas Eve, Forrest reported to Bragg that his men had killed or captured 1,300 Federals, “including 4 colonels, 4 majors, 10 captains, and 23 lieutenants.” During that time, his brigade lost just 22 men. Forrest wrote, “My men have all behaved well in action, and as soon as rested a little you will hear from me in another quarter.”
Forrest’s troopers moved southeast from Union City on Christmas Day. They wrecked track on the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad while trying to get back to the Tennessee River and finish the raid. However, Forrest was blocked by the flooded Obion River and other streams beyond the railroad. In addition, Federal gunboats patrolled the major waterways, Sullivan’s men had burned several bridges to prevent Forrest from crossing, and Federal forces were closing in.
Grant telegraphed Washington, “I have Forrest in a tight place. My troops are moving on him from three directions, and I hope with success.” However, Forrest’s troopers dodged Colonel John W. Fuller’s 3rd Brigade and rode to McLemoresville, east of the Mobile & Ohio. Panic spread throughout Federal installations along the Mississippi River from Columbus to Memphis that Forrest would strike them next.
By the 30th, Forrest was camped at Red Mound near Parker’s Store, between Memphis and Nashville. He planned to retrieve the sunken flatboats and re-cross the Tennessee River to end the raid. However, a Federal brigade led by Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham was closing in from Clarksville, seven miles north. When Forrest learned of this, he resolved to stay and fight it out.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.