Tag Archives: Nathan Bedford Forrest

The Impending Georgia Campaign

April 24, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman worked to coordinate the efforts of three Federal armies in a drive on General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

Sherman had worked with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to plan a major Federal thrust into northern Georgia. This plan was based on Major General Nathaniel P. Banks returning Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals he had borrowed from Sherman for his failed Red River campaign. As the deadline for returning Smith’s men came and went, Grant told Sherman to proceed with his plan without expecting Smith’s help.

However, Sherman had to wait until his other troops returned from furloughs. These men included most of the Army of the Tennessee, now led by Major General James B. McPherson. Since Grant wanted all the major offensives to start at the same time, he asked Sherman, “Will your veterans be back to enable you to start on the 2nd of May? I do not want to delay later.” Sherman replied, “The veteran divisions cannot be up by May 2, but I am willing to move with what I have. I am now getting all in hand ready, but every day add to my animals and men. If you can, give me till May 5.”

Sherman then wrote Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, that two of McPherson’s divisions were delayed by transportation and payroll. Sherman wrote, “I want McPherson to have 30,000 men, but if we can’t get these two divisions in time, his force will fall far short. General Grant telegraphs me to be ready May 2. Make dispositions accordingly. McPherson is least ready.”

Sherman notified McPherson, “We cannot wait for the veterans. Make every possible preparation.” Sherman planned to move against Johnston’s Confederates with three armies–McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee on the right, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland in the center, and Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio on the left. They would continue operating as three independent armies, with Sherman directing their overall movements.

According to Sherman’s instructions, “In all movements each army will be kept well in hand with no detachments except scout and skirmish, and risking as little as possible in side issues or small affairs.” The armies of McPherson and Schofield were to “confine their movements to those of the center habitually,” and the soldiers “should be instructed to fight with desperation to the last.”

On the 10th, the day after he unveiled his overall plan, Grant sent more specific instructions to Sherman: “I will stay with the Army of the Potomac and operate directly against Lee’s army, wherever it may be found. You I propose to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”

Grant did not specify where Sherman was to go, but Sherman decided to target Atlanta, a major transportation and industrial center. Atlanta was second only to Richmond in its importance to the Confederate war effort, and its fall would open a path to the Atlantic coast. Sherman told Grant, “Georgia has a million of inhabitants. If they can live, we should not starve.” He pledged to “make Georgia howl.”

To take Atlanta, the Federals had to go through Johnston’s army, which was stationed at Dalton, about 30 miles southeast of Chattanooga on the Western & Atlantic Railroad. As Sherman continued gathering men and materiel, Johnston knew what he was planning for. President Jefferson Davis gave Johnston several ideas on how to thwart Sherman’s upcoming offensive, including sending troops to Virginia before the Army of the Potomac was reinforced or attack Sherman before he got moving. Johnston rejected these ideas because they risked defeat, something he did not think the Army of Tennessee could handle after being demoralized at Chattanooga.

Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose Confederates were operating in Tennessee, advised Johnston, “I am of the opinion that everything available is being concentrated against General Lee and yourself. Am also of opinion that if all the cavalry in this and your own department could be moved against Nashville that the enemy’s communication could be broken up.”

To Davis, Forrest proposed joining forces with Major General Stephen D. Lee’s cavalry to disrupt Sherman’s supply line. Forrest wrote, “With our forces united, a move could be made into Middle Tennessee and Kentucky which would create a diversion of the enemy’s forces and enable us to break up his plans.” Forrest had suggested this plan to Johnston and Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk (commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana), but neither had responded. Forrest assured Davis that “such an expedition, managed with prudence and executed with rapidity, can be safely made.”

Meanwhile, Federal preparations continued. Sherman wrote Grant on the 24th, “I only ask as much time as you think proper to enable me to get up McPherson’s two divisions from Cairo.” Sherman did not want to move against Johnston until all three armies were ready. He wrote:

“I see that there is some risk in dividing our forces, but Thomas and Schofield will have strength enough to cover all the valleys as far as Dalton. My own opinion is that Johnston will be compelled to hang to his railroad, the only possible avenue of supply to his army, estimated at from 45 to 60,000 men.”

Sherman would have nearly 110,000 men when all three armies were combined, many of whom had reenlisted for another three years.

While Sherman had twice as many troops, Johnston had the advantage of acting on the defensive with hardened veterans. Sherman acknowledged that “if Johnston stands at Dalton, we must attack him in position.” He informed Thomas, “You had better make ready with every man you can take along. I will come down as soon as possible.” Sherman would take up headquarters with Thomas in the center of the three armies.

Sherman arranged for Nashville to be the major supply depot for this upcoming campaign. He worked through the logistics of transporting supplies to his troops, and he arranged for crews to repair railroad tracks almost as soon as Confederate raiders tore them up. A remarkable 193 railroad cars would be shuttled from Louisville, through Nashville, and on to Chattanooga on a regular basis.

All “excess baggage” would be discarded, including “company tents” and other so-called amenities. Sherman himself would travel with just one wagon for his headquarters and staff. Each regiment would have just one wagon, with the troops carrying “five days’ bacon, 20 days’ bread, and 30 days’ salt, sugar, and coffee, nothing else but arms and ammunition.”

Sherman threatened a quartermaster, “I’m going to move on Joe Johnston the day Grant telegraphs men he is to go hit Bobby Lee, and if you don’t have my army supplied, and keep it supplied, we’ll eat your mules up, sir–eat your mules up!”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-22, 27; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 82-84; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20723-36; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393, 395, 397; 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 2279-98, 2386-406

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The Fort Pillow Controversy

April 12, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry attacked the Federal garrison at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River, and a controversy ensued over whether black troops were killed after surrendering.

Forrest’s troopers descended on Fort Pillow as part of their raid on Federal outposts and supply lines in western Tennessee. Forrest also sought to avenge Federal depredations being committed in the region; several men suspected of aiding the Confederacy were held without charges, and one of Forrest’s officers had been tortured and murdered.

The fort was a large earthwork on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, about 40 land miles north of Memphis. Held by Federal forces since June 1862, the fort protected a nearby trading post, and it was garrisoned by 557 Federal troops under Major Lionel F. Booth. Of these troops, 262 were newly recruited former slaves, and the rest were mostly Tennessee Unionists (whom Forrest’s Tennesseans considered traitors). The Federal tinclad gunboat U.S.S. New Era patrolled the Mississippi riverfront behind the garrison.

Fort Pillow | Image Credit: FortWiki.com

A portion of Forrest’s command consisting of 1,500 horsemen under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers attacked the outposts at 5:30 a.m. on the 12th and surrounded the fort by 8 a.m. Federal artillery and the New Era’s guns could not be positioned to hit the Confederates, who took the high ground on the perimeter and killed Booth. Command passed to Major William F. Bradford.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Forrest arrived around 10 a.m. and directed an attack in which the Confederates captured the Federal barracks on the south side of the fort. The New Era steamed downriver to replenish her ammunition. Forrest’s aide, Captain Charles W. Anderson, stated that “it was perfectly apparent to any man endowed with the smallest amount of common sense that to all intents and purposes the fort was ours.”

When Forrest’s ammunition train arrived around 3 p.m., he sent a courier to Bradford under a flag of truce demanding surrender and warning, “Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

Bradford asked for one hour to consult with his officers. However, Forrest could see the New Era on the river and feared that she carried reinforcements. He gave Bradford just 20 minutes, stating, “If at the expiration of that time the fort is not surrendered, I shall assault it.” During the 20-minute ceasefire, Federal troops mocked the Confederates from the fort parapets. Confident he could hold the fort, Bradford finally replied, “I will not surrender.” Forrest attacked immediately.

The Confederates easily broke through the outer defenses, scaled the parapets, and drove the defenders down the bluff toward the river. The Federals tried fleeing to the gunboat, but it pulled back under the heavy Confederate fire. The fight soon degenerated into a panic, as Forrest and his officers tried stopping their men from wiping out the entire garrison.

In the end, all 557 Federals were killed, wounded, or captured (231 killed, 100 wounded, and 226 captured). Of those taken prisoner, 58 were black and 168 were white. The Confederates also captured six guns and 350 stands of small arms while losing just 100 men (14 killed and 86 wounded). Federal Acting Master William Ferguson, assigned to investigate Fort Pillow the day after it fell, reported:

“About 8 a.m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p.m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed…

“All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes… Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops…

“Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate…”

In his report, Forrest wrote:

“The victory was complete, and the loss of the enemy will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned. The force was composed of about 500 negroes and 200 white soldiers (Tennessee Tories). The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. There was in the fort a large number of citizens who had fled there to escape the conscript law. Most of these ran into the river and were drowned.

“The approximate loss was upward of 500 killed, but few of the officers escaping.

“It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. We still hold the fort.”

Witnesses accused the Confederates of killing Federal soldiers–particularly the black soldiers–even after they surrendered. Survivors later testified at a congressional hearing that the Confederates shouted, “No quarter!” while shooting or bayoneting several men who had already laid down their arms. Northerners generally decried the “Fort Pillow Massacre,” viewing it as indicative of the atrocities that Confederates committed against black soldiers for fighting against them.

Forrest argued that the engagement could hardly be called a “massacre” since he had taken 226 prisoners, none of whom were seriously injured. He also maintained that some Federals picked up their weapons and resumed firing after they surrendered, and therefore suffered the consequences. Others claimed the high black casualty rate was due to their brave defense, as they were the last to flee.

Four of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet members—Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles—publicly supported the execution of an equal number of Confederate prisoners of war in retaliation. But Major General William T. Sherman, overall commander in the region, recommended no vengeance, and Lincoln ultimately agreed. Forrest and his men were not called upon to testify in their own defense after the war. Nevertheless, black soldiers used the rallying cry, “Remember Fort Pillow!” for the rest of the conflict.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 167; Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24, 25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 187-89; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20657-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 392; 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 2298-338; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417-19; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 108; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 484-85; 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. 190-91; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 277-78

Forrest’s Confederates Enter Kentucky

March 16, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a Confederate cavalry expedition into western Tennessee and Kentucky.

Brig Gen N.B. Forrest | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Forrest, stationed at Columbus, Mississippi, with 5,000 troopers, received orders to move north. His mission was to attack Federal outposts, recruit volunteers, capture deserters, and disrupt the Federal supply line along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Forrest took 2,700 of his men on the excursion.

A little over a week later, a detachment of Forrest’s 7th Tennessee Cavalry surprised and captured the Federal 7th Tennessee Cavalry at Union City in northwestern Tennessee. The Confederates placed logs on wheels to resemble cannon and left a note: “If you persist in defense, you must take the consequences. N.B. Forrest, Major General, Commanding.” The Confederates took 481 prisoners, 300 horses, and a large amount of supplies.

Meanwhile, Forrest’s main force continued north toward Paducah, a strategic Kentucky town near the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers which had been under Federal control since September 1861. After riding 100 miles in 50 hours, the troopers arrived outside Paducah on the 25th. The Federals, led by Colonel Stephen G. Hicks, quickly fell back to Fort Anderson, a strong fortification west of town.

Hicks had just 665 men, but they were supported by artillery and two tinclad gunboats (the U.S.S. Peosta and Paw Paw) on the Tennessee River. Forrest sent Hicks a message: “If you surrender you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works you may expect no quarter.” Forrest did not actually intend to assault the fort; he only wanted horses and supplies.

The Federals responded to Forrest’s demand by blasting the streets with their artillery, joined by fire from the gunboats. Brigadier General Mason Brayman, the overall commander at Paducah, later wrote that the tinclads–

“… shelled the rebels out of the buildings from which their sharpshooters annoyed our troops. A large number took shelter in heavy warehouses near the river and maintained a furious fire upon the gunboats, inflicting some injury, but they were promptly dislodged and the buildings destroyed…”

Colonel Albert P. Thompson disregarded Forrest’s orders and led two regiments in an assault on Fort Anderson. The Federals repelled them, inflicting 50 casualties (10 killed and 40 wounded), though Hicks claimed to have inflicted 1,500 casualties. Thompson, who lived nearby, was among those killed. The Federals sustained 60 casualties (14 killed and 46 wounded).

Meanwhile, the gunboats fired about 700 rounds. According to a gunner on the Peosta:

“We kept putting the shell and grape into them from all the guns we could get to bear. Their riflemen and some of the people of the town got into the buildings down by the river and pelted us with musket balls but we soon gave them enough of that for we directed our whole fire on them at short range with shell grape and canister and soon fetched the bricks around their eyes… They would have had the fort and the city if it had not been for us, for they were out of ammunition in the fort.”

Forrest finally withdrew the next morning, taking 50 prisoners, 400 horses, and more supplies. Before leaving, the Confederates destroyed cotton and a steamer in dry dock. Forrest’s raid had alarmed residents of the Ohio River Valley, but the Confederates failed to establish a foothold in Kentucky. They fell back toward Fort Pillow on the Mississippi.

After Forrest left Paducah, he learned from a local newspaper that his troopers had missed out on capturing 140 army horses hidden in a mill. Forrest resolved to return next month and get those mounts.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385, 388; 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 2249-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 409, 411-12; Harrison, Lowell H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 552; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 477-78; 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. 190

The Battle of Okolona

February 22, 1864 – Confederate horsemen caught up to withdrawing Federal cavalry and clashed in northern Mississippi.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s 7,000 Federals continued their withdrawal toward Memphis the day after skirmishing with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 2,500 Confederates near West Point. Forrest pursued, and near dawn his advance elements attacked Smith’s rear guard in “the prairie,” an open field about four miles south of Okolona. As Confederate reinforcements joined the fray, they charged and drove the Federals through town.

Smith organized a defense line a mile north of Okolona, but another Confederate charge broke it. The Federals fell back another mile and tried making a stand, only to be pushed back again. Smith finally halted his troopers in woods on Ivey’s Farm, about seven miles northwest of Okolona.

The Confederate cavalrymen dismounted and charged the new Federal line, but they were repulsed; Forrest’s brother, Colonel Jeffrey E. Forrest, was killed in the assault. General Forrest had two horses shot out from under him during the fight. The Confederates charged a second time while trying to turn Smith’s right flank, but this failed as well.

Smith then ordered a counterattack, but the numerically inferior Confederates fought it off. They also repulsed a second countercharge, using their sabers when they ran out of ammunition. Smith finally ordered his troopers to continue withdrawing toward Pontotoc. Forrest did not pursue due to exhaustion and lack of ammunition. The 11-mile running skirmish was over.

This was one of Forrest’s greatest victories (despite losing his brother), having beaten an enemy force nearly three times his size. He lost 110 men (25 killed, 75 wounded, and 10 missing) at Okolona and 144 total in the three-day span of February 20-22. The Confederates seized three stands of colors.

Smith lost 388 men (54 killed, 179 wounded, and 155 missing) at Okolona. His troopers nearly faced starvation on their return to Tennessee because they had ravaged the countryside coming into Mississippi. Smith reported that his men had captured 200 Confederates, freed about 3,000 slaves, and burned 2,000 bales of cotton.

However, Smith failed to link with Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee at Meridian, and Sherman had to call off his advance on Selma, Alabama, as a result. For this, Sherman called Smith’s effort “unsatisfactory.” By the end of February, Sherman was back at Vicksburg and Smith was back at Collierville, the starting points of their two-pronged expedition into north and central Mississippi.

The Federal high command next looked to conquer western Louisiana and eastern Texas, and secure that region’s 500,000 cotton bales. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, directed Sherman to send 10,000 troops to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf, which would be conducting the campaign. Sherman would then meet with Grant to develop plans to capture Atlanta.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 377-79; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 963; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 401-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 467-69; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

Northern Mississippi: Smith’s Incursion

February 21, 1864 – Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s Federal cavalry troopers experienced trouble reaching the main Federal army in Mississippi due to opposition from Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates.

Brig Gen W.S. Smith | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

While the Federal Army of the Tennessee’s march from Vicksburg to Meridian had been a resounding success, Smith’s ancillary cavalry expedition was not. Smith led his 7,000 troopers out of Collierville, Tennessee, on the 11th, 10 days behind schedule and one day after he was supposed to have linked with the Federal army at Meridian. Once Smith and the army joined forces, they were to continue moving east and capture the important factory town of Selma, Alabama.

In the first week of Smith’s incursion into northern Mississippi, his men averaged less than half the projected 25 miles per day, even though they only met minor resistance from Forrest’s Confederate horsemen. Part of Smith’s delay involved tending to the fugitive slaves flocking to his command for protection. The Federals also made frequent stops to destroy farms and railroads. Smith finally reached Okolona, Mississippi, on the 18th.

Major General William T. Sherman, overseeing the destruction of Meridian, stated “that in consequence of hearing nothing from General Sooy Smith he may change somewhat his former plans.” He canceled the planned drive on Selma and ordered his forces to prepare to return to Vicksburg.

Sherman’s Federals began pulling out of Meridian on the 20th. During their 17-day rampage through Mississippi, they sustained just 170 casualties (21 killed, 68 wounded, and 81 missing). The troops slowly moved northwest toward Canton, while Sherman dispatched scouts to try finding Smith’s lost cavalry in northern Mississippi.

During this time, Forrest assembled his 2,500 Confederates at West Point, about 30 miles south of Smith’s Federals at Okolona. Advance elements of both forces began clashing between the two towns on the 19th, as Forrest developed a plan to draw the Federals into West Point and trap them between the narrow stretch of land between Oktibbeha Creek and the Tombigbee River.

Elements of Smith’s force skirmished with part of Forrest’s command at Prairie Station, about 15 miles north of West Point, on the 20th. As the Federals tried pushing south toward the town, more Confederates joined the fray, including a brigade led by Forrest’s brother, Colonel Jeffrey E. Forrest, near Aberdeen. Smith knocked the Confederates back, and his men entered West Point just as General Forrest hoped.

Smith began doubting the wisdom of occupying West Point, especially after receiving word that Major General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederate cavalry was coming to reinforce Forrest. Citing illness, Smith turned command over to the next ranking officer, Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson. But when Grierson planned to continue southward, Smith resumed command and ordered his men to withdraw northward the next day. Smith sought to protect his supply train and the growing number of slaves following his troopers.

Colonel Forrest’s men pursued and met up with Smith’s Federals on the morning of the 21st. The Confederates staged a fighting withdrawal, pulling the Federals farther south into the narrow stretch of land where General Forrest hoped to trap them. The Confederates then counterattacked, but the Federals put up a stiff resistance and repulsed two charges.

Sensing that this was a “trap set for me by the rebels,” Smith ordered a withdrawal, despite outnumbering the enemy two-to-one. The Federals formed a rear guard and withdrew across the Oktibbeha. This ensured that Smith’s cavalry would not link with Sherman’s army. General Forrest arrived with the rest of his force and ordered a pursuit that continued into the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 375-76; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 926-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 400-01; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 466-67; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

Meridian: Federals Continue Moving East

February 11, 1864 – Federal cavalry finally began moving out of Tennessee to support Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals moving east through central Mississippi.

Brig Gen W.S. Smith | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General William Sooy Smith moved his Federal horsemen out of Collierville, Tennessee, to strike into Mississippi. Smith’s mission was to wreak havoc on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, defeat Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry, and link with Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee headed for Meridian. Smith had 7,000 troopers, 20 guns, and a train of supply and ambulance wagons.

As Smith’s Federals moved south toward Pontotoc, their advance was hindered by winter rain and mud, along with the swamps of northern Mississippi. Forrest was informed of the Federal approach and prepared his 2,500 troopers. He responded to his superiors warning that Smith might target the railroad: “Am preparing to meet that move as best I can.” Forrest estimated the enemy force to consist of “about 10,000 cavalry and mounted infantry.”

Meanwhile, Sherman’s 27,000 Federals continued their methodical eastward advance toward Meridian, the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in Mississippi. Opposing them was Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s 10,000-man Army of Mississippi, which had fallen back until it was outside Meridian. Polk still believed that Sherman’s ultimate target was not Meridian but the vital port city of Mobile, Alabama.

Advised of the threat that Sherman posed, President Jefferson Davis contacted General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia:

“Keep in communication with General Polk, and do what you can to assist him, either by sending him re-enforcements or joining him with what force you can. If possible the enemy should be met before he reaches the Gulf and establishes a base to which supplies and re-enforcements may be sent by sea.”

There was little that Johnston could do because he was being held in check by the Federal Army of the Cumberland around Chattanooga. He wired Polk, “I have no doubt that your cavalry, under its active commanders, will make the march to Mobile impossible to the enemy with such wagon trains as they must require.” But neither Johnston nor Polk knew that the Federals were mostly living off the land and therefore had few wagons to slow their march.

News that Sherman had stopped at Decatur on the night of the 11th contradicted Polk’s assumption that the Federals were headed to Mobile. Polk wrote Major General William W. Loring, one of his division commanders, “If this is true, then Sherman must be looking to move on Meridian and make a junction with the cavalry force (of Smith) moving on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.” Polk had directed his other division under Major General Samuel G. French to go to Mobile, but now he ordered those troops to wait at Meridian.

Major General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederate cavalry was supposed to try harassing Sherman’s flanks while keeping between the Federals and Polk’s Confederates. Lee reported, “I have burned all bridges, which I find retard their advancing very much.” Freezing temperatures also slowed the Federal advance. But none of this stopped the troops from laying waste to the railroad depot at Lake Station, which included destroying two locomotives, 35 railcars, over a mile of track, and all nearby factories, sawmills, and machine shops.

Back in northern Mississippi, W.S. Smith’s Federal troopers drove off 600 Mississippi militia on the 12th and continued southward. The Federals burned cotton and corn, and destroyed track on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad along the way. About 1,000 local slaves joined Smith’s cavalry on their journey.

Meanwhile, Sherman continued east, encountering light resistance along the way, before stopping on the night of the 12th about 30 miles west of Meridian. Confederate cavalry raided the small Federal wagon train near the cabin that served as Sherman’s headquarters and nearly captured the Federal commander before infantry rushed up to drive the raiders off.

Polk sent a message to Davis and Johnston: “He (Sherman) is to-night near Decatur, I am near Meridian. My cavalry under Lee has skirmished with him in front, flank and rear from the Big Black, and, Lee reports, with little effect. He moves very compactly… I see nothing left me but to fall back on Alabama and take advantage of events.”

The Federal advance resumed on the morning of the 13th. Loring, whose Confederates were stationed just west of Meridian, informed Polk, “I have examined carefully the position in front, and I do not regard any of them as tenable with the force under my command. Will you please inform me as soon as you are able to move, so that I may know what to do in any emergency.” Polk responded:

“I am inclined to doubt the correctness of the report as to the near approach of the enemy to-night, yet I see no reason why you may not act upon it. As I understand the matter, the enemy has to pass across Oktibbeha River at the place where there is a long bridge now prepared to be burned. The burning of the bridge ought to retard his progress at least a day.”

By day’s end, Sherman’s Federals reached Tallahatta Creek, about 20 miles from Meridian. Many of the troops expected to fight a major battle for the town the next day, but Polk had other ideas.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 463; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

Meridian: Federals Move Out of Jackson

February 7, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee began marching out of war-torn Jackson, heading east toward the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in Mississippi.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps of Sherman’s army moved out of Jackson on the morning of the 7th. The Federals crossed the Pearl River on pontoon bridges and headed toward Major General Samuel G. French’s 3,000 Confederates, which had fallen back from Jackson to Brandon.

Colonel C.C. Wilbourn, commanding Confederate cavalry in front of Brandon, reported, “The enemy have crossed the river and are driving my men in on both the upper and lower Jackson roads. They are fighting me altogether with small arms.” Colonel Edward Winslow’s Federal horsemen easily drove Wilbourn’s small force off. French then abandoned Brandon and moved to join with Major General William W. Loring’s 6,000 Confederates near Morton.

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, urged Major General Stephen D. Lee to link his cavalry with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troopers, about 150 miles north of Jackson, and wreak havoc on Sherman’s supply line. They did not know that Sherman’s men were living off the land and had no supply line to disrupt.

McPherson’s Federals entered Brandon and immediately set about destroying everything considered useful (or otherwise) to the Confederate war effort. A correspondent for the New York Tribune reported:

“The houses of prominent rebels were burned. Every horse and mule that could be found was seized upon, and the number became so great that a special detail was made to care for them. In fact, everything of an edible nature was levied upon and made an item in our commissariat. Thousands of blacks came into our lines. The railroad track was torn up, and every wagon, bridge, and depot was burned.”

Sherman had issued orders not to disturb private property, but most officers did not enforce them. Meanwhile, Polk relayed information he received from one of his scouts about the Federals: “They do not try to conceal that their destination is Meridian, to cut our communication with Mobile.”

The Federal forces resumed their eastward advance the next day, as French, Loring, and Lee joined forces at Morton to make a stand. Some skirmishing occurred between the advancing Federals and Lee’s retreating troopers at Coldwater Ferry. Seeing that they lacked the numbers to stop the enemy, the Confederates abandoned Morton that night and fell back eastward once more.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William Sooy Smith was preparing to lead his Federal cavalrymen out of Tennessee to wreak havoc on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, destroy Forrest’s Confederates, and link with Sherman. He was supposed to have left on the 1st, but he was waiting for an additional brigade to join him from Union City.

The third part of Sherman’s offensive, led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval squadron, continued its diversionary probe up the Yazoo River. The fleet captured Yazoo City along the way.

Back in central Mississippi, Sherman’s Federals briefly skirmished with the Confederate rear guard before entering Morton on the 9th. Repeating their destruction of Jackson and Brandon, they burned nearly everything in their path. East of Morton, Polk arrived from Mobile to join his army in the field. Believing that Sherman’s ultimate target was Mobile, Polk wired the commander there, “The enemy, estimated at 35,000 infantry, with 60 pieces of artillery, moved to-day from Morton in the direction of Mobile.”

Polk directed French to go to Newton and load his men on trains bound for Mobile. Lee’s cavalry would “cover Newton until the troops leave there, and cover the Mobile and Ohio Railroad until they pass down.” French was to fall back to Meridian. Lee disagreed with Polk’s assessment that Sherman was headed for Mobile, but he complied with orders nonetheless.

Back near Memphis, the 2,000 Federal cavalrymen under Colonel George E. Waring arrived to reinforce W.S. Smith’s command on the 10th. Smith prepared to finally move out the next day, 10 days after he was scheduled to begin. He expressed confidence that his 7,000 troopers could defeat Forrest’s 2,500 horsemen, vowing “to pitch into Forrest wherever I find him.” Smith tried explaining his tardiness to Sherman:

“I fear this delay will rob me of the opportunity of accomplishing the work assigned to me; but it has been unavoidable by any effort that I could make, and I will now do all that I can. My command is in splendid condition, and all the information that I have been able to get–and it is quite full, and, I think, reliable–justifies me in waiting for the brigade from above. I will hurt them all I can, and endeavor to open direct communication with you at the earliest possible moment. Weather beautiful; roads getting good.”

Forrest, whose command was camped along the Tallahatchie River, guessed that Smith would target Okolona, a railroad hub about 55 miles southeast of Forrest’s Oxford headquarters. He set up defenses along the river and issued orders to his commanders: “Do not allow your command to engage a superior force. Fall back to the river and defend the crossings. The enemy will attempt to move on our right by the way of Ripley, and from Collierville toward Okolona.”

Brigadier General James Chalmers, commanding Forrest’s left at Panola, was to be “prepared to move at a moment’s notice.” Chalmers wrote Forrest, “Will try to deceive the enemy into the belief that we are evacuating to induce them to come on.” Forrest approved, but instructed Chalmers not to use his artillery “unless compelled.”

Unbeknownst to Forrest or Chalmers, Smith had sent an infantry brigade under Colonel William McMillen on a diversionary advance toward Chalmers while Smith’s main force crossed the Tallahatchie en route to Okolona. Unbeknownst to Smith, he would be moving directly toward the point that Forrest expected.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 371-73; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 924, 927; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 396; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462-63; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488