As reveille sounded through the Union encampments on the south bank of the Tennessee River between Eastport, Mississippi, and Chickasaw, Alabama, on March 22, 1865, sleepy Federal troopers roused themselves, built fires, and cooked breakfast. When the chilly gray dawn broke, “Boots and Saddles” rang out and nearly 14,000 cavalrymen formed up and turned southward toward the heart of Alabama. An officer at the scene later remembered, “Never can I forget the brilliant scene, as regiment after regiment filed gaily out of camp, decked in all the paraphernalia of war, with gleaming arms, and guidons given to the wanton breeze.”
For most of the blue-coated host, the ultimate objective of their movement was a mystery, although a majority would have agreed with the confident assessment of Brig. Gen. Emory Upton, who wrote to his sister, “The present campaign, I trust, will seal the doom of the Confederacy. I cannot see how it can be otherwise.” The upcoming campaign would see the largest mounted raid conducted by either side during the Civil War, a daring drive into the very heart of the Confederacy.
James Wilson’s Raiders
Leading the raid was 27-year-old Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, a protégé of Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. On February 23, Wilson’s immediate superior, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, came to Gravelly Springs, Alabama, on the north shore of the Tennessee River to review Wilson’s 17,000-strong corps and to discuss future operations in central Alabama. Thomas endorsed Wilson’s overall goal for the raid: the defeat of the Confederate defending forces under Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the capture of Tuscaloosa, Selma, Montgomery, and Columbus, and the destruction of the last functioning manufacturing, supply depots and railroads in the region. At Thomas’s urging, Grant also gave his approval to Wilson’s concept, allowing the young cavalry commander “the amplest discretion as an independent commander.”
With the necessary approval in hand, Wilson marshaled the force he would lead into Alabama. By this time, the cavalry corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi, numbering between 22,000 and 27,000 men, had been steadily reduced by a series of detachments. Four full divisions originally under Wilson’s authority had been lost. Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s 3rd Cavalry Division rode with Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea, while Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson, at the helm of the 6th Cavalry Division, was kept in reserve in middle Tennessee.
In early February, Wilson was ordered to send another 5,000 troopers to join Maj. Gen. E.S. Canby’s overland campaign against Mobile. Wilson picked Brig. Gen. Joseph F. Knipe and the 7th Division to join Canby. Additionally, Brig. Gen. Edward Hatch’s 5th Division had to be removed from the list of formations going with Wilson into Alabama for lack of horses. This left only three divisions in the proper state of readiness to march south with Wilson: the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Cavalry Divisions, commanded respectively by Brig. Gens. Edward M. McCook, Eli Long and Emory Upton.
The three divisions, each comprised of two brigades and an artillery battery, numbered 13,480 men among them, of whom 11,980 were mounted and 1,500 dismounted. The latter group was detailed to guard the expedition’s 250 wagons, which included 50 conveyances carrying 30 pontoon boats, 45 days of rations and ammunition, and a pack mule train loaded with another five days of rations. Almost all Wilson’s troopers carried seven-shot Spencer breech-loading carbines. McCook commanded 4,096 men, Long 5,127, and Upton 3,923. The 4th U.S. Regular Cavalry Regiment under Lieutenant William O’Connell provided a 334-man personal escort for Wilson and his staff.
The Stalled Campaign
Wilson envisioned a 60-day campaign, assuming that additional supplies could be obtained by foraging off the land. The cavalry commander hurriedly completed last-minute training and equipping of his soldiers and prepared to cross the Tennessee River and head south on March 5. Unfortunately for the eager Wilson and his men, a deluge of rain made the Tennessee River an impassable torrent and turned the roads into ribbons of mud. “The oldest inhabitant has seldom seen heavier rain,” recorded the Clarke County Journal of Grove Hill, Alabama. Two weeks later it reported that the Alabama River was at its highest level in 40 years.
Stymied by the sodden ground and the flooded river, Wilson’s entire corps had to wait on the northern bank of the Tennessee River until the rain subsided and the waters slowly receded. For three days, from March 14 to 17, the horsemen were finally ferried across. Hoping to start his grand enterprise on March 20, Wilson was further delayed by the loss of vital animal forage being brought up by boat. Informed that the first 120 miles of his proposed march would be over country barren and devoid of sustenance for his mounts, Wilson had to wait for replacement forage to reach him.
Facing Forrest’s Forces
While biding his time, Wilson sought to gain information about the roads, river crossings, and enemy forces he would face in Alabama. He knew that most of the Confederate infantry had gone to North Carolina to face the threat of Sherman’s March to the Sea. As a result, Wilson assumed that he would be facing mainly cavalry, militia, and home guards in central Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. The quality of the militia and home guards did not alarm him, but the vaunted horse soldiers under Nathan Bedford Forrest could never be underestimated.
By early March, Forrest was headquartered at West Point, Mississippi, commanding all the mounted Confederate troops in East Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. His main concern at the time was to reorganize his forces after the defeats sustained late the previous year. The Tennessee troops of Brig. Gens. Tyree H. Bell and Edmund Rucker, along with Brig. Gen. Lawrence S. Ross’s Texans, were placed in one division under Brig. Gen. William H. “Red” Jackson. The Mississippians of Brig. Gens. Frank C. Armstrong, William W. Adams, and Peter B. Starke comprised a second division headed by Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers. Brig. Gen. Abraham Buford’s Kentucky brigade was assigned to serve with Brig. Gen. Dan W. Adams’s militia forces in the District of Alabama. Rounding out his command, which on paper numbered barely 9,000 troopers, of whom only about 7,500 were properly mounted, equipped, and organized for immediate field service, was Colonel Robert “Black Bob” McCulloch’s 2nd Missouri Regiment, acting as Forrest’s personal escort. Forrest’s artillery arm was provided by Captain John W. Morton’s veteran Horse Artillery Battalion.
Reports by Forrest’s scouts indicated that the heavy concentrations of Union troops along the Gulf region and Tennessee River portended a strike against the interior of Alabama, with the port city of Mobile and the arsenals and machine shops of Selma and Tuscaloosa as their main objectives. Concluding that Wilson was the greatest threat, Forrest in mid-March ordered Chalmers to Selma. On March 25, after belatedly learning that Wilson’s force was on its way, Forrest sent Jackson’s command to Tuscaloosa to strike the Federals in flank. Forrest’s commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, disagreed, deciding that the most immediate threat came from the Canby. Concluding that Wilson’s command would be easier to repel, Taylor wrote Forrest on March 26 that Jackson’s division would be enough to “whip and get rid of that column as soon as possible.”
Taylor’s and Forrest’s intelligence-gathering efforts failed to reveal the true strength of the Union expedition heading into Alabama. Moreover, Forrest’s failure to detect Wilson’s departure for three days proved vital to future Confederate efforts to thwart Wilson’s raid. Had Forrest been able to move promptly and intercept Wilson early on, particularly in the rugged, easily defensible country of northern Alabama, he might well have delayed or even turned back the Federals. As it was, with Wilson three days out and Forrest still at West Point, 150 miles from Eastport, the only organized Confederate force that could confront Wilson’s was Brig. Gen. Philip Roddey’s command, lurking 35 miles north of Selma.
Wilson’s Three Columns
As Forrest pondered his enemy’s objectives and how to counter them, Wilson and his legions had already commenced their 250-mile trek from Gravelly Springs to Selma. Fully aware of the threat Forrest posed to his mission, the young Union cavalry chief, in a effort to confuse his celebrated opponent, divided his command into three columns: McCook’s division on the right, Long’s in the center, and Upton’s taking the left. The marching formation carried real risks for the Federals because the broken and hilly terrain of northern and central Alabama would make it very difficult for the three Union columns to give timely support to one another in case they were attacked.
Wilson’s decision to spread his men over the Alabama landscape was also dictated by the fact that his men and horses would have to live off land already destitute of supplies for over 100 miles before they reached the more bountiful resources of the state’s south-central region. Wilson hoped that dispersing his formations would allow them to travel at least 30 miles a day. “As celerity of movement is of the most valuable force in modern military operations,” he said, “that force which moves most rapidly can place itself in the best position for effective service.” No doubt Forrest, author of the famous dictum “Get there first with the most men,” would have wholeheartedly agreed.