In addition to negotiating the hilly terrain, the Federals had to cross three major waterways en route to Selma: the Mulberry and Locust forks of the Black Warrior River situated between Jasper and Elyton, and the Cahaba River south of Elyton. These rivers, with their hard-to-negotiate rocky beds, were even more serious obstacles after the heavy rains the previous month had created swift currents and overflown banks on all three rivers.
Wilson reached Jasper on the 27th after contending with rough ground, swollen streams, and roads turned into “a mass of ruts” due to the recent heavy rains. The roads were in such terrible condition that John Croxton, one of Wilson’s brigade commanders, was compelled to cut new roads, corduroy old ones, and build temporary bridges over swamps. At Jasper, Wilson was informed that enemy cavalry (part of Chalmers’s division) was leaving Mississippi and concentrating at Tuscaloosa and Selma. Accordingly, he determined to move farther south as quickly as possible in order not to be held up by the enemy north of the Black Warrior and Cahaba Rivers. To allow for more rapid progress, he left his large wagon train north of the Black Warrior River, relying on pack mules to carry supplies.
Forrest Discovers Upton’s Men
On the 27th the Union mounted corps passed over the Mulberry Fork; on the 28th they traveled the eight miles to Locust Fork and crossed. The next day Upton’s men entered Elyton (now Birmingham), a distance of 125 miles from their starting point at Gravelly Springs, and were joined by McCook and Long the next day. Between Elyton, a town of 3,000, and the Cahaba River, a substantial iron industry had grown up during the war. Upton’s men did a thorough job of eliminating the manufacturing and production infrastructure, destroying the Red Mountain, McIlvain, Bibb, and Columbiana Iron Works, the Cahaba Rolling Mills, and five collieries. Sergeant Benjamin McGee of the 72nd Indiana Mounted Infantry, remembered the scene of devastation perpetrated in the region, noting that “the sky was red for miles around caused by fires burning cotton gins, mills, factories.”
Pushing south from Elyton, Upton’s brigades headed for Montevallo, the center of coal and iron production in central Alabama, 60 miles north of Selma. With the main crossing of the Cahaba River blocked by enemy-placed obstructions, an alternate route across had to be found. Union engineers converted an eight-foot-wide, 300-yard-long footbridge over an undamaged trestle of the Tennessee & Alabama Railroad that crossed the river near Hillsborough. Once over the river, Upton’s division reached Montevallo in the late evening of March 30.
By the time the Federal cavalry had reached Elyton, Forrest was aware of their presence. On March 25 he ordered Jackson’s division, later joined by Colonel Edwin Crossland’s Kentucky brigade (a total of around 3,500 men), to proceed to Tuscaloosa. Three days later Taylor wired Forrest that “Adams reports enemy encamped at Jasper on night of March 26, three divisions under Wilson, with artillery; destination Elyton and Montevallo.” Taylor concluded his message with the hope that Roddey’s 1,000 men could slow the Union advance until Forrest’s reinforcements arrived on the scene. After receiving Taylor’s message, Forrest left West Point heading for Montevallo via Tuscaloosa. Along the way he passed Jackson’s command and ordered it to proceed to Centerville, Alabama, 40 miles southwest of Selma, and hold the bridge over the flooded Cahaba. That same day Chalmers, with perhaps 3,000 troopers, reversed course and headed for Selma.
The Clash at Montevallo
As the Confederate forces positioned themselves to confront the enemy, Wilson prepared to depart Elyton and join Upton at Montevallo, 20 miles from Selma. Before doing so he detached Croxton’s brigade, 1,500 strong, to capture Tuscaloosa 50 miles to the southwest. Destroying the important rail and manufacturing center there would not only take out a vital enemy communications link, but also shield the Federals’ right flank as they moved deeper into Alabama.
At 1 pm on the 31st Wilson joined Upton at Montevallo, where a small rear guard of Roddey’s force had been driven out, and ordered Upton to resume the advance. With Kentucky Brig. Gen. Andrew J. Alexander’s 2nd Brigade in the lead, Upton pushed down the Randolph Road toward Selma, where he came across the enemy. Two miles south of town Roddey had set up a skirmish line along a ridge, hoping to delay the Union advance until reinforcements from central Alabama could congregate. As Alexander’s unit approached the Southern position, his lead element, the 5th Iowa Cavalry, sliced through the Confederate position. Their success was exploited by Brig. Gen. Edward Winslow’s 1st Brigade. As Roddey’s men streamed down the Randolph Road, they conducted a number of delaying actions. After being reinforced by 500 men under Crossland and Adams, Roddey was able to form a new line along Six-Mile Creek, three miles south of Montevallo.
As the Federals approached the creek, Crossland counterattacked and forced them back. Crossland in turn was hit by the 3rd Iowa Cavalry. Soon, the 4th U.S. Artillery arrived and began shelling the Confederates. The 10th Missouri, 3rd and 5th Iowa then attacked, breaking the enemy resistance. The Confederates, in disorder, raced southward toward Randolph. Darkness ended the Union pursuit, and Upton’s men camped 14 miles south of Montevallo that night, while McCook and Long continued moving south from Montevallo. In the running, 14-mile fight, the bluecoats had sustained 50 casualties, while the Confederates lost twice that number.
Intercepting Forrest’s Message to Jackson
While Roddey and Crossland battled Upton, Croxton headed south for Tuscaloosa, where he discovered that he was near Jackson’s division, which was hurrying east to join Forrest. Croxton interposed himself between Jackson’s cavalry and his artillery and wagon trains at the village of Trion. With the enemy in his rear, Jackson turned about to encircle and assault his unsuspecting prey. Croxton, alerted to Jackson’s maneuver, moved westward on Mud Creek Road. As the Federals moved out, Jackson struck, overrunning the Union camp and pursuing them for several miles. The Union retreat soon turned into a rout, but the bulk of Croxton’s men managed to escape in the gathering dark.
Wilson still had the upper hand over his opponent; a stroke of luck on April 1 would add to his already considerable advantage. Captured messages from Forrest to Jackson detailed Rebel dispositions around Selma. Intending to keep Forrest and Jackson apart, Wilson dispatched McCook and the 2nd Brigade under Colonel Oscar H. LaGrange to secure the bridge spanning the Cahaba River at Centerville, 10 miles west. The bridge was the only crossing point over the Cahaba north of Selma. McCook was also to attack Jackson’s force and link up with Croxton.
McCook’s forces captured the bridge that same day. Looking in vain for Croxton, McCook attacked Tyree Bell’s Confederates defending a barricade near Scottsville. Hurled back by the enemy, McCook recrossed the Cahaba and rejoined Wilson’s main force. Once across the river, the Federals set fire to the bridge. They also destroyed or removed all the boats in the vicinity. Although McCook had been defeated in the short, sharp action, his efforts ensured that Jackson would not unite with Forrest.
While McCook rode for the Centerville Bridge, Wilson instructed Upton and Long to push Forrest toward Selma “with the utmost spirit and rapidity.” The two Union divisions advanced to Ebenezer Church, six miles north of Plantersville, where Forrest had chosen to make a stand along the north bank of Bolger’s Creek. The Confederate right rested on Mulberry Creek and was held by a battalion of Adams’s untried Alabama state troops. Roddey’s forces held the center, with a pair of guns posted to cover the Old Maplesville Road over which Upton was approaching. Crossland’s Kentuckians manned the left on a high wooded ridge, supported by four pieces of artillery sited to sweep the Randolph Road. To strengthen his position further, the Confederate commander had his men erect rail barricades. As Forrest deployed his men, Armstrong’s brigade reached him. However, the balance of Chalmers’s men did not arrive due to flooded roads and conflicting orders. The result was that Forrest had no more than 2,000 men at Ebenezer Church against Wilson’s 9,000 troopers.
Making Camp at Plantersville
As dawn broke, Upton got his command moving a few miles east of the Randolph-Plantersville Road, while Long marched south on the thoroughfare. Acting as the vanguard of Long’s division was the 72nd Indiana Mounted Infantry, part of Brig. Gen. John T. Wilder’s famous Lighting Brigade, which first encountered the enemy four miles below Randolph. The Hoosiers commenced a running gunfight with Confederate forces that lasted the entire morning and well into the afternoon, with the graybacks leapfrogging from one defensive position to another before stopping at Bolger’s Creek.
At 4 pm Long’s troopers came up against a Confederate skirmish line near Ebenezer Church. The 72nd dismounted and, employing withering fire with their seven-shot repeaters, drove the skirmishers back into Forrest’s position. Unaware that he had reached the enemy’s main line of resistance, Long sent four companies of the 17th Indiana Cavalry charging into the Rebel works along the creek. A furious mounted melee ensued. One desperate hand-to-hand encounter pitted Forrest against Union Captain James D. Taylor. Forrest, a much-experienced fighter, suffered a saber wound to the arm, his fourth during the war, but fatally shot Taylor from his saddle. Overwhelmed by sheer numbers, the 17th Indiana retreated after losing 17 men.