This Was the Last Big Cavalry Charge of the Civil War

Major General James H. Wilson and Staff of Nine. Captain Louis Seibert, Captain Perkins, Captain Sayles, Major C.E. Hackley, Lieutenant Hull, Lieutenant J.W. Andrews, Lieutenant Yard, Captain Edward H. Noyes, Captain Russell.
February 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: American Civil WarCavalryNathaniel Bedford ForrestUnionConfederacy

This Was the Last Big Cavalry Charge of the Civil War

Wilson's raid on Selma.

As the 17th Indiana fled, Long threw Colonel Abram Miller’s brigade into the fight. Miller dismounted his men and moved toward the Confederate position. As he did so, Andrew Alexander’s brigade of Upton’s division, hearing the firing to their right, came to Long’s assistance. Charging through a clearing, Alexander struck the Confederate right held by Forrest’s most unreliable men: Adams’s state militia troops. As Adams’s men crumbled under the Federal pressure, the experienced cavalry came to their aid and prevented a complete rout. The Confederate reprieve was short-lived. As the Southern forces slowly fell back, Edward Winslow’s 3rd and 4th Iowa Cavalry launched a mounted assault in support of Alexander. Unable to withstand the combined enemy infantry and cavalry attack, the entire Confederate right disintegrated. Forrest’s center and left, now outflanked, soon fled across Bolger’s Creek heading for Plantersville and Selma.


As his enemy ran for safety, Wilson took stock of his victory at Ebenezer Church. It amounted to 200 prisoners and three pieces of artillery. The number of Confederate dead was not recorded. The price the Federals paid for their triumph was 12 dead and 40 wounded. Wilson’s corps camped that night at Plantersville, 19 miles from Selma.

The Defenses at Selma

At 6 am on April 2, Wilson’s blue juggernaut saddled up and moved from its camps toward their principal objective: Alabama’s premiere industrial city, Selma. The industrial center stood on a bluff overlooking the north bank of the Alabama River. North of the city the country was relatively flat, and it was from this direction that Selma was most vulnerable. Of the six major roads entering the town, four crossed the plain. Two railroads, the Alabama & Tennessee and the Alabama & Mississippi, served the city. The Alabama River, bordering the city’s southern margin, also functioned as another vital commercial and communication artery.

Selma, the seat of Dallas County, employed 10,000 workers in its various factories. The city housed a huge arsenal of 24 buildings that produced artillery pieces, field carriages, artillery ammunition, and uniforms. Its naval foundry not only manufactured cannons and small arms, but also armor plate for Confederate gunboats. Besides government facilities, the city also housed private enterprises such as the Selma Iron Works, which could produce 30 tons of iron a day. The Powder Mill and Magazine created thousands of rounds of musket and artillery rounds. In addition, 10 other privately owned foundries and iron works inside the city churned out arms and ammunition for the Confederate Army. During the last two years of the war, half the artillery pieces and two-thirds of all fixed ammunition used by the South came from Selma. Along with weapons, the city’s factories produced all sorts of soldier kit and horse equipment. It was also a major production and repair center for locomotives and rolling stock, as well as a main food distribution point from the fertile Alabama black belt.

Defensive works had been constructed at Selma two years earlier. The main defense perimeter formed a semicircle around the town, starting in the west near the junction of the Alabama River and Valley Creek and meandering northward. Crossing the Marion-Cahaba Road and the Alabama & Mississippi Railroad, the works included a line of stockade rifle pits, with four forts paralleling the Summerfield Road. At the point where the line veered north, crossing the Summerville Road and the Range Line Road, was a strong parapet line six to eight feet tall and eight feet thick at the base. Fronting the parapet was a water-filled ditch five feet deep and five feet wide.

East of the Range Line Road, the stockade rifle pits began again, angling to the southeast across the Alabama & Tennessee Railroad and the road to Burnsville and anchoring at the Alabama River just east of Selma. Fields in front of all the defensive positions had been cleared to allow good fields of fire. Swampy terrain north of town offered additional natural protection. To the south, the broad Alabama River protected Selma. The main defense line was close to the city on the east and west sides and 1½ miles away on the north.

The weak point in the five-mile defense line was to the north over rolling, clear ground devoid of natural features. For that reason the strongest segment of the defensive position was sited at that quarter. As formidable as Selma’s fortifications appeared, they would do little good if not properly manned, and Forrest did not have the soldiers to do that. He had about 3,000 troops and 32 guns. Chalmers’s division, minus Armstrong’s brigade, which had joined Forrest earlier, would never get to Selma due to the impassable swamplands it had to travel through along the Cahaba River. He simply did not have enough men to garrison all the defensive works against a foe who outnumbered the defenders three-to-one.

“Go in Boys, Give Them Hell, We Have the City!”

Around noon Forrest met with department commander, Richard Taylor, and before the latter left the city assured him Forrest would do all in his power to defend the city. By 2 pm Forrest’s men were filing in to its defensives; at the same time, Union scouts were riding over the plain to the north getting their first glimpses of those defenses.

As the Union cavalry neared Selma on April 2, its officers and men were confident they would capture the place. That confidence had been bolstered by information provided by an Englishmen named Millington, a civil engineer who had been working on the Selma defenses. Millington related all he knew about Selma’s fortifications thus immeasurably aiding Wilson’s plan of attack on the town. That scheme, the first assault on a fortified urban center delivered by Wilson’s command, would take the form of a night strike with Long moving from the northwest diagonally across the Summerville Road. Meanwhile, Upton would advance from the north along the Range Line Road and pass through a swampy area east of the city. In addition, a battalion of the 4th U.S. Regulars was to follow the Alabama & Mississippi Railroad as far as Burnsville, burning bridges and stations.

By 4 pm Long and Upton, having traveled along their assigned routes, were close to Selma’s outer defense line. Long, concerned that the close presence of some of Chalmers’s troops might disrupt the planned attack, initiated the first strike on Selma before the official start signal sounded at 4:30. From a half mile out, 1,500 men of the 2nd Division, firing their Spencers as they went, charged Selma’s outer defenses on foot. They were met by a savage volume of fire from the defender’s cannons and small arms. Reaching the stockade, the Federals entered the works, facing defenders fighting with clubbed muskets and fists, and forced back the Confederates. It took only 25 minutes to breach the enemy fortifications but the Unionists paid a price: Long was severely wounded in the head, and three colonels and more than 300 men were also wounded.

To Long’s left, Upton’s men soon launched their own attack with Winslow’s boys taking the lead. As the 3rd Iowa and 10th Missouri hot footed it down the Range Line Road, several of their officers yelled, “Go in boys, give them hell, we have the city!” The troops of the 2nd Cavalry Division broke the enemy lines and pushed their adversaries back to a second line of defense. As the outer defenses of Selma crumbled under the weight of the Federal attack, Union horse artillery rushed to the front and poured devastating volleys of canister into the backs of the fleeing rebels. Along with the forward rushing artillery, Wilson, caught up in the thrill of battle, gathered his escort and charged down the Summerville Road at the enemy’s works. Near the Confederate second line of defense Wilson’s horse was shot down, but the general himself was unharmed.

Although the Confederates continued to fight gallantly from their interior defensive line, the pressure from the two Federal divisions ruptured the position, driving the defenders back into the city. “The troops,” Wilson later wrote, “inspired by the wildest enthusiasm, swept everything before them and penetrated the city in all directions.” In the gathering darkness and chaos of battle, Forrest and the remnants of his command escaped east along the Burnsville Road.

Selma Destroyed

As darkness descended, pandemonium reigned within the city. Fires broke out and vandals—both Union soldiers and Southern civilians—plundered the town. Wilson had captured 2,700 prisoners. The number of Confederates killed or wounded was unknown. In return, the Federals lost 46 killed, 300 wounded, and 13 missing. Riding among the jubilant members of the Lighting Brigade, Wilson called out: “Men! I see now how it is that you have gotten such a hell of a name!” Wild cheering answered him.

In the days following the fall of Selma, its Union occupiers went about destroying the place’s value to the Confederate war effort. This included the destruction of the 50 acres of buildings, including the arsenal, iron works, naval foundry, niter and powder works. Three million feet of lumber, locomotives, railcars, and machinery were also consigned to the fires. More than 2,000 horses and mules, as well as their provisions, had fallen into Union hands. One Federal described the destruction: “The scene was hideous and unearthly beyond anything we have ever imagined. The explosions continued for three hours, much louder than any we had ever heard, and of sufficient violence to shake the earth for miles around, making the city a perfect pandemonium.” Anything that could not be burned was thrown into the Alabama River.