“For God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone, I will let him alone. You have done all you could, and more than expected of you, and now all you can do is save yourselves.” Thus ended the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. Union forces under the command of General Samuel Sturgis retreated after being soundly defeated by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, adding to the legend of Forrest and frustrating Union plans in Mississippi.
The defeat of Sturgis on June 10-13, 1864 by an inferior force of Confederates was another in a long line of Union attempts to remove Forrest as a threat in the western theater. After Sturgis’s retreat, General William T. Sherman, the theater commander, began to devise a plan to remove the problem. “I have two officers at Memphis that will fight all the time … [A.J.] Smith and [Joseph] Mower … I will order them to make up a force and go out and follow Forrest to the death if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.” With these orders Sherman launched a third raid into Mississippi in June and July 1864 to remove a potential threat to his supply line and to defeat his most able and persistent adversary.
Sherman at the time was marching on Atlanta in response to orders issued by the Union’s new supreme commander, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s strategy involved moving Union armies in a concerted effort to destroy the rebellion in one final campaign. Sherman’s armies had as their objective Atlanta, one of the most important industrial, communication, and transportation hubs in the South.
Mower was Promised the Rank of General… if He Killed Forrest
The two generals tapped by Sherman were more than capable. Andrew Jackson Smith, commander of the right wing of the XVI Corps, was a West Point graduate (class of 1838) who had served in the Regular Army with the 1st Dragoons and had service in the West, reaching the rank of major before commanding the 2nd California Cavalry at the start of the war. He resigned to become cavalry chief for General Henry Halleck, participated in several western campaigns, and became a major general.
General Joseph Mower, commander 1st Division, XVI Corps, was one of Sherman’s favorite generals. Calling him “one of the boldest young soldiers we have,” Sherman promised Mower a major general’s commission if he was successful in killing Forrest. Sherman even went so far as to convince President Lincoln to keep his promise to Mower should something happen to him. Mower entered army service as a private in the Mexican War and returned to the army seven years later as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Infantry. He rose in rank as the war progressed.
With the defeat at Brice’s Crossroads, General C.C. Washburn, the department commander, acted on Sherman’s orders and told Smith to prepare his command for an advance into Confederate territory. A.J. Smith’s command was a diverse one. It was comprised of his own command, the right wing of the XVI Corps, which was composed of the 1st Division under Mower and the 3rd Division under Colonel David Moore. To this would be added the 1st Division of the XVI Corps Cavalry under General Benjamin H. Grierson and Colonel Edward Bouton’s Brigade of U.S. colored troops. Smith would also have about 20 pieces of artillery. In all, approximately 14,000 Union troops would be involved in the operation. Smith organized his command first at Memphis and then at La Grange, Tenn. By July 1 he was ready to begin.
Opposing Smith’s 14,000 men would be Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee’s troops of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. Lee (no relation to Robert E. Lee) was the youngest man to reach the rank of lieutenant general on either side during the war. He was born in South Carolina and was graduated from West Point with the class of 1854. An artillerist by training, he served in the East until Sharpsburg, transferring to the western theater in time to participate in the siege at Vicksburg where he was captured and eventually exchanged. After his parole, Lee was promoted to major general and given department command.
Serving under Lee in the department was one of the most capable and feared commanders produced by either side during the war: Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was not a military man by training, but rather a self-made man who succeeded at almost everything he did. He had little formal schooling, but managed to make a small fortune before the war, in part from slave-trading. When the war started he enlisted as a private in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry. He eventually used his personal fortune to raise and lead a cavalry battalion of his own. He fought in most of the western campaigns and achieved great success as a cavalry commander, conducting raids that would frustrate the Union time and again. By July 1864 he was a major general and fast becoming a legend.
The South Debated About Where Best to Use Forrest
After the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads Forrest’s troops were dispersed, making for easier resupply. They especially needed new horses. So many men were dismounted and without fresh horses that they were combined into a temporary infantry brigade that would fight on foot until horses could be found.
While Forrest’s troops were resting, a fight was developing over how best to use Forrest and his talents. Concerned with Sherman’s invasion of Georgia, General Joseph Johnston wished to use Forrest to command an “adequate force to destroy the railroad communications of the Federal Army” instead of “waiting for and repelling raids.” Johnston was obviously concerned with his own theater of operations, as was Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia, who wrote Jefferson Davis asking: “Could not Forrest do more now for our cause in Sherman’s rear than anywhere else?” Military logic dictated that if Sherman’s long supply lines could be cut he could be defeated, and one of the greatest threats to the existence of the Confederacy would be removed.
Jefferson Davis had other ideas, and responded that “Forrest’s command is now operating on one of Sherman’s lines of communication and is necessary for other purposes in his present field.” Brown was not satisfied and continued to push Davis to use Forrest to save his state from the Union invasion. Davis angrily responded, telling Brown that he could not dictate the movement of Confederate troops. Forrest would stay in Mississippi.
While the debate over Forrest raged and his troops recovered from their exertions, Forrest was still active. Ever vigilant, the Confederate cavalry officer continually sent out reconnaissance patrols to discern his enemy’s intent. Forrest pushed his scouts as far north as he dared, telling them “not only to learn all they can but to see for themselves.” In late June a spy informed Forrest that a large Union force, starting in Memphis, was going to move against Mississippi. The source was so reliable that on June 25 Forrest cabled Lee and explained that he thought the Mobile & Ohio Railroad was the target and to be prepared for an attack. On June 27 he ordered General Philip Roddey, one of his division commanders, to clear his command of all nonessential equipment and personnel and to have his troops ready to move at a moment’s notice. Forrest continued to reunite his command throughout the end of June and the beginning of July. He ordered General James Chalmers’ division from Columbus and reinforced a post at Ripley, Miss. to 600 men. On July 7 this force had a skirmish with a strong Union column and was forced to fall back. The Union advance had begun.
The Union movement started two days earlier, on July 5. Leaving La Grange, Tenn., Smith divided his command and moved out on two parallel roads. The infantry, artillery, and wagons were on one and the cavalry on another, each heading for Forrest’s outpost at Ripley. Smith’s orders for the march showed that he was concerned about the condition of his troops and feared that his numbers would be depleted through straggling. His advance into Mississippi could best be described as cautious. The march orders were exceptionally strict; no one was to fall out if it could be prevented. All canteens were filled to limit the number of men looking for water. Frequent halts to rest, along with numerous roll calls (three a day), were designed to keep men with their commands. The march was hard because of the high heat of summer. Smith also took extra precautions to protect his flanks and rear from surprise by the crafty Forrest.
Torching Most of the Town, Including the Courthouse, Two Churches, and Several Homes
The march went well. Skirmishes at Ripley on the 7th pushed the Confederates back and Smith continued south. Two days later the force crossed the Tallahatchie River and on the 10th arrived outside Pontotoc. The next day a Confederate brigade under General Robert McCulloch was posted in the town with orders to delay the Union advance as long as possible, the point being to allow Forrest and Lee to bring up reserves and prepare for an attack. But Smith deployed a mixed force of infantry and cavalry and pushed the Rebels out of town. Bearing in mind that he should punish the land that kept Forrest replenished, he burned most of the town, including the courthouse, two churches, and several homes.