Forrest versus Lee
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter describes the battle of Tupelo from July 14 to 15, 1864, and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s contentious relationship with Stephen D. Lee, who led the Tupelo campaign. Lee’s comments on the battle suggest that he blamed the outcome, as well as some of the battlefield errors, largely on Forrest’s refusal to take command.
William Sherman chose Andrew Jackson Smith to lead the second drive into Mississippi to get Nathan Bedford Forrest. Actually it was the third drive, but the second instigated since Sherman began his Georgia campaign. The additional one had been the disastrous Sooy Smith expedition in February 1864 when he had failed to join Sherman at Meridian. Except for the last name, A. J. Smith differed greatly from Sooy Smith. A Pennsylvania native who had been in Sherman’s Meridian campaign, he had more recently been involved in Nathaniel Banks’s ill-fated Red River campaign. Smith was passing through Memphis on his way to participate in operations against Mobile when he received orders to remain in Memphis and prepare a force to go after Forrest.
Sherman issued crisp, clear instructions. Smith and his army, elements of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth corps, must “pursue Forrest on foot, devastating the land over which he has passed or may pass, and make him and the people of Tennessee and Mississippi realize that, although a bold, daring and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pause or tarry. If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our past conquests will be lost.” Smith had instructions from Washington to “bring Forrest to bay and whip him if possible, and at all events to hold him where he [is] and prevent him from moving upon the communications of Major-General Sherman.”1
While Union forces in Memphis prepared once again to occupy Forrest’s attention, a debate raged in the Confederacy about whether Forrest should remain in Mississippi when he could be of greater value elsewhere. Joseph (p.221) E. Johnston urged Confederate leaders in Richmond to give Forrest, “the most competent officer in America,” command of all cavalry in Mississippi and east Louisiana and unleash him on the railroad in Sherman’s rear. Johnston argued cogently that Forrest and his cavalry would have greater impact “insuring the defeat of a great invasion than … repelling a mere raid.”
Others supported Johnston. Joseph E. Brown, governor of Georgia, said his state might be spared the pain of Sherman’s invasion if Forrest destroyed the Union supply line. General Howell Cobb, a prominent Georgia politician, echoed Brown’s sentiments, as did Confederate cavalryman Joseph Wheeler, but logical arguments were ignored in Richmond. To understand why, one must take into account not only the relationship of some of these petitioners to the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but also the political realities Davis faced.2
Johnston and Davis had been on bad terms for most of the war. Wounded in 1862 in the battle of Seven Pines during the peninsula campaign near Richmond, Johnston had lost command of the Virginia army to Robert E. Lee. During the decisive stages of the Vicksburg campaign, Johnston argued for abandonment of the Mississippi River fortress and then did nothing to relieve John C. Pemberton’s besieged army. Months later Davis reluctantly gave Johnston command of the Army of Tennessee, and Johnston’s constant retreating toward Atlanta infuriated Davis. In short, Davis cared little for Johnston’s advice. Joseph Brown likewise had a testy relationship with Davis. Brown considered Georgia’s state’s rights much more important than Confederate victory, and Davis, of course, refused to accept Brown’s position. So, when it came to Forrest, Davis told Brown to mind his own business.
The Tombigbee River valley along the Alabama-Mississippi border still produced many supplies important to Confederate armies, including Johnston’s. Somebody had to protect the area. If Forrest left Mississippi, Union troops there might be sent to Sherman, who already had numerical superiority over Johnston. Perhaps, too, as one of Forrest’s biographers has suggested, Davis simply underestimated Forrest’s ability. Davis admitted as much after the war, and the whole debate seemed to underscore Davis’s misplaced priorities in the western theater. Was losing a major campaign more or less important than saving supplies?
Braxton Bragg, replaced by Johnston, was a good friend of Davis’s and had gone to Richmond to advise the president. Forrest and Bragg continued to detest each other, so Bragg probably did not lobby heavily regarding Forrest’s role one way or the other. Though Forrest had been very confrontational with Bragg at one point, Davis now appreciated Forrest, and Bragg had enough political sense not to try to sway his friend, the president. The (p.222) bottom line was that as long as Forrest stayed in Mississippi, Sherman had no worries about keeping his supply line open.3
The bickering resulted in Forrest remaining where he was to satisfy a nervous Davis instead of performing more valuable service. Davis not only had logistical concerns, but some governors in states farther west than Georgia did not want Forrest being sent away. They felt vulnerable enough without having their top gun taken away. The controversy pleased Sherman greatly and doubtless tempered his anger about Sturgis’s failure. As long as the Confederates were willing to cooperate, he intended to keep sending men into Mississippi.
In Memphis, A. J. Smith’s men drew their pay and boarded trains headed east. After a few miles the troops detrained and marched eventually to La Grange, Tennessee, the assembly point for this latest “get Forrest” expedition.
Smith led his army out of La Grange on July 5, 1864. In all he had about 14,000 men, almost twice the number Sturgis had commanded. Benjamin Grierson, who had suffered under Sturgis, led Smith’s cavalry. Black troops of the First Brigade, U.S. Colored Troops, marched with the army. These troops, still angry at the massacre of black troops by Forrest and his men in April at Fort Pillow and also upset about reported mistreatment of fellow blacks by Confederates during the Brice’s Crossroads campaign—all of which Forrest had denied—continued to vow no-quarter for Rebels they encountered. Forrest’s men heard of the continuing boasts, and part of the postmortem of the upcoming campaign would be even more controversy over their treatment of black soldiers. The Union infantry, artillery, and wagon supply train took the Davis’ Mills road toward Ripley, Mississippi; Grierson and his cavalry rode via Grand Junction and Saulsbury and on to Ripley. Grierson’s job was to scout, but not to stray too far.
Smith, traveling with the infantry, did not want to be drawn into a fight on Forrest’s terms, as Sturgis had been at Brice’s Crossroads. The night of July 5, the main column camped at Davis’ Mills. On July 6 and 7 Smith kept his men moving, but slowly. The march was steady and controlled. To prevent straggling and desertion, Smith ordered roll calls several times daily. He wanted his men to feel secure as they descended into Forrest territory. Surviving the intense Mississippi heat challenged the resolve of the blue column as much as their dread of what might be ahead. Men fell from sunstroke every day, and the pace of the march slowed accordingly.
Skirmishing broke out a few miles north of Ripley. The noise proved to be just a few Confederate scouts trying to ascertain Smith’s strength. The shooting died down quickly, and the column moved on. The march (p.223) continued slowly on July 8–10, with Smith stopping in Ripley to allow his troops to carry out much destruction. Smith took to heart Sherman’s idea of making not only Forrest and his men pay a high price but also the people in the area who might be supporting Forrest. But what about the people who might not be? Smith did not care. His attitude, combined with those of other Union officers, did much to create the lingering hatred of Yankees that permeated the South during postwar years.
Smith’s men torched the Tippah County courthouse, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the Masonic and Odd Fellows halls, several stores, and three homes. The army left Ripley in flames and cut a “swath of desolation ten miles across” as they moved on to New Albany. On the 10th they camped about five miles from Pontotoc. Why New Albany escaped mass destruction is unclear, unless Smith feared that carrying out such actions everywhere would slow him too much and give Forrest tactical advantages.
Word had rapidly spread to Confederate units that Smith was “slowly and cautiously advancing.” Forrest initially concentrated a force at Ellistown, located between Tupelo and Ripley. Reports indicated the Yankees were coming from that direction, but he had guessed these troops were probably detachments from Grierson’s cavalry or perhaps infantry conducting a feint to confuse Rebel scouts. Forrest erred. From Ripley, Smith’s main column could have gone toward Ellistown, but instead took a parallel road leading toward Pontotoc. Smith had outmaneuvered, or perhaps outguessed, Forrest for the first, but not the last, time.4
Forrest had hoped to block Smith’s route, start a fight, and draw the enemy to him. That strategy usually worked well. Now he had no choice but to pursue Smith, to harass the Federal flanks. Forrest ordered his men to fire and fall back toward Okolona; hopefully, he could lure Smith into a trap there. Forrest’s men impressed area slaves to build earthworks near Okolona where “necessary arrangements were being vigorously made” to give the enemy a warm welcome. In an attempt to gain time, Forrest sent detachments on July 10 to points east of Pontotoc to spy on the slow-moving bluecoats. The Confederates had orders to fire just enough to hold up the Yankees until an adequate force could be gathered at Okolona. Opposing forces spent the day of July 11 punching and counterpunching, each side trying to determine the intent of the other. Smith sent cavalry and infantry to drive the Confederates south from Pontotoc down the Okolona road. So far, Forrest’s strategy seemed to be working. Smith was at Pontotoc and apparently willing to fight. Confederates south of the town pulled back toward Okolona trying to entice him to follow.5
(p.224) Smith thought seriously about advancing. On July 12 his main column stayed put while two regiments, one each of cavalry and infantry, ventured toward Okolona to feel out the Confederate position. Several miles south of Pontotoc, across from swampy terrain fed by two creeks, the Confederates had set up a roadblock on high ground known locally as Pinson’s Hill. Aside from boggy footing, any Federal approach would be complicated by thick timber and trees felled by the Rebels. A frontal attack would have been suicidal, so Smith’s scouts skirmished the rest of the day. Other Union detachments went down roads leading to Tupelo and Houston but fell back when confronted by Forrest’s patrols.
Meanwhile slaves and Confederate soldiers feverishly finished the works at Okolona, and Forrest sent word to his troops around Pontotoc to soften their resistance. If the Yankees wanted to come to Okolona, Forrest would welcome them. Smith’s delay at Pontotoc worried Forrest. Perhaps the Pinson’s Hill blockade had been too strong. The Federals might retreat back to Memphis. Forrest’s veterans likely would not have minded a Federal withdrawal, for it had not been long since they fought a major battle in the hot sun. But Forrest did not want Smith to escape unscathed, and if Smith turned back, the Confederate force at Okolona would have a hard time catching up and pressing the Yankee retreat. So Forrest discussed the situation with his commanders, and no doubt with Stephen D. Lee, who had arrived and as departmental commander was technically in charge. Lee and Forrest decided to fight Smith if the Federals kept coming or deployed to fight and to attack at the first sign of retreat.
What they could not afford to do was wait too long at Okolona, and they decided they had waited long enough. Forrest sent orders to his troops near Pontotoc to hold their positions “at all hazards” until reinforcements from Okolona reached them. One Confederate noted, “This sudden change of orders, being made at night, produced some confusion.” At 9 p.m. the evening of July 11, Forrest arrived at the front. At the time, he did not realize his decision to concentrate south of Pontotoc was a serious, if understandable, mistake. Confederate cavalry on the road from Pontotoc to Tupelo had been withdrawn, leaving the road open. If Smith chose to go to Tupelo, there would be no Confederates to confront him. Forrest had gambled and lost.
So far the campaign had been classic wait-and-watch, each side looking for the other to make a decisive move or a mistake. Smith had been cautious; he had refused to be enticed by Forrest. He would not be another Sturgis and make a blind commitment. He did not intend allowing Forrest to call the tune in this campaign. Smith worried about the impact of the heat (p.225) as well; if he became the aggressor, his men would suffer even more. His layover in Pontotoc may have been calculated as much to rest his soldiers as to confuse Forrest.
Smith, a veteran officer, may have sensed Forrest’s trap at Okolona. The roadblock at Pinson Hill had been a bit too obvious, and Forrest had recognized that mistake too late. Smith therefore issued orders the evening of July 12 for the army to move east the next morning toward Tupelo. Grierson told Smith that Harrisburg, a small community just west of Tupelo, and Tupelo, a growing community on the Mobile & Ohio, presented the army with its best option. Smith could entrench on high ground around Harrisburg, and certainly the combative Forrest would follow. Grierson said his cavalry could ride ahead and occupy the area while the slower infantry marched. At the moment, the way was clear. The Mobile & Ohio Railroad presented destructive opportunities. Grierson’s riders could destroy track and supplies stored at the Tupelo depot. Smith hesitated to embrace the plan, but he talked to other officers, and they agreed with Grierson that the high battleground at Harrisburg and Tupelo would be a good place to dig in and wait for Forrest. The march to Tupelo could be dangerous since Confederates to the south could ride up and hit the Union right flank, not to mention the threat to the Union rear from Rebel troops around Pontotoc. Yet if the army moved quickly, they could make it and dig in before the Confederates could concentrate and attack. Smith decided Harrisburg and Tupelo were his best option.
As for Forrest, he unknowingly surrendered the initiative when he decided to make a stand at Okolona. During the Federal approach to Pontotoc, Forrest had done the usual. He ordered harassment of Federal flanks and rear to try to slow Smith. In all this he had had some success, but when Smith paused at Pontotoc and decided to go no farther, Forrest realized the Okolona ruse had been a mistake. He then had to decide what to do about it.
He and Lee had no choice but to allow Smith to make the next move. No matter what Smith decided to do, they had put themselves in a position of being reactive rather than proactive. They had based their strategy on what they expected the enemy to do, and now they must find a way to salvage the campaign. Forrest knew that he was outnumbered, but he had never been intimidated by that factor. As the campaign continued unfolding, it became more apparent that Forrest would have to do what Smith forced him to do, or back off. And retreating from a fight was something Forrest could not bring himself to do. Given the situation, however, it would have been best to leave Smith alone until Confederate circumstances improved. Forrest (p.226) was not the same man who had recently won his greatest victory, for he had been outmaneuvered and put in an awkward position. There were possible explanations.
He suffered terribly from boils, which made riding a horse an excruciating experience. The presence of Lee may have also affected his behavior. One could not blame Forrest for being upset with Lee’s promotion to lieutenant general ahead of him, especially since the promotion came a few days after Brice’s Crossroads. To Forrest, this was another indication that clannish West Pointers stuck together, and that an excellent war record, and his was more spectacular than Lee’s, did not matter. Circumstances of the Tupelo campaign tend to indicate that Forrest figured Lee, as departmental commander, took credit, or at least was given credit in Richmond, for Brice’s Crossroads. After that battle Lee had been promoted to lieutenant general, and Forrest had not. Forrest mentioned Lee’s rank during the discussion over who should lead Confederate forces during the Tupelo campaign.
By insisting that Lee take command, Forrest seemed to want to get Lee’s and Richmond’s attention. Yet the campaign thus far had been primarily his, if officially Lee’s. Forrest’s attitude proved divisive, for it became obvious that Lee’s presence at the front, at Forrest’s insistence, antagonized Forrest and produced a muddled situation. Forrest and Lee had a better relationship than Forrest usually had with superior officers, but the aftermath of Brice’s Crossroads created the promotion controversy. While it is easy to make light of Forrest’s boils, the pain could have played a bigger role in his behavior during the campaign than has been appreciated. John Morton, Forrest’s artillery commander, wrote that the day before the battle, “Forrest, from his knowledge of the enemy’s position, deemed an attack unwise and declined the command.” Whatever the whole truth may have been, Forrest and Lee had to set aside animosities when they awoke the morning of July 13 and learned that the enemy was moving rapidly toward Tupelo.6
Grierson’s cavalry led the way as the men in blue hurried down the Pontotoc-Tupelo road. Despite skirmishing with small Rebel patrols most of the way, the cavalry reached Harrisburg and Tupelo relatively unscathed. The main column of infantry and artillery, especially the rear guard, had more trouble.
When word of the enemy’s movement east reached Confederate headquarters, Lee ordered Forrest to take two brigades plus Forrest’s escort and press the Federal rear, while Lee took the rest of the army to attack Smith’s right flank. Forrest drove Smith’s rear guard through Pontotoc to the Tupelo road. Pursuit was something Forrest did well, and the heat of battle (p.227) temporarily overcame the pain of bouncing in the saddle. He later wrote, “I made a vigorous assault upon the enemy’s rear for ten miles.”
Smith had left the Seventh Kansas Cavalry and the U.S. Colored Troops infantry in the rear to keep the Rebels at bay. Colonel Edward Bouton’s black soldiers, along with the cavalry, held up Forrest’s pursuit before retreating toward Tupelo at the rear of Smith’s main column. Rear guards often had dirty work, and there was still much prejudice in the Union army against black soldiers. Also, many in the Union army had never liked the mean, bullying behavior and attitudes of the Kansans and did not care how many of them were shot. Smith nevertheless showed confidence in his black regiments by putting them between the army and Forrest. These same men who had survived Brice’s Crossroads had done well during Sturgis’s retreat. The Confederates pressed hard, and Union cavalry in the extreme rear, behind Bouton’s men, sent urgent calls for help.
Bouton looked for good ground to make a stand and allow the Rebels to come to him. The men of the Sixty-first Colored Regiment made good use of terrain along the road, and when Confederates rode close enough, the black Federals rose up and opened fire, emptying many enemy saddles. While the Confederates recoiled and reformed, Bouton’s men moved on toward Harrisburg for about a mile before reforming to use the same tactic. This time the pursuing horsemen were more wary and Bouton less successful.
Forrest noted that the bluecoats took advantage of every good defensive position. In fact, the Union resistance became fiercer and more determined as fighting in the Federal rear drew close to the main column. Confederate light artillery kept the Federals alert, and cavalry detachments fanned out on Union flanks to keep Bouton from setting up other ambushes. Forrest, however, not anxious to get drawn into a stand-up fight in which he had not had time to plan strategy, decided to slow up until he heard indications of Lee’s attack on the Federal right. At Brice’s Crossroads, Forrest knew he could count on Barteau’s flank and rear attack; he had not been in battle with Lee, and he could not be sure this time.
Bouton moved from ridge to ridge, daring the Rebels to make a frontal assault. The Confederates got more and more cautious to avoid more blasts from Bouton’s infantry. Bouton’s men and other rearguard cavalry had to hold off Forrest and protect the slow-moving, weighted-down wagon train, Sturgis’s Achilles’ heel. Bouton sent most of his force forward to protect the train while leaving part of a regiment to check the Confederates. Bouton’s black troops shot down several Rebels who rode through a cornfield to within fifteen yards of the skirmish line. The exchange forced the Rebels (p.228) back, and the black troops rejoined their comrades. Forrest’s advance pushed ahead, harassing Bouton’s flanks. Stephen Lee finally showed up on Smith’s flank.
Detachments from other Union infantry regiments backtracked to assist Bouton, and more would be needed to thwart Lee. Two infantry regiments came to help; they had been protecting the wagon train when sounds of Lee’s attack drifted over the hills. With Smith’s column stretched out, Lee had a golden opportunity to inflict significant damage.7
General James Chalmers, one of Forrest’s best, tried to hit Smith’s flank. He heard the Yankees were moving, and he immediately put his men in motion to protect the Confederate right. Then orders from Lee instructed Chalmers to hit the enemy’s right. (Smith’s army’s right flank, south of the road, would deploy north of the road when he got to Harrisburg area and turned west to fight.) Lee rode with Chalmers but chose not to lead in person. No matter what Forrest wanted, Lee understood that Forrest’s men would fight better under Forrest. So Chalmers, one of Forrest’s most trusted lieutenants, led the way and found Federals at Bartram’s Shop (also known as Burrow’s Shop) some eight miles west of Tupelo, where a trail intersected the main road. Chalmers immediately ordered an assault, and the surprise attack worked at first, when Rebels gunned down several mules, forcing the Yankees to abandon wagons, a caisson, and ambulances.
Chalmers’s attack had a magnetic effect, drawing Union infantry and artillery to the area from both western and eastern segments of Smith’s column. Chalmers saw the danger of entrapment as Federal reinforcements rushed toward his men. The scene grew chaotic, and some Confederates in the melee had to hold their fire for a time, for in the smoke of battle they could not tell friend from foe.8
Federal commanders had been aware that their ranks were stretched too thin in places. The slow wagon train continued to hamper Smith’s deployment. One of Smith officers saw that almost a quarter of the wagons were vulnerable to flank attacks. Two Wisconsin regiments protected a portion of the wagon train at the road junction and flanked Chalmers’s left.
Despite tactical challenges, Smith’s men fought a textbook fight, taking advantage of terrain and reinforcing each other when needed. The coordinated defense was readily apparent, even to the Confederates, when they made a second assault on Smith’s flank at Connewah Crossroads. Confederate general Abraham Buford, commanding the Second Division of Forrest’s cavalry, noted his admiration for the enemy during the race for Tupelo: “About 5 o’clock Wednesday evening (13th), under order of Lieutenant-General Lee, with [Tyree] Bell’s brigade and a section of artillery from (p.229) [John] Morton’s battery, I attacked the enemy on his right flank during the march. At no time had I found the enemy unprepared. He marched with his column well closed up, his wagon train well protected, and his flanks covered in an admirable manner, evincing at all times a readiness to meet any attack, and showing careful generalship. After fighting him about an hour, suffering considerable loss, the enemy was heavily re-enforced and I was compelled to withdraw the brigade from action.”
Edward Crossland rushed to assist Buford. When Crossland and his men arrived, they found a Buford brigade “falling back in some confusion.” The brigade was Tyree Bell’s, who recalled, “No blame can certainly be attached to the men for falling back, as they were completely overpowered and forced to retire.” The men, mostly new troops, obviously did not have the discipline of veterans. Bell attacked with the understanding that another brigade would assist, but, unlike coordinated Union efforts, Bell got no help and had to endure frontal and flanking fire. Having severely chastised the Rebels, Federal troops continued toward Tupelo.
Thus ended the so-called battle of Connewah Crossroads. Though it was not extensive enough to measure up to most battles, it was typical of that part of the Tupelo campaign on the Pontotoc-Tupelo road. The Confederates’ attempts to stall Smith’s march failed at every encounter.9
Smith later reported his “object was to secure Tupelo, thus gaining possession of the railroad and giving me the opportunity to choose my own ground for battle.” He won the race for Tupelo, and he established a battle line that took advantage of terrain. He also received welcome news that Grierson occupied Tupelo, which was on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad east of Smith’s battle line. Grierson had thus secured the Union rear while the army about-faced and prepared for a Confederate attack. Smith placed his Third Division on the left of the Pontotoc-Tupelo road and the First Division on the right. The black regiments, which had been fighting most of the day, took positions in the rear behind the left flank. The First Division formed at an angle so that its infantry brigades, along with Grierson’s cavalry, could keep an eye on the wagon train parked in the rear. During the coming fight, Grierson’s men guarded both flanks; they were relatively fresh and could repulse any flank and rear attacks. In this position, in the area of Harrisburg, a community that had mostly died out when the railroad was built to the east through Tupelo, the Federal army camped the night of July 13.
The historian Edwin C. Bearss has written of the situation that evening: “If General Smith and his officers congratulated themselves … they could be excused. The day had gone extremely well. They had stolen a march on (p.230) the dreaded Forrest and had occupied a strong position of their own choosing. If the Confederates assaulted them, they were confident of victory.”10
While the Federals rested, Lee and Forrest organized their troops. Buford, with two brigades, reported to Forrest near Connewah Crossroads. Chalmers rode into camp two miles west of Harrisburg. Lee and the rest of the Confederate force drifted in during the evening. By morning there would be some 7,500 Confederate troops on hand.
Forrest and Lee privately discussed the situation, and they could not have been pleased. Smith had gotten away, but, more grating, the Federal general controlled the campaign. If left alone, Smith’s men could wreck the railroad in Tupelo and destroy supplies. If the Confederates attacked, they would go against superior numbers who had terrain advantages.
Forrest was edgy. His artillery chief, John Morton, recalled many years later, with a touch of hero worship, “General Forrest, returning to headquarters about dark, dismounted from his horse, and, removing his coat, spread it upon the ground.” The general seemed lost in his thoughts and very tired from the fighting and heat of the day. His staff, knowing his unpredictable temperament, stood some distance away, leaving him alone. “Suddenly springing up, he put on his coat, mounted his horse, and called to Lieut. Samuel Donelson to accompany him. They made a wide detour through the woods.” With battle tactics swirling in his head, Forrest forgot his boils. He told Donelson that scouts indicated the Yankees were about a mile ahead. “He also stated that he had neglected to put on his holster, and was therefore without his pistols. Lieutenant Donelson offered him one, but it was declined, General Forrest saying that he did not think they would be needed.” After an hour or so, the two rode up in the Union rear, near enemy wagons. The darkness concealed their identity, and, keeping away from campfires, they rode casually among Smith’s camp. Having ascertained the information they sought, namely Smith’s strength, the two rode back toward the Confederate camp. About 200 yards ahead, Federal pickets challenged them, and “General Forrest, affecting intense anger, said, ‘How dare you halt your commanding officer?’ and without further remark put spurs to his horse, an example followed by Lieutenant Donelson.” The Yankees did not sense they had almost captured a couple of Rebels until the two riders disappeared into the darkness. The two bent over low in the saddle, and though the pickets fired a few shots, they were not hit and made it back safely. Forrest enjoyed talking about the adventure, noting he might not have minded getting shot in one of his boils if it provided some relief. There were easier ways to get them lanced. “His discovery of the enemy’s strong position,” Morton recalled, “occasioned General Forrest some (p.231) uneasiness, and his last order [to Morton] was to make his men comfortable for the night, for they had hot work before them on the morrow.”11
Forrest’s adventure might have been the only thing about the campaign he cared to remember. One can only speculate what might have happened had he been in command. Given what he had seen that night, he probably would have withdrawn or tried to maneuver Smith out of the enemy’s enviable position. Lee may have sought Forrest’s advice, but it is unlikely that Forrest recommended the frontal assault Lee settled on for the next day. Lee insisted many years later that he acted in accord “with the understanding to accept battle wherever the enemy offered it, and when it was found he would not advance farther.” Lee further argued, “Whatever (p.232) others may say,” he and Forrest “were in perfect accord as to delivering battle.” If Lee had made his claims immediately in a postbattle report, his comments would be more believable. In fact, by the time he wrote of the campaign, he was elderly, and the dead Forrest could not argue. John Morton commented that if Lee had written a timely report, “many matters of controversy now involved would have been settled during the lifetime of numerous distinguished and gallant comrades.” One can speculate that if Forrest felt strongly about not attacking, he would have spoken up loud and clear to Lee. The fact that he did not meant either his pain or Smith’s strong position had sapped his usual desire to go into battle. The night ride had been a Forrest kind of adventure, but the adrenalin rush had not lasted long. Whatever Forrest’s true feelings may have been, he would not lash out at Lee until the battle had been fought and lost.
Lee never faced a situation like the one confronting him the night of July 13. He had performed well during the Vicksburg campaign, but in those days he did not have to make command decisions. Forrest had such experience, but he had never been outthought and outmaneuvered to this extent. Of course, some of Smith’s moves were attributable to Confederate strategy that relied on the Federals doing as predicted. Smith had done otherwise.
Both Lee and Forrest understood the “desperate venture” they were undertaking. No reinforcements were available, since Confederate armies everywhere by 1864 faced superior numbers. At the time, Southern armies had “to fight against great odds or not fight at all. On this occasion not to fight would have been to have given up the great corn region of Mississippi, the main support of other armies facing the enemy on more important fields.”
Lee may have gotten cold feet as the prospect of battle loomed the next day. He tried once more to give command to Forrest. “I said to General Forrest that a large proportion of the troops now on the ground belonged to his immediate command, had served under him in his recent successful campaigns, and had just won the splendid victory at Brice’s Crossroads, having beaten some of the troops that they would have to encounter to-day, and that, knowing Forrest better than myself, they would have more implicit confidence in his leadership. General Forrest, however, positively declined to take the command, saying that I was his senior, and that I should take the responsibility.” Whether Forrest still nurtured anger at Lee’s promotion or believed Lee’s strategy would not work, or both, he mysteriously ignored Lee’s pleas, and the reason for his behavior has never been ascertained.
Lee’s words indicate he was uncomfortable in command, and Forrest was uncomfortable not only with Lee’s presence but also with the tactical (p.233) situation. They may have agreed on the decision to fight, but not on the conduct of the battle. Who would be in charge on the field once shooting started? Forrest seemed to assume Lee would, but Forrest’s actions the next day indicated he really considered himself in command. The bottom line was the two created a foggy hierarchy of leadership, going against a Federal general who so far had conducted a remarkably able campaign.
One factor missing from Lee’s late report, and Forrest’s reminiscences, is mention of attempts to flank Smith. If Lee and Forrest had turned north to cut off Smith’s best route back to Memphis, surely Smith would have been forced to give up his chosen ground west of Tupelo. Yet there is no evidence that Lee and Forrest considered such a tactic. Forrest had seen Smith’s position up close, and it seemed a logical option, but Forrest apparently never mentioned it to Lee, and why Lee did not think of it remains another unanswered question.
Smith no doubt waited for dawn with more confidence than his counterparts. He still held his strong position, but perhaps thoughts of Sturgis’s failure and Sherman’s wrath haunted him. Should he stay put and stare down Forrest and Lee? In retrospect, the answer is yes, but in his own mind, who knew what tomorrow might bring? He had had a good day, but he may have spent a restless night. He exhibited no killer instinct.
Daylight of July 14 gave Forrest a much better look at the Union army position than he had gleaned from his nighttime escapade. He saw the Federals held a position from which they probably could not be driven, and from a distance the Confederates could see that the Yankees were strengthening their positions. Any further frontal attack might destroy Forrest’s and Lee’s army. The historian Edwin C. Bearss wrote: “The position selected by General Smith to receive the Confederate attack was well suited for defense. His battle line, on the crest of a low ridge overlooking Harrisburg Branch, formed a right angle several hundred yards north of the Pontotoc road. From the position … the Federals looked westward toward Pontotoc, the direction from which Generals Lee and Forrest would advance. To the Union front, the terrain sloped gradually down to Harrisburg Branch,” where there were large trees and little vegetation offering defensive cover. Clearings from Smith’s main line to the timber would be fields of Confederate death, and in some places widely spaced trees would provide little protection for the Rebels, who would be easy targets for Union riflemen.12
Stephen Lee decided to fight with troops dismounted, since Forrest’s men understood infantry tactics. Charging the enemy here on horseback would have been even more ridiculous than an infantry assault. Of Lee’s (p.234) 7,500 men, only 6,600, less than half Smith’s strength, could ably participate in the attack. (Other estimates of Confederate strength go as high as 9,400, but 7,500 is more believable.) Lee placed Philip Roddey’s troops on the far right of the Confederate line. Edward Crossland’s brigade covered the center, and Hinchie Mabry’s men lined up on the left. Tyree Bell supported Mabry initially but during the fight also supported Crossland. Hylan Lyon’s brigade and James Chalmers’s division were held in reserve. Mabry and Bell anchored the Confederate line north of the Pontotoc-Tupelo road; the remainder of the troops fought most of the day south of the road. Rejecting Morton’s advice to mass the artillery, Lee dispersed his guns among divisions, thereby reducing their effectiveness. This was a curious tactic for an experienced artilleryman. Lee had his troops up about 2 a.m., and by daybreak most had deployed and awaited orders.13
The first day of the battle, July 14, was mainly a two-phase fight, fought at times simultaneously and at other times staggered among various portions of the two armies. Part one began on the Federal left and spread along that front to the center. The troops in these two sectors were so close that fighting seemed to be on one line; any distinctions between the Federal left and center and the Confederate right and center became blurred. Mean-while combat on the Union right and Rebel left was distinguishable from the rest of the battle. The Confederates ignited the fighting with an attack against the Federal left-center.
False information led Lee to order Roddey’s troops to charge. Two scouts, noted for their reliability, rode into the Confederate camp with in-formation that Smith was withdrawing toward Ripley. According to Lee, Forrest advised the attack on Smith’s left, with the idea of turning the Union flank while the rest of the army hit the Federal front. The scouting reports are not mentioned in Forrest’s campaign reports, but, assuming they existed, Forrest possibly thought he could disrupt Smith’s withdrawal as he had Sturgis’s, when he sent a detachment to hit Sturgis’s left as the Federals retreated down toward Tishomingo Creek. In effect, he could bend Smith’s left and push it against the rest of Smith’s line. Lee noticed that Forrest’s “blood was up; the fire of battle was in his eye. He said that if he was in command, he would not hesitate a moment.” Perhaps that was so, but it could be that Lee, writing after the fact, was trying to enlist Forrest was an ally in the ultimate fatal outcome for the Confederates.
Whatever the case, Forrest obeyed. He personally delivered Lee’s order to Roddey, then he moved forward to select a route for the flank attack. Suddenly he found a Kentucky brigade “had been rashly precipitated forward,” falling back under “murderous” fire. Forrest grabbed their colors (p.235) and tried to form a new line. Impressed by the “terrific” fire from Federal entrenchments, Forrest canceled Roddey’s attack. The Kentuckians had bungled any chance for coordination, and Forrest, “wishing to save my troops from the unprofitable slaughter I knew would follow any attempt to charge,” told Roddey to forget the assault. Forrest ordered up artillery and established a battle line. This would not be Brice’s Crossroads; there would be no glorious flank and rear attack here. If Forrest had the fire of battle in his eye, it cooled quickly when he saw the effectiveness of Smith’s concentrated firepower.
David Moore, commanding the Union Third Division, saw his troops gain momentum on their left and center. The Rebels advanced in column formation out in the open toward the Federal line. Moore’s men lay behind the brow of the high ground until the Confederates got within twenty paces. Then the blue infantry rose up as one, gave their own version of the Rebel yell, and charged, their volleys sending the Confederates running. Some were heard exclaiming, “My God! My God!” These tactics, used effectively by Bouton on the Tupelo road, continued to work. Moore’s men effectively used oblique (slanting rather than horizontal or perpendicular) firing from the right and left, leaving the Confederates hastily retreating.
The right and left oblique enabled Moore’s men to move more flexibly as situations dictated, to the right or to the left, to shoot into the flanks of the charging Confederates. These shifts in fields of fire confused the attackers and reduced their ability to fight back. Once the Confederate retreat began, Union soldiers left their trenches briefly to pursue the enemy to the foot of the hill in their front. Here they halted and sent volleys into the retreating masses before returning unmolested.
Other Union accounts of action on the Federal left and center tell similar stories of dominance. At 9 a.m. the Rebels attacked, driving in Union skirmishers on the left-center of the Union line. The Rebels again made the mistake of charging across an open field and were mowed down. Holding their fire until the enemy got within 100 yards, the Yankees arose and opened fire in unison, and Rebels who survived turned and ran for their lives. Many never fired a shot.
On the Federal left, just to the right of the U.S. Colored Troops, the Confederates attacked that morning, and Union officers believed that Lee and Forrest were after Federal batteries. The Federals waited patiently and, using a right oblique, delivered a murderous flanking fire. The artillery batteries sent a devastating crossfire of shells and canister; the canister, having the effect of a plethora of shotguns, knocked down Confederates over a wide range.
(p.236) An officer of the Second Illinois Light Artillery ordered his guns to change their positions to fire into the Confederate flank. The guns caused “the most terrible destruction” as deadly missiles hit Rebels with a crossfire that made it difficult to find safety. Union officer John Lowell noticed the enemy quickly disappearing in rapid retreat.
Kentuckians soon found that a frontal assault against Smith’s position was suicidal. Confederate officer Edward Crossland wrote sadly of the debacle that his men charged with much enthusiasm, yelling and certain they would overrun the Yankees. Firing as they went to within 200 yards of the enemy, they met heavy fire from the front and realized they had no support on their flanks. Then, added to the fierce frontal fire, an enfilading fire coming from Federals on both flanks created an inescapable lead storm and totally wrecked the Kentuckians, who had suffered much already. The failure of other Confederate troops to advance left their comrades isolated, and the entire Union line fired into the survivors. The failure of Rebels on their right flank to move forward doomed the “decimated” Kentuckians. After the few survivors retreated, they fell exhausted to the ground and did not fight again that day. Later they moved to guard a road southeast to Verona below Tupelo, void of Yankee threats.
General James Chalmers’s cavalry had similar experiences. Ordered to dismount his reserve cavalry and march his men two miles, he discovered that his orders had sent him in the wrong direction. Disgusted, he received new orders that forced a countermarch, exhausting his men and horses. While moving, he then received three conflicting sets of instructions. Forrest wanted him to move to the right, while Lee told him to move left. Abraham Buford told Chalmers that Lee wanted him in the center. Since he belonged to Forrest’s command, Chalmers went right. But Lee, now taking advantage of his rank after begging Forrest to command, personally intervened and had Chalmers hold one brigade in reserve, while ordering the other to the left. Such confusion was inexcusable; all leaders involved were professional soldiers, but they had turned the field of battle into an absurd mess. This kind of uncertainty, which created absurdities, typified the Confederate experience that day.
Abraham Buford argued early in the day for an attack on the Union left. The enemy wanted frontal attacks, because they would all be beaten back. Lee and Forrest had probably already made their decision. Whatever the sequence, Buford watched furiously as everything went wrong with coordination and men not doing anything. The Kentucky disaster endangered Buford’s position. His severe losses amounted to a third of his troops, and the survivors had to fall back. Confederate officers proved (p.237) slow in understanding that an attack anywhere along the Union line produced disaster. Smith’s well-designed position emphasized concentrated fire.
North of the Tupelo-Pontotoc road Federal troops continued the slaughter of charging Confederates. Though getting some reinforcements, Hinchie Mabry’s Rebel forces fell in droves before the coordinated Union firepower aligned along a ridge crest. Confederates in that sector did have a few trees to provide cover, but not nearly enough. They needed the trees, for within 300 yards of the Yankee position they received a heavy dose of small-arms fire. They charged, though suffering from the day’s heat; many fell exhausted, some saving their lives in the process. Some escaped the killing and wounding resulting from Union firepower. A few Confederate survivors hunkered down and melted away, finding some cover in a hollow behind a fence, from which they quickly retreated farther back.
Tyree Bell’s brigade got to within seventy-five yards of the Federal breastworks. His troops also suffered but fought until their ammunition ran low. A few reinforcements came to relieve Bell, but with little effect. Bell wrote the “place was a hot one, and the enemy’s position strong and commanding, well selected, and well fortified.”
Another Confederate regiment experienced the extremities of heat. Lee sent Edmund Rucker’s brigade into the maelstrom to the left, and men charged on the run. The men went over plowed fields and through corn, in plain sight of the Federal line, for some 2,000 yards, and they went down, wounded and killed from artillery and rifle fire from a ridge behind Harrisburg. Heat exhaustion again compounded the toll.14
The well-constructed entrenchments, masterful use of interior lines that made it possible for Smith’s men to move from one area to another without exposing themselves to Confederate fire, and high ground made Smith’s position impossible to dent. Staying in the trenches was not enough for some commanders. Joseph Mower sent one of his brigades in pursuit of fleeing Rebels, clearing his front except for a few of his own men who fell from sunstroke. Sweating, triumphant Union soldiers stayed at their forward position for a while and then returned to their original lines. Though the Federals respected the efforts of their opponents, they celebrated when “the enemy’s last line was destroyed.”
By early afternoon the fighting, except for light skirmishing, ended for the daylight hours of July 14. At 1 p.m. the Confederates admitted defeat. Lee sent a wire to Richmond stating that the attack had been made but that he had been unable to force the Federals from their position. He believed that his men had a strong position and could repel a counterattack.
(p.238) Forrest also liked the Confederate position that commanded approaches for several hundred yards. Following Lee’s instructions, he ordered rails, logs, and cotton bales gathered to build temporary fortifications. The farm of a Mrs. Samples supplied the necessary items. Meanwhile Lee and Forrest ordered exhausted soldiers to advance short distances and then retreat, in a vain effort to lure Smith into an attack. Forrest waited with great anticipation, perhaps anxious to redeem his lackluster performance. But, as Lee noted, Smith “did not move out of his own chosen position.”15
Caution continued to be Smith’s byword, even after a smashing victory. His men, especially those who had countercharged, needed time to recuperate from the hot weather. He had no desire to risk a counterattack, and he saw that the Confederates, given the pounding they had endured, showed no inclination to continue. Around sundown, Smith ordered most of his force to pull back several hundred yards to the supply wagons “to give [them] rest and opportunity to cook their rations.” His actions seemed humane, but clearly Smith lacked the fighting instincts of a great commander.
As night fell, Confederates saw Union soldiers torching houses around Harrisburg and Tupelo as they had at Ripley. One Rebel officer wrote of the sojourn of Smith’s army in Mississippi that his men committed robbery and left a trail of desolation and vandalism. They mistreated local citizens and took whatever they pleased from whomever they pleased, even widows and orphans. Livestock was killed to keep it out of Confederate hands, and carcasses were left in yards and in roads to rot in the daily hot sun. One pro-Confederate writer complained of Smith that he “laid waste this beautiful country, burning towns, private residences” plus granaries, gin houses, and plantations. Hard war had come to this stage by 1864, but after the Meridian campaign, the complainers should not have been surprised.
The destruction wrought on civilians had in many areas become predictable and was not confined to one army or the other. Soldiers in blue and gray felt inclined to take what they needed or wanted. The difference was the Yankee preference for fire. In the Harrisburg community, however, and elsewhere along the march, Smith simply continued to follow Sherman’s dictum to make local people regret their support of Forrest.
While fires raged, Lee and Forrest decided on a night raid, a reconnaissance in force. They suspected and no doubt hoped the fires might mean the Federals were going to withdraw, perhaps that very night. The overall results had been devastating, but their men had not given up the fight, and they were still in Smith’s front. Perhaps Smith had decided to quit while he was ahead. The Federals could not stay at Tupelo indefinitely without (p.239) depleting their supplies, which, like dead livestock, were vulnerable to the summer heat.
As night blanketed the battlefield, Forrest took a brigade and rode with the men to the Federal left to read the enemy’s position, strength, and intentions. The night riders at one point opened fire and drove in Federal pickets. The noise alerted the Federals, and the Yankees, Forrest noted, opened “one of the heaviest fires I have heard during the war.” It seemed as if the entire Federal army had been waiting, resulting in an “unceasing roar of small-arms, and his whole line was lighted up by a continuous stream of fire.” Fortunately for the Rebels, most Federal bullets went high in the dark-ness. The Confederates hurried back to their own lines, thankful that the enemy had difficulty seeing them.16
Forrest had been repulsed by white brigades and Edward Bouton’s black regiments. Colonel Bouton proudly reported that his black infantry made a charge with fixed bayonets up a hill to help drive Forrest away. Smith’s officers understood that their left was the key to the battlefield; if it broke, the rest of Smith’s army would be subject to flank and rear attacks. Forrest’s presence there came as no surprise, and Union vigilance proved decisive.
Confederate artillery lobbed shells at the Federals, who could be seen by the light of the burning buildings. Strong enemy reaction further convinced Lee and Forrest that the Yankees were not retreating.17
As the night of July 14 passed into the early morning of July 15, Smith held the initiative, but the big question was what he would do with it. Forrest and Lee thought the Yankees might launch an early attack. Smith might try to move south and destroy more railroad and supplies, so Lee shifted Buford’s men to keep watch.
Though Smith had had his way, his actions had been defensive. To get Forrest, as Sherman had ordered, he at some point had to become the aggressor. The battered Confederate force remained before him. Smith respected the Confederates’ fighting ability, and he never had any intention of attacking a stationary army in his front. He had other options. He could try to maneuver the Confederates into attacking him again. He could send Grierson’s cavalry to flank the Rebels out of their position and then order an infantry charge. He could use part of his troops to conduct a holding action, while the rest sacked the surrounding countryside. Whatever he may have considered, it became evident the next day that he was not going to continue the campaign.
When morning came Smith ordered a withdrawal, mainly because, as he later wrote, his army’s supply of bread had gone sour. He made the rather incredible statement in his postcampaign report that the bread had been (p.240) spoiled when it was drawn from commissaries prior to the march into Mississippi. Why it took so long for him to discover the problem he did not say. What he found on the morning of July 15 was that he had only one day’s ration per man on hand for the army. Of course, he might have obtained sufficient supplies from the area for several more days of campaigning. All food around his army had not been destroyed. The Confederates would no doubt have contested Federal foraging, but with his superior numbers, Smith still could have ordered his army to live off the land. He also had only about 100 rounds of artillery ammunition per gun, which may or may not have proved a problem, depending upon future actions of the Rebels. In his report Smith simply said, “It, therefore, became a matter of necessity to return.” He had won a major victory; now he gave up the campaign. Had Smith lost his nerve? Had he decided to declare victory and leave while victory was still his? Only he knew the answer.
Smith held his troops in position all morning and sent cavalry to destroy the railroad five miles north and south of Tupelo. He ordered Rebel wounded who had been picked up on the battlefield to be carried into Tupelo and left there. A cavalry brigade retrieved a captured, disabled Confederate piece of artillery left behind by the Rebels the previous day. Not until noon did the Union army began withdrawing.
Before the disengagement began, action erupted on the Federal left. Abraham Buford, still guarding the road to Verona, received orders to attack at dawn. Apparently Lee tired of waiting for Smith to attack. Two Rebel brigades drove Union skirmishers to Smith’s main line. Buford then ordered a halt, “threw out a line of skirmishers to hold the enemy in check, and rested my division, who were exhausted from hard fighting, the excessive heat and want of water.” Eighty of his men had to be carried from the field due to heat prostration. Forrest rode up and found men fainting and otherwise in bad shape from thirst. Clearly these men were being pushed beyond their limits.
Smith’s black soldiers again rose to the occasion. They moved forward toward the ridge previously held by Union forces and now by Buford’s men. The bluecoats “charged, firing, with fixed bayonets,” and drove the Rebels back several hundred yards.
Had the Confederates pressed that morning, they might have contacted the rear of Smith’s army as it marched toward the Ellistown road northwest of Tupelo. When the black regiments chased Buford away, they were doing their usual rearguard duty and protecting the wagon train carrying sick and wounded. This portion of the army, including detachments of Grierson’s (p.241) cavalry guarding the flanks, joined the rest of Smith’s force at Old Town Creek in the late afternoon.18
As Union forces departed, Lee continued his efforts to lure the enemy, but Joseph Mower’s men, lagging to beat back any attack, toyed with the Rebels and suddenly bounded out from behind their lines and drove them a couple of miles. There Confederate cavalry sprang into saddles and hurried off. After clearing their front, Mower’s men turned and leisurely followed the army to Old Town Creek. A cavalry brigade watched the rear just in case. There was no need. At Old Town Creek, Mower marched his division on past Moore’s to take the lead. Just as Mower’s men completed crossing the creek, Rebel artillery shells screamed into the creek bottom.
The Confederates had finally figured out what was amiss. After wasting most of the morning trying to pick a fight, Lee ordered troops forward. The Rebels moved slowly, held up by Smith’s rear guard. Finally he discovered the Yankees were taking Ellistown road. Lee ordered his whole force to pursue. Buford’s division took the lead and found the enemy in the Old Town Creek bottom and ordered his big guns to open fire.
A Union brigade turned and dealt with the Confederates. Union soldiers “scaled a fence, waded a stream, nearly waist deep in water and mud, slashed through the thick brush and timber; sloshed through a second stream as deep as the first and reached the edge of a large field of growing corn, where they confronted the rebel line.” Despite the sight of Confederate flags, the sun’s heat, and heavy rifle fire, the Federals pushed on, overpowering the Confederates and inflicting heavy losses. More Union troops came up to reinforce the charge, and Lee’s line wavered and pulled back.
Other Union regiments ran into more Confederates and drove them away, using the oblique fire tactic of shooting from angles that had worked so well the previous day. The Rebels retreated beyond a fence, and another Union charge scattered them in confusion. Mower halted the fighting when he saw the Confederates had left for good.
Confederate commanders wrote little about the Town Creek affair. Buford admitted that the Yankees simply had too many men and that reinforcements for his troops never showed up. He decided his men had suffered enough, and he ordered a withdrawal. Tyree Bell added, “The regiments acted gallantly on this occasion until they were forced to retire in consequence of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.”19
Other Rebel troops, sent into battle piecemeal, received flanking fire. Then word came that Forrest had been wounded, and everyone was ready to pull out. Surviving Rebels were glad to see the Yankees go.
(p.242) The campaign had come to a bitter end for Forrest. He got to the fight at Town Creek after it had started, and he was shot in the right foot. The wound posed no danger, but it was most painful. Though he would have preferred a more gallant way to exit the action, he undoubtedly was happy to see this campaign end.20
The action at Old Town Creek finished the Tupelo campaign. Two Confederate brigades followed Smith’s retreating army. They did no damage but kept the Federals alert. The Union column reached Ellistown the next day, arrived at New Albany on the 17th, and trudged into La Grange on the 21st.
Smith had abandoned the field, but he could claim success. His army suffered fewer than 700 casualties, a low number that signified how well his troops had been positioned on July 14 and how little damage the Confederates had inflicted the next day. Confederate returns are more uncertain; casualties have been calculated at around 1,300 but could have been higher.
Cadwallader Washburn celebrated the outcome, which he called “most satisfactory”—redemption for the Sturgis disaster. The ration situation “was unfortunate,” but positives overshadowed that negative. A not so subtle lesson encouraged the Union command. The U.S. Colored Troops had done well; they had fought effectively and showed themselves skilled in drill and very well disciplined. “I confess,” he wrote, “that their action has moved from my mind a prejudice of twenty years’ standing.”21
Sherman, pleased at first when word spread that Forrest had died from lockjaw as a result of his wound at Old Town Creek, grew angry when he learned the truth. Forrest still lived and would recover. Sherman immediately ordered another expedition by Smith into Mississippi. Sherman’s force had reached the outskirts of Atlanta, and he did not want Forrest still lurking out there somewhere.
Forrest bounced back and took to the field again. As Lee received orders to join Joseph Johnston’s army in Georgia, Forrest had independent command and eventually a promotion to lieutenant general. As one of his biographers has noted, however, Forrest’s fighting spirit seemed to be on the wane, reflecting the fortunes of his command and the Confederacy. Lee never wrote an official report of the battle, perhaps because he saw no point in criticizing Forrest or he was simply disappointed in himself. For whatever reason, it was the only time Lee failed to submit an official campaign or battle report.
He finally wrote about the battle in 1902, when he restated comments from reports by other officers but also editorialized: “On the Confederate side blunders and mistakes complicated matters. The troops were all of Forrest’s command, and he should have had supreme command, but he insisted (p.243) on Gen. Lee [Lee wrote his account in third person], the department commander, assuming the responsibility and being present. Forrest had just won his splendid victory at Brice’s Cross Roads … , and his troops had confi-dence in him.” Lee then wrote about Forrest’s refusal to take command. He said Forrest did not appear to think they had enough troops to fight Smith, and Forrest complained about his boils. Lee’s comments on the battle were much oversimplified, but he no doubt blamed the outcome, as well as some of the battlefield errors, largely on Forrest’s refusal to take command. Lee’s account is not his finest hour, for he was in command, no matter the reason. His decision to frontally attack, regardless of Forrest’s endorsement, was disastrous. Lee had performed well in the past and would again, but his command performance at Harrisburg and Tupelo proved his limitations as a general.22
Lee’s mistakes do not absolve Forrest of a poor performance. Whether due to boils or jealousy of Lee, Forrest seemed passive during much of the battle. When he did fight, he made some bad decisions. Forrest’s attitude surfaced at a council of war the night of July 15. He did not want to attend due to his wound, but Lee insisted. He asked Forrest for comments, and Forrest said bitterly, “I’ll tell you one thing, General Lee. If I knew as much about West Point tactics as you, the Yankees would whip hell out of me every day.” Lee’s response is not recorded. Having been asked to command and refusing, Forrest had no reason to be complaining.
Forrest had more campaigning ahead with Smith, and he would enjoy some success. But Smith and his own stubbornness had taken some fire from Forrest. John Morton, while proud of the performance of his artillerists, admitted sadly about the battle, “The Confederates suffered an unprecedented percentage of loss.” Morton concluded, “the lack of coordination precipitated a tragic and unparalleled sacrifice.” Edwin C. Bearss, commenting on the Tupelo campaign, wrote, “The combat effectiveness of Forrest’s corps was destroyed… . Although Forrest would rally his force …, never again would his corps be able to stand and fight Union infantry as it had at Brice’s Cross Roads.”23
In Georgia, Sherman did not immediately hear the news of Smith’s decision to go back to Memphis, and when he did, he was not pleased. But during the fighting at Tupelo, Sherman’s huge army crossed the Chattahoochee River just north of Atlanta. His supply line remained unfettered, and Forrest had been wounded. July 15 was another day of progress for Sherman, and had he known of Forrest’s wound, he would surely have celebrated. To be sure, Sherman was in no mood to let the Confederate general recuperate. Forrest would have to stay busy, courtesy of William T. Sherman.
(1) . OR, 39-2, 121, 121, 123; OR, 39-1, 249; Mark W. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York, 1959), 290; Marszalek, Sherman, 269–70.
(2) . Joseph E. Johnston, “Opposing Sherman’s Advance to Atlanta,” B&L, 4:276; Wyeth, That Devil, 377–78.
(3) . Wyeth, That Devil, 242–43, 378; Hurst, Forrest, 198; Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence, Kans., 1990), 244.
(4) . OR, 39-1, 250, 259, 279, 295, 300; Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N. B. Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry (Dayton, Ohio, 1977), 519; (p.292) FrankAllen Dennis, “Tupelo: 14–15 July 1864,” in The Civil War Battlefield Guide, ed. Francis H. Kennedy (Boston, 1990), 196; John Scott, Story of the Thirty Second Iowa Infantry Volunteers (Nevada, Iowa, 1896), 290–91; Reed, Campaigns, 151; OR, 39-1, 250, 320; Bearss, Forrest, 168.
(5) . OR, 39-1, 250, 320–21; Stephen D. Lee, “The Battle of Tupelo, or Harrisburg, July 14, 1863,” in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, vol. 6, ed. Franklin L. Riley (Oxford, Miss., 1902), 42.
(6) . OR, 39-1, 250–51, 321, 325–26; Hurst, Forrest, 199–200; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 41; Grierson, Memoir, 262–63; Morton, Artillery, 206; Bearss, Forrest, 200.
(7) . OR, 39-1, 234, 251, 321, 301, 322, 265.
(8) . Ibid., 265, 326; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 43; Bearss, Forrest, 183–84.
(9) . OR, 39-1, 276–77, 330, 336, 347.
(10) . Ibid., 251, 304; Reed, Campaigns, 153–54; Bearss, Forrest, 189.
(11) . Bearss, Forrest, 189, 193; Dennis, “Tupelo,” 197; Morton, Artillery, 204–5.
(12) . Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 44–45; Morton, Artillery, 210; Lee quoted in Wyeth, That Devil, 386; Wyeth, That Devil, 400–401; Bearss, Forrest, 197.
(13) . Bearss, Forrest, 197–98; OR, 39-1, 322, 330, 347; Bearss, Forrest, 194; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 42; Dennis, “Tupelo,” 197; Herman Hattaway, General Stephen D. Lee (Jackson, Miss., 1976), 120–21.
(14) . Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 45; OR, 39-1, 322–23, 280, 282, 295, 299, 326, 336, 331, 349–50, 326, 347.
(15) . OR, 39-1, 252, 257–58, 267, 272, 277, 320, 322–23; Dennis, “Tupelo,” 197; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 48.
(16) . OR, 39-1, 252, 323, 328; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 48; Bearss, Forrest, 213, 214; Wyeth, That Devil, 375, 396.
(17) . OR, 39-1, 252, 280–81, 295–96, 302, 327.
(18) . Ibid., 323, 252–53, 331–32, 303.
(19) . Ibid., 253, 258, 263, 327, 332, 337, 348, 281, 187; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 49.
(20) . OR, 39-1, 323–24, 327; Wyeth, That Devil, 398.
(21) . OR, 39-1, 249, 253, 256; Wyeth, That Devil, 398.
(22) . Wyeth, That Devil, 406–7; Hattaway, Lee, 124; Brian Steel Wills, A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York, 1992), 231; Lee, “Battle of Tupelo,” 51–52.
(23) . Hurst, Forrest, 207; Morton, Artillery, 210–11; Bearss, Forrest, 232.