A Scholarly Monograph By Michael B. Ballard
1 February 1996
The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 3
“Bring Forrest to Bay”
In the summer of 1864, the Union armies advanced in Virginia and Georgia in what President Abraham Lincoln hoped would be the decisive campaigns of the American Civil War. In Virginia Federal General-in-Chief U. S. Grant personally traveled with the Army of the Potomac as it marched against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In Georgia William T. “Cump” Sherman, Grant’s trusted friend led a group of three Federal armies against the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. As Sherman marched, related fighting broke out in north Mississippi. Sherman, concerned about his tenuous supply line which extended from his position in northeast Georgia back through Chattanooga and to Nashville, Tennessee and beyond, had ordered an expedition into Mississippi to neutralize the main threat–Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry.
Sherman fumed when he received word that the expedition he had ordered to fight, and hopefully kill, Nathan Bedford Forrest had failed miserably. Samuel Sturgis had led a Federal column which was decisively defeated by a heavily outnumbered Forrest at Brice’s Crossroads, a site north of Tupelo and just west of Baldwyn in northeastern Mississippi. Not only had Sturgis been defeated, he had been routed, and nearly twenty percent of his command had been captured. It was not just the embarrassment of it; Sturgis’ debacle meant that Forrest was still free to raid Sherman’s supply line. Of course, Sturgis had kept Forrest occupied, which was the major Union objective, but Sherman could not relax until the Forrest threat was eliminated.
Despite the setback, Sherman was not a general to give up easily. He wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “Forrest is the very devil” and the Confederate cavalryman’s exploits had a cowering effect on Union troops going up against him. However, Sherman pledged another force would be sent after Forrest, concluding he must be destroyed “if it costs 10,000 lives and break the Treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.”
The new campaign into Forrest’s stronghold of northeast Mississippi would not be led by Sturgis. Sherman made clear his feelings about that, and Sturgis would soon know what making Cump Sherman angry could mean. Forrest’s victim at Brice’s Crossroads spent the rest of the war on the sidelines. This second expedition would be led by Andrew Jackson Smith, a Pennsylvania native who had performed well during Sherman’s Meridian expedition in early 1864.
After Meridian, Smith had participated in Nathaniel Banks’ ill-fated Red River campaign. Smith, in fact, was passing through Tennessee on his way to participate in a campaign against Mobile when orders came for him to remain in Memphis and prepare a force to meet Forrest.
Sherman’s expectations were clear. Smith and elements of the XVI and XVII corps were “to 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.” Smith was admonished to punish Forrest and the people now or risk compromising the effect of past victories. Smith’s specific instructions were more to the point. He was to “bring Forrest to bay and whip him if possible, and at all events to hold him where I [is] and prevent him from moving upon the communications of Major-General Sherman.”
While Smith made ready to have another go at Forrest, a debate raged in the Confederacy about whether Forrest should be worrying about something so limited as a Federal expedition from Memphis. Joseph E. Johnston wanted the authorities 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–precisely what Sherman feared. Johnston presented a cogent argument that Forrest and his cavalry would serve the Confederate cause much more effectively by “ensuring the defeat of a great invasion (Sherman) than by repelling a mere raid.”