General Nathan Bedford Forrest did not lose many battles during the Civil War, and the battle of Tupelo is one of the handful he lost. After his masterpiece of Brice’s Cross Roads, go here to read about it, Forrest was regarded as a potential mortal threat to the supply lines of Sherman. Major General Andrew C. Smith was sent out from La Grange, Tennessee on July 5, 1864 with a Union force of 14,000 men. His mission was to find Forrest and defeat him, and thereby prevent him from staging raids into middle Tennessee to cut Sherman’s supplies. On July 11, 1864 Smith was in Pontotoc, Mississippi. Forrest was nearby at Okolona, Mississippi, and was under orders from his commander Stephen D. Lee not to engage Smith until Lee reinforced him. On July 13, Smith became apprehensive of an ambush and marched his force to Tupelo, Mississippi and took up a defensive position.
Lee having reinforced Forrest, on July 14, beginning at 7:30 AM, Lee launched a series of uncoordinated attacks with his force of 8,000, all of which were bloodily repulsed. Lee halted the attacks after a few hours. Forrest would attack again, once in the evening and once on the morning of the 15th, both attacks being repulsed. Smith attempted no pursuit, for which he was heavily criticized, and on July 15 retreated himself back to Memphis, pursued by Forrest. Smith did accomplish his goal of stopping Forrest from raiding into Tennessee and he was now a member of the exclusive, and minute, club of Union commanders who defeated Forrest in battle. Union casualties were 648 to 1300 Confederate.
Here is Forrest’s report of the battle:
HEADQUARTERS FORREST’S CAVALRY,
Okolona, August 1, 1864.
MAJOR: I have the honor to make the following report of the action of my troops in the engagements commending at Pontotoc on the 13th and ending near Harrisburg, Miss., on the 15th of July:
My scouts reported the enemy in strong force at La Grange, Tenn., on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, and kept me constantly advised of his movements.
On the 5th he was reported advancing upon Ripley.
On the 6th I was advised that he was moving toward Tupelo be Ellistown. I immediately ordered General Buford to send Colonel Bell’s brigade to Ellistown to guard the approach of the enemy in that direction.
On the morning of the 9th I ordered General Buford to move from Tupelo and to join Colonel Bell at Ellistown. At the same time I ordered Colonel Mabry, commanding a brigade of Mississippians, to move from Saltillo and report to General Buford at Ellistown. The enemy after reaching Ellis’ Mills turned abruptly down the road toward New Albany and Pontotoc. I ordered General Buford to pursue him, to hang upon his flanks, and to develop his strength, but to avoid a general engagement by gradually falling back toward Okolona if the enemy pressed him.
On the evening of the 10th I ordered General Chalmers to send one of his brigade to Pontotoc, and if possible to reach there before the enemy arrived, and to move with his other brigade to the infantry camps at the crossing of the Tupelo and Pontotoc with the Chesterville and Okolona roads.
On the night of the 10th I gave General Chalmers full instructions, and ordered General Buford to report to him. The enemy was reported slowly and cautiously advancing. I ordered General Chalmers to hold
him in check until I was prepared to give him battle at or near Okolona, where the necessary arrangements were being vigorously made. The enemy was easily held in check, but reached Pontotocof the 11th, but made no further effort to advance during the day. General Chalmers advised me of the disposition he had made of the troops, which was most satisfactory. As all the approaches south were strongly guarded I made no change expect to order Colonel Barteau’s regiment to the rear of the enemy.
On the 12th the enemy made an early advance on the Pontotoc and Okolona road, but was promptly met by General Lyon’s brigade and easily driven back. He also attempted an advance on the road leading from Pontotoc to Houston, but here he was met by a part of Colonel McCulloch’s brigade and forced to make a hasty retreat. Simultaneous with his other movement he threw out a force on the Pontotoc and Tupelo road, but after advancing five miles was met by a part of Rucker’s brigade, under the command of Colonel Duff, and driven back.
Everything being in readiness to receive the enemy, I ordered General Chalmers to send Rucker’s brigade to his rear, and to offer no further resistance if he desired to advance toward Okolona. The delay of the enemy at Pontotoc produced the impression that he designed to fall back toward Memphis and after a short consultation it was determined to accept battle wherever he offered it and to attack him if he attempted a retreat. Lieutenant-General Lee therefore ordered me to move everything to the front. I immediately dispatched one of my staff officers to General Chalmers, ordering him to resume his former position if he had retired, and to hold it at all hazards until I arrived with the artillery and infantry re- enforcements. I reached the front about 9 o’clock, and found the troops in the position they had occupied during the day.
On the morning of the 13th the enemy was reported retiring from Pontotoc in the direction of Tupelo. Lieutenant-General Lee ordered me, with Mabry’s brigade, my escort, and Forrest’s old regiment, to attack and press upon the rear of the enemy. At the same time Lieutenant-General Lee moved forward, with Chalmers’ and Buford’s two DIVISIONS on the right, with the view of attacking the enemy’s flanks at every vulnerable point. Accordingly, I advanced upon the enemy and found his rear one mile from Pontotoc, on the Okolona road. I threw forward my escort and Forrest’s old regiment, and after a short skirmish he was rapidly driven into town and out on the Tupelo road, along which the main column was retreating. I made a vigorous assault upon the enemy’s rear for ten miles. He took advantage of every favorable position and my artillery was kept almost in constant action. Ten miles from Pontotoc he made a formidable stand, as if to contest my farther advance. After a short engagement he was driven from his position and made a rapid retreat across an extended field, while my artillery poured upon him a concentrated fire. I had now driven the enemy ten miles, and as his flanks had not yet been attacked I was fearful that he was driven too rapidly. I therefore halted my command and awaited the attack upon his flanks. After resting about one hour our guns opened upon him about three miles ahead. I resumed the march and hurriedly pressed forward, and on reaching the ground I found General Chalmers had dashed into the road, surprised the enemy, and took possession of his wagon train. The enemy, however, threw back a large force upon General Chalmers and forced him to retire, but not until he had killed and wounded many men and horses, which forced the enemy to burn and abandon several wagons, caissons, and ambulances. About this time heavy firing was heard still further upthe road in the direction of Tupelo, which admonished me that General Buford was also attacking the enemy’s flank. As night approached the enemy became more obstinate in his resistance, but I attacked his rear with renewed energy until 9 o’clock, when I reached a point two miles from Harrisburg, where I was joined by my entire command, which halted for the night. Being anxious to learn, the exact position of the enemy, I moved Mabry’s brigade forward and opened upon the enemy with four pieces of artillery. At a late hour in the night, accompanied by one of my staff officers, I approached Harrisburg and discovered the enemy strongly posted and prepared to give battle the next day.
Colonel Mabry’s brigade having been on duty for twenty-four hours, I ordered General Buford to send the Kentucky brigade to its relief.
On the morning of the 14th Lieutenant-General Lee ordered the attack to be made, and the troops were disposed for that purpose. The enemy had selected a strong position on a ridge fronting an open field, gradually sloping toward our approach. During the night he had constructed fortifications, and his position being naturally strong it was now almost impregnable. The entire command was dismounted. General Roddey’s troops were placed on the extreme right, Colonel Mabry’s brigade on the left, and the Kentucky brigade, commanded by Colonel Crossland, in the center. Bell’s brigade was formed in the rear of Colonel Crossland, in the center. Bell’s brigade was formed in the rear of Colonel Mabry’s brigade as a support, but was subsequently moved forward and formed between Mabrys’ and Crossland’s brigades. General Chalmers’ DIVISION of cavalry and General Lyon, who had been placed in command of about 700 infantry, were found formed in the rear to be held as a reserve to support the entire front line. Lieutenant-General Lee gave the order to advance, and directed me to swing the right around upon the enemy’s left. I immediately repaired to General Roddey’s right with all possible speed, which was nearly a mile distant, and after giving him the necessary orders in person I dashed across the field in a gallop for the purpose of selecting a position in which to place his troops, but on reaching the front I found the Kentucky brigade had been rashly precipitated forward, and were retiring under the murderous fire concentrated upon them. I seized their colors, and after a short appeal ordered them to form a new line, when they held their position. The terrific fire poured upon the gallant Kentucky brigade showed that the enemy were supported by overwhelming numbers in an impregnable position, and wishing to save my troops from the unprofitable slaughter I knew would follow any attempt to charge his works, I did not push forward General Roddey’s command when it arrived, knowing it would receive the same concentrated fire which had repulsed the Kentucky brigade. I ordered forward four pieces of artillery and formed a new line on the Tupelo and Verona road. Mean time the troops on my left were hotly engaged.
Mabry’s, Bell’s and Rucker’s brigades were steadily advancing. They drove a heavy line of skirmishers to their fortifications, from which point the enemy opened a furious cannonade and terrific fire of small-arms.
Mabry’s brigade advanced to within sixty yards of the enemy’s fortifications, but the weather was so oppressive that hundreds of men fell fainting with exhaustion, and so deadly was the concentrated fire of small-arms and artillery upon the advancing column that it was compelled to fall back. The troops thus engaged, having exhausted their ammunition, were relieved by McCulloch’s brigade, which moved forward and covered their retreat. The enemy still remained behind his works and made no effort to pursue. About 1 o’clock Lieutenant-General Lee ordered me to fall back to the residence of Mrs. Sample, and to form a new line fronting a large open field. The position selected was a strong one. There being no timber in front, it commanded every approach for several hundred yards. I ordered immediate construction of temporary fortifications, and in a short time the men along my entire line were protected behind strong works erected out of the rails, logs, and cotton bales which the premises of Mrs. Sample so abundantly furnished. The approach of the enemy was anxiously awaited, but he still remained behind his fortifications. About night he commenced burning the houses in Harrisburg. General Chalmers advanced with one piece of artillery, and McCulloch’s brigade, which was still in front, and did good execution by throwing shells among the enemy, who could be plainly seen by the light of the burning houses. At the approach of darkness I ordered Rucker’s brigade to report to me mounted. With it I moved to the right and cautiously approached the enemy’s left a view of ascertaining his position and strength in that direction. By meandering through the woods I approached very near his camps before he discovered my presence. I ordered my men to open fire upon him, when the first line fell back to the main body and opened upon me one of the heaviest fires I have heard during the war. The enemy’s whole force seemed to be concentrated at this point. There was unceasing roar of small-arms, and his whole line was lighted up by a continuous stream of fire. Not a man was, however, killed, as the enemy overshot us, but he is reported as having suffered much from the fire of my men, and still more from their own men, who fired into each other in the darkness of the night. On returning to camp I ordered General Buford to move to the right with his DIVISION, to occupy the road between the enemy and Verona, and to oppose any advance in that direction.
On the morning of the 15th, finding the enemy could move not be driven from his fortifications, General Bufford was ordered to move up the Verona road and attack his left flank. General Buford pushed forward his troops and drove the enemy back about one mile, where he was protected by this main line. But few men were killed or wounded in this engagement, but I found the road strewn with men fainting under the oppressive heat, hard labor, and want of water. General Chalmers, who had been ordered to the left in the morning, reported the enemy retreating on the Ellistown road. I immediately proceeded to Harrisburg with General Roddey’s command and attacked the enemy’s rear guard, which, after a short engagement with Colonel Warren’s regiment, retired. I ordered General Buford to press forward in the direction of Tupelo and engage the enemy there, if he still the place.
On reaching Harrisburg Lieutenant-General Lee ordered me to take command of the troops and to pursue the enemy. I ordered Mabry’s brigade on the Chesterville road, and General Chalmers and Buford to pursue the enemy retreating on the Harrisburg and Ellistown road, and to make a vigorous assault upon his rear as soon as it could be overtaken, while I moved with Lieutenant-General Lee to Tupelo for the purpose of consulting and receiving orders. Having learned General Lee’s desires I started from Tupelo to join my command. Three miles from Tupelo I heard heavy artillery firing, and as farther advanced I could also hear the firing of small-arms. On arriving at Old Town Creek I found General Chalmers and General Buford hotly engaged. The enemy had selected a strong position on the crest of a hill, but was driven to the creek bottom by Bell’s and Crossland’s brigades, where he was heavily re-enforced, which enabled him not only to hold his position, but to press back these two brigades. I ordered General Chalmers to move up with McCulloch’s brigade, and Rice’s battery to be placed in position, which for a time held the enemy in check. While riding across the field and endeavoring to press for-ward my left I received a painful wound, which incapacitated me from further service. I sent one of my staff officers back to Tupelo to advise General Lee of my wound. I orders General Chalmers’ to assume command and the withdrawal of the troops.
The next morning the enemy renewed his retreat and was for two days [pursued] by General Chalmers with Rucker’s and Roddey’s brigades. The enemy was thus driven back to the point from which he started and many a home saved from spoliation, and the country preserved from the desolation and ruin which everywhere marks the invader’s tracks. But this achievement cost the best blood of the South.
My forces during these engagements did not exceed 5,000; that of the enemy was 18,000 or 20,000. He fought behind fortifications and in positions of his own selection. Notwithstanding the advantages of the enemy, my troops moved forward with a gallantry which has never been excelled on any field.
The long list of killed and wounded is a sad but truthful tribute to their valor. Three of my brigade commanders (Rucker, McCulloch, and Crossland) were severely wounded. Colonels were either killed or wounded. Two hundred and ten were killed and 1,116 wounded. The enemy’s loss was equally to my own.
The battle of Harrisburg will furnish the historian a bloody record, but it will also stamp with immortality the gallant dead and the living heroes it has made. Prominent among the former the names of Colonel Isham Harrison and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Nelson, of the Sixth Mississippi; Lieutenant Colonel John B. Cage, commanding Fourteenth Confederate; Lieutenant-Colonel Sherrill, of the Seventh Kentucky, and Major Robert C. McCay, of the Thirty-eight Mississippi, will shine in fadeless splendor. They were lion-hearted officers and courteous officers. It was a sad blow that struck down these gallant spirits. In unselfish devotion to the cause and high courage they leave no superiors behind among men. Their noble natures and ardent patriotism, it is hoped, will find in the soldier’s grave that peace for which their country has thus far struggled in vain, and for the achievement of which they have sacrificed their lives. Future generations will never weary in hanging garlands upon their graves.
My staff on this occasion acted with their accustomed gallantry and promptitude in obeying orders, for which they have my thanks.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
N. B. FORREST,
Major P. ELLIS, Assistant Adjutant-General, Selma, Ala.